'American Idol': The Great Chicago Fire

The Atlantic

Night two of American Idol, with only a thousand more nights to go! We're really on a roll now, aren't we? Well, heh, no. While watching the show with a friend last night I told her, much to her dismay, that we're probably still a comfortable few weeks, if not a month, away from Hollywood Week, and that live singing won't happen until basically March. (By my very rough calculations.) I'm dismayed at this fact too, of course, but there is also some odd, sad, weird braggadocio about being able to endure such a long and merciless slog. It's like old sailors who show their scars to each other. "Oh yeah? Well I watched all of season nine. Yes, the Phil Dweezy seazy." You have to be tough to watch this whole thing. So while it's a bit dizzying to think that last night was but a mere drop in the ocean when the whole season is considered, it's also kinda fun to be back on the long, bumpy road.

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Last night we traveled to Chicago, that beautiful city full of squares, with the judges seated in a room in the planetarium that looked like an airport terminal, all beams and glass and worried sunlight. But it afforded them a great view of the city's 2D skyline and the big ol' lake they got there, so the planetarium is just fine with me. Nicki Minaj wore a series of hats, two military officer's hats to be exact, and everyone shook their heads at her and wondered how long they would be able to endure this. Mariah Carey was the most head-shaking of them all, though I did get the impression last night that there is a good-natured undercurrent to her "fighting" with Nicki. They seem to be having a good time, Nicki glad for a chance to act (that was her first career goal, after all), and Mariah continuously, and vocally, tickled by the fact that this is her first real "job." She provided those air quotes, rolling her eyes a little bit at, I'm assuming, the absurdity of how much money she is making to do what she is doing. "Job" indeed, Mariah. "Job" indeed. Randy Jackson seemed a bit down, feeling, I suspect, that his era is coming to a sad, lurching end. No one was very excited to see Randy Jackson, everyone was too busy gushing about Mariah, and it just didn't feel like the old days anymore. Poor Randy. All his friends went and graduated and moved on to different lives. He stayed behind to work at the school. All the new kids are weird and think he's old or have never heard of him, so he's just there by himself, occasionally getting a visit from Ryan, but he too seems distant these days. Distracted, agitated, anxious or scared about something. "You been sleeping, buddy?" Randy asked him not too long before Chicago, and Ryan shook his head, said a quiet "No, I haven't," and walked away. Hm. Hmmm.

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Oh and Keith Urban was there. Lordy loo is that guy getting completely forgotten about. No one really wants to listen to what he has to say, even though he's usually pretty good at giving feedback, and only a few of the gushing, goose-pimpled singtestants have expressed interest in meeting him. (One contestant said she was excited to meet him because he's married to one of her favorite actresses. Poor Keith.) So he's just kinda there, but he's staying upbeat about it so far. He knows he's filler, but he's well-paid filler, so he might as well smile. And it beats being back at the farmhouse with Nicole, she always angrily chipping ice off the freezer or checking her mousetraps or standing stock-still in the hallway, thinking about which chicken to kill that day. It's a hard, drafty place, the farmhouse, so Keith doesn't mind spending some time away, even if it involves sitting goofily and uselessly while two other people try to primp up their fame quotient.

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But enough about the judges. Let's talk singers. My favorite surprise of the night was the weird gypsy girl, the novice fire performer and street busker who, when she was safely behind her guitar, had a husky and lovely voice, gentle but firm, authoritative without being cocky. She was a total weirdo, and is I suspect also an amateur Amanda Plummer impersonator, but I liked her. And I was intrigued by the long, strange, drawn-out interaction she had with Ryan after she got her golden ticket (she'd no one to celebrate with, as she had come alone). She joked with him at length, for too long, about filling out paperwork and whatnot and I got to wondering about what connection these two might later have. She seems possessed of something. Certain powers. Various mysterious abilities that might come in handy for Ryan somewhere down the line. Did he sense it too? Might this strange gypsy woman be the answer to the problem of what's in that room at the back of his house? That thing that used to be Tim? Maybe. She may just be.

