American Idol strikes coal in Pittsburgh

American Idol traveled to Pittsburgh for the first time in the show's history. Shane Bruce, a 19-year-old coal miner from West Virginia, tugged at the American Idol audience's heart strings. 

Jonathan Alcorn / REUTERS
Jennifer Lopez, Randy Jackson and Ryan Seacrest, co-hosts of American Idol, take part in a panel session at the FOX Winter TCA Press Tour in Pasadena, California January 8, 2012.

American Idol visited Pittsburgh for the second Season 11 stop in their relentless search for the next pop superstar. Randy Jackson kicked things off with one of his motivational speeches for the contestants, "Dude, you get one shot at fame and that shot starts today."  This one nugget of wisdom sends the contestants into a frenzy and justifies why the producers opt to keep Mr. Jackson in the mix.  Sure Steven Tyler's flamboyant and unpredictable, Jennifer Lopez is beautiful and sweet, but Randy, Randy brings sagaciousness to the judges' panel. 

While many contestants earnestly and over-excitedly tout their greatness, Idol started Thursday night with Heejun Han, a 22-year-old Korean native who, despite drinking plenty of teas, could not quite bring himself to self-promote.  Heejun was so intimidated by both the competition and Ryan's diminutive face, that it was easy to peg him as a filler contestant:  Some talentless oddball the producers throw into the mix to keep things interesting. But when Heejun broke into Michael Bolton's, "How Am I Supposed to Live Without You," he delighted the judges with a beautiful voice.  Whether Heejun's deadpan delivery was genuine or sarcasm at its finest, is irrelevant.  Either way he's fun to watch and a pleasure to listen to.

Before moving on, one question begs to be answered.  What is up with Jennifer Lopez constantly looking to her right for validation and even commenting to individuals off camera?  Wednesday night's show made viewers aware that producer Nigel Lythgoe himself was sitting off-stage monitoring the performances. While it could be intimidating having your boss watch as you try and justify a salary that no mere mortal should ever earn, JLo's constant offstage glances  and comments are distracting.  Besides, no one wants to be reminded that this little audition room is just a small part of a huge set.  Idol should hang on to the intimacy of their auditions and leave the over-producing to "The X Factor." 

Up next was the best named and most interesting contestant of the night; Reed Grimm, a 26-year-old nanny from Wisconsin who tapped into his musical lineage and wowed the judges with his soulful beat and stage presence, something he's been perfecting since the age of two.  Seriously, how cool would it be to have this guy as your baby sitter, scat singing your favorite lullabies??  Not sure how well he'll hold up in later rounds but perhaps Casey Abrams whet the country's appetite for vocal jazz last season.

Further proof that Casey's run attracted the jazz genre to Idol,  Creighton Fraker (so many great names this year) offered up an original song and while the hook could have been a bit stronger, Steven Tyler was instantly a fan, repeatedly telling Creighton what a beautiful man he was.  (Luckily, Creighton's father was not in attendance.) Both Creighton and Reed will serve as a litmus test for Season 11, indicating the musical maturity level of the country.  Will America blindly grasp on to their old favorites, pop, ballads and country, or will Season 11 break out of the mold and pick up where the jazz pioneers of yesteryear left off?

Idol then switched gears to introduce another Touching Contestant story with 19-year-old Shane Bruce.  If one can get past the fact that Shane thinks the song "Hallelujah," by Leonard Cohen was actually first introduced by everyone's favorite ogre, Shrek, and that although a decent singer, he's not talented enough to become a superstar, there is something profoundly resonating to this young man's story.  A recent high school graduate enters the coal mines like generations of his family before him, lured by the promise of a stable life, while secretly dreaming of escaping the bowels of the earth to chase his dream.  Images of The Hunger Games', Gale, trudging off to the coal mines of District 12 are inescapable and the viewer finds themselves rooting for Shane Bruce.  Sadly, Shane must have missed Randy's pep talk and let his one shot of fame slip through his fingers. Let's hope this little canary continues his song back in the mines.

Sunday, Idol aims to remind networks of their quest for world dominance, by featuring a very special episode after the NFL playoff game.  Tune in to see another round of auditions . . . made special by the day of the week it is airing.  That's right viewers, not Wednesday or Thursday, nay not even the less frequented Tuesday, this American Idol is coming to you on Sunday! You have to hand it to these producers, they're becoming downright wild in their effort to keep things exciting!

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