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01.19.10

Secret Rituals of American Idol Auditions Exposed

The seemingly open auditions in front of the judges are a carefully edited myth. Embedded correspondent Richard Rushfield on the clandestine process.

Whether you love the three weeks of audition episodes that kick off American Idol each season or consider them to be a slog through the ranks of America’s deluded and talentless, one thing is certain: They are popular. Last week’s two-night premiere, during which the judges searched for singers in Boston and Atlanta, drew an average of 28 million viewers.

So what we now know is that whatever challenges the Fox show faces in the year ahead, American Idol is far from dead. We also know that Idol is capable of catapulting an unknown into literal overnight fame—62-year-old “General” Larry Platt’s “Pants on the Ground” has become a sensation.

Outside the stadium, the scene that for hours bustled with hope became a canvas of tears as the dismissed poured out, their dreams in ruins.

But what viewers do not see during the audition episodes are the sleights-of-hand, and how stagecraft, time-shifting, and selective editing shape the narrative.

So what really does happen at the auditions, which appear to be so simple? From firsthand observation and dozens of interviews, we can offer you a walkthrough down the road to Hollywood.

View our coverage of American Idol Season 9
Myth:The largest audition to date appears to have been in Philadelphia in 2007, where more than 20,000 people showed up. The smallest was last year in Puerto Rico, where bad weather and a local lack of familiarity with the show led to what was a fairly significant debacle, with only a few hundred people appearing. An average crowd runs somewhere in the 6,000 to 8,000 range, which needs to be whittled to a hundred or so that are filmed in front of the judges.

Myth:

On television, viewers see the massive lines of tens of thousands of auditioners wrapped around the Rose Bowl or the Dallas Cowboys stadium, who appear to be heading in to see Simon Cowell, Kara DioGuardi, and Randy Jackson.

Reality:

The 10 Best “Pants on the Ground” Covers These were shot last summer, in some cases a full two months before Idol’s star judges flew to those cities. There are, in fact, two huge lines in which the contestants must wait at these initial cullings. First, they line up to register for their first actual audition that will happen one or two days hence: These lines generally start well before dawn, with aspirants camped out across parking lots.

Watch: The Best and Worst Idol Auditions On the audition day itself, the singers return to stand in line again and await admission to the stadium. This is the line—abuzz with excitement—that we see on TV. It, too, starts well before dawn, with singers showing up the night before to camp out. (To demonstrate how illogical many Idol wannabes are, there is no reason whatsoever to show up early: The order in which they will audition is determined by the number on the ticket they received when they registered.)

Myth:

Is there a freakish majority? Seeing the crowd on television, one gets the sense that two-thirds of the people who show up are wearing Uncle Sam costumes or pink chicken suits.

Reality:

In fact, the visible crazies or desperate-for-attention types only make up a tiny handful of the congregation. Far more evident are those who are merely moderately talented.

Myth:

At the end of each audition episode, the throng of contestants is generally shown singing a pop hit, symbolizing camaraderie in the Idol nation.

Reality:

Upon registering, the singers are told to download lyrics from the show’s Web site and prepare. Once in their seats, a coach runs them through the song, attempting to bring the stragglers up to speed. (Season 8 semifinalist Jackie Tohn was one such straggler at her Meadowlands audition. She had neglected to download or rehearse Pat Benatar’s “Heartbreaker.” “I had no idea what anybody is doing,” Tohn recalled last week. “And all the other people sitting around me were all rude, saying ‘You didn’t read that it said on the site that you’re supposed to print out these songs and know the words?’”)

Myth:

The judges do the judging.

Reality:

In fact, it is a brutal winnowing done first by scouts—who vary in background, celebutante DJ Samantha Ronson served this role in this season’s L.A. auditions, for instance—then by producers, who pull the best and worst from the masses in the stadiums. The contestants, who have been told to prepare two songs, are brought in four at a time to sing for the first time. They usually get through about eight bars before they are stopped. Occasionally, the scouts will ask for a bit of their second song. If the contestant makes it through, a rarity, they go on to the next round: the producers.

Myth:

The judges do the judging, part two.

Reality:

The producers’ round happens days, sometimes weeks, after the stadium event, often requiring those who traveled from far off to return to their audition city on their own dime. Here, the producers prod, searching for the hidden wellsprings of talent and telling those contestants who make it through which song to sing before the judges. Of course, some of these people are a) crazy b) awful singers c) both.

Myth:

The joke auditioners—the tone deaf, the weird-looking, the angry—have absolutely no idea they may be moving forward to be filmed precisely because they suck.

Reality:

Having gone through the scouts and the producers, and traveled three times to do so, when the contestants ultimately are to appear before the judges on camera, a producer announces to the assembled: “Some of you are here because you are really good. Some of you are here because you are really bad.” (Whether anyone who is terrible realizes that the disclaimer applies to him or her is another question.) Tohn remembers the scene in the waiting room, where jitters had everyone bouncing off the walls. “I found a lot of solace in talking to the lunatics who were more nervous than me,” she said. “My mom gave Norman Gentle a half-hour talking to, saying ‘Be true to yourself.’”

Summary:

In choosing which auditions they will show on these episodes, the producers are making their first bets on who is going to go the distance. Cutting the episodes from the first three cities of Season 9, they must choose who they think will go the distance, whose story they would like to build. But even as they aired last week’s premieres, Hollywood Week—and the onscreen debut of Ellen DeGeneres—was being filmed. The field of hundreds, including many of our newfound sweethearts, was being cut down to mere dozens.

And then, in a few weeks time, the levers pass out of the hands of the producers entirely, as America steps forward to cast its votes on the fates of those who emerged from those lines stretching out into the darkness.

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Richard Rushfield is a four-year veteran of the American Idol beat and the author of a recent memoir, Don't Follow Me, I'm Lost.