Judge Switcheroo Just The Beginning Of ‘Idol’ Changes

The new faces of American Idol: Randy Jackson, Steven Tyler, Ryan Seacrest, Jennifer Lopez, and  Jimmy Iovine (FOX)

The new faces of American Idol: Randy Jackson, Steven Tyler, Ryan Seacrest, Jennifer Lopez, and Jimmy Iovine (FOX)

Immediately following the big reveal of the new panel of ‘American Idol’ judges, the show held a press conference to outline other changes for the upcoming season, its 10th. Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez, and Randy Jackson were joined by host Ryan Seacrest, Interscope Geffen A&M Records chairman Jimmy Iovine, and various members of ‘Idol’ brass during a session that outlined a show that will continue to maintain the ‘Idol’ imprimatur, but will look very different from the program that sputtered to a halt as Lee DeWyze was crowned champion last May.

Most of the changes seem focused on making the show more relevant to the top-40 audience, and to make the ‘Idol’ winner actually live up to the ‘Idol’ billing. “You have Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, and then you start running out of Idols,” said returning producer Nigel Lythgoe. “We have got to go back to creating an American Idol. That’s what we’re here to do, and that’s what we need to do.”

Whether or not ‘American Idol’ necessarily means “teen idol” was a point of contention when the minimum age for trying out was dropped to 15 over the summer. But the show’s definition of pop will assuredly be more current than it has been in years past; Iovine is taking over as the show’s “chief mentor,” which means that the contestants will be working with someone whose knowledge base is much more current than the Mariah/Whitney/Celine triptych constantly trotted out by Jackson and his former co-judges. (Here’s hoping that Iovine’s savvy will result in the “covering pop songs the way sorta-famous rock bands already covered them” trick that was employed by David Cook and Adam Lambert — and subsequently hailed as “groundbreaking” — falling by the wayside, or at least being less of a marker of genius.)

Iovine outlined his plans to augment his mentorship by bringing in producers like Timbaland (who has worked with Justin Timberlake, Madonna, and Björk) and Polow Da Don (Usher, Christina Aguilera) — which sounds like a far cry from the wedding-bandish accompaniments that Rickey Minor saddled contestants with over the previous nine seasons. Also, the guest mentors who have dropped by the show in recent seasons will be out, although the possibility of a guest judge is likely should the opportunity arise.

Also to be dispensed with as a result of Iovine’s involvement are the ‘Idol’ theme weeks, in which every contestant was required to use as their jumping-off point music from a particular genre or artist. Instead, each performance episode will be organized around a decade, and contestants will allegedly be encouraged to plumb the depths of their own artistry, regardless of genre — although that seems to go against the grain of another announcement during the press conference.

It seems ‘Idol’ producer Ken Warwick wasn’t so keen on the way that some contestants in recent years hid behind their instruments. (His words; I’d guess that Casey “Top Scallop” James, who tended to blossom much more fully when gripping his axe last season, is who he chiefly had in mind here.) The contestants will be encouraged to move around, as well, and present themselves as a “total package,” which would seem to lean toward pop stars in the Katy Perry/Ke$ha mold more than the guitar-strumming rockers who have emerged victorious from the show’s last three seasons.

Other changes weren’t mentioned during the press conference. The middle rounds will be switched up in a to-be-determined way. There was no word on whether contestants would be allowed to perform original songs during the competition. And perhaps most importantly, there was no word on limiting the number of votes that viewers at home could cast in the wake of a performance show; the rise of text voting since the show’s debut has probably had more of an impact on the types of winners the show has crowned particularly in the past few years, when it’s become even more possible for devoted fans to vote for their pick as many as 5,000 times during the two-hour period where the polls are open.

While the changes outlined today are seemingly designed to bring the show back to relevance, it’s very tempting to wonder why this particular cast of characters was hired to carry out this strategy. Lopez’s shelved album Love? eventually led to her departing her label. The idea of Timbaland potentially working with rock-leaning contestants elicited a few groans from ‘Idol’ observers who had the unfortunate fate of having heard Scream, his tuneless club-rock collaboration with Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell. And even Iovine’s pet project, the Pussycat Dolls, had a disappointing follow-up to their multiplatinum debut album — and frontwoman Nicole Scherzinger has fared much better as a reality-TV dancer than she has as a recording artist on her own.

More importantly, is it possible for there to be One True ‘American Idol’ in this age of fragmentation on the radio dial and in peoples’ iTunes playlists? And is a live-performance week-in-week-out show the best way to figure out who, in the age of Autotune and outsized personalities ruling the pop charts, best fits that bill — or does the era of diminished record sales require that the contestants prove themselves in a live setting first? These are the questions that ‘Idol’ will have to answer week in and week out, and that the show will have to do it in front of what will still be a sizeable audience should prove to be an even more formidable challenge than pleasing departed judge Simon Cowell.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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