The food court at Valley View Mall is crowded, even for a Saturday morning. Hundreds of people are milling around, and none of them is here today to shop. The mall's security guards obviously weren't expecting this many people to be here, and though it's not yet 11 a.m., it's already been a long day. Only a handful of rent-a-cops are patrolling the area, attempting to enforce the mall's rule about moving chairs from their designated spots in the food court area while a few hundred people keep trying to break it. Every time one of the guards stops someone from taking a chair, two more people slip past the goalie.
The security staff finally gives up, standing back and watching as chair after chair is snatched away and moved to the front of the stage that has been erected on one end of the food court. The stage is currently empty and will remain that way for at least another hour, yet no one seems to care. Later today, the future of pop music will appear on that stage. That's what Kidd Kraddick, host of the popular morning show on KISS-FM (106.1), has promised them.
Earlier in the week, Kraddick announced that he would be hosting an open-call audition at Valley View on September 25 for the "next ultimate boy band." That is, he would be attempting to create another Backstreet Boys or 'N Sync, another group that could be plugged into the formula that has been ruling the Billboard pop charts for the past couple of years, even though their own mothers would have trouble telling most of the bands apart. Kraddick passed the word along that he was looking for five good-looking, multi-talented guys between the ages of 16 and 23 that could sing and dance and chew gum at the same time, with the incentive that KISS-FM will provide the band with everything it needed to make it to the top.
"When their first single soars to No. 1, all of us in Dallas-Fort Worth can take pride in knowing that the boys will be ours, all ours," Kraddick promised, and it sounded more like a threat.
So 91 hopefuls have showed up at Valley View today, and they all believe they have a chance. All of them. Not one of the contestants will admit defeat, even though in some cases, it stared them in the face earlier in the morning when they were looking in the mirror, carefully applying the perfect amount of gel to their hair. That is, after all, what this audition really amounts to, a beauty pageant where the talent portion counts slightly more than usual. The first round of the competition involves only 30 seconds or so of actual singing and one photograph, and it's hard to tell which is more important. Well, not really. There's far too many young men in line trying for the ugly-but-talented role that all prefabricated pop groups require. (Someone has to do all the heavy lifting.) But that doesn't stop them from believing.
"I'm pretty sure I'll make it," says Octavius, No. 84. He's been standing in line for almost an hour, waiting to sing a song he wrote for the occasion. "I hope so."
"Oh yeah. We have a pretty good shot," says Joey. He and his friend Brandon have just finished the preliminary round; they both sang 98 Degrees' "Because of You."
Brandon, who turned 21 yesterday, is a little more modest. "There's a lot of good talent out here," he says. "There's a lot of stiff competition. It all goes down to the personality, and you know, the moves. Everybody's doing really good, though. It's really going to be tight."
Joey is not. "They don't have shit on me though," he says, laughing.
Whinthony and Hanston, who were the first two people in line this morning at around 9:45 a.m., are too busy scarfing down burritos from Taco Bell to worry much about the competition. Not that they would have anyway.
"I just came out here to sing, just because I kind of like to," Hanston says. "I didn't do it because I'm looking at a career in singing."
"We're the best out here," Whinthony says. "I don't know if they realize it or not."
Apparently, none of the judges did. Whinthony and Hanston both failed to make it to the next round. So did Octavius, Joey, and Brandon. Maybe next time, fellas, thanks for playing. At least they got a free T-shirt out of the deal. The 32 contestants whose numbers were called are hoping for much more than a T-shirt; they want a career. Corralled in the makeshift backstage area, you can see that the pressure is getting to them, shifting nervously with their tapes in their hands as they speak to one another in short, clipped sentences.
By the time Kraddick takes the stage at noon to begin today's final round, the area in front of the stage is swarming with teenage girls in Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync T-shirts, singing the bands' songs to one another as if they were appearing here today rather than a couple of dozen pretenders to the throne. Some even have the names of the groups written on their arms in marker. When Kraddick introduces one of the judges, Cynthia Johnson, a representative of Interscope Records, and asks her to name off a few of the bands on the label, they cheer frantically when she mentions Jordan Knight, the former New Kid on the Block and elder statesman on the boy bandwagon. Johnson then lists off Nine Inch Nails and No Doubt to no response at all before Kraddick cuts her off, realizing it's going nowhere. After Kraddick names off the other judges -- including former Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader Judy Trammell, casting director Lynn Ambrose, talent agent Suzanne Horn, and KISS-FM's music director Dave Morales -- it's time for the finals to get under way.
A few of the contestants, such as Jason Soto, try to win on their voices alone, standing so motionless, they almost blend into the backdrop. Others, like Dustin Fitzner, have worked out dance routines, trying to squeeze in as much entertainment as possible in their 90-second time slot. And almost all of them sing the same tune: the Backstreets' "I Want It That Way" was heard so many times that everyone in the audience knew the words whether they liked it or not. Of course, most of them did. The employees working in stores adjacent to the food court, however, did not. Behind the glass counters at Lundstrom Jewelers, a young woman looking on with a mixture of boredom and disgust simply summed up her colleagues' feelings: "This is a pain in the ass."
Her statement would also sum up the feelings of the contestants afterward, since no results would be announced until Monday morning on Kraddick's show. But they all remained hopeful that it would be worth the wait.
"I feel really good about it," Shane Mims says. "I was nervous going up. It's a preemptive thing, just before I go up. I've always been that way. It keeps the edge for me onstage."
"I think I do have a shot," Jason Soto says. "I really do think I do. I did really good in the pre-screening. I think I did all right in the second round. There were a lot of good contestants in there."
"I think I did very well," Dustin Fitzner says. "You know, there's a lot of good guys. A lot of people can sing. A lot of people can dance. I'm hoping the judges use their best judgment."
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"I feel pretty good," Brandon Rogers says. "I got a good crowd response. I was comfortable. I have fun when I'm in front of people. I hope I get picked."
"I'm more of a singer, but I got more into moving around and rapping, just trying to get the audience into it," says Ryan Smith, who came to the contest with his friend Rogers. "I think that was pretty effective."
Soto and Sims, unfortunately, didn't make the cut. Rogers, Smith, and Fitzner, and 13 others would go on to perform in the final weed-out on Thursday night, performing solos and harmonies, as well as a dance routine set to the Backstreets' "Larger Than Life." Fitzner, however, didn't survive much longer. He wasn't among the five names announced on October 5, but Rogers and Smith were. They join J. Mack Slaughter, Marcos Hernandez, and Kevin Warren in the new band. The group will have its name chosen by KISS-FM listeners and will make its first public appearance at the station's first annual Halloween Bash later this month. Time will tell if the "band" can really make it, or if it is just another publicity stunt. Kelly Raspberry, one of Kraddick's co-hosts, says it's a bit of both.
"Two or three weeks ago, my boyfriend Freddy was like, 'I could be in a boy band. I want to start a boy band,'" Raspberry says. "He was kind of joking around, and we started talking about it, and Kidd was like, 'We really should do a boy band.' Of course, we're going to use it to promote the station, but we're really serious about promoting another real group as well. We're gonna really push for them, try to get them a record deal, and be real serious with it."