In nationwide auditions, a pack of 50,000 pop star wannabes sang their hearts out, hoping to win a spot on American Idol, Fox television's wildly popular talent search show.
Only 234 contestants survived the initial cut. This past Wednesday 32 hopefuls were culled from that pool, and they'll begin squaring off for this year's title next week.
Just like last season, television viewers will dial in to choose this year's American Idol, who will receive a million-dollar recording contract, a manager, and instant fame. But before America can cast its votes, contestants who want to sing on national television must win over the show's three judges: Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson and the sometimes ruthlessly critical Simon Cowell.
The Simon Factor
American Idol's biggest draw, perhaps more than the contestants themselves, is Cowell. A one-man hope-seeking missile, Cowell is known for his brutal criticisms of the contestants.
Cowell said he doesn't worry about what he's doing to the psyches of the contestants. "They do it to themselves," he said, "They know exactly what they're letting themselves in for."
This rationale makes Cowell comfortable saying things like, "You look so awful, your dress sense is dreadful. You need a suntan" to the hopeful stars.
Music producer Randy Jackson is back this season to keep things from getting to nasty. To soothe the contestants' wounds, "the anti-Simon," recording artist Paula Abdul, is also back.
When Abdul tells a contestant, "I think you did a superb job on that."
Cowell counters with a sneering, "Well then, Paula, you have just created a medical fact — which is, women hear differently to men."
"Last season all of a sudden … nice became an accusation and — you know what? I've been on both sides, and I'm rooting for them," Abdul said.
'Way More Uniqueness'
American Idol gave 20/20 unprecedented access to the competition, as the stress kicked in.
Judge Randy Patrick said, "I think we got way more uniqueness in my eyes this year than we had last year. And I think just the people who showed up are actually quite a bit different."
But will "different" win? The show remains a magnet for mainstream beauty and pop allure, but three contestants are hoping their uniqueness qill help them stand out.
Equoia Coleman from Memphis, Tenn., has been a singing sensation in her hometown since she was 12 years old. But she hasn't reached her ultimate goal of having a hit. "I want to be in the top 30, the top 30 baby. So if I get in there, you know, the exposure, and all the publicity will be enough for me," Coleman said.
"In singing, God has really, really blessed me to like glide through it. So anything works for me. It doesn't matter. I can learn a song in an hour, throw me three."
But the woman who "glides," entered her first audition on crutches.
Coleman said the week has been nerve-wracking and fun at the same time. She's trying to keep the pressure from getting to her.
Then there's Corey Clark, who dreams of being a professional singer, just like his dad.
But the night before his big audition he went out for a night on the town.
"You've got to let your hair down sometimes. You can't be all uptight all the time," he said.
Unfortunately, his late night showed in his performance and Cowell noticed.
"That was appalling," Cowell said, "Your worst audition by a mile, Corey."
Clark took it in stride. "A lot of people are afraid of Simon because they don't want to hear him say sometimes what they already know. … And so I just take what he's saying and I listen and try to learn from it," he said.
Clark's next performance will be singing Seal's "Kissed by a Rose" with two other finalists. One of them is Patrick Lake. He's a rocker — a rocker with a mission.
Lake said he hopes to be the guy who represents rock on the show. "I got real good feedback from Simon and Randy in Atlanta."
But the judges couldn't find the right place in the show for a rock performance. They asked Lake to sing "Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head."
Lake may want to rock, but it was his performance on the country-pop song that landed him his spot in the finals.
Buckling Under the Pressure
A good practice run doesn't guarantee a successful audition for the contestants, who are battling nerves, and, of course, the scrutiny of the judges.
Lake described his struggle, "We were out in back practicing earlier. We were doing alright. Everyone's walking by, 'hey, that sounds real good.' We got up there, ah, 'that sounds real bad,' you know," he said.
So why is it that otherwise talented people crack under this kind of pressure?
Cowell said, "They have no experience. They just think they have a God-given talent and a God-given right to be successful. … So when you put them on here and they freeze and they go 'oh, but I'm nervous!'"
Abdul, as expected, was a bit gentler, "As a performer, when you walk on stage," Abdul said, "Sometimes … it's an out-of-body experience. But you gotta somehow get back into that moment."
Corey Clark was also struggling. He tried to compensate by playing the Paula Abdul card. "I was a little nervous, and I started to forget my words."
Corey tried to serenade Abdul a bit, hoping to distract the judges from his nerves.
Randy Jackson hated it. Simon Cowell wasn't impressed. But Paula loved it.
A day later, Corey Clark, Equoia Coleman, and Patrick Lake have nothing left to do but wait for the judges' decision. Which is worse: battling nerves in the spotlight or the anxiety that comes with the waiting? It's a toss-up.
Lake said he hates the waiting more than the performance. Clark said his mind is running a million miles an hour. Coleman seems to bracing herself for the worst, with a very comforting thought. "If I don't make it, I'm Memphis' idol. I'm Monica's idol — that's my mom's name," she said.