My ‘American Idol’ Audition: Five Things I Learned, By Jim Cantiello

Believe it or not, our expert came away with newfound respect for the show and its contestants.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008: a date that will live in infamy.

At least to me, because that was the day that I joined the cattle-call auditions for “American Idol.” (Check out Jim’s exhaustive almost-live blog of the “Idol” audition process right here.) I’ve been obsessing over “Idol” for seven seasons (and covering it professionally for two), so when a co-worker suggested I try out for the show and have MTV News’ cameras follow me, I jumped at the chance to cross over from fan to participant.

What started as a fun, innocent news piece ended up a journey so epic that Homer could write about it if he were alive today. I briefly saw the inner workings of a behemoth pop-culture machine, met a ton of interesting people (some of whom I suspect we’ll see on our televisions next January), and came out with newfound respect for the show and its contestants.

You can read all the ins and outs of my tryout in my almost-live blog, but in the meantime, here are five things that surprised me most about my “American Idol” audition experience.

1. The Talent!
For a show that heavily features outrageously terrible singers in its early episodes, I was expecting a boatload of crazies to be waiting on line, hoping to get their fifteen minutes of fame. On the contrary, nearly every person I met on line had a fantastic voice and was there for the right reasons — even the handful of singers in silly costumes I saw had the pipes to back it up. Granted, once inside, I did see plenty of “good” singers get cut in favor of stunt-driven auditions, but I witnessed just as many “wacky” performers do the walk of shame while worthy voices moved on.

2. The Niceness!
“Idol” is such a monster of a show, you’d think the crew responsible for it — particularly the powerful producers who have a big hand in pre-selecting the talent — would be tripping all over their egos. With the arguable exception of one talent screener, the entire “Idol” staff was warm-hearted and super supportive of us hopefuls — even the ones who had no business trying out for a singing competition (like me). Plus, they worked their butts off. Sure, we sat there for almost 10 hours waiting to sing for 30 seconds, but I only saw the production staff take one break all day. Go team!

3. The Pepsi Products!
Think about it. Who are the stars of “Idol”? Ryan, Simon, Paula, Randy … and the ubiquitous sponsor, Coca-Cola. So imagine my surprise when I approached the concession stands at the Izod Center and could only order … a Pepsi? It felt like I’d caught my best friend cheating on his girlfriend!

4. The Celebrities!
OK, so it’s not a huge surprise that Ryan Seacrest was there. But I never expected him to be so cool about doing a quick interview, even after the Fox publicists told us he didn’t have any time to do press. (Too bad I totally botched it up — as you can see here.) And anyone who read or watched my season six “Idol” recaps knows that I wasn’t the biggest Jordin Sparks fan while she was on the show, but damned if I wasn’t screaming like she was the Beatles at Shea Stadium as she sashayed onto the arena floor to give us some last-minute advice.

5. The Stealth Co-workers!
Unbeknownst to me (or anyone else here at MTV News) my co-worker Megan Warner was also at the auditions! Sneaky, sneaky! You can read her first-person account here.

Plus, you can get your “Idol” fix on MTV News’ “American Idol” page, where you’ll find all the latest news, interviews and opinions.