PASADENA, California — The smell of the vomit in tunnel 6 as it cooked in the valley heat was atrocious. And it was probably all for nothing.
That's the thing about "American Idol" auditions: Only about one in 100 even make it through the first round.
Still, tens of thousands of "Idol" hopefuls show up each summer, some apparently battling worse nerves than others, all going for their shot at Justin Guarini-like stardom. (OK, bad example, but you get the point: Not even #2 is guaranteed a career from this.)
At the Rose Bowl on Tuesday, an estimated 15,000 showed up, a few less than the 2 million this reporter estimated during the exhausting walk from the start of the line to the place in the back where MTV News shadowed a spirited hopeful.
Our man, a sort of better-singing Ace Young, had driven 24 hours straight from Omaha, Nebraska, to be there, which is how you gain respect from this crowd.
Like the quarterback with the most concussions, the singer with the worst horror story of getting to Pasadena was the one who stood tallest.
In our section, the only competition was a woman who flew on a one-way ticket from Kansas. "I'll figure out how I'm getting home after the audition," she said without worry. There was also a woman from South Africa, but it turned out she really lived in Los Angeles (nice try!).
The line, of course, is part of the fun. Some were complaining that "Idol" wouldn't allow camping this year. (Auditionees could register beginning Sunday but could only start lining up Tuesday at 5 a.m.)
That's fun in the same way watching "Napoleon Dynamite" is fun — you know, a lot of quirky (OK, nerdy) humor. For instance, you would have to know "Grease" to catch the made-up lyrics our man and a woman in a pink cowboy hat were trading during a group rendition of "Summer Lovin'."
Oh, that's the other thing about the line. There's a lot of singing. Even at 5 a.m. there was a lot of singing. Sometimes it was one person practicing their audition or showing off their voice to one of the many camera crews covering the spectacle. Other times it was a group of old or brand-new friends just passing the time.
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Regardless, in any 20-minute span you were guaranteed to hear "Respect," "Natural Woman" and "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" at least once.
And always, when a song was done, there was clapping. The camaraderie in the "Idol" audition line was commendable. "You ask a question, and everyone answers," one young girl said.
Sure, there were some rolled eyes, like when the clubbed-out dude destroyed an R. Kelly ballad, but even he got a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
The wannabe "Idols" that stood out were the competitive ones. A few singers refused to reveal their audition songs for fear of someone stealing them. And then there were the two "best friends" full of confidence.
"I'm just glad all these people came out to support me since I'm the next American Idol," one said.
"After me, that is," her friend replied.
That was almost as cold as the mom who, when asked if she could see each of her three daughters as the next Idol, replied, "One of them, yes." And the other two, who were standing right next to her? "Not a chance."
People-watching was the best way to pass the time, but others brought guitars, portable video game systems and even sleeping bags. The "Idol" organizers were also generous enough to hand out stress balls and yo-yos, which almost made up for the empty concession stands.
After about four hours of standing, which seemed solely for the purpose of getting good camera shots for the "Idol" show, the auditionees were allowed to enter the Rose Bowl.
At the gate, a chipper coordinating producer named Patrick Lynn held a makeshift news conference for the dozens of journalists present.
"What we're looking for at this point is really hard to put our finger on," Lynn said. "What we're not looking for is guys with gray hair and bald rockers. We've already got those. We're looking for originality, personality, singing talent. But we really don't know what we're looking for until it hits us in the face."
Another thing they were not looking for was to make this quick. Once inside, there was another hour of waiting and then another 30 minutes of shooting crowd footage.
During this time, the Monkees' "Daydream Believer" repeated over and over on the loudspeakers like a scene from a Disney remake of "A Clockwork Orange." Although it seemed like a torture trick to drive people to give up, it turned out the producers just wanted everyone to learn the chorus so they could sing it together for the cameras. As if hearing it twice wouldn't have been enough.
The hopefuls filled a quarter of the stadium, but every singer was allowed to bring in one guest for support (a.k.a. keep them from going crazy and smashing one of the loudspeakers playing "Daydream Believer"). Some brought friends, others brought their parents, and a few even brought their babies.
By about 10:30 a.m., producers began escorting just the singers (we're guessing babies were allowed) to 14 tables set up across the football field. (Only 11 were used.)
Groups of four then approached each table of three judges — "The same people who have been doing it for years," Lynn said — and sang one by one until each was cut off, which was anywhere between five and 30 seconds. Our man actually made it into the second verse of "Ain't No Sunshine." He thought he nailed it, but all four in his group got the same verdict: "Not this time."
On the auditions that air on TV, which are a few more steps from this one (none of the judges or even Ryan Seacrest were in attendance), there's just as many horrible singers as truly talented ones. "I've had contestants do everything from try to strip in front of us to give us money," Lynn said.
The desperate, however, were tough to spot at the Rose Bowl — the exception being the kid in the banana suit, whose audition song of choice was the Buckwheat Boys' "Peanut Butter Jelly Time."
Banana Man was near the end, so you would have had to stick around into the early evening to see if he made it.
Sadly, though, he had better odds than the vomiting kid in tunnel 6.
"Idol" auditions for the upcoming sixth season continue Friday in San Antonio. Tryouts will hit East Rutherford, New Jersey; Birmingham, Alabama; Memphis, Tennessee; and Minneapolis before ending September 19 in Seattle.