''American Idol'': The South rises again
Is it too early to declare the winner of American Idol's fifth season? And no, I'm not talking about the inevitable cable sitcom deal that's awaiting tart-tongued tornado Rhonetta Johnson, whose profanity-laced tirade against Paula Abdul made me laugh a lot harder than it probably should've. (More on her and her silver tube-top in a minute.) Rather, I'm referring to Paris Bennett, whose tingle-inducing two-pronged audition of ''Cowboy Take Me Away'' and ''Take Five'' not only threatens to end this competition before it even gets underway, but could (mercifully) obliterate the possibility of any other persons named Paris from ever launching or sustaining a big-time recording career in the future. (Think about it: Will there ever be a second hit-maker named Aretha? Or Bono? Or Beyoncé? Most likely not.)
But lest I sully Miss Bennett's name by associating it with a certain infamous reality TV star, let's instead talk about the 17-year-old's whopper of an instrument, one that transitions from country to jazz in a way that's strangely effortless and undeniably soul-stirring. Now, I'm sure some folks will argue that because Bennett's grandmother is Sounds of Blackness vocalist Ann Nesby, she doesn't deserve to take the Idol path to fame. Why not use her family connection to get her foot in the doorway of a major label? To which I say, ''Feh!'' There's arguably no process more democratic than Idol's vote-for-your-favorite, speed-dial system no, no, I'm not passing judgment on the rise of electronic balloting in the U.S. but you know what I mean. It doesn't matter if you're Maddox Jolie or Apple Martin: If you can't sing, you're going home. Eventually, anyway.
To her credit, Bennett's got a winning personality to go along with her abundance of talent. Watching her collapse, sobbing tears of joy, into her grandmother's arms, while managing a whisper of assurance to host Ryan Seacrest that indeed, she was okay, reminded me of why Idol is my true TV love. Indeed, it's not about the judges, although Simon has certainly been more engaged and amusing than he was in Season Four, and Paula more lucid and opinionated. And it's not about the uncomfortable (but entertaining) thrill of watching deluded dreams come to an end, although at least tonight's episode seemed less about taking advantage of clearly disturbed folks or stooping to games of ''tease the sissy!'' or ''tease the fatty!'' for a cheap, offensive laugh. (Don't get me started, or I'm going to end up on my soapbox demanding Simon and the show's producers check out a Brokeback-Transamerica double-feature and grow the hell up.)
Nope, at its heart, Idol recognizes the inner potential locked somewhere inside every person, the potential that can get buried beneath mountains of bills, the demands of housework and child-rearing, the self-doubt that creeps in after years of hard luck and missed opportunities. Tonight showcased 24-year-old Kendra Winston, the product of 42 different foster homes during her childhood, and while Simon gave her the thumbs down, how could you not help but smile at the resilient beauty's ecstatic reaction after winning over Paula and Randy. (Bonus points for that hilarious ''And I'm calm'' punch line Winston used to recompose herself on her way out of the audition.) Of course, Simon was right: Winston probably doesn't have a strong enough voice to make the show's final 12, but the North Carolina auditions yielded several folks with the kind of talent that'll force Bennett to fight for her frontrunner status.
Oh, and let's not forget Sgt. Steven David Jr. sure, he's a cheeseball, but at least he's in on the joke, as his ''Let's Get It On'' serenade of Paula proved. (Given that the loopy judge was just cleared by Fox on charges of canoodling with a contestant, I bet I wasn't the only one left a little skittish by the sight of Paula wrapping her legs around the military man's torso as he carried her from the audition room.) I also look forward to seeing what fey and non-thin Kenneth 'Chase' Bush (the dude who sang ''I Have Nothing'') and charismatic Halicia Thompson (who brought the funk to her rendition of ''A Different World'') will do when they get to Hollywood.
As for Rhonetta, she may not be hitting Tinseltown on Idol's dime, but she might make an amusing opening act for a celebrity-bashing comic like Kathy Griffin. That is, as long as the Rubenesque she-beast learns to put on some underwear, then reconsiders her too-short skirts and promises to strictly limit her future use of the microphone to endeavors that don't involve singing.
Who were your favorites at the Greensboro auditions?