Why you didn’t see my audition on “American Idol” and probably never will.
Los Angeles based singer/songwriter Michael Barnum reflects on his American Idol audition experience from the initial audition to singing in front of the judges.
Okay Michael, you shared this epic photo last week. I nearly lost my sh*t and I even cleared my entire schedule just to tune in and watch you on the premiere episodes, but I didn’t see you. Those are precious hours of my life I’ll never get back. What gives?! You’ve got some splainin’ to do!
I bet many of you are wondering the question everyone wants to know:
Did he get the Golden Ticket?
Well, the short answer is: No.
I did audition for the judges panel (Luke Bryan, Lionel Richie, and Katy Perry). It was filmed and I went through the entire process. That DID happen. Also, SPOILER ALERT: My audition with the judges was shot back in October of 2017. It’s been 5 months since. I’m over it and I’ve moved on. BELIEVE ME.
Did you catch my .5 second cameo on episode 2?
If you came here just to find out if I got the coveted ticket to Hollywood, there’s your answer. No, I didn’t get the Golden Ticket. However, if you want to know what happened, play by play, and what Katy Perry had to say about me, keep reading. I should note that I didn’t write this to get all the clicks and ride the hype. That’s far from it. I wrote this because I owe you all an explanation. You deserve to know what happened.
This is…American Idol: Hopeful Idol Contestant Tells All.
DISCLAIMER: I don’t know if/when my audition is going to air, they didn’t tell me that. And, I still don’t know to this day. They’re still showing auditions in the coming episodes so maybe? I wish I could tell you.
To properly tell this story, I have to give you some context. This story actually begins in August of 2017. Yes, that long ago, about 7 months to be exact. One thing that many people don’t know about TV is that many of these “reality” shows are filmed far in advance. Plus, there’s quite a process before you even get on the show. When you see those people auditioning in front of the judges, that isn’t their first audition. They didn’t just show up that day and immediately sang for the judges. It’s a process and there are many hoops you have to go through before any of that happens, including a 500 questionnaire psych evaluation. You know, to make sure you’re not crazy or anything. So, on TV, you’re not getting the entire picture, you’re not seeing the things happening behind the camera. You are, unfortunately, misled. It doesn’t happen like this. In the world of reality TV, everything is premeditated. And I mean everything.
August 2017 — San Francisco & Oakland, CA
In the middle of August 2017, I flew to San Francisco to attend the open call auditions for the reboot of American Idol. Truth be told, I didn’t even think of auditioning for the new season. I was over it. I thought, “Wait, they’re bringing it back already? Didn’t it just get off the air?” As we already know, the show has been on for 1,756,896 seasons. Okay I’m exaggerating, but it’s been on for a long time. Too long if you ask me. Kelly Clarkson won the first season in 2002. Admittedly, after Kelly and Carrie Underwood’s season, I lost interest in the show. They are, arguably, the most successful Idol winners. But, that’s beside the point. A month prior to my initial audition, in July, I was contacted via email by one of the producers to audition for the show. It was an invite-only audition, which meant I got to skip out on the huge line and go right to the front. I debated on going, but I was about to quit my job of 4 years and thought, “What have I got to lose?” So, I convinced my parents to take a trip to San Francisco just for the heck of it. Or so they thought. My mom was in on the whole thing because I tell her everything. However, my Dad had no clue. I didn’t tell him why we were flying to San Francisco, because well, let’s just say he has a track record of spilling secrets. Especially with one like this, I didn’t want to risk it. I didn’t want word to go out and I also didn’t want people to get their hopes up and be utterly disappointed if I didn’t make it. So, we flew to San Francisco for a leisure “trip” around the Bay and made a stop in Oakland, which was where the auditions were being held. The judges were not there.
First Audition — Oakland, CA
Thousands of people lined up on an early cold morning. It’s so early that the stores in the area weren’t even open yet. There’s a wave of emotions — everyone’s excited, hyped, nervous, and everything in between. I was surprised to see that there were a lot less people than I had anticipated. I’ve seen previous seasons of the show with hundreds of thousands of people waiting, camping in the cold weather just to get their one shot at Hollywood. If I had to guess, there had to be a little over 4,000 people. I showed up, bypassed the line, and told them I was a special invite as instructed in the email I had been sent. I skipped the main open call line.
I went through a total of 3 auditions before I went to New Orleans to audition for the judges and shoot the show. Yes, it’s quite the process as you can probably tell.
