ASPEN - From Aspen to Hollywood.
Beaming "American Idol" contestants milled about in the reception building at the Aspen Meadows on Thursday, the coveted yellow piece of paper that is the show's signature "ticket to Hollywood" in hand.
Nearby, a second day of auditions before the judges of the popular Fox TV talent show were taking place in the Doerr-Hosier Center, where roughly 120 "Idol" hopefuls faced their final test en route to Hollywood. There, the show begins winnowing down a pool of contestants from across the country until it crowns a winner. For those who didn't impress in Aspen, the "Idol" journey was over.
The judges - Jennifer Lopez, Steven Tyler and Randy Jackson, plus show host Ryan Seacrest - broke away from listening to aspiring superstars for a lighthearted, 15-minute press conference with roughly a dozen media representatives. The rules: no personal questions of the judges, no photographs, no one-on-one interviews with the judges and no interviews with contestants.
Thursday's contenders were "on fire," the panel said. While 13 contestants advanced Wednesday, a dozen had advanced by early afternoon Thursday, with more yet to audition.
"I feel we have a ton of talent for this season," Lopez said. Three of Thursday's performers were among the best the panel has seen, she said. One more judges' round remains - in San Diego.
Aspen's contestants advanced from open auditions in Denver last summer to a second round with the show's producers and then to the round at the Meadows, where the audition stage was set up facing the judges and a wall of windows. Beyond the glass, Smuggler Mountain rose above town, flocked in fresh snow and the gold of autumn.
"Look at the backdrop - it's breathtaking," said a jovial Tyler, who admitted to purchasing new cowboy boots, spurs and a cowboy hat at Kemo Sabe upon his arrival. He hoisted a booted foot for all to see, but his heels had nothing on Lopez's impossibly spiked Louis Vuittons.
"It's like we're in the Alps - and this is Heidi," Tyler joked, putting an arm around Lopez as they took their seats.
"Beautiful town. Beautiful town. Look at the view, man, c'mon," said Jackson, when someone asked: Why Aspen?
One of the show's executive producers chose Aspen, according to a Fox publicist. The show filled up Aspen Meadows this week, bringing a crew of about 115 people to town along with the contestants. In addition, about 45 locals had jobs on the production set.
While the setting won raves, the elevation had an impact. Some contestants had trouble catching their breath, according to Lopez.
Jackson, on the other hand, was suffering from "altitude rash," Seacrest claimed.
On a scale of one to 10, Jackson ranked the caliber of Wednesday's group of contestants as a five and the group he'd seen so far Thursday as a seven.
When the 11th season of the show begins airing in January, viewers will see a continuation of last season's expansion into more genres of music, Jackson predicted.
"There's something of everything going on," he said.
Thursday's group included a couple of "hippie chicks" and, Seacreast noted, a kiss for one of the judges. Tyler wiped his lips.
The influence of such singers as Adele and the late Amy Winehouse is also evident, Lopez said. "We're definitely seeing more jazz - that type of voice."
The contestants who rise to the top will be more than good singers, the judges agreed.
"You can really tell the performer from just the singer," Lopez said. "Some of the people, you can picture at the finale."
"Star potential - that extra special something. You gotta have that natural instinct," Jackson agreed.