West Side Stories

A Tosa resident for almost 20 years, Karen is a mom and freelance writer, addicted to playing tennis. When not on the tennis court, she spends the fall and winter in the stands at Green Bay Packer and Marquette basketball games.

Karen is the author of “Grab a Bite,” a dining out column and the former community columnist for the Wauwatosa NOW newspaper.

Behind the Scenes at American Idol Auditions

TV, Personal

Sunday night, in a hotel room in Chicago, my daughter and I watched the movie He’s Just Not That Into You. Somehow, this sub-par movie, about clueless people wading through adventures in relationships, became a metaphor for our own adventures about to unfold. You see, the next morning, she and I were just two of the more than 12,000 people at the United Center for American Idol Season 9 auditions.

We’ve watched all eight seasons of American Idol. When it all started, my daughter was only 9 years old and we were only fans. As time went by, the show became a cultural phenomenon and my daughter became a singer. As she developed into a more seasoned performer, people would often ask: “So, would you ever audition for American Idol?” Her answer was always, “Yes, I probably will.”

For years, she and I had a plan. I told her that she could grab some of her friends and I’d grab a couple of mine. We’d rent a full-size van and travel to the audition city nearest to us, as soon as she was eligible to audition. (People between the ages of 16 and 28 are eligible.) She decided to skip her first year of eligibility but decided that this summer, 2009, was the year she would do it.

So when rumblings about auditions started a few weeks ago, we began to check the American Idol website daily. The audition cities were announced and Chicago was one of them. (We sort of hoped that Milwaukee would get a shot thanks to Danny Gokey’s fame, but apparently third place doesn’t get your city an audition.)

Next began the research process. We spent lots of time reading internet postings about the audition process. Sometimes it was helpful, but more often it was overwhelming and intimidating. The list of rules for auditioning is daunting. This is where we found out that my daughter could only bring one person and since she’s a minor, it had to be me or my husband. I won!

Basically, the audition process works like this: There are two days of registration where you show an ID and get a wristband. Then there is ONE day of auditions. It should be the other way around, but it’s not.

This is the part where you have to understand that although this is a singing competition, it’s really more a reality TV show than anything else. It’s a giant casting call featuring people desperate for fame at any cost.

Since my daughter had a commitment, we couldn’t go to the first day of registration. So, on the second day, we left home at 5 am and drove to Chicago. Prepared for LONG lines, we were shocked that after we paid a whopping $20 for parking, we walked right in the United Center and immediately got wristbands…PAPER wristbands that we were not supposed to get wet. Seriously.

After that, we had all day to hang out with my family that lives outside of Chicago and get some much-needed sleep before the big day. We were told to get to the United Center at 5 am the next day. However, the hotel we stayed at was nearby and swarming with contestants, and a couple of them told us that you had to get there even earlier than five. Yikes.

The next morning, we left the hotel at 4 am along with hundreds of other hopefuls. We were in line by 4:45 am. Then began the BIG WAIT. We both had hopes that the people around us would be entertaining and we’d have a blast in line. Although it was interesting to watch some of the people, honestly, at 4:45 am, nothing is that entertaining.

We did meet a group next to us from Michigan who told us this was the fourth time that one of them had auditioned. They were super nice and seemed to be having a great time. After we met them, I turned to my daughter and said: “Um, sorry. I’m not doing this three more times.” She nodded in agreement.

It became apparent that the only reason for us to be there at 5 am was so that Fox could get enough people to shoot those familiar crowd scenes. Once the sun was up, we spent a lot of time screaming and waving as a bagpipe band marched up and down an aisle next to us.

Finally at around 8 am, they let us into the United Center. We had seats in Section 313 – Top floor, far from the audition action. At that point, it was nice just to sit down in the air conditioning.

For the first hour and a half, the crowd was coached in singing the crowd song which we were given at registration. It was Katy Perry’s “Hot ‘n Cold.” I now have this song stuck in my head for all eternity. After we were finished singing, we had to do lots of screaming and waving. This is where being in the third level paid off. Since we were so high up, we didn’t feel obligated to over-exert ourselves with enthusiasm.

Finally, at around 9:30 am, the auditions finally started. Here’s how it works: There are 12 tables set up with, usually, two judges (producers) at each table. (There are curtains dividing the tables.) Contestants go up to the tables in groups of four. One by one, you approach the table and just sing for about 30 seconds. You are not supposed to talk to them, tell them your name or what you’re singing. You’re just supposed to sing. And you’re not supposed to shake their hand. If you don’t “get through,” you leave, get your wristband cut off and do the walk of shame to the exit. If you do get through, you are given a gold ticket and directed to a room where there are more producers and they talk to you for an hour.

Oh and if you’re wondering, the famous judges – Randy, Paula, Simon and Kara – are not even there. They come to the audition cities two months later when the contestants are narrowed down.

At first, everyone stayed in their seats and tried to listen to the first auditions. More often than not, you couldn’t hear anything. But once in a while, someone would belt out a tune (not always a good thing) and the crowd would cheer. When a gold ticket was given out, there were lots of cheers. There were NOT lots of gold tickets given out. When an obviously freakish contestant (no talent – odd appearance) got a gold ticket, the crowd would boo.

I want to point out that my daughter and I had very low expectations going in. We knew that the audition process was incredibly unfair and that many very talented singers were not put through. When you see a crowd of 12,000 and only 24 judges/producers, you quickly realize that disappointment would be in abundance.

After an hour or so of watching the auditions, we decided to venture into the concourse, get some food (is it bad to eat hot dogs and popcorn at 10 am?) and stretch our legs. I found it ironic that this is where I’d hear more singing than anywhere else in the United Center. In every nook, cranny, hallway and stairwell, you could hear wannabe divas belting out their audition songs as if their lives depended on it. I’d just like to say that Whitney Houston and Celine Dion have nothing to worry about. And in fact, this gave me my first bit of false hope. I’d say that 90% of the people practicing in these areas were not good. Not good at all. My hope started to grow – maybe they’d hear the potential in my daughter’s voice and put her through!

After wandering, we settled down in our seats for hours upon hours of waiting. Despite the producers’ claim that sections would be called in random order, they basically started on the first floor and worked their way up. Ours was the second to last section called.

Finally, at 5:30 pm, my daughter stepped up to the judges’ table for her audition. I was able to move down to the first level and get close enough to hear her audition. Her audition song was Sam Cooke's "That's It, I Quit, I'm Movin' On." (Perhaps another metaphor?) She sang her heart out and I think she sounded great. (Yep, I’m totally biased.) Unfortunately, the single judge (who happened to be British – they’re tougher, aren’t they?) didn’t put any of the people in her group through but made a point of telling the girl before her, who was 18 years old, that her voice would mature. I couldn’t help but wonder if he would have been more impressed with my daughter if she had the chance to tell him that she’s only 17. Oh well.

In the end, the judge just wasn’t that into my daughter or many of the people there. That’s really all it comes down to. It’s an instant opinion rendered amidst a circus-like atmosphere. My daughter was totally fine with being passed over. She gave a grateful smile as her wristband was snipped off. Finally, we could go home and sleep!

I’m glad we did it. It was fun to get a behind-the-scenes look and be part of something that we’ve watched for years. Come January, look for us in the Chicago auditions as the bagpipe band marches by.

Meanwhile, my daughter is thinking of doing it again. Next year she can go with her friends and probably have a lot more fun with the long day of waiting. I’ll be home cheering her on and waiting for her phone call.

Until then, please enjoy this recording featuring my daughter, Maria, on lead vocals and my son Dan on guitar, drums and background vocals.


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