EZ-Up tents and tables with the signature American Idol logo were placed within the quad area of this shopping center next to the water. We were literally auditioning in front of the general public. If you were auditioning, you had to fight to be heard because there was so much noise coming from all directions — people screaming, cars whizzing by, boats in the harbor, the humming from the American Idol tour bus, not to mention the other auditions happening from the other tents. My first audition was with one of the casting team members. Before anyone makes it on the actual show, you have to get through a bunch of other auditions and interviews.
They lined us up in threes and one by one we each had to sing a verse and chorus of a song we had prepared. I had my friend’s guitar with me (he also auditioned and kindly let me use his guitar before his turn). I prepared a cover song and my original, “Universe.” I was the last to sing out of the three. I lead with my original because what better way than to be “myself” than to sing something that is mine? I put my best foot forward. I sang my heart out and I was LOUD. I wanted to make sure the whole entire area heard me. I think I may even turned some heads in the process, including the producer who was watching my audition. Out of everyone that auditioned in my group, I was the only one the producer asked to hear more from. He asked for another song. I had a cover song ready to go. I sang “Say You Won’t Let Go” by James Arthur. Great song by the way. He then turned to the other two and told them that they’re looking for something really special and specific in this new season, and that it wasn’t going to happen for them today. They were dismissed; broken-hearted I would imagine. The producer asked me to stay. My heart was pounding. I was the one left standing. Whoa. I did it. This could happen for me.
Once the other two contestants left, the producer asked me about my life. Prior to arriving to the audition, they had asked us to answer a questionnaire which told them a little more about ourselves. It asked questions like: Where are you from? Why do you think you’re the next American Idol? Who are your musical influences? Things like that. These are all the beginning elements to builing your “story,” should you get any airtime on TV. It also gave them insight into who you are as a person. You know that video package where they show a contestant in their daily life, usually on a farm in the middle of nowhere land, and them talking about why this opportunity means so much to them as they feed their cows and pigs? Yeah, that’s what this was. I not only answered those questions in full detail, but I converted that PDF, which literally gave us 2–3 lines of room to write, into a WORD doc and typed my whole life story. #OverAchiever. I wasn’t shy about anything I wrote either. I was candid and personal. I put every ounce of me in that questionnaire and my audition. You wanted my life story? You got it. After speaking with the producer, he handed me a “golden ticket” and passed me off to the next round for further instructions.
Next, I was interviewed in great detail by another producer. I told them I had just quit my job a few weeks ago and how doing music full time was the next chapter of my life and how I had nothing else to fall back on. I also had mentioned that I had less than $100 in my bank account and that my Grandfather (on my Dad’s side), had been in and out of the hospital fighting for his life as all of this was happening.
They put me on tape for the Executive Producers. I wasn’t on the show quite yet. The producers had to like my tape first. I was told if the producers were interested, I’d get a call. Even though I had that “golden ticket,” there was no guarantee I’d be on the show.
I didn’t hear anything for almost a month.
August 30, 2017 — The Call
One morning, I woke up to the phone call that would potentially change my life.
“Hi Michael, this is so-and-so from American Idol. The producers enjoyed your tape from Oakland and would like you to come audition for the Executive Producers in Los Angeles next month.”
Yes, you guessed it, another audition.
September 25, 2017 — Executive Producer’s Audition (Los Angeles)
On a sunny Southern California Monday morning, I drove down to Burbank, CA to my Executive Producer audition. This is the audition that would determine whether or not I’d be going to audition for the judges on TV — Luke Bryan, Lionel Richie, and Katy Perry. Yeah, no pressure.
My Grandfather had passed away just weeks before, so my emotions were at the brim. I was trying to process my excitement for this grand opportunity of a lifetime while still grieving from the huge loss in my family. At times, I didn’t know what to feel. We had just put him to rest just days before. My Grandfather’s passing made me razor sharp focused to do my best. It was clear that I had to go hard and give this my all. I knew what was at stake and yet despite all the pressure, I knew I had just the right amount of power to fuel me through this round.
If there’s anything I learned from his passing, it’s that life is too damn short to not do what you love. Don’t wait for the perfect time, for that doesn’t exist. You either do it or you don’t do it at all and live in the dreaded place of, “What if.”
There had to be about 50–60 contestants there that they narrowed it down to from the thousands of hopefuls that auditioned at all the open calls. All of them had piled in from all over the nation; Arizona, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, you name it. While many of them had to fly there, out of pocket, traveling for hours on end, it took me about 40 minutes (with traffic) from my house to get there. How convenient for me.
