Matt Sayles, Matt Sayles/Invision/AP
Winner Candice Glover, left, and runner up Kree Harrison perform at the "American Idol" finale at the Nokia Theatre at L.A. Live on Thursday, May 16, 2013, in Los Angeles.

“Are you auditioning?”

Those were the first words out of the "American Idol" staffer’s mouth as I showed up, bleary-eyed, at 5:30 a.m. last week at the EnergySolutions Arena at the invitation of Fox network to cover the Utah round of "Idol" auditions from the outset. I was flattered by the question — I’m a decade or two older than the age limit for "Idol" contestants. So the idea that I could pass for a 28-year-old started things off on the right foot.

But, no, I wasn’t auditioning — I was trying to see what a gaggle of embryonic American Idols looks like up close and personal.

The answer, which may or may not surprise you, is that they look a lot like what they look like on television.

The hefty crowd of wannabe superstars all seemed eager and excited, and most were more than happy to show off their chops to the guy with a press sticker on the front of his T-shirt. Several sang for me, and I was impressed with how not-lousy they were. They told me their heartwarming, hardscrabble stories, and I realized that the snippets we see in the actual episodes are fairly representative of most of the people who show up on the first day. Maybe it’s the later days when the atonal, self-deluded types line up. I didn’t see anyone with talent on the level of that “Pants on the Ground” guy, other than, perhaps, myself.

I also got a chance to talk to Patrick Lynn, "Idol" senior supervising producer who takes credit for discovering Clay Aiken back when the "Idol" runner-up pestered him with questions every time he walked by. He said that interest in "Idol" auditioning hasn’t changed in the 13 years he’s been with the program, which, in light of the show’s falling ratings of late, struck me as remarkable. He also told me neither he nor anyone else on the staff assembled in Salt Lake knew who the new panel of judges was going to be. I didn’t realize that none of those judges show up in Salt Lake until the third round of auditions, which have not yet taken place.

I told him that I was asked if I wanted to audition, but I knew that wouldn’t be possible. “Who told you that you couldn’t audition?” he asked in all seriousness. Had I pressed the matter, I might have been able to wrangle a chance to make a fool of myself.

I thought about that opportunity as I chatted with a group of hopefuls that dubbed themselves “Idol Moms.” They were three women who insisted that mothers were underrepresented among "Idol" contestants, and one told me that “just because I’m a mom, it doesn’t mean I don’t have dreams of my own.”

That struck me as odd somehow. Who says motherhood precludes having dreams? Are the only dreams worth fulfilling the ones that are nationally televised in front of adoring crowds and Randy Jacksons? By not auditioning, does it mean I’m surrendering to a dream-free life?

I certainly used to think so. Back in the day, I measured my self-worth by how much applause I got. Even now, I know too many actors and singers who think a good performance equates with their goodness as a human being. If there’s a core flaw in the "Idol" experience, it’s that it implicitly encourages people to make that erroneous correlation. Masses of people audition to be the next American Idol, yet only one of them wins. Hopefully the thousands who fall short won’t make the mistake of thinking this was the only dream that mattered.

But, that said, I came away from my "Idol" visit encouraged by the good will and dedication of those willing to take a shot at stardom. And a small part of me thought maybe I ought to have taken a shot, too, just because I could.

“Pants on the ground… Pants on the ground… Lookin’ like a fool with your pants on the ground…”

Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog,