There are few things that talent contests love more than a gimmick, and since we're not far enough into "American Idol" for groundbreaking and unexpected weekly themes, like "Songs from the movies" or "Music by The Beatles," the producers obviously have to get their novelty elsewhere.
Because of this, "Idol's" San Diego auditions took place aboard the USS Midway, which probably seemed like a fun theory when it was suggested during a quiet production meeting -- what with all the opportunities for "Top Gun" references it could provide. But it turned out to be fairly counterproductive in practice. Between the noise of passing airplanes and foghorns, however, the judges did manage to unearth some impressive talent, including a movie star's daughter ...
1. Jane Carrey
Sadly, Jim Carrey's low-key daughter didn't perform her audition by turning around, bending over and pretending to sing out of an orifice other than her mouth, but the nervous 24-year-old woman -- who is a mom and a waitress -- still managed to make an impression on the judges.
Jennifer Lopez inadvertently reminded herself of her own mortality by asking Jane if she remembered her, since Jennifer and Jim apparently worked together during "In Living Color." But since Jane was two at the time, she mostly just looked amused at both the question and how much more interested in her Jennifer immediately became once she realized who Jane's father was. She wasn't the best singer of the bunch, and her nerves definitely got the best of her in places, but her rendition of Bonnie Rait's "Something To Talk About" had a sweet melody. I don't think she'll survive past Hollywood, but she has the potential to improve, and Jennifer gave her a helpful critique in telling her to open her eyes and connect with the audience more when she sings.
2. Ashley Robles
Another single mom (with a ridiculously adorable daughter), Ashley is a DJ, but has been known to work five jobs at once to make ends meet. She picked perhaps the trickiest and most abused song in music history -- Whitney Houston's version of "I Will Always Love You" -- right down to the runs. I imagine that if Simon Cowell were still on the judging panel, he would've accused her of sounding like a karaoke singer, but even if the song was derivative, Ashley certainly had the talent to back it up. She couldn't quite belt the notes like Whitney would, but she had range and control, and a natural charisma that helped the judges warm to her. I wish we could've heard a song that showed us more of her personality as an artist, but hopefully, she'll be able to demonstrate that side of her voice during Hollywood week.
3. Aubree Dieckmeyer
Aside from the fact that Aubree seemed convinced that she was actually auditioning to be "America's Next Top Model," the 20-year-old singer was one of the most pleasant surprises of the night. Her version of Nina Simone's "Feeling Good" was fresh, original and surprisingly professional, with high, clear runs and unique phrasing that -- even though she specified it was Michael Bublé's version of the song -- still sounded like her own twist on the classic. The judges praised the sweetness of her voice, though Randy pointed out that she lost a little power in her upper range and needed to work on making her voice stronger when she was using a higher register. Still, she got an easy three yeses to send her to Hollywood.
4. Ali Shields
I predict that this girl will divide opinion; Ali is obviously a ham -- who probably enjoys kissing celebrities a little too much -- but her audition was undeniably memorable. Bursting with energy, she bounced into the room to announce that she wanted to rap, and, after performing a serviceable rap and some booty-popping "ghetto" dancing for Randy, she finally launched into an actual song. Her take on Corinne Bailey Rae's "Just Like a Star" was raspy and tremulous, and at times, I couldn't tell whether she was out of tune or just trying to put her own spin on the song. But there was an Adele-like quality to her tone that made her interesting to listen to. The judges seemed shocked that she could actually sing, but Randy declared that she was "just crazy enough to make it," giving her a golden ticket and sending her on her way.
5. Jayrah Gibson
Bluesy Jayrah may not have been particularly eloquent and his "life plans," goals and dreams were a little hard to keep up with, but when it came to singing, Steven decided that he was "the whole ball of wax." Another contestant who was brimming with confidence, he opened by telling Jennifer that he'd written a song for her called "Shake Your Money Maker," which actually sounded catchy and inane enough to be a top 10 record. (Watch out, Rihanna.) He demonstrated his skills in those short few moments, but really startled the judges with his rendition of Musiq SoulChild's "Just Friends," which had rhythm, soul and delicious, syrupy high notes. Randy loved him, noting that they haven't had a worthy R&B contestant for a long time, while Jennifer expressed interest in hearing something less rhythmic and more melodic from him next time before putting him through to Hollywood.
I wasn't quite as impressed by fratboy Kyle's performance as the judges were, but I did appreciate the R&B flavor coming out of that preppy mouth when he took on Monica's "Angel of Mine." Steven Tyler declared him the best male voice they'd heard so far, probably because the girls seem to be outshining the guys in the audition rounds -- although that hasn't helped a female contestant win in years -- but he was enjoyable. I think I placed Jayrah above him because Jayrah had a much more memorable personality and charismatic stage presence, which is also an important part of the competition.
Jason "Wolf" Hamlin
Aside from the hilarity of watching Ryan Seacrest try to pretend that he didn't kind of want a kiss from a big, burly mechanic, Jason's audition was mostly memorable on the strength of his second song, since his first -- Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Midnight Special" -- wasn't particularly original or impressive. He just sounded like an average guy who could carry a tune, but when he pulled out the guitar his late father had made him, you could finally hear the passion in his voice. Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" was a much stronger audition, especially once he let loose and added some gravel to the verse, and though I think he'll be swallowed up by the more technically accomplished singers in Hollywood, these contests usually make room for a token rocker that the audience can relate to in their top 20.
Who was your favorite contestant of the night? (Please don't say the girl in the bikini.)
"American Idol" airs Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8 p.m. EST on Fox.