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Stuck On Idol 

Hit series holds auditions in Charlotte

There are things I believe in. Judy Live at Carnegie Hall and The Pretenders' first album can be played back to back at equally top volume. I also covet Costello over Presley, love the White Stripes and Radiohead, have The Who on a pedestal, and secretly long for the return of Evelyn "Champagne" King. Call it eclectic musical taste.

I also have violent feelings about the state of pop music and the way "artists" sing these days. So when I was invited to be a judge for Charlotte's American Idol auditions August 10, I saw it as a public service to weed out the nasal-impaired, the off-key and anything that smacked of theme park or beauty pageant singing.

300 IN LINE AND ONLY 200 GETTING IN THE DOORI arrive at WCCB's parking lot about 7:45am on a Sunday, and cannot believe the scene. Over 300 people are waiting outside the station's black iron security gates, the line snaking down the sidewalk. It's sticky outside, people have brought lawn chairs, there are nylon pup tents here and there, and three radio stations are broadcasting from their mobile remote trucks across the street in the Cricket Arena parking lot. It's a bigger deal than I thought.

I take a stealth stroll down the line to see what's in store. One pair of silver lame pants, lots of micro-minis, many Timberlands. "How many people are out here?" I ask Jeff Arrowood, Fox18 promotions guru who's in charge of the circus; he looks frazzled but happy for the media splash it's giving his television station. A slew of Fox employees are working on their day off to handle the circus line, contestant registration, and the like.

"We've got about 300 out there right now, and we had people who camped out since Friday night," he says.

"How many are getting in to audition?"

"About 200."

Nineteen-year-old Abigail from Charlotte has the coveted blue "number 1" as the first in line. She stayed overnight, and somehow seems calm and fresh-faced. "I came here for the experience." She'll sing a gospel song, "Blessed."

Down the line, it's a littler wackier, as hopefuls clutching their magic blue numbers pass the time by practicing what they're going to sing. The noises range from vocal scales to screeching.

IN CASE YOU WERE ON ANOTHER PLANETLove it, loathe it, or think it's ruining pop music (which is ruined anyhow, isn't it?), American Idol has been a bona fide ratings hit and national "appointment television" for the Fox network for two straight seasons.

Simply put, American Idol is a throwback: a live singing talent show, techno-savvy for the times and catering to teens and, surprisingly, their moms. Ted Mack rebooted as Mack Daddy.

A spin-off from the U.K.'s Pop Idol, the hooks are many: recognizable theme music, audience phone voting that determines who goes and who stays each week, and the Simon Factor. Instead of the standard talent show gush over folks who assault your ears, Brit Simon Cowell does the assaulting, with acidic wisecracks ("Do you have a lawyer? You should sue your vocal coach," and "You may be the worst singer in America") that took constructive criticism to a parallel universe. He said what we were thinking. Americans don't dare to crush self-esteem these days, even when the ego in question is making noises that sound like mating alley cats.

Then there was the old-school product placement: judges sipping from red "Coke" glasses, Ford commercials disguised as mini-music videos with the Idol singers, and instant voting available through your AT&T celly! But it gets scarier.

The Idol concert tour drew 15,000 butts to the Charlotte Coliseum seats August 8, with panties and a few Depends thrown onstage. The May 21 TV finale, when the "Velvet Teddy Bear," Ruben Studdard, won the popular vote title over Raleigh/Charlotte crooner Clay Aiken, was off the charts. In Charlotte, the show scored a whopping 31 rating and 41 share, higher than the national average, and almost quadrupling The Bachelor on ABC. Will the third go-round of Idol be as big, or has the novelty worn off? We'll see in January.

In the music department, first season Idol winner Kelly Clarkson has had a number one CD, and sales expectations are high for upcoming entries by Studdard and Aiken. Music critics cry "cheesy" about the contest and the lack of musical integrity seeping from every pore. The other slings and arrows point toward the concept of pre-packaged "stars" styled, coiffed and choreographed. And they don't even write their own songs.

Sounds a little like Motown, just without decent songs.

AND IN RODE THE TWO HUNDREDThe four Idol judges today are ushered to a dark studio with small stage and camera set-up by Arrowood. The lineup is three cool daddios from local radio stations -- Tone-X from hip-hop/R&B WPEG-FM, Jeff Roper from country WSOC-FM, Drew Parham from Top 40 Kiss-FM -- and moi. Arrowood has some tasty meatless Bo-biscuits waiting at our table, and explains the rules. "We are not picking "clinkers' (rotten singers) to show up on the TV show. We're picking one person to go on to Atlanta from the region, so look for the best."

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