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I also, of course, loved the kid with the severe stutter who could sing like a goddamned angel. That was a sweet story. I mean, kid's had a tough life. A really debilitating, worse-than-King George stutter that kept him isolated from other kids, and, y'know... Hm. How to put this delicately... There's his pink bow tie. Ya dig? He's not only dealing with a severe speech problem, he also... has a pink bow tie. That's tough! That's a lot. But at least he's got music, and he certainly can sing. Who knows if he'll play in any sort of pop-y, modern way, but that's for us to find out later in the competition. Group Night will be hell for him, though. That's just a fact. But who knows, maybe he'll meet someone else who, uh, also has a pink bow tie, and good things will come of that.

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There were a few blonde girls who sang prettily, one of whom Nicki didn't much like, probably because they were wearing the same eyeshadow. In general Nicki could be a little petty and sort of condescendingly whimsical about her choices. She hubba-hubba'd (justifiably) over a few handsome dudes who were only so-so in the sing-song department (Nicki Minaj's So-So Sing-Song, dropping this May), and then was a little sharp-eyed about some girls. Mostly the blonde girl with the eyeshadow. But it doesn't matter, she made it through anyway. And speaking of beefy handsome dudes, guess who's back. None other than Johnny Keyser. Now I know that, if you read these tortuously long recaps last season, when last we saw Johnny K. he was a corpse in a dumpster, killed by Colton Dixon to win Ryan's trust, but, uh, let's just say that when Colton was semi-destroyed and horcruxed or whatever into Tim Urban's body that Johnny came back to life, because of something something collateral magic. Let's just say that's what happened. We'll figure it out. We don't know why this resurrected Johnny Keyser is back, but I'm sure we'll find out. Ryan tried to play it cool when he saw him, saying "J- J- Johnny! Wow. Johnny Keyser. Long time, no... see." He gave him a hug and tried to feel for the spot on his back where Colton had rammed the shard of glass that killed him, but he felt only smooth and hard flesh. Awash with that sensation, Ryan hugged Johnny tighter before remembering himself, remembering the strangeness of this situation, and pulled away, saying "Hah, uh, it's good to see you Johnny, it really is." And Johnny just nodded and smiled his strange, dark-eyed smile. Something. There's something going on here. Ryan reminded himself to consult with his new gypsy friend about this. She might now. She might know it all.

Who else? Is there anyone else? I'm sure there are. Oh, yeah, there was a sob story about an adoption that ended well, there was another sad story about a girl battling anorexia that also ended well, and there was a sweet guy whose parents had never heard him sing until his audition and that, too, ended well. Lots of happiness last night! And some bad things, obviously. The show put together a cute little faux-Les Miz reel called "The Miserables" that I actually chuckled at, even though the bad auditions usually make me squirm and fast-forward. At the top of the show a woman freaked out when her friend walked out of the audition, saying "You made it! You made it! You made it!" and calling people on her speaker phone, even though, uh, the girl hadn't made it. It was just the right mixture of funny and awkward, and it was a clever little way to start the show. All told, there's some good editing going on so far this season.

There was a sad junkie who liked to play with sticks who clearly had no idea where he was, but he gamely tried to sing and flip and dance anyway. My friend figured that he'd just fallen asleep outside the planetarium and when he woke up there was a huge line behind him so he said, "OK, I guess I'll see what this is all about." So he did, and of course he biffed it, because he's a junkie who lives outside the planetarium. He also dropped one of his sticks in the lake, which was sad. This is a nation full of sad stories, American Idol continues to remind us. Sad stories abound.

And that, I think, is that. Two audition rounds down, who knows how many millions more to go. But we're in it now. We're picking up speed. This thing is really happening guys. Forces are aligning. Gypsies and undead Johnny Keysers and stuttering bow tie boys who might be the key to the universe's salvation. The cast of characters is assembling and will, soon enough, be complete. And then we'll give them some songs to see what noise they make together. And you know what? I can't wait.

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