On Deaf Ears

Thousands flock to an 'American Idol' tryout to sing their way to stardom. How fast can the judges say: Next!

August 19, 2004|By Stephen Kiehl and Mary Carole McCauley | Stephen Kiehl and Mary Carole McCauley,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - This is what you think when you walk down the line of American Idol wannabes who have slept on a concrete floor for two nights so they can sing for 30 seconds before one of the show's producers: No, no, no, no, no, you can leave, you can stay, you should go, bye, bye, definitely not, sorry.

Yesterday, when American Idol held auditions here for next season's show, the rejections came rapid-fire. Many were stunned and dejected at the sudden collapse of their dreams. But others, like Djore Nance, have come to expect it. Nance, 23, has auditioned for Idol's previous seasons twice before, in Dallas and Austin, Texas.

Well, he didn't technically audition in Austin since he was part of the overflow crowd, was told he wouldn't be seen, and then organized a protest in the street. Cops quickly surrounded him and told him to leave or face arrest. But the Juilliard student was back for another audition yesterday, hopeful and unrepentant.

"It's so important that we as singers realize how subjective the whole process is," said Nance, his hair in long dreadlocks and a cross around his neck. "If you don't get chosen, there's nothing to be embittered about."

Good, because he wasn't. But that's OK. He'll try again next week, at the Orlando auditions.

A handful of the 20,000 people who auditioned at the Washington Convention Center yesterday were serial applicants like Nance - folks who just don't seem to get the message. They come again and again, with their tight jeans and their high hopes, and they often receive the same crushing verdict: No. Next!

"I've seen three people who have been here before," said American Idol executive producer Nigel Lythgoe as he stood in the convention center lobby at noon yesterday. "Some of them do improve. We give them constructive criticism, and if they take it, we'll put them through" to the next round.

"But," he added, "most never change."

As he spoke, a short girl with wavy blond hair ran up to him. "Nigel!" screamed Marissa Pontecorbo of Staten Island, N.Y., recognizing him despite his dark glasses and LA Dodgers cap. "I was cut! Can I sing for you, please?"

Lythgoe agreed, and he peered into her hazel eyes as she belted out Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now." When she finished, he told her, "Good voice. But be careful you don't sing through your nose. It's kind of nasally. But I would suggest you carry on."

It was enough for the 17-year-old. Pontecorbo had recognized the producer because she had seen him at the Cleveland auditions earlier this month. She doesn't think she'll go to any more auditions this year because school is starting soon, but she was grateful for the advice. She left happy.

Others find it hard to believe, even after they have been cut, that they will not, in fact, be the next American Idol. It's not them, they say. It's the judges. The judges won't give you a shot. The judges just want people they can insult on TV. The judges don't care about talent, only entertainment.

Back to work

Ask 17-year-old Tyree Johnson of Washington how her audition went and she'll tell you: "It went good until they cut me. They said I wasn't what they were looking for. That means they're blind if they couldn't see what I was giving them. God has blessed me with a beautiful voice."

What song did she sing? " `I Won't Complain.' But I am.

"Now I got to go back to work at Starbucks."

Johnson sings for her church. She sings for her school. Take a number, child. At times yesterday it felt like every member of every choir, every musical theater major, and everyone who has ever sung in any shower in the Mid-Atlantic was at the convention center, waiting to be discovered.

Twenty thousand showed up and perhaps 19,500 went home disappointed. The lucky few were called back to sing before the show's producers again today, and the very lucky will return on Friday to audition before three of the most powerful people in music: American Idol's TV judges, Paula Abdul, Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson.

The top few hundred from Washington and the seven other audition cities will be flown to Los Angeles to appear in the show's fourth season, set to begin airing in January.

This is how you make it now, the hopefuls say. It's not about getting a recording contract or singing backup or playing in small clubs across the country to make a name for yourself. Now, you go on TV and hope the Idol judges and the viewers at home anoint you a superstar.

And this is how you get on TV: Show up at the audition site two days early, form a line around the block, register and get a red wristband, then sleep for a night or two in the convention center. ("Sleep" being a euphemism, of course, for sitting around all night under fluorescent lights and listening to everyone practice their songs.) Stand in line one hour for food. Stand in line two hours to get into the bathroom, or change in your sleeping bag. Wait. Wait. Wait.

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