“American Idol” Recap: Steven Tyler’s Drag Race

Look, I remember seasons 10 and 11. I know Steven Tyler was less a judge and more a starved mule dressed as Jimmy Buffett. I get that. But in his stupid, hacky cameo on last night’s Idol as a busty blonde auditioner, I admit I kind of fell for the guy. Was it his go-for-broke attitude? His don’t-give-a-f*ck spirit? His convincing womanliness? His blushing skull? Not really. It was the fact that he introduced himself with a full drag persona, one that he gleefully co-opted from (get ready) Paris is Burning! Watch as Steven-effing-Tyler introduces himself as “Pepper LaBeija from the House of LaBeija.” Watch! I still can’t believe it.

Now, it’s possible that an Idol producer or gay stagehand threw Steven a name and persona to use for the moment. It’s possible Steven has never seen Paris is Burning, and it’s possible that Malcolm McLaren’s “Deep in Vogue” means nothing to him. But whatever: Maybe because of American Idol, some gay kid will look up the name Pepper LaBeija and discover one of the greatest, most entertaining documentaries ever. Good on you, dude-looking-a-lady. Good on you.

And now, for the only two tolerable auditions of the evening. Oklahoma City offered little in the way of showstopping talent; only five wannabes passed through to Hollywood, and three of those were duuuuuuubious choices, including the unbearably awful Zoanette Johnson and her caterwauled rendition of the national anthem, a 16-year-old with cystic fibrosis named Kayden Stephenson whose voice just had no punch to it, and the grating acoustics of a troubadour named Karl Skinner.

Otherwise, these two belters worked it out.

Nate Tao, “For Once In My Life”

Nate is adorable. Lookathim. When the amiable youngster introduced us to his deaf parents with lots of sign language, I had visions of him winning the whole competition and signing his victory speech like Louise Fletcher. Did I mention I’m psyched for the Oscars? I am. OK.

I loved Nate’s song choice, the timeless Stevie Wonder track “For Once In My Life.” Just a shame that song has already been owned on Idol by my favorite contestant in the show’s history, Melinda Doolittle. Guys, will it ever get better than Melinda? She was like Gladys Knight’s sweet, eternally poised second coming. And might I add: She had the best audition ever. Nate, you didn’t stand a chance in the wake of Melinda and her neutral-toned vest, but you’re not quite smithereens either. You can stay. 

Halie Hilburn: Vivacious Ventriloquist

I may be giving this inevitable Dale Evans devotee too much credit, but I really enjoyed Halie’s distinctly ancient taste. She’s a ventriloquist who sings “Cowboy’s Sweetheart,” which means she should be 98 years old. I mean, this is some Opryland entertainment, kids. Hank Williams Sr. is alive, well, and not ready to die in a barrel of bourbon yet. Once every couple years, Idol attracts a country chanteuse who prefers The Carter Family to the Judds, and I think Halie may be self-deprecating and cool enough to make that niche interesting. Does she have the voice to vault past the other twangy dames? Maybe not, but I’m psyched to see her try — and with that damn puppet in hand, hopefully! Ventriloquism is effing cool! Paul Winchell was the man. 

What did you think of Thursday’s auditions? Underwhelming? Should we give this whole competition to secretly saucy Paul Jolley already?