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A voice, a guitar and why my shot at ‘American Idol’ proves dreams can come true, sort of

Kelly Clarkson was just looking for a way to pay her bills when she auditioned for ‘American Idol.’ Carrie Underwood was a small-town girl from Oklahoma who had never been on a plane. Could it be possible for me?

Lottie Johnson, Deseret News arts and entertainment assistant editor, plays guitar while waiting for American Idol auditions outside of the Northwest Community Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019.
Lottie Johnson, Deseret News arts and entertainment assistant editor, plays guitar while waiting for “American Idol” auditions outside of the Northwest Community Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019.
Kristin Murphy

SALT LAKE CITY — I never thought I would audition for “American Idol.”

As a kid at church, I loved sitting close to my mom, a strong alto, and listening to how her part intertwined with the melody. But I never sang a note.

Here’s another confession: I joined my elementary school choir all for the love of flashy vests. Whenever showtime rolled around, I stuck to the last row and silently mouthed the words.

I’ve always been self-conscious when it comes to singing. But I’m not shy, and I love creating music. In college, my roommate and I formed a folk duo and sang one-hour sets in restaurants in exchange for a bowl of spaghetti or a medium-sized pizza. But for me that was OK because people paid more attention to their food than they did my harmonies.

Lottie Johnson, Deseret News arts and entertainment assistant editor, plays guitar and sings while waiting for “American Idol” auditions at the Northwest Community Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019.
Lottie Johnson, Deseret News arts and entertainment assistant editor, plays guitar and sings while waiting for “American Idol” auditions at the Northwest Community Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019.
Kristin Murphy

Which is why I never — and I mean never — thought I could go through with an audition for “American Idol,” a groundbreaking show that at its peak reached 30 million viewers.

But when I found out that “Idol” auditions were taking place just 2 miles from the Deseret News offices, and realized that at 28, my age of eligibility was quickly expiring, I thought, “This is my moment.”

My moment to prove I had overcome an insecurity. My chance at stardom.

I quickly learned I wasn’t alone in my thinking. “American Idol,” a show that has been around for 17 years and has been championed by millions of loyal, dedicated fans, continues to draw “thousands” of hopeful contestants to its open-call auditions in cities across the U.S., according to “Idol” representative Lauren Kenyon. People throughout the country are itching for a shot at fame and fortune — a chance at the American dream.

Collin DeClerk, production assistant, tries to get the crowd excited while filming before “American Idol” auditions outside of the Northwest Community Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019.
Collin DeClerk, production assistant, tries to get the crowd excited while filming before “American Idol” auditions outside of the Northwest Community Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Salt Lake City was no exception. At 6:45 a.m. Thursday, with my hot pink guitar case in hand, I joined the large mass of aspiring pop stars. I thought 6:45 was early, but 26-year-old Keely Ames from Taylorsville showed up at 3:30. Ames was the first person in line, and for being sleep deprived, she was incredibly chipper. She was planning on singing Etta James’ rendition of “At Last.”

“If you have a dream, go for it,” she told me. “You never know what’s going to happen. And if I don’t make it through, at least I still make some good friends doing it.”

She wasn’t wrong. As the sun got higher and the line outside the Northwest Community Center continued to grow, contestants were quick to form bonds. For some, it was a mutual love of “Idol” judge Luke Bryan. For others, it was the fact that they’d showed up singing the same song — Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” and “Shallow” from “A Star is Born” were especially popular. Some were relieved to find they weren’t the only ones who had traveled from out of state for a shot at fame.

But to my surprise, other than the handful of times the “American Idol” crew rushed up and down the line with cameras, prompting contestants to scream and wave their hands in the air, the crowd was quiet — even pensive. With the exception of one confident country singer who looked the part and was belting out lines from Eric Church’s “Talladega,” hardly anyone was practicing.

That all changed when the line moved inside, two hours later. Shuffling indoors after 120 minutes of standing still — which really feels like an eternity when you’re alone — seemed to light a spark and remind people why they were here. Voices erupted. But again, I was surprised. It wasn’t just every man for himself. As one woman began singing Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” the man behind her started strumming along on guitar. Others began to sing along. And others stopped what they were doing to listen.

And when a fiddler and his ukulele-playing sidekick dived into a hearty performance of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” — we’re talking bow hairs flying every which way — just about everyone cheered. Even in a high-pressure, competitive environment like “American Idol,” there was a sense of community. People took the time to root for each other, perhaps because they understood each other. They were all going through the same thing, and they knew firsthand the bravery it takes to follow the “American Idol” dream.

Rags-to-riches

Kelly Clarkson was just looking for a way to pay her bills when she auditioned for “American Idol.” Carrie Underwood was a small-town girl from Oklahoma who had never been on a plane. Before “American Idol,” Phillip Phillips was working in his family’s pawn shop, and last year’s runner-up, Alejandro Aranda, was a dishwasher from Pomona, California.

It’s those rags-to-riches stories that make shows like “American Idol” thrive, said Brett McCosker, “American Idol” supervising producer.

“It’s this idea of the American dream. It’s this idea that you can do a thing, and if you do it well enough, you can be rich and famous doing it,” McCosker told the Deseret News outside of the “American Idol” tour bus. “Some of these reality shows (might) not capitalize on it, but they encourage it. It kind of ties to this audition tour we’re doing (now); we’re in Salt Lake City, we’re about to go to Colorado Springs, we’re about to go to Wichita. People in those places believe in that dream and we want to encourage it, this idea that you can be rich and famous doing the thing that you love doing.”

When “Idol” came on the scene in June 2002, it was one of a kind — at least in America. Reality competition shows like “Big Brother” and “Survivor,” which originate from Dutch and Swedish TV series, had been around for two years in the U.S. But based on the British series “Pop Idol,” “American Idol” was at the forefront of singing competitions and drew an average of 12.64 million viewers in its first season.

Season two attracted 21.7 million viewers, a 72% increase. The show hit its peak in season five — the Taylor Hicks era — with an average of 30.75 million viewers and beat out “Desperate Housewives,” the No. 2 series that year, by 25%, according to TV By the Numbers. The show was a juggernaut in American pop culture to the point that people in the industry dubbed it “the Death Star.”

Tifanee Hatch plays the guitar and sings while waiting in line for “American Idol” auditions outside of the Northwest Community Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019.
Tifanee Hatch plays the guitar and sings while waiting in line for “American Idol” auditions outside of the Northwest Community Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019.
Kristin Murphy

“I’ve worked in reality TV in different countries around the world for 15 years, (and) ‘American Idol’ is one of the original formats of reality TV,” said McCosker, who has produced a number of reality shows, including “Dancing With the Stars.”

The success of “American Idol” led to a boom of reality talent programs like “The X-Factor,” “America’s Got Talent,” “The Voice” and “So You Think You Can Dance,” among others.

“It’s definitely a saturated market, isn’t it?” McCosker said with a laugh. “We’re … all looking for the same thing.”

Which is why ‘American Idol” eventually began to stumble. In April 2011, NBC premiered “The Voice.” When season 11 of “Idol” aired in January 2012, the numbers started to noticeably decline. Viewership for that season was 17.4 million — a significant drop from the 23.2 million people who watched the previous season.

From there, numbers continued going down, although the 15th and final season of “Idol” on Fox saw a slight increase. And then a year after “American Idol’s” big farewell, ABC acquired the rights to the series.

The show was back.

The power of longevity

The market of TV competition shows is, well, competitive.

“There have been copies, there have been different versions, there have been rehashes and there’s been reboots,” McCosker said. “But ‘American Idol’ hasn’t changed a lot. It’s still doing the same thing it did 20 years ago.”

In some ways, staying the same in an ever-growing market has hurt the show, McCosker said.

Irlanda Escobar sings while waiting in line for “American Idol” auditions outside the Northwest Community Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019.
Irlanda Escobar sings while waiting in line for “American Idol” auditions outside the Northwest Community Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“Because there’s so many different versions … people will change formats and they’ll tweak competition elements and things like that. ‘American Idol’ hasn’t really done that, so on some level I think we’ve kind of faced some hurdles not changing,” the producer said. “But I think also because of that, it’s recognizable, so it’s like a double-edged sword. … We’re not going to flip the whole show on its head and make a different show. We make ‘American Idol.’ It’s a known quantity.”

If “American Idol’s” Thursday stop in Salt Lake City was any indication, the show’s longevity plays a significant role in its continued success. Ames, the dedicated fan who arrived at 3:30 a.m., grew up watching the show and said she “fell in love with it.”

Singer-songwriter Eric Dalton, 25, drove down from Logan in northern Utah to audition. For him, one of the biggest draws to “American Idol” is that it does a good job showcasing the contestants’ original music. But like Ames, he also grew up watching the show. And then there’s Erin Smith, who drove from Butte, Montana, to try out with Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.” She was 9 years old when “American Idol” premiered, and as a teenager, she longed to audition for “Idol.” At 26, she was finally fulfilling that dream.

My dream

Lottie Johnson, Deseret News arts and entertainment assistant editor, picks up her guitar while waiting for American Idol auditions outside of the Northwest Community Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019.
Lottie Johnson, Deseret News arts and entertainment assistant editor, picks up her guitar while waiting for “American Idol” auditions outside of the Northwest Community Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019.
Kristin Murphy

Being 28 years old, I remember “American Idol” playing on TV a lot during my childhood. Being 28 years old also means Thursday marked my one and only shot at getting on the show (to be eligible, your birthdate must fall between June 2, 1990 and June 1, 2004).

After 3½ hours of waiting in line, my big moment came. Before entering the room of “American Idol” producers, I was put in a group with three other singers. We all went in together.

The guy who went first was incredible. His voice was everything. As soon as I heard how high his voice could go, I nudged the woman to my left, hoping she might take pity on me and go next so I wouldn’t have to follow such a tough act.

No such luck.

Now it was my shining moment. I stood forward and sang “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun.” It was a choice I felt great about (until I heard the guy in front of me).

Because of “American Idol” confidentiality agreements, I can’t say much more about the audition itself. But this much I can say: You’re not looking at the next “American Idol.”

(Fun fact: I’m in good company, because Colbie Caillat and Hillary Scott, the frontwoman for Lady Antebellum, also didn’t make it past the “American Idol” preliminary rounds).

But when I stepped out of the producers’ room, I was all smiles. I must’ve looked really happy, too, because a few people came up to me and asked if I’d advanced to the next round.

“No,” I said giddily. “But I’m so glad I tried out.”

And I was. I didn’t really think I had a shot at being the next “Idol” — OK, maybe I entertained that thought for a few seconds — but by auditioning for “American Idol,” I proved to myself that I’ve come a long way since my days of sliding down in my seat at church while those around me sang the hymns. I proved to myself that I had grown in confidence and wasn’t as afraid of what others thought about my singing voice.

Lottie Johnson, Deseret News arts and entertainment assistant editor, plays guitar while waiting for American Idol auditions outside of the Northwest Community Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019.
Lottie Johnson, Deseret News arts and entertainment assistant editor, plays guitar while waiting for “American Idol” auditions outside of the Northwest Community Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019.
Kristin Murphy

That may not be the “American Idol” dream, but it is a dream I’ve long wanted to achieve.