Feature

I tried out for American Idol — and this is what I learned

The producer told me, "Suck even more than you ever have before!" And I did.

My redemption came on a bleak January night at a DC saloon. As I prepared to take the stage — a tiny, carpeted step in the corner — some patrons focused more on their burgers and fries, unaware of my moment. Others crowded the step with expectation and beers in hand. At an earlier performance, a large, older woman had flung her bra at my competition, grinning at me, and giggling conspiratorially.

As the emcee announced my name, and the lyrics to Ace of Base's "I Saw the Sign" began to roll across multiple screens, I took a deep breath, and uncoiled. I was off the beat a bit, and my soprano register was a little strained, but the crowd gave me a roaring, drunken, dive bar applause. Of course, half the crowd (age range: twentysomething to fiftysomething) were wearing the colored T-shirts of DC's competitive karaoke league.

My first thought, as I beamed at the crowd and took a bow: "Take that, American Idol." The show deflated my teenage dream, and prodded me to pick a new one. It's a moment most of us face at some point — whether or not it's initiated by a television producer. The question is when we can reclaim what's lost and settle the debt. Even as the 13th American Idol waits to be crowned next week, I'm thinking back to the hundreds who never even got the first gold piece of paper way back in week 1. When will they be redeemed?

My Idol dreams walked into St. Louis' cavernous football stadium on August 8, 2004. I was 16. It was the last time I sang solo in front of an audience until that January night in DC.

The summer of 2004, I spent my days riding my bike to driver's ed and working shifts at Dairy Queen. Even my endless supply of blizzards and dip cones couldn't stave off suburban boredom. I was searching for an adventure.

When I discovered that American Idol tryouts would be held in St. Louis, a short-ish trip from my house in the Chicago suburbs, I knew I had to get there. I'd been singing since I was 9 — in musicals and traveling choirs. At the time, though I never would've admitted it, I thought I had a chance at being the next Kelly Clarkson — or, at least, making it past a couple of rounds. After all, the runner-up in 2003 had been a 16-year-old.

My dad agreed to accompany me — and encouraged me to write about the experience for the newspaper where he worked. That piece is still online — and it's why I can still recount many of the details.

For ten hours (I was No. 14,882 in line), I waited in that stadium, which reeked of nachos and nail polish.

Everything about me was distinctly anti-popstar — my choice of song (Gershwin's "Someone to Watch Over Me"), my conservative outfit (jeans and a long white dress-shirt combined with a cloying charm bracelet), and, most of all, my confidence deficit. Idol hopefuls run a confidence surplus, to put it mildly. I felt less assured. Why didn't these people look more nervous? What was wrong with me?

Finally, after the producer of the show told us all, "If you suck, don't worry! Suck even more than you ever have before!", it was time to sing in front of the judges.

Contestants had to make it through a couple of initial tryout rounds before singing for Paula Abdul, Simon Cowell, and Randy Jackson — the original TV judges. So for this round, I sang in front of two of the show's producers (one, a wan British woman, the other, a middle-aged guy who looked "like he wanted to scream and/or leave").

And then, the inevitable news, delivered by the British judge: "Thank you so much for trying out for American Idol. You are not what we are looking for at this time."

Back then, I told myself I was happy to have had the experience. True. But, in my heart, it told me to make a choice. Mine: "I should stop singing."

Many of us are taught, from an early age, to focus on the pastimes we excel at, and to dismiss the activities that we struggle with. That behavior is reinforced by the question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Childhood fantasies of astronaut and movie star run up against the cold calculation of how to best leverage your skills, and assess the odds, to make a living.

This can happen, if you're as over-serious as I was, as early as middle school, when you start to craft your identity. At this stage, we begin to derive pleasure from external validation — a teacher or coach telling us we've got talent. Our internal sense of what brings us joy — regardless of any aptitude — starts to feel far less important. Sure, you may have fun painting. But you're not very good, according to your teacher. So if you're not going to be an artist, what's the point?

Even before my tryout, I was starting to get negative signals. I didn't make the more competitive choir, and was even overshadowed by far more talented peers on the B-team. American Idol was the final verdict, and it told me: Stop wasting your time.

So, like we all do, I began to focus my energy on activities that I thought I could fashion into a career. I'm a journalist and I don't regret making that choice.

Still, I missed singing. After college, I talked about missing it so much that a friend of mine signed me up for that competitive karaoke league. At first, I was purely excited. This would be fun. And then, I began to raise the stakes. What if I could win this…and show everyone that I'm good at singing after all? I was still operating under the misconception that pleasure flowed from victory, that being good at singing would permit me to enjoy it. Singing and stinking at it felt, well, a little sad and delusional.

At the end of that January night in DC, I waited nervously as the competition organizers announced the soloist who earned the most votes that evening. This person would win a pair of concert tickets, and, of course, lots of glory.

They announced my name.

This is it! I marveled. American Idol, be damned! I sang all the way home. And I sang all weekend. To friends. Alone in my apartment. I chatted with a friend about starting an a cappella club. Maybe I didn't stink after all!

And then, a week later, I got a surprising email. "Last week, we accidentally called out the incorrect top soloist," wrote the District Karaoke representative. "However, since we announced it, we still want to honor it!"

He was offering me pity concert tickets. Because, once again, I had lost.

This time, I laughed. My victory may have been fleeting, and false. But the joy I had rediscovered in singing was real. We all give up on something. Having a chance to relive that dream, and rekindle its passion, is all we can ask.

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