“American Idol” begins with a dream — the dream that inside all of us, there's a pop star yearning to break free if only the right people could see us wailing away at karaoke. The first few weeks of the show do a nice job of shooting down that theory for most folks. Thousands of candidates are eliminated before even seeing the holy trinity of judges, dozens more are humiliated on national television, and the rest of us look in the mirror and realize that we're better suited to be illegally downloading hit records than recording them.
But if we got that second shot at stardom, a free trip to Hollywood and an opportunity to make it to the second round of a competition like this one, we like to think we'd be like Regina Brooks. Brooks pawned her wedding rings to get to the first audition and lost 40 pounds on her way to this one in an effort to be more “Idol”-worthy.
That's the kind of dedication viewers like to see from someone who may be just a few months away from a record deal and a ready-made hit single.
We don't like to think we'd be as cavalier as Shunta Worthen, who got on the wrong bus on Day One and found herself touring Hollywood instead of the soundstage. She had to be talked into catching a cab back to the Orpheus Theatre by other candidates and came within a traffic jam of missing her chance entirely. If we were this close to our dreams, we figure we'd at least take the precaution of checking with the bus driver to make sure we were on the right bus.
But Worthen made it to the next round, and the judges sent Brooks home. And that, more than anything else, symbolized the competition over the first two days of “Idol” boot camp. The show is searching for a future pop star, not a Lifetime movie or heartwarming Reader's Digest article, and talent won out over the tabloids all night long.
Tamesha Foote talked about leaving her twin babies to follow her dream. The judges sent her right back home to be with them.
Blue-haired Briana Davis followed her rendition of "Phantom of the Opera" at her initial audition with "My Baby, She Wrote Me a Letter," showing that she could translate her voice from theatre to rock. Didn't matter. Out she went.
Good stories are nice, because they give Ryan Seacrest something to do besides stand around and trade jokes with Simon, and the time spent telling them keeps the audience from hearing "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" more than a couple of dozen times. But good singers win in the end, and with 193 singers to look at and not much time to do it, both the judges and the audience had just a few minutes — or less — to devote to each hopeful.
‘Hell week’Richard Molfetta, whose twin brother got left behind twice at the auditions and who himself would have a one-day stay in Hollywood, called the five-day boot camp that awaited the contestants a "Hell Week." It was an apt analogy, because as anyone who's ever pledged a fraternity or sorority knows, the first step in making it is proving you belong in the first place. That may have been easy among the mimes, screechers and William Hung-types that graced the initial round of auditions, but with all the pretenders gone, things got a lot tougher.
But “Idol” would be a pretty boring show if all the feel-good stories were sent home. Tracheotomy survivor Anthony Fedorov, the early leader in the Clay Aiken II sweepstakes, sailed through. So did Rashida Johnson, who spent most of her audition in tears as battled her cold but made it through anyway.
Simon called Mikalah Gordon the most confident 16-year-old he'd ever seen, which probably means she's a safe bet to make the final 24 and certainly meant she was a no-brainer to make it through this stage.
Gordon said Simon would need to be her prom date if she failed to make it through to the next round. Why any girl would want to take him to prom, even if he volunteered to pay for dinner, is a whole other story.
Carrie Underwood called Ryan Seacrest the biggest celebrity she'd ever seen, which won't win her any points with Paula Abdul, an ’80s pop legend and — oh, by the way — one of the judges in charge of determining her future. She'd already been passed through by then, though. Same with Jaclyn Crum, who the next day broke down in tears and was overwhelmed at visiting “The O.C.” set. In addition to being a fine use of cross-promotion, that showed to all questioning observers that Crum really is only 16.
Real life wins for oneThe candidate who got the most air time, though, is the one most people viewers really wouldn't like to be, since she ripped apart the whole dream thing and picked real life instead.
Marlea Stroman left her young son at home, persevered and made it through the first Hollywood screening. That left her three days away from a shot at making the final 24.
But she walked away. She didn't like the ups-and-downs of the competition, and she wanted to get back to being a mother. That's fair enough. She also complained that a lot of people in Hollywood weren't nice, which are sentiments shared by approximately every other person who's ever been to Hollywood.
Stroman became the first person ever to walk off the show by her own choice after being passed through by the judges. It's probably just as well. In a show about people getting the opportunity to realize their dreams, someone who puts real life and social niceties about stardom is better off somewhere besides Fox. But for the 97 who made it past the two-day screening, that just means one less person to out-sing on their way to the final 24.
Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.