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Round 1: Washington DC

Listening to people sing horrendously off-key. Viewing people stuffed into comical costumes, or too tight clothing. Enduring the pleading, the crying, the arguing as contestants try anything to get a yellow ticket to Hollywood. Watching Simon Cowell belittle those with little talent. Does that sound like fun to you? Well, if you are a fan of American Idol it does, and the fourth season didn’t start a minute too soon.

From Washington, DC to Las Vegas, Orlando to San Francisco and stops in between, the judges traveled the country stopping in seven cities where a total of 100,000 people put their vocal cords to the test.

New rules
Some older voices are getting a shot at stardom this year. American Idol officials have raised the age limit to 28. Plus, they are working on a plan to balance out the sexes. Instead of having 36 finalists at the end of the Hollywood round, the judges will pick out 12 male and 12 female singers to move on. In the semi-final rounds, contestants will be eliminated down to 12 finalists: six males and six females.

AI hits the nation’s capitol
The season premiere opened with tryouts in Washington, DC, and the show began with a rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner,” that was so bad that Simon Cowell was actually speechless. Following the opening, the show highlighted last year’s finale between Fantasia and Diana DeGarmo, in which Fantasia was named the American Idol.

Guest judges
This year, the three regular judges — Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell — are all back, but they get a little help wading through the wanna-bees with some celebrity guest judges. These judges include Mark McGrath of Sugar Ray, L.L. Cool J., Gene Simmons, Brandi and Kenny Loggins.

Let the competition begin
One of the first contestants shown flashed a huge smile and talked of the upcoming birth of his child. He sang “Isn’t She Lovely,” and won a quick trip to Hollywood. Others weren’t as lucky. Some suffered stage fright and couldn’t remember the words of the songs they were singing. The lack of focus brought even grown men to tears of frustration and defeat.

Music teacher proves his talent
Anwar Robinson, a music teacher with dreadlocks, proved to have a honey sweet voice with his rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.”

Butchering a song
The producers of the show put together a montage of really bad singers coughing out their own versions of “America the Beautiful.” They also ran clips of singers who refused to listen to the judges when they were told that singing just ain’t their thing. Some would argue, one teen got down on her knees to beg — another left the room, then came back in cussing and promising that she would cut a CD and that they should send her on to Hollywood. Yeah, right.

Making a sacrifice
One singer didn’t have the funds to travel to the audition, so she did the only thing she could: she pawned her wedding rings. Regina Brooks won the hearts of the judges with her story and with her singing. Before they gave her the green light to Hollywood, they asked to speak with her husband. Carrying their four-year-old daughter, the husband said he would support his wife’s dream to go on. He had been reluctant about her trying out for AI.

A little hanky panky
Contestant Mary Gober, who told the judges she looks like Madonna or even Sharon Stone, picked a song in which the lyrics referred to spanking, and she would slap her own behind at those parts. Simon said, “You spank very well. You sing terribly.”

The strangest of all
It just wouldn’t be an American Idol contest without some contestants who are more than just bad singers. Mary Roach seemed pretty normal when she told the judges of her plans to go to beauty school if she didn’t move ahead with AI, but that she really wanted to be the next AI and felt confident in her ability. Then she started singing “I feel the Earth Move,” by Carole King. A truly horrific sound emerged from her mouth, and one that led Simon to say “one of the worst I’ve ever heard in my life.”

“But all my friends say I have an amazing voice,” she countered.

She continued arguing with Simon and ultimately revealed that she has lots of different voices she can use while singing, and hears lots of voices in her head. Maybe those voices will tell her to head back to cosmetology school.

Next stop — auditions in St. Louis, Missouri.

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