After I had sung both an original and cover song for the Executive Producers and finished my audition, I broke down. I shared with them why I was so emotional. I explained how these past few weeks and months have been so insane. How at times it was almost too much to handle. Everything that happened to me in my life prior to this was all writing on this very moment. Will they send me to the next round? Could I potentially be the next American Idol? They awarded me with a “YES” to audition for the judges. Another “Golden Ticket.” I think at this time Katy Perry and Luke Bryan were the only judges locked on the judges panel. We still had no idea who the other final judge was going to be. Many contestants tried to get an answer from the producers and even they didn’t know.
After going through a 6 hour process of waiting, interviews, and paperwork, I went home and felt like I was on cloud nine, not nine — seventeen thousand. I was also hungry. I hadn’t eaten in hours. It was all surreal. This was actually happening for me. I told my Mom and she was super happy and excited for me.
The producers had asked me which audition city I’d like to audition in. I’d be singing for Katy, Luke, and Lionel in the city I chose. The cities to choose from were: New York City, Nashville, New Orleans, Savannah, and Los Angeles. Obviously, Los Angeles was my preference (It’s down the road from my house). They had asked me what my second choice would be in case Los Angeles didn’t work out. I chose New Orleans. I had never been to New Orleans.
Two days later, I get word that the producers want to see me sooner for the audition with the judges. Plot twist! The Los Angeles auditions were happening in November. The New Orleans auditions were on the 13th and 14th of October, just 2 weeks away. I had already mentally prepared myself for Los Angeles so I was hoping on November and also hoping on having more time to prep. Next thing I know, my Mom and I are scrambling for flights and a hotel. I had less than 3 weeks to prepare. IT’S GO TIME. American Idol did not pay for any of our travel expenses.
October 11, 2017 — New Orleans, LA (the other LA)
My Mom and I arrive in New Orleans for the first time ever. I love traveling to new places. There’s something so exciting about being in a place that you’ve never been in. It’s both exciting and slightly terrifying. I wanted to give myself enough time to settle into the city and prep before the audition so I arrived 2 days before my audition. I enjoyed New Orleans very much. The food there is incredible. I would definitely be back, especially for their live music scene. Regardless of how this all panned out, I’m glad I went.
October 13, 2017 — Day of the Audition with Judges (AKA the moment you’ve all been waiting for)
This was probably the longest day of my life and I am not exaggerating. Seriously. My Mom and I were there for over 12 hours total. We got there before 7 AM and didn’t get back to our hotel until 11 PM. They had warned us that it was going to be a long day. There’s so much that happens before you even step foot in front of the cameras and judges. I wasn’t allowed to leave the premises. All contestants weren’t allowed to leave. They didn’t feed us for the whole day. We were all trapped in a room with cameras and lights watching our every move. I got my firsthand look at how these TV “reality” shows were filmed. It was quite something and not at all what you see on TV. I mean I knew what I was getting into, I knew that this was a TV show, but to experience it firsthand is unsettling and frankly, uncomfortable. Those moments where the contestants run out screaming their heads off that they got the Golden Ticket don’t happen right after their audition. It’s all staged and filmed hours later. Yeah, totally authentic. All throughout the day they were filming little segments with the contestants in the waiting room. You know those parts where they show someone nervously and anxiously waiting to audition? Yeah, that. I saw them put a mic on this one girl for literally 2 hours and filmed her talking with the other contestants. 2 freaking hours. This is supposed to be that candid look at the process that they wanted to capture. This 2 hour tape will then get edited down to a mere 10 seconds, 20 if you’re lucky. All for TV.
At the end of the day, THIS IS A TV SHOW. They’re looking for the best content to put out to the world, which means filtering through everything to find what makes the best TV. The pretty faces, the characters, you know, the “interesting” people.
Here’s My Mom and I waiting and waiting and waiting. Notice how we’re still pretty happy. This is early in the morning when the day was just getting started. The start to a very LONG day.
After what felt like hours of waiting, they finally call me to meet with some producers to talk about my song choice. I told them I’d be singing an original song. They really liked my original but insisted on me singing my Sam Smith cover because that was more appealing to the wider audience.
I’m not here to conform to what the audience wants. I’m here to share my art, to share a piece of me. I was bold and stuck to my guns. That original song is ME. I wrote it. I composed it. My artistry bleeds through every note I sing and every chord I play. I insisted on singing that.
