New ‘Idol’ Changes: Instrument Limits and Live-in Contestants

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)

This morning, ‘American Idol‘ producer Nigel Lythgoe let slip a few changes about the forthcoming season of the show in some dashed-off tweets. One seems to be a way to make viewers at home more interested in the show’s dramatic arcs, while another seems to be a last-ditch move to prevent the viewers at home from christening a guitar-strumming rocker for the fourth year in a row.

Don’t Sing J. Lo Songs To J. Lo On ‘American Idol’

Shift #1: What Happens When You Get Strangers Living In A House

Quoth Lythgoe:

If you remember the first couple of seasons we are going back to putting Idol contestants in a house together. It may prove interesting?

Following in the footsteps of recent competitive-reality shows like ‘Top Chef‘ and ‘Project Runway‘ and, uh, ‘The Bad Girls Club,’ ‘American Idol’ will apparently bring all of its contestants under one roof, where they’ll interact with one another in front of the cameras, even when they’re offstage. This seems like a sorta-cheap way to gin up interest in the show’s contestants, although it does flow with the idea expressed earlier this summer that the show would “refocus… on the talent” and be less about judge-borne infighthing this time around. The one problem that can arise, though: What if the best singers have the least appealing personalities, or vice versa? Simon Cowell may be gone, but his constant “it’s a singing competition” refrain should at least kind of live on.

Shift #2: Don’t Be A Hero; Drop The Guitar

Lythgoe said:

AI contestants will still be able to play instruments just not every week. “Playing” a guitar is totally different from “hiding” behind it.

Then again, perhaps this other rule is an attempt to focus on the contestants’ voices, and not on other abilities. The show has been won by guitar-playing rockers — David Cook, Kris