'American Idol': Oklahoma's Last Stand

In which Hollywood awaits, but not before puppets and ailments and bear hugs and — oh, yeah — a guest appearance by the ancient burl-witch Steven Tyler.

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Auditions are over! They are no more! Last night Ryan Seacrest's war wagon rolled into one last town and that was it. Next week we're off to Hollywood and that's where we'll stay until, well, the home visits, I guess. But let's not start thinking about May just yet. That's too far off, too balmy and breezy and oh-god-I-turn-30 to think about just yet, so let's return to the here and now. Or the over there and just last night. The final auditions!

The final stop on the Idol tribute-collecting tour was, fittingly enough, in America's District 12, Oklahoma. Yes, the land of the plains and the prairies, of old oil money and now... megachurch money? Who knows. Maybe it's still oil money. The point is, the best two things to come out of Oklahoma recently are Tracy Letts and Carrie Underwood, and seeing as there's no America's Next Top Playwright-Actor competition, we may as well spend our time looking for the next Carrie Underwood. So, Idol came to Oklahoma and there was a crowd of thousands waiting, all of them clamoring and screeching to be taken away from Oklahoma. Sadly, only a few of these desperate, pampas-dwelling strivers made an impression.

There was a little red-headed guy who liked to do herky-jerky dances and had a wife twice the size of him who was kind of funny. I mean, he's the kind of charming-enough novelty act that the bored judges will send through during these long preliminary slogs, but who will be saddened and embarrassed pretty much immediately upon his arrival in Hollywood. They're all cute and funny and everyone's like "Aw gee, that's fun," and then the minute they get to that nightmare auditorium with the big leaguers they fold like cheap chard tables. It's sad, and it's definitely the fate of this guy, or at least I'm pretty sure that's where he's headed. Whatever happens to him in the future, he'll always be appreciated for doing one funny thing last night. After he was given his golden ticket (it's really more of a maize ticket, but that doesn't quite work as well, does it?), he went out and hugged his large wife and then Ryan went for a strange Ryan hug and the kid did this chest bumpy thing? Where he kinda still hugged Ryan, but also aggressed upon him with his chest in this very awkward way? My friend Annie has a good photo of it. It was important, this moment. It's always good to see Ryan just that little bit out of his element. Not that he's unused to male bodies slamming against him, but you know. Not this way.

There was a weird girl who was a ventriloquist. She wasn't weird because she was a ventriloquist, she was just weird in general sort of a way. She did a whole jokey act with the puppet — a dog who talked in a high-pitched but growly voice — and made it sing and yodel and stuff and the judges were like "Ah ha... OK, well... That's nice." The judges on this show never really enjoy the big bits, you know? A little bit is fine, a little eccentricity, but when people go in there with a full-tilt bit, something so worked up and thorough and all-encompassing that the whole thing is a waste of time, they clearly get annoyed. Good for this girl, then, that they gave her a chance to actually sing and that when she did she was pretty good. They sent her through, but not the puppet, har har, and then some genius Idol staffer rigged it up so it looked like the puppet was a homeless beggar holding a sign that said "Will yodel for food." Haha. Homeless beggars. Hilarious.

Oh, there was a nice guy whose parents were deaf and who sang well. I'm not really sure what his having deaf parents had to do with his ability to sing, but whatever. It was a manufacturedly nice moment, I guess. The guy is good, not great. Randy made some comment about him looking kind of boring and he wasn't wrong. Randy the hoot-monster sometimes gets it right, and last night Randy did. This guy isn't going to do much damage in the competition, I don't think, but sure, he got his moment in the TV sun and gets to go to California for free. Not a bad deal, over all.

Someone with a really bad deal was the poor kid who went at the very end of the night. A 16-year-old kid born with cystic fibrosis, this young fellow looked to be about twelve. He was upbeat despite his ultimately fatal disease (he said something like 35 years old is the expectancy, oof) and was cute as a button. He was like a kid from an early '90s TV movie for tweens. Like a Chad Allen without the mean features, y'know? There was something very packaged and pleasant about him, though he got a little too cutesy with all his charm, pretend-hitting on Mariah Carey and making smooth-guy jokes and stuff. I mean, look, the kid's a born performer, and I guess there's nothing wrong with that, but it was a little much. His singing was... fine. I mean he's 16 but his voice has definitely not changed, so it was a little kid singing, which will sound weird with the rest of these bellowing adults. What're you gonna do, though, not send the cute kid with cystic fibrosis through to Hollywood Week? No, that is not what you're gonna do. You're going to say "You're going to Hollywood" and he's going to do a funny, Culkin-esque "Yes!" fist-pump kind of a thing, and that's gonna be that. Who knows how he'll do in Hollywood — maybe his voice will have changed and he'll stand a chance — but that he's going at all is sort of the point. The judges at least knew that.

Hmm. Is that about it? Oh, there was some crazy lady who kept yelling about Obama and sang the national anthem, and she made it through. Why did she make it through? I don't know that the judges were taking this particular Oklahoma leg of their tour, this last little bit, quite as seriously as they could have/should have been. But whatever. It was senioritis. They were itchy to get back home. So they didn't really pay attention and they sent this weird lady through and they treated another poor desperate crazy woman not very well because they were tired and it was just time. It was time to pack up the Coke cups and disassemble Nicki Minaj and ship her to California. Keith had to go make a stop in Tennessee, where Nicole would be waiting for him, stirring a large pot of turpentine on the stove, clucking her tongue at him as he walks in, saying "Crows are back in the attic. Tried to make 'em shoo but they're there for good." There were things to do, you see. No more of this on-the-road nonsense. It was time, time to stop moving.

But, as always, they had one last weird thing to do on the road. At the very, very end of it all, Steven Tyler, the ancient burl-witch who was once a judge on this very program, came teetering into the audition room in strange Carly Simon-esque drag. I mean, with the lipstick and the wig, Steven Tyler did not look unlike Carly Simon, did he? He also had big fake breasteses and was talking in a very strange high-pitched voice. He threw out a few of his weird witch adages — "A rooster crows but it's the hens that matter" or some old incantation like that — and the judges kinda laughed and then Randy finally hooted "Steven Tyler!" and the jig was up. And then it was just Steven Tyler standing there in a wig and a dress with garish makeup on. The joke lasted about four seconds and after that it was simply Steven Tyler standing there in drag saying "Hi, guys." Remember: This was in Oklahoma. What on earth was Steven Tyler doing there? Did they just see him, far out on the plain, wandering around in drag and yell to him? "Steven! Come in off the plain! Storm's a coming!" and so he did? Who knows about Steven Tyler's witchy ways. There could be and probably are a million reasons why he was in Oklahoma dressed up like a lady. Maybe it's not for us to know. Maybe it's all part of some grand spell that will reveal itself to us later. Maybe we all imagined it, audition-weary as we were. We may never know exactly what specter, what vision that was. And we'll have to be at peace with that. Dwell in the uncertainty, let the mystery wash over us like prairie wind.

And that, as they say in show business, is that. I'll see you in Hollywood. Which is how many great stories start. And, I'm afraid, many terrible ones, too.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.