American Idol: Song of the South

The most famous time a megalomaniac hellbent on conquest and domination arrived in Atlanta, it was during the Civil War—and General William Tecumseh Sherman burned the city to the ground. This time it was Simon’s March on Georgia as Judge Cowell and American Idol came to town. But Atlanta beat back the invaders with an exhibition of singing that would have sent even the most courageous general into retreat.

Tough town, that ATL. Who knows what talent may actually lurk in all of those briefly glimpsed golden-ticket bearers? You know, the ones who instead of getting their life stories told to America were instead only seen clutching their tickets, dancing down the steps, and yelling, “I’m going to Hollywood, baby. Woooooo!” Because with that said, based the folks we did see audition and win passes, Atlanta is likely to get swept out of Hollywood early.

We did catch one standout last night, sweet-singing Jermaine Sellers, who not only described himself as a “church boy” but cares for his seriously ill mother and sang “What If God Was One of Us.” Like a benediction, Mary J. Blige delivered a profound judgment that would have left Victoria Beckham furrowing her brow (assuming it can still move) with confusion, when she told Sellers he had, “So much control, it was anointed.”

For the most part, last night could have been dubbed “Kellie Strikes Back: The Wrath of Pickler.” You Idolaters out there no doubt remember Kellie Pickler—Season 5’s resident perky blonde from North Carolina. She had a decent voice and deftly created a persona of country girl bafflement, most notably as it related to seafood, including salmon and calamari. Despite a version of “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” that could have just as easily been titled “Bereft, Baleful, and Belabored” she made it to the final six and has built an impressive post-Idol career. As opposed to say, Taylor Hicks.

Little girls all over Atlanta were clearly taking notes that season, because last night we saw Kellie-style obliviousness blended with passable singing carry several young women all the way to Hollywood. We marveled at the spectacle of Carmen, she of the Simon-dubbed Ditz Sisters, who may actually have a Pickleresque future if she can leave her far-less-talented friend Lauren behind. That was all a bit kinky, wouldn’t you say? The girls need to be careful if they come to L.A. together. Start playing patty cake on Hollywood Boulevard and they might just draw the attention of the wrong kind of casting agent. Then there was Guitar Girl. As Simon said about another contestant, “It’s like a cat barking. You know, it shouldn’t happen.”

Other than Jermaine, the real surprise of the evening was “country girl from the country” Vanessa Wolfe. Hey, be cynical if you want, and I’m not betting on her getting too far. But $4.50 a dress from the dollar store in Smyrna and a voice that is pure porch swing on a summer night? That's genuinely what Idol is supposed to be about. She’s raw and refreshingly so and I suppose this is the bright side of these early shows—the chance to see a contestant before the makeover artists get a hold of them. And when Vanessa says things like, “I’m stuck in Vonore and I can’t get out,” she’s halfway to a country hit already.

Maybe the South will rise again. But the contestant I most related to was hapless welder and even more hapless singer Jesse Hamilton. He described how he almost died on three different occasions. Last night—between the Ditz Sisters, the spectacle of Skii Bo Ski, and Guitar Girl—I know just how he felt.

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