Ready for Our Close-Up

Barely two hours after the first round of American Idol auditions began, the sidewalk outside Target Center is abuzz with distressed-looking people on cell phones, seeking, no doubt, some form of satellite consolation. Some of them are tearful. Some are stone-faced. These folks are among the many who sang their hearts out for thirty seconds, were thanked, and told to go home. The few who made it through to the next round are trying to be quiet about their success, because they were told they had to be, though some of the good news has leaked out anyway.

One woman props a large sign up against a brick pillar, thunks her Coach bag on the ground, and flips open her cell phone. The homemade sign, decorated with glitter, reads “I can get Simon to peel me a grape.” She’s dressed in a striking red cape, skinny black pants, and a black-lace bustier à la Vanity from the 1980s. She holds an empty martini glass. When she finishes her call, I ask her if she made it to the next round. “I can’t tell you,” she says, somewhat blithely. When I tell her that a few other people already told me she had, she says, “Can’t say. You know, they’ve got their rules.” When I ask her name, she says, “I can’t tell you.” When I ask her if she can tell me what song she sang, she says she can’t do that either, but looks at the sign and offers this description: “It’s a fun one. It’s about a woman telling a man what to do to make her happy.”

Whether her apparent success is the product of her promise of carnal pleasures for the show’s nastiest judge or her raw talent is anyone’s guess. Shannon Thompson of Edina and Sheila Romero from West St. Paul met during a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the North Como Presbyterian Church in Roseville and decided to try out together. Of her audition, Shannon said, “It was horrible. I messed it up and added an ‘oh, crap,’ to the chorus.” Sheila, who’s had voice lessons since she was ten, said, “It’s hard to compete with 6,999 other people, or however many they’re saying are here.”

Which sort of begs the question, why bother? The answer to which is surprisingly universal.

“American Idol is going to go down in history as a huge part of pop culture,” said Kalii Palmer from Nashville, “and I can say I was part of it.”

“It’s kind of a rush,” commented Janel Sorenson. “And I like the attention. I can say that I did it.”

She and her friend Joshua were both still waiting on the sidewalk for their auditions, and both had tried out last year in different cities. Joshua spent a big part of his childhood on the Ivory Coast because his parents were missionaries and now works as a shift manager at an Arby’s in a Minneapolis suburb. “I’m goin’ for salary manager!” he shouted, with some apparent irony, pumping a fist in the air. At last year’s tryout in Denver, he didn’t make the first cut but was allowed to sing his entire song, and was hoping for at least the same good fortune this time.

American Idol seems, indeed, to be a sort of contemporary Woodstock. For most, there’s the feeling of having been part of a big cultural happening. But there is also the appeal of being chosen, the promise of that fleeting, Warholian fifteen minutes, though the selection criteria are as elusive as Osama bin Laden. Actually, it all seems to have less to do with singing and more to do with singing as a vehicle for celebrity.

Andrea Leap is an instructor at the MacPhail Center for Music and helped two of her students prepare to audition. “There’s personal taste, and that’s hard to account for,” Leap comments. “They’re looking for a very special aesthetic, something with broad appeal, all-American, whatever that is. You can’t be too threateningly unique.” (So we can assume that had Bjork tried out, she would’ve gotten the chop.)

“It’s certainly increased the enrollment in voice lessons,” Leap says of the show. But she’s quick to add that the students who’ve been inspired by watching American Idol “aren’t necessarily into being singers, they’re into being famous. I don’t know how to teach that.”

For his part, Tiki Cross will stick to smaller venues. After singing a few bars of Kenny Rogers’ “She Believes in Me” for the Idol judges, he was told his voice was too strong, despite the fact that a previous audition had gone really well. That one had been in his living room, before a different panel of judges: his three children. His oldest son, eight-year-old Dajeon, had played Simon. His daughter, Gloria, ten months, was Paula. And Taveon, Gloria’s twin brother, had played Randy. “Randy sang along with me,” said Cross. “Paula said, ‘Good, Daddy,’ and Simon actually clapped. I was really surprised by that. So I thought I was doing pretty good,” he laughs. “But you know, they all said, ‘You’re our American Idol, Dad,’ and that’s what counts.”

To each his or her own consolation. “We’re going to do retail therapy at the Mall of America,” said Kalii Palmer, who had brought her mother along for support. “And I need a big thing of fries.”