American Idol: The Pittsburghing

Last night, Round 2 of American Idol’s search for a palatable superstar brought the team to the cradle of America’s steel industry, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Which is fortuitous, seeing as how our aspiring recording artists are going to need balls of iron to endure the rigorous audition process that lies ahead. And Pittsburgh is where they start paying—in sweat, mopped off with a Terrible Towel. Now that I’ve exhausted my knowledge of Pittsburgh in a series of groaners, let’s check out the good, bad and ugly of last night’s auditioners.

The Good:

If for no other reason than he told Ryan Seacrest, “Your face is this small,” then actually clenched his hand into a fist for size reference, Heejun Han instantly found an enduring place in my heart. Then there was his general demeanor: self-deprecating, repetitious, prone to sudden bird sounds and arm-fluttering. Then he compared the judging panel to a wax museum display, for heaven’s sake. How could you not love this guy, before a single note was even sung? The fact that no member of his 144-member Korean-American family standing outside the audition room had ever heard him sing before was not exactly encouraging, but Heejun performed a smoky, competent rendition of some Michael Bolton tune that surprised just about everyone.

Thrown onto stage at the age of two as part of a notorious family Vaudeville act called The Aristocrats, Reed Grimm has showbiz blood coursing through his veins. His rendition of the Family Matters theme song (right there, he’s earned his golden ticket as far as I’m concerned) was a free-form jazz number more notable for its gleeful lack of inhibition than virtuosity. But you couldn’t help liking the guy, and neither could the judges. He’s through.

Creighton Fraker is an unemployed busker who braves the hard streets of NYC with nothing but a pair of Elton John sunglasses and a keyboard, hoping someone in that big, mean town will stop and take notice. (I'll pause here to say to whoever set his backstory to Doves’ “Black and White Town”: Kudos, and you’re probably working for the wrong show.) Well, lucky for Creighton, someone did: Steven Tyler, whose eyeballs transformed into two pulsing hearts the second Creighton launched into his made-up ditty about the judges. Then he sang “Who’s Loving You,” and the affair was all but consummated. If only J-Lo could remember who it was that Creighton reminded her of! (She’d awake later that night and exclaim, “I remember now! He reminded me of my third assistant on Maid in Manhattan! God, that guy could never get a latte order right.”

Erika Van Pelt is a wedding singer and “mobile DJ” (is that a thing?) who has a cute smile, an appealing, non-anorexic look, and isn’t afraid to rock pastel plaids at the biggest audition of her life. Her take on “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” was... pretty good (but Amy Winehouse she’s not). She seems fun, though, and there’s a rumor she dispenses psychological advice for 5¢. Let’s keep her around.

Hallie Day had a boring back story that involved staring out at a creek looking sad and talking about swallowing a bottle of pills. Then a bear appeared and saved her life. (Not an actual bear, but—oh, never mind.) The important thing is that this puffy-lipped blonde is back, baby, and ready to claim her destiny as the next great gay dance floor icon. Her “I Will Survive” practically covered the audition room in a fine coating of shimmery Disco Dust (which Steven then volunteered to clean up with his nose). Just stay away from the pill bottles, Hallie. We’re thinking Donna for you, not Liza.

The Bad:

Oh man, here we go. So far Idol has been mercifully sparing with the sob stories, but last night the show brought back one of the most depressing from last year for an encore. And this time around, everything’s worse. Since last year’s audition, Travis Orlando’s mom has abandoned his (homeless) family. His dad is on dialysis and getting sicker. Travis has dropped out of high school and put all of his eggs in the “American Idol will save my family from ruin” basket. (Which, by the way, is a terrible basket. Walk right by that basket if you see a stack of them at Pottery Barn.) Travis says he’s auditioning to prove to his mom that he’s “not a good for nothing lowlife.” What the hell is with this mom? Anyhoo, it’s impossible not to feel for this guy, but unfortunately there’s nothing remarkable about his voice. It’s a very mediocre voice. But Travis was put through anyway. His life has been pretty pitchy, dawg.

Shane Bruce is just the slice of Americana that makes Idol such a potent sociological record of our times. Where else are you going to see a 19-year-old coal miner hoping to become the next multi-platinum recording artist? Until that day comes, Shane will keep serenading his fellow miners miles beneath the ground, just like a canary would. (Yikes. Keep singing, Shane! Don’t never stop singing!) Also, he calls his father his “pap.” Not a great audition, but a great story. Shane is my American Idol.

The Ugly:

Good news! Pittsburgh provided no ugly.

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