Daydream Believers: How 10,000 Wannabes Finally Faced Reality

It’s dawn. I haven’t slept in two days. Still, I’ve managed to look my best in designer jeans and a button-down, hair mussed just so, sipping a trendy energy drink and sporting sunglasses even before the sun has fully risen.

On any other day, it’d be safe to assume that I’m on drugs — but I’m not.

I’m on American Idol.

That is, I’m amidst a platoon of peppy hopefuls sloooowly filing in to audition for said Fox reality show — ten thousand minds with a single objective: Be. On. TV. As local newsmen goad the fame-whoriest of the bunch to flaunt what they got, one girl warns: “It’s bad luck to be on camera before the auditions!” I merely shrug — for unlike the rest of this battalion, I’m well aware that I’m no Carrie Underwood. I also have a low threshold for public humiliation (I’m no Clay Aiken, either).

Rather, I’m here to support my friend Becky — because I’m a devoted friend, yes. And also because I’m the only person she knows without a full-time “grown-up job.” Unlike the gainfully employed, I have nothing better to do with my weekday than infiltrate this army of disharmony and snicker as they nosedive, one by one, like karaoke kamikaze.

It should probably be noted that I don’t watch reality shows. I pretty much think they’re the devil and Heidi Klum combined. The notion that fame, like cancer, now randomly strikes anyone at any time, depresses me; it used to be that stardom was for an elite few, predestined at birth (like spina bifida). In other words, I’m here now to make fun of it later. But. Seeing as I’m vastly outnumbered by a legion of shower chanteuses who really, truly think they’re the next Kelly Clarkson, I decide to keep my mouth shut for now. (At this moment in time, I’m the only person within a mile radius doing so.) If these stressed-out aspirants view me as I threat to their future fame, I don’t doubt that they’ll hurt me.

Three hours after our arrival, the Beast With 10,000 Voices finally worms its way into the Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena, and the MC announces that our section will audition last. Amazing. I pop open another Red Bull and prepare for the long haul.

Nearby, one Idol-izer leads his fellow wannabes in a solemn hymnal rendition of “I Believe I Can Fly” and I imagine this to be a lot like the Underground Railroad. People joining together to face adversity through song before facing the gallows. Except these people are flocking toward enslavement and public scrutiny, instead of away; also, I bet nobody showed up to the Underground Railroad dressed as a giant banana.

Turns out this a cappella Chiquita is just one of many portents that being “behind the scenes” of reality is… well, surreal. Without an audition of my own to anticipate, I’m free to wander, aimless, as fresh-faced youngsters left and right burst into song without warning. It’s like I’m trapped in some failed movie musical in which every background extra thinks he’s the star. A dozen poignant ballads sound from every direction, delivered with the Aguilerian urge to make every note a showstopper. There’s a shirtless boy in the bleachers belting Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing” into a Lemon-Lime Gatorade microphone, and seriously — he’s not trying to be funny. Elsewhere, in the bushes, a girl earnestly croons, “I want you to want me, I need you to need me…”, irony lost on her doting mom, who just raises a thumbs up. I gape in disbelief — they call this reality?

As the day wears on, all pretense of glitz and glamour evaporates in the 95-degree heat. We idle Americans perspire and burn. My all-nighter catches up with me as I wait 45 minutes in line for a lukewarm hot dog; the Red Bull’s long gone, so I sip some Evian that’s about to boil. Then a chubby boy in a tiara strolls by warbling “Daydream Believer” and I don’t point, laugh, or muster a sarcastic quip to take the edge off Becky’s nerves. That can’t be good. Then comes the insanity.

As I watch contenders vigorously practice the kooky warm-ups they learned in junior high jazz choir, I’m hit with pangs of jealousy. Suddenly, I wish I could sing… or at least be delusional enough to think I can; there’s an anxious camaraderie fueling these aspirants, whereas I’m fading fast. At last, I feel tapped into the true meaning of American Idol — sure, there’s nothing more American than the pursuit of cheap celebrity, but isn’t it also American to chase even the most fanciful dream? To sustain faith and dignity when odds are a thousand to one against you? To fearlessly sign a waiver decreeing that no matter how mercilessly you’re mocked on national television, you can’t sue? Sure, they’re all about to get the axe, but for now they wholly, collectively believe in something… themselves. What self-loathing cynic would sit here and judge them for it?Suddenly appalled by my Cowellian ways, I head in to root for Becky as she valiantly aims to conquer the new American dream.

At 5PM (a full twelve hours after our arrival), I wait outside where “non-winners” (way to avoid the L-word, guys) emerge into the parking lot. From here, there’s no way back in. Some lament that today, of all days, is The Day They Were Off-Key; others speed-dial Mom to tell her the grim news. One guy barks that the judges didn’t even let him hit his “Note”! Apparently, the one note so sonorous, it has the power to send him all the way to Hollywood. But best of all are the ones who step, blank-faced, into the harsh light of day — their expressions betray just a trace of bewilderment, as if suddenly confronted with the cruel task of finding a new purpose in their lives. Where are the cameras? I wonder. This is reality.

Becky joins me and we trudge back to her car amongst a handful of other coulda-woulda-shoulda beens — famished, exhausted, and too dispirited for words. Finally, we all have something in common… except one crucial detail.

I’m not the next American Idol. But hey — at least I never tried to be.
(Originally posted in INsite Boston.)

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