They approved my song choice. A few more hours had passed, and by now the room had gone from super excited and happy to pure irritation and everyone was pretty much just over the whole thing. This is prison. It’s almost 9 PM, the sun has already gone down, and half of the room had already left. It was near empty. I was tired, hungry, and was just seconds away from getting up and leaving. I started questioning whether it was worth my time being there. My goal throughout the day was to keep smiling because cameras were everywhere but at that point, I couldn’t care less. My mom was losing patience too. THEN, suddenly, they finally call me. It’s finally my turn. Over 12 hours later! They get me mic’d and ready for the judges. FINALLY. DEAR LORD, THIS FELT LIKE FOREVER. IT’S HAPPENING.
The audition was held in this weird huge warehouse where they build all the floats for the parades during Mardi Gras. It was hot and humid in there, the acoustics were horrible. Yeah, not the ideal place for singers; dry air, no hydration whatsoever. Many of the other contestants complained about how bad the sound was during their auditions. Some of them had accompanists play piano and many of them couldn’t even hear the piano in the space. It was almost as if everyone’s audition was sabotaged to begin with. All day we kept hearing from other contestants that the judges were being pretty brutal. Why? Two words? KATY PERRY. She was apparently not having it that day. She said more NO’s that day than YES. What was her problem?
Sorry Katy, was that 25 Million dollar contract not good enough for you?
Back to me. The cameramen were in position, lights were hot, sound was ready and rolling, Mom was outside the door, cameras locked on her ready to capture her reaction as my audition happened. Let’s roll. And…action!
I’m next and I can hear distant murmurs of the contestant before me. Their voice echoed through the space. She sounded great. I could hear the judges deliberating. A few pauses. Then, bursts of excitement. She got the golden ticket. My heart was pounding so hard, you could literally lay some guitars right on top of it to make a sick beat.
“GO!” The producer yells at me. I walked into the space, guitar wrapped around me, acting as my shield. All smiles. My star quality beaming brightly than ever before. I looked at the judges. There they were. To my far left — Lionel Richie (“Hello,” “Endless Love”), Katy I-Kissed-A-Girl-Unicorn-loving-Perry in the middle, and Luke Bryan (some country dude) to my far right, all looking at me.
HOLY SH*T this is happening.
Katy, with her sparkly red and blue dress looks directly at me. Her look is surprisingly sinister, her eyes acted like daggers. I swear her eyeballs were about to shoot knives right at me. Her face read, “You think YOU are the next American Idol? Who do you think you are?” It was clear at that very moment who was the new “Simon” of the season. America, I can confirm, it’s Katy Perry. Lionel looked at me perplexed trying to figure where I would fit on the spectrum in this competition. Can this kid sing? Find out next on American Idol.
I walk to my mark which is right on the huge iconic American Idol logo. I plant my feet. This is it. Here we go.
Luke: Nice guitar you got there.
Luke: What kind is it?
Me: It’s a Taylor 814ce series
Me: *confused* Uh…Michael?
Katy: *looks at her papers* Wait…what the hell?
*all the judges start shuffling through their papers. They’re confused. Who the heck is Daniel?*
Turns out, the judges had the wrong papers, the contestant on their papers wasn’t of me.
*a few more uncomfortable beats*
Luke: Uh, Okay, what’s your name?
Me: My name is Michael Barnum. I’m 26 years old. I’m from Long Beach, CA and I am the next American Idol.
*Katy gives a shocked look* She’s clearly not having it. Lionel, still looking perplexed, is quieter than a cricket. Not a peep from him.
Luke: Okay Michael, what are you gonna sing?
Me: I’m gonna play my original song called, “Universe.”
Luke: Great. Let’s hear it.
I take a breath just before to collect myself.
*I start to sing*
I’m about 10 seconds into my song, Luke and Lionel are watching me, but Katy has checked out completely. She’s literally staring at the ceiling, spinning in her chair, while I’m singing. I AM NOT KIDDING. I WISH I WAS, BUT I’M NOT. I could see all of this happening, but I gotta keep my focus. Are you freaking kidding me? I waited hours to sing for you and you can’t even give me 2 minutes of your attention? Is your time that precious, honey?
I get to the bridge of my song, ready to unleash the money note. I hit it. It resonates and echoes through the entire warehouse. I’ve got this!
*I finish my song with a glorious finale*
Luke: Wow, Michael that was great. I enjoyed it. Great guitar playing and your voice is good. I heard some Jason Mraz vibes in there. You definitely got that going.
Me: I love Jason Mraz! He’s definitely one of my influences.
Luke: That’s great, man.
At this point, it feels like a one-on-one conversation with me and Luke. Can Lionel and Katy just take a backseat and let Luke drive cause he’s clearly the only one who’s expressing any interest. Out of all the judges I was excited to see, Luke was the one I wasn’t jazzed about because I was not familiar with his work. Funny how he’s the only one talking to me and rooting for me.
Luke: *looks at Katy and Lionel* What did you guys think? Did you guys like that Jason Mraz vibe?
Katy: *still not giving me any eye contact, rolling her eyes* Yeah, but he’s no Jason Mraz.
*awkward beat that felt like an eternity*
Not only did Katy Perry’s eyeball daggers strike me, but she even found a way to twist those little suckers just a bit more to where it hurt. IT HURT BAD. It’s like she stabbed me with a knife and even though I was already dead, she twisted the knife even more. It may sound like I’m exaggerating, but that’s seriously what it felt like.
Luke: I mean, I liked it, Man. I think you’re good. Lionel?
*Luke shoots Lionel a look*
Lionel: I can see that you’re passionate. I see that. You definitely have it.
Katy, at this point, has completely zoned out, she couldn’t care less about what’s happening right now or me for that matter. The ceiling had a lot more to say, apparently. Perhaps she was watching her music “career” slowly drifting away along with the Grammy that still to this day never happened.
Luke: All right, let’s take a vote.
Katy: *still looking at the ceiling* It’s a no for me.
Luke: Well listen man, I like you. I’m gonna give you a shot. *Looks at Lionel*
Folks at home, if you’re keeping track, that’s one “Yes” from Luke and one “No” from Katy. It’s now all up to Lionel. My future on American Idol is in the hands of the Lionel Richie. Let’s watch to see how this pans out.
*Lionel looks at me*
I’m begging him with my eyes and whole body to give me a shot.
Lionel: Yeah, not this time, man. I just don’t think it’s gonna happen today. But listen, don’t ever stop. Thank you for coming down here.
Me: Thank you for the opportunity.
And alas, that was it. My Idol journey comes to an end. I proceeded to take the walk of shame, while a camera followed my every move. The float pieces with creepy faces surround me as I make my way over back to my Mom. My mom is waiting on the other side to hear what happened. The walk felt like forever. It’s like an out of body experience. Like one of those nightmare clown dreams where all these creepy faces and masks are laughing at you. Yeah, THAT. This sucks. I finally get to my Mom, who’s waiting anxiously, cameras pointed right at her. There’s awkward silence.
Mom: Did you get it?
Her face quickly went from all smiles to pure confusion. My stomach was in my throat. I felt like I disappointed her.
She was almost in disbelief that American Idol, said “NO” to her son.
Me: *shaking my head* No. Not this time.
Producer: *off camera* How does it feel to not make it? This is the end. What’s going through your mind?
I know EXACTLY what these producers wanted. I knew exactly what they were up to. They wanted me to give them the reaction for TV. They wanted me to yell and call Katy Perry out for being a total asshole. They wanted me to unleash the beast inside of me that wanted to go off on everyone. I could’ve done that.
But, my Mama taught me well. And I know better than that. I didn’t give in. Keeping my ground and composure makes me the bigger person and shows a lot more class than Katy Perry, for sure.
Me: *looking right to camera* It definitely sucks, but this is just the end of THIS journey. It’s not the end for me.
My mom and I quickly packed up our things and headed back to the hotel. I was beat. WHAT A FREAKING DAY. I need a burger, fries, and a milkshake. STAT.
So there you have it. That’s my experience on American Idol. You’re probably either bummed, mad at Katy Perry, and/or relieved to finally know. I was bummed for sure when it had happened, but here’s one thing to know: Success isn’t American Idol. Success isn’t being on TV and winning some TV singing competition, and it most certainly does not amount to a multimillion dollar record deal. While all of that may sound great, that’s just one way to get to the next level, but it’s not the only way. I’m not quitting music and I’m not gonna stop…ever. I told the producers before I left the building that night, “You will hear more from me. This is not the end.”
And it most certainly is not. I am writing A LOT, working on some new music, refining my craft as an artist and cannot wait to release the new material I have been diligently working on these past few months. I’m going to make music and tell stories that is truthful to me and is authentic to who I am. So look out world and stay tuned, cause there’s more to come.
As always, thank you all for your continued support and love. I hope that you continue to follow our journey together. Wherever it may take us.