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Hopeful Mellissa Porras waits in line to audition for American Idol in Pasadena, Calif.

The first contestant up on last night’s episode of American Idol was Erica, a ringlet-haired blond who began by murdering judge Simon Cowell’s favourite song — Unchained Melody — and kept running through her repertoire in the hope of changing the judges’ minds. Her overstayed welcome felt appropriate; two weeks of auditions in U.S. cities has become a grinding slog that reminds this writer of Sherman’s March.

General Sherman didn’t decimate Birmingham, Alabama, on his scorched earth march to the sea during the Civil War; the city was better known as a battleground during the civil rights era, but thanks to Bo Bice, Ruben Studdard and Taylor Hicks, it’s Idol’s incubation chamber.

With episode number five, the show’s producers shift the tone from a mocking glare to what feels like self-regard, as almost every contestant openly imagines themselves getting the key to the city after a homecoming parade.

Self-regard briefly turns to self-knowledge when a rotund contestant dressed like a huge yellow Peep shows up in front of the judges, and Simon turns a rejection into a brief inquisition into her motives and her age. She says she’s 26 when she’s really 50, and for a moment we get a glimpse behind the freakshow at the sort of person who’s willing to make themselves a spectacle for a brief moment of what I can only call factory reconditioned fame.

The next showcased contestant is Jamie, a knockout blond with a hell of a story; she takes care of her paralyzed dad, who disabled himself after shooting his cheating wife. She has a twangy little pop country voice, but her story — and her looks — are probably what nudges her on to the semifinals.

Day two of Birmingham gives us a glimpse of what Idol would look like without Paula Abdul — an eventuality that’s being predicted practically weekly these days. The editing — which includes a montage of gracious Southern politeness in the face of rejection — makes a Paula-free Idol seem like a much less anxious place, but more than a bit boring.

Hoping to salvage the reputation Idol auditions have for ugly drama, Simon and Randy Jackson do their best to antagonize Brandy, the night’s final contestant, a finale for the night that — like Idol’s auditions — feels like it goes on far, far too long.


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