It’s been a grueling few weeks that airwaves have been absent of reality music competitions, ever since someone with “The X Factor” and another person with “The Voice” won over voting American teenagers and moms.
Have no fear—starting tonight, our weeks will once again be filled with countless hours of aspirationally famous people trying to sing Adele. That’s right, “American Idol” is back. The original, the one that started it all. And by It, I mean soft drink companies buying up two-hour blocks of TV and drilling into our brains that Coke=autotune.
“American Idol” is now old enough to audition for the “X Factor,” and though it’s been showing its age in recent years, Season 12 has been injected with some freshness. Or maybe the flu shot. Either way, it’s good news.
We caught a preview of New York and Chicago auditions, and caught up with executive producer Nigel Lythgoe, to learn about some of the changes, some of the things that are staying the same, and some grand hopes for “American Idol” Season 12.
The Judges: Need we even identify them? It hasn’t exactly been a quiet off-season for “Idol,” what with all the tussling between new lady panelists Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj. Oh yeah, and Keith Urban’s in there, too, but you wouldn’t know it. From what we’ve seen so far, Mariah and Nicki dominate the judging panel with mile-a-minute chatter and heartfelt declarations. Randy Jackson holds down the fort as the faux-Simon Cowell, trying to be harsher than the others, but you know, no one makes goldfish insults better than the original.
Watch Nicki Minaj Weigh in on the “Feud” with Mariah Carey”:
Lythgoe analyzes the new panel: “I think Nicki is looking for an artist. I think Mariah is looking for the complete singer/songwriter. Randy is looking for somebody that sings on pitch, and Keith isn’t just looking for a country star. Keith is looking for an instrumentalist, a good singer, and somebody that can capture that sort of magic charisma, if you will, and connect with the public. They all have their own agendas.”
Auditions: Holding auditions in major cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles is a good bet for finding a diamond in a roughly enormous talent pool. But for the folks sprinkled throughout more rural parts of the country, an “Idol” audition bus went out to the meet them. The bus visited 10 cities, heavy on the Midwest, and found some strapping corn-fed talent along the way.
Another new addition to the audition process was “I Nominate”—a chance for friends and family to secretly send in videos of their shy singing relations, and then hopefully humiliate them in a hidden camera situation with Randy Jackson.
Hollywood: The best part of the audition process, Hollywood week gets split in two this year, with one week going to the male contestants and the other to the female contestants.
Semifinals: The judges will do some slashing in Hollywood, but America decides who makes it out of Las Vegas—a new semifinal round in which live voting will solidify a Top 10—not 12, not 13. And to make sure of that, the judges get no Wild Card additions to the lineup.
Explains Lythgoe: “Personally I have never liked a top 11 or a top 12 or a top 13. It was always created in order to fill the transmission times that Fox wanted so we created top 13s and top 12s and gave them a wild card here and let’s bring somebody back.” This year, by lengthening the pre-competition competition, they’ve managed to time it out so we can vote on a logical Top 10.
Watch Mariah Carey Discuss “Messy” Moments on “Idol”:
Mentoring: No, the judges aren’t taking on mentoring roles like they have on other shows; in fact, the show is moving away from the celebrity mentor model entirely. Lythgoe said there will be no guest judges this year (though there haven’t been any of note since the stellar season 3 that brought Quentin Taratino to the panel). “We’re not having any judges; obviously we’ve got enough with the four that we’ve got thank you very much,” he said.
But what’s surprising is that there won’t be any celebrity guest mentors, either. Just the wise Jimmy Iovine, along with Lythgoe himself, who coached contestants years ago, and other record producers. “I want to do that again this year and try and give their journey the same journey that they would have had had they had not had this competition but moved in to the music business,” Lythgoe said. “The more I can align it to the music business the stronger it is going to be for them and their journey.”
The Old Reliable
Softies: With the exception of Randy Jackson, who at least tells the kids he doesn’t like that they can’t sing (if only he didn’t like so many bad singers…), the new judges are as easy as Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez and even Ellen DeGeneres. The worst auditions still got a lot of encouraging advice, like Mariah telling one kid he would make a great DJ, Nicki giving out hugs and kisses and admiring their bravery. Wouldn’t it be much more humane in the long run to just rip off the Band-Aid now?
Sob Stories: It wouldn’t be “Idol” without them. This week, you can look forward to the heartwarming backstory of one contestant’s giant foster family, and an astonishing kid who stutters worse than King George VI but miraculously sings clear as day.
Country: People think that by adding Keith Urban to the panel, that “Idol” has suddenly gone country. But it’s always been country, argues Lythgoe: “We did country music right from the beginning. Simon Cowell doesn’t like country music. I don’t think he understands country music. I don’t think he understands all the different genres of country music whether it’s bluegrass album or country or anything. He just thinks that everything is ‘grandma got run over by a reindeer’ or whatever it was, you know, and that’s his assumption of country music and he always put it down. But we always had it there and we always had good country singers.”
Hair: I thought the loss of Steven Tyler to the panel would mean an absence of bird’s nests and other accessories adorning the top of a judge’s head. Fortunately Nicki Minaj stepped up to the plate, drastically changing her hairdo at least four times in two audition cities, and guaranteeing at least one ‘do as a focal point every episode.
Bad Auditions: You didn’t think they got old, like, 11 years ago, did you? They’re not going anywhere. Although one bad auditioner, at least he has decent taste, picking an awesome song that to my knowledge has never been done on “Idol” before: “Come Sail Away.” (Would have made a great Clay Aiken song.) Said auditioner also proved he has awful taste, trying to do Barenaked Ladies.
A few hopes Nigel Lythgoe has for the show going into its 12th season.
Leaderboard: Lythgoe admitted how jealous he was that “The X Factor” introduced the leaderboard of results this past season; it’s something he’s wanted to do on “Idol” for years. “The one thing I believe about ‘American Idol’ is everybody else copies ‘American Idol,’ but yes I thought it was a good move,” he said, as he works to figure out a way to copy someone else.
Plans are still not ironed out, however. But he’d like to see something along those lines, or another format where we learn how different parts of the country voted. “We’ll still discuss it,” he said. “I’m not sure how we’ll do it.”
Pitchy: It’s been a crutch word for years, invented possibly by Paula Abdul or Randy (it sure as hell was not Simon). But Lythgoe wants to do away with it. “I’m so sick of that remark,” he said. And anyway, it doesn’t matter whether you’re pitchy or not, he said. “It isn’t just about the voice and really does it matter if they sing out of tune a little bit because everybody I’ve ever seen live sings out of tune, even the greatest singers in the world. And of course if you’re making a single nowadays they’ll auto tune it anyway.”
Backstage Gambling: Lythgoe admitted he usually has a favorite singer each year—the one he bets on in the office pool. Apparently, the first season, his bet was on Tamyra Gray. This year, he’s hoping to win the $150 pot, “But in truth I don’t have a horse in the race and I like to keep it that way.”
“American Idol” returns for a twelfth season on Wednesday, Jan. 16 at 8/7c on Fox.