Heard on the Hill

‘American Idol’ tryouts test patience of DC federal workers

Some people wait a lifetime for a moment like this. Others think it’s ‘bulls---’

The American Idol bus parked outside the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. (Clyde McGrady/CQ Roll Call)

If you enjoy hearing people randomly shout-sing ballads and practice Mariah Carey-like vocal runs, then Wednesday morning at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington was your own personal heaven.

“American Idol,” now in its 18th (!) season, held open auditions at the federal building named after a president who knew a thing or two about performance.

Upon walking into the atrium near the Berlin Wall entrance, I was greeted by an amateur songstress practicing a rendition of Alicia Keys’ “If I Ain’t Got You.”

“You need to go over and tell them to stop,” one security guard said to another. “They’re not supposed to be doing this.”

Surely, the workers here hadn’t been putting up with this all morning?

“They’ve been at this bullshit all day,” a visibly exasperated security guard told me.

The building is home to agencies like the Commerce Department and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Some curious tenants (agency bureaucrats, judging by their lanyards) snuck down during office hours to see what the buzz was about.

Despite tryouts being held a mere 12 blocks from the Capitol, I was unable to find any congressional staffers attempting to punch their tickets to Hollywood. Perhaps they’re all really shy?

Some contestants camped out overnight to ensure a good spot — even though by late morning, the crowd had thinned to the point where you could walk up, register and audition within about 10 minutes. Your humble Heard on the Hill reporter tried to audition before I was politely informed that I fell outside the required age range of 15-29.

American Idol registration requirements
American Idol registration requirements were clearly posted Wednesday. Your Heard on the Hill reporter did not qualify. (Clyde McGrady/CQ Roll Call)

Despite the footage that typically makes it into the show, the Wednesday tryout was not held before a panel of celebrity judges. Instead, contestants were placed in a large auditorium to sing before talent scouts. If successful, they will try out for another panel before making it to the celebrity judge round.

What happens to a dream deferred?

Some contestants took their rejection in stride, vowing to try again next year. Some complained that the judges didn’t know what they were looking for. Some insisted the game was rigged.

Others seemed shaken by the experience. One man told me he completely froze when judges asked what song he would be singing.

LaTeria Butler, a 23-year-old woman from Baltimore, was hoping this would be her big break after surviving the harrowing experience of being nearly shot to death.

“Four years ago, I was shot, I was gunned down in front of my home,” Butler said. “And I was like, on life support in ICU, and I honestly thought that I couldn’t sing no more. … The only thing I ever did was sing.”

Despite her disappointment at being rejected, Butler vowed to give it a go next year, but also to try out for NBC’s “The Voice.”

Launched in 2002, “Idol” soon became a television mega-hit, creating superstars out of contestants such as Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Hudson and William Hung, before experiencing a sharp decline in its ratings. The show ended its initial 15-season run on Fox in 2016 before relaunching on ABC last year.

Can you name the last “Idol” winner? I sure can’t. The show used to be focused on churning out actual superstars. Perhaps taking a cue from competitors like “The Voice,” the show now relies on celebrity judges like Katy Perry and Lionel Richie (Nicole Richie’s dad) to drive ratings. But it’s not just the show’s focus that’s changed. The internet has completely upended the music star-making machine. After all, Justin Bieber was discovered on YouTube.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.