Thousands of singers thronged to stadiums last summer for the 12th season of American Idol—few got a shot at singing before the judges, and fewer still made it to Hollywood for a chance at the finals.
Cherry Hill West student Zach Birnbaum, 16, can now be counted among those lucky few, having come through the New York auditions with a ticket to Hollywood—and the requisite excited leap into his family’s exultant arms.
“Getting a, ‘Yes, you’re through,’ it’s such a thrill, such an accomplishment,” he said. “It was really, really cool. I was proud of myself.”
Of course, even getting the chance to impress the four main judges was a challenge.
With just a few seconds to make a great impression at a mass audition at the Prudential Center in Newark, he pegged his shot at stardom with a song that might seem out-of-place for a then-15-year-old’s repertoire—Birnbaum went with “Pinball Wizard” from The Who’s 1969 rock opera, “Tommy.”
While the song might be nearly three times as old as he is, Birnbaum said it was the perfect choice—maybe because it stood out among the thousands of auditions that day in Newark.
“Songs like that are timeless,” he said.
The choice certainly fits the bill of budding rock idol, and Birnbaum—who was actually hoping Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler had stayed with the judges’ panel—looked the part at the auditions. With dark, wavy hair spilling into his eyes and on to his collar at the auditions, he was a baby-faced version of a late ‘60s or early ‘70s front man—Syd Barrett or Jim Morrison, perhaps.
Though he might look like them, Birnbaum wasn’t trying to emulate any of those legends or affect a personality for his chance at Idol glory, simply letting his own energy shine through.
“I felt that I didn’t have to project any personality, I felt like I could be myself…that people could like me for me,” he said.
When you talk to Birnbaum about his experience in the audition process, the word “surreal” flavors most sentences—from being in front of the celebrity judges to seeing himself in the moment, on television, to having that ticket to Hollywood in his hands, he said the experience was unlike any other, despite his years of performing experience.
“It was definitely a lot more thrilling—and nervous,” he said. “Being prepared to be on T.V. is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. I was quite nervous to say the right thing.”
He was also flying solo, something odd for him—as the front man for No Commitment, a band made up of East and West students, Birnbaum’s grown used to the support of his band mates—guitarist Patrick Oberstaedt, bassist Josh Murtha and drummer Christian Celfo—over the last two years.
“I had to be on point, by myself, and that put a little more pressure on me,” Birnbaum said.
While some of his fellow would-be Idols spent hours, if not days, visualizing the process and breaking down every moment ahead of time, Birnbaum said he went in without even once considering what the moment would be like, preferring to go in cold and figure it out on his feet.
Having been through dozens of auditions in the past gave him the confidence he needed to walk into the final audition in Lincoln Center in Manhattan, belt out the opening notes of “Pinball Wizard” in front of Mariah Carey, Randy Jackson, Nicki Minaj and Keith Urban, and simply be in the moment.
“I didn’t want any regrets…I just went and did it,” Birnbaum said.
Though he might have been prepared for the audition, the pieces that surround it—behind-the-scenes interviews and so forth—were a bit beyond Birnbaum’s expectations.
“It is a singing competition by nature, but it also has so many other elements to it,” he said. “That was—I’ll be honest—a little more alien to me than the singing.”
Having his family there to support him, and finding friends in his fellow singers helped ease any stress.
“The whole atmosphere is just really friendly,” Birnbaum said. “We were all just hanging out and experiencing it together.”
Now, with weeks left to go before the Hollywood leg of the competition begins to air—and Birnbaum’s mum on anything beyond his audition—he’s more focused on No Commitment and the band’s plans for 2013.
With their first original album, Hiding What Is Underneath, out on iTunes and Amazon, they’re honing their live set for gigs through the year, including planned performances at Great Adventure.
In a basement room at Oberstaedt’s home, surrounded by posters of Led Zeppelin and U2, gig flyers for Nirvana at the Roseland Ballroom and Jefferson Airplane and The Who at Tanglewood, and the iconic Abbey Road cover shot, the four blast through some Green Day as a warm-up before settling in to polish their set list.
Coming off their last performance, at Haddonfield’s First Night festival, the four are getting set for a shot at a spot in the Skate & Surf Festival, in Round One of the Break Contest this weekend.
And, as always, they’re sticking to straight-up rock ‘n’ roll as they try to make it.
“It speaks to us,” Birnbaum said. “All of our roots are in rock...it’s always going to be there.
“It’s what we love to do.”