Save It For The Judges

TheVoice2-e1347376649369-1024x579There were no high-backed, hide-a-coach swivel chairs in sight at the Atlanta auditions last Sunday for the 4th edition of NBC’s megahit The Voice, due to debut in late March. No fancy set. No Shakira, no Blake Shelton, no Adam Levine, no Usher. Just one anonymous talent scout, a primly fashionable woman tapping notes with long fingernails on her Mac, and a line. A long, long line.

My wife, Marty Winkler  – singer, songwriter, would-be national sensation – had been given a 2 p.m. check-in time. When I dropped her off and kissed her good luck shortly after noon, the line already snaked from the second floor of Atlanta’s AmericasMart complex down a flight of stairs to a sidewalk cordoned off with metal barriers and into the cavernous parking garage below. It was easily 500-people long.

Word up and down Andrew Young Boulevard was that 2,000 singers had auditioned the day before and that at least that many would flex their pipes that Sunday afternoon.

The hopefuls were young (mostly) and middle-aged, male and female, black, white, brown. There were guys with dreads who looked like young Bob Marley, Blake Shelton lookalikes, and guys in red jerseys and stone-washed jeans who looked as though they’d gotten lost on their way to the 49ers-Falcons playoff game at Georgia Dome.

There were women dressed as though they’d been at an High Museum fundraiser and young women in short, short skirts and high, high heels.  Marty said her favorite was a guy wearing a shirt and matching pants festooned with bright, purple satin stars. She herself wore a black velvet turtleneck to set off her short, almost buzzed white-blonde hair, black jeans and black sneakers with rainbow-striped laces. Understated funky/adult eccentric was her goal.

I would post pictures but, alas, I had left our camera at home in Athens. The contestants themselves, meanwhile, were told emphatically that if they were caught snapping photos with a cell phone, they would be booted out faster than you can say Christina Aguilera.

Marty got out of the cold and inside the AmericasMart  around 1:45 and finally got her chance to audition about 4. She had taken a sandwich and the latest copy of The Week with her but never got around to either.

For many of the singers, the line might well be the biggest audience they ever had or would have. So of course they sang.

“There was that tingly mix of fear and anticipation,” Marty said. “Some people sang solo – everything from old country hits to Adele’s ‘Hometown Glory’ – and they always did so to applause or yells of encouragement. It was a hyped up crowd, but very convivial.”

At one point,  she said, she launched into “Amazing Grace.” “That’s one I knew people would join in,” she said, noting that her faith was rewarded by an impromptu chorale around her.

“My favorite sing-along,” she said, “was a young white guy who made a speech about how it was great to be waiting with everyone and how he had come to love us all (he was being very tongue-in-cheek). And then he burst out singing ‘Gallileo, Gallileo,’ and the entire room, easily 200 people or so, joined him on ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ It chugged along until the guitar solo, where it broke down to whoops of laughter and applause.”

Once her group got to the holding area close to where the actual auditions were underway, they were told to keep it down. “‘Go ahead and warm up,’ we were told, ‘but do so quietly, out of respect for your fellow singers.’  The women’s room had the usual divas warming up at the top of their voices.  I myself went into a stall to quietly pee and just hum.  ‘Save it for the judges’ was my motto, for all the good it did me.’’

The judges, she said,  turned out to be that single aforementioned scout. “She was 30-something, nicely dressed, hair pulled back in a ponytail, very professionally made up,” Marty said. “She had a candle burning on the desk she sat behind, a scented one, which I thought was a nice touch. She apologized for the laptop. She said she needed it to take notes but for us not to think she wasn’t paying attention if she looked at it.”

And no, Ms. Winkler did not make the callback list. No one in her group did. But she was happy with her performance and pleased that she was allowed to do a whole verse and a whole chorus of “Superstar,” the Bonnie Bramblett-Leon Russell classic she had chosen for her audition. A lot of the would-be superstars didn’t even get a chorus.

As she was leaving the audition, walking alongside other “slightly dispirited folks,” Marty said she heard a one somewhat more disappointed young woman speaking loudly into her cell phone. “She said, ‘Well, CLEARLY, they don’t know talent when they hear it.’ I just looked upward and bit my lip so as not to laugh.”

How tough is it to make it onto a show like The Voice? At least 4,000 singers auditioned in Atlanta over the weekend. Like numbers will try out at sessions in Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles and New York. That’s 20,000 singers. Only 40 – a little more than two-tenths of a percent – will be invited to the semi-finals. Only half of them will get to face those swivel chairs.

 Ms. Winkler’s music, both originals and cover tunes, can be heard at


Noel Holston

Noel Holston

Noel Holston, originally from Laurel, Miss., is a freelance journalist, songwriter, storyteller and actor who lives in Athens, Ga., with his wife, singer-songwriter Marty Winkler. In a previous life, he was the TV critic at Newsday in New York and, before that, a critic and feature writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and The Orlando Sentinel.