What is the sound of failure?

Is it tone-deaf? Is it shrill? Does it sound like bad karaoke? Is it a flimsy rendition of a Whitney Houston song that serves only to highlight the disparity between the imitator and the original? Is it the song coming from a woman who confesses that she dressed in the dark and may sound as disheveled as she looked? We hear she was awful.

We aren't allowed inside the "American Idol" audition room to watch contestants being gutted by celebrity judges. So we wait in the basement of the Renaissance Hotel on Ninth Street NW, outside a final round of Washington's auditions for the hit Fox show. We hear the crying afterward. Maybe that's the sound we're looking for.

"I can sing," says Melissa Considine, 20, of Toms River, N.J., teary-eyed in the lobby of the hotel after being ejected by the judges. Her two sisters are with her, and they've been crying, too. It's just unfair, one of them says.

Considine's dark hair has been pulled back and the top has been coiffed into a puff popularized by Paris Hilton. The look is not flattering on her. She resembles a raccoon. "They didn't say it was horrible," she reflects on her performance.

Lauren Davidson, 17, is crying, too.

"I gave it my best shot," she says.

"She's still a winner," says her mom, Lorry.

How is it, when we all know that we're winners, that we could lose?

The numbers are merciless. Of the 9,500 people who auditioned in Washington this week, only 117 made it to the third round, taking place yesterday and today, a spokeswoman says. Of those, an undetermined number will be sent to Hollywood to begin the long whittling process that is "American Idol."

The hopefuls wait outside the audition room in chairs, crossing themselves, fiddling with their hair, hugging each other -- young women in pink tops and short denim skirts; strapping, handsome men and tiny, effeminate men. Then they disappear behind doors to be judged by Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson, nasty Simon Cowell and guest judge Mark McGrath, lead singer of Sugar Ray. They are, in effect, consulting an oracle. The oracle will prophesy whether they can head west -- da da da da da da da Hollywood! Or not.

In a news conference, Cowell eviscerates one contestant from earlier in the day.

"She wouldn't shut up," he says in the pursed British accent that makes his insults sound so much more devastating. "They all believe that they're fantastic."

They sure do.

Few of them admit to being nervous beforehand. They say things like, "I was born ready." We ask Ryan "R.P." Parker, 28, what he'll say to the judges if he's turned down.

"I'm not planning to hear that," he says.

The auditions are broadcast on a monitor in the basement with the sound off. It's dramatic this way, like old, silent movies. Right now there's a blonde in a red top. First, she sings. Then, she seems to listen, then pivots on her heel to stalk from the room in a huff, then turns back, gestures wildly. Is she yelling? She shoves fingers into her hair. Turns again. Races out the door, sweeping past all the other contestants, her hair and her flouncy skirt bouncing, her body language saying it all:

Loser.

All of this is fodder for "American Idol." When people emerge from the audition room, producers lie in wait to film their reactions. Now, they race after the girl in red. Her face is streaked with tears.

"Why is the camera filming me?" she cries. She runs. The people with the camera run after her.

Maybe the sound of failure is a gentle ripping sound, the kind you hear in seventh-grade biology class when you're learning to perform dissections. You slice into the skin. Zzzzzzzztt. No creature has dignity when your fingers are in its entrails.

Now, a hefty girl with a dark pageboy is on the screen. She appears to be doing some sort of doo-wop. She gets the boot. She comes out of the audition room, faces a camera and says: "I'm not surprised. . . . See, I'm more Broadway."

She goes on: "I've got a book, anyway, coming out. Well, not coming out. I'm still typing it." She's asked what she's going to do now and she mentions something about a government agency. "That's classified," she says.

We've all got something better to do at such moments, don't we? Preferably something classified.

This feistiness, this blind pride is encouraged by the great minds behind "American Idol." Before auditions, Executive Producer Nigel Lythgoe talks to the contestants. He encourages them to stand up for themselves if the judges criticize them.

"Please, if they say you suck, tell them you don't," he says, explaining that a little back-and-forth makes for good television. Besides, Lythgoe adds, "We believe in you."

This is not entirely true. Some of the people in this room are horrendous singers, and the organizers have plucked them from the thousands for this very reason. "American Idol" is a television show first and a talent competition second, and much of the show's funniest material comes from outtakes of the worst auditions. Which brings us to William Hung, the infamous contestant from last season whose tone-deaf rendition of Ricky Martin's "She Bangs" -- coupled with his ignorance about his utter lack of talent -- made him famous and garnered him a record deal.

Every year, contestants who are plainly awful -- who are known to be awful by perhaps everyone but themselves -- are sent into the audition room like pigs trussed for slaughter. And every year, people with zero singing experience, who've tried out for the show on a lark, choose to believe they are unpolished diamonds rather than hapless schlubs being set up for the amusement of millions.

We are a nation of fierce individualists, raised to believe in ourselves no matter what anyone says, raised to believe in the greatest love of all, as the prophet Houston has said. If I fail, if I succeed, at least I lived as I believed / No matter what they take from me, they can't take away my dignity.

Or we are a nation of hopeful idiots.

We ask contestants who this year's William Hungs might be and are pointed toward a young woman named Maria Harris.

"I was in chorus briefly in sixth grade," says Harris, 26, of Columbia. Harris says she mostly sings in the car. She tried out for the show to prove to herself that she could sing in public. We don't hear her sing, but even Harris seems to think it's surprising that she's here.

"I think my voice is definitely unique," she says. "I'm not sure if it's they're looking for somebody different and they really appreciate my voice or it's just they're sending people through that they know aren't -- that they know aren't what they're looking for." She puts this last part delicately, as if she's talking to a small child.

At the top of the escalator, far from the madding crowd, Aleks Will, 28, a Los Angeles singer and festival performer originally from Germany, consoles himself on his loss. This is his second time auditioning this year, the first time having been in Cleveland, and it's the second time he was told he wasn't quite good enough. This time, he says, the judges told him not to come back.

He says they told him he sounded too much like Freddie Mercury.

"Freddie Mercury, you know -- it's just kind of in my genes," he says.

He sings:

We are the champions my friend / And we'll keep on fighting till the end.

But we aren't. We are the losers.

An "American Idol" hopeful, top, cries at the Renaissance Hotel after judges nixed her shot at stardom. Above, 19-year-old Natalie Weiss of Manalapan, N.J., is congratulated by her parents, Harriet and Joe Weiss, after making the cut. At right, 17-year-old Diamond Mitchell gets last-minute advice from her aunt Rena Chance before singing.Above, "Idol" hopefuls Christin Bradley of Woodbridge and Shawna Schweitzer of Jefferson, Md., play cards before their auditions at the Renaissance Hotel. Between them are Regina, Laura and Amy Crupi, sisters from New Milford, Conn. Left, celebrity judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson and Mark McGrath of Sugar Ray. Below, Carrie Zaruba of Baltimore spends some quiet time before her turn auditioning for the Fox show.