Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Caged Birds, Singing

What could make sharing the sidewalk with a hundred hopped-up troubadours even more enjoyable? Rain, of course! A drowsy curtain of tiny water droplets billowed in the pre-dawn light, slowly drenching the surface of every plugged-in gizmo I dragged out of the live truck. Usually I grumble like a belligerent wino when facing such an occupational hazard, but today I was far too busy checking out the crowd. You would too, if dozens of divas-in-waiting sashayed through your street-level studio and flashed the lens a come-hither stare. But it wasn't just the la-dees. Persons of every inclination, equipment-list and towing-capacity strolled by, all clutching their American Idol round 2 audition sheets like the tickets to paradise they assumed them to be. As they shuffled forward on their slow road to stardom, I wiped raindrops off my viewfinder and once again considered this clamor for renown. Not that I'm immune to it, what with my dreams of bookclub eminence and all. But my own ill-founded literary aspirations pale in comparison to the maniacal zeal displayed by these above-average karoake champs. Quite simply, I ain't got the pipes (or the grapes) to stand in front of a bunch of out-of-towners and belt out a showtune or two. While I most certainly question their forethought, fashion sense and frame of mind, I give them full props for pursuing their dreams. Besides, they make for the best low-brow television this side of professional wrestling.

Not that everyone gathered outside the Greensboro Marriott this morning didn't belong there. Among the clusters of gigilos and dreamers, powerful voices lay cloaked in silence. You see, once contestants make it past Round One, producers insist they not sing publicly, except in the presence of Idol cameras. That vocal embargo trickles down to the local level, preventing me and my affiliate buddies from recording anything above their speaking voice. As a result, I'm never sure who's the future singing sensation and who's the potential late-night punchline. Sure, back on Monday most of them screeched and brayed in the tally light, but after surfing a crowd of eighty-five hundred crooners, I've long lost track of who soared and who sucked. I use to think I could tell, until I tuned in to last year's D.C. Audition show to see a skinny white dude I'd watched sleep in a park all week blow his long-awaited chance in front of the celebrity judges by forgetting the words to a Whitney Houston classic and storming out in a flurry of F-bombs. Since then, I've decided to keep my foregone conclusions to myself. Take Fireboy, for instance. Back on Monday he stood out from the start, dressed as he was in full turn-out gear and flip-flops. No one was too surprised when producers pushed him through to Round Two, with strict orders to keep wearing the heavy coat and helmet. For all I know, this Duplin County teenager could possess a voice for the ages, along with a simple penchant for first-responder wear. But as I watched him pace and fret this soggy morning, I had my suspicions.

But what do I know? I'm no record producer or voice coach, just a curious lenslinger with a backstage pass and prediliction for hyperbole. When the army of Idol handlers let the collective warblers inside, I squeezed in with them. As they filed into a large conference room for a crash course in Irene Cara, I weasled my way into the show's camera cluster and acted like I belonged there. Hey, I didn't just fall off the test-pattern truck; fifteen years of electronic interloping have taught me a thing or twelve about implied consent. Of course it didn't hurt that my weapon of choice is a Sony XDCam, a rare-enough axe that still gets the average cameraman foaming at the lens. With my trusty tool and a friendly Idol publicity lady, I scored yet another front row seat. But this time, I wasn't hovering on the edge of calamity. I was riding point on a safari into the overgrown jungle of ambition and ability. While I stared through the tube at a closed door, a tender soul on the other side scanned the row of unknown faces for someone notable before launching into song. For a select few, it was a bold step toward world domination. For most, it would be the defining moment of a thwarted career. Whatever the case, they'd have to take the sudden judgement for law and leave the roo, but not before passing by me and a guantlet of wide-angle lenses and prodding questions.I didn't say I was proud of my involvement in this talent show phenomenon - just strangely fascinated by it all. Besides, it ain't the income that keeps bringing me back (though it certainly helps), it's the access, baby. Always has been, always will.

The rest of the day was a slow-motion trainwreck of heightened emotions. For every aspirant that came bounding out of the room like a newly-discovered lottery winner, ten more left slump-shouldered and dejected. Clutching their tickets to Round Three, the winners, bear-hugged family members, high-fived strangers, dropped to their knees in divine gratitude before hopping up and launching into an endless stream of hysterical shout-outs. Though they merely earned permission to be judged by itinerant celebrities, the good folks dancing with incoherent joy acted as if they just discovered the very keys to immortality - which if you think about it, is just what they're after. I'm happy to say Fireboy was among the victors, though he was NOT one of the three seperate men who pulled off impressive backflips in front of my lens. As for those entertainers invited to promptly get lost, reaction was noticeably more subdued. Tears rolled down glittery cheeks, eye contacted averted and lauded voices cracked with tragedy, all while cameras leaned in and rolled.

Despite the rejections, very few cast-offs resorted to profanity. Most just acquiesced to the producer's decision, thanked The Man Upstairs and skulked off with a shred or two of dignity intact. This overall aversion to provocation didn't please the Idol crew too much, for they were in search of salacious programming. But I smiled inside with every show of restraint, chalking much of it up to repressed Southern graces. By the end of the day, I was drenched in residual joy and full-splatter sorrow. When it finally came time to break down my gear and leave, I did so slowly, knowing that as surrreal as much of today was, ther reasl action starts tomorrow, when Paula, Simon, Randy and Seachrest blow into town, ratcheting the madness to almost unbearable levels. As soon as my ears stop ringing, I'll file a full report.

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