Michael Slezak
February 04, 2010 AT 05:00 PM EST

It took four weeks and eight episodes to get there, but last night, as American Idol presented the last of its season 9 audition episodes, the show finally began to resemble a search for the nation’s next singing sensation, not some act that’s destined to be wedged between the tilt-a-whirl and a display of prize-winning peppers at a two-bit county fair. This sudden influx of talent arrived just in the nick of time: I mean, going into this evening’s telecast, I was more attached to the Sims people from Idol‘s unflinchingly low-budget opening credits than I was to most of the Golden Ticket-getters we’d seen in Boston, Atlanta, Orlando, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Denver.

Which isn’t to say that it’s time to put all our emotional marbles behind any of the talented up-and-comers who popped up on our TV screens last night. Because in two weeks’ time, as we’re transitioning from Hollywood Week to the semifinals, 157 of season 9’s Golden Ticket-holders will have had their voices, their feelings, and even their fleeting gifts of mental health ground down to a glittery powder that the Idol makeup department will later use to adorn Kara’s décolletage.

Of course, if I was going to wager that any of tonight’s ”Road to Hollywood” contestants will be among the last 24 standing, I’d have to go with 22-year-old Didi Benami, whose beautifully jazzy, perfectly controlled warble on ”Hey Jude” (and groovy, floral-patterned dress with controversial black-and-white polka-dot trim) overshadowed the sad fact that she was auditioning in honor of her late best friend. Look, I’m not trying to diminish the impact of Didi’s loss, or to suggest that Idol turn its audition rounds into a place where vocalists line up against a wall and — one after the next — try to out-sing their rivals and advance to Hollywood. But I can’t help but feel that at this early stage of the competition, the producers do more harm than good to its contestants by attaching an albatross to their Golden Tickets.

Indeed, I’d have fallen for Didi’s unique instrument — reminiscent of season 8’s Megan Joy, only with added poise and better phrasing — even/especially if she’d never mentioned her personal tragedy. After all, three of last year’s top four contestants — Kris Allen, Adam Lambert, and Allison Iraheta — revealed relatively little about themselves personally during the course of their Idol runs, but that absence of pre-roll didn’t make fans any less passionate about ’em, right? Likewise, wouldn’t Didi’s deep well of feeling have been better conveyed through her vocals, and in those post-performance tears, than by having it spelled out in big, block letters? It’s like that old adage about good fiction writing: ”Show, don’t tell.” And while I’d have preferred Didi not take the bait and spill the beans and all those other clichés that left me wondering if it’s ever appropriate to bring up the death of a friend or relative the first time you step in front of one of Idol‘s cameras, I’m still rooting for her to make Simon choke on the ”very small yes” he gave her. Yep, Didi appears to be that good.

NEXT: Shy guy Aaron Kelly makes his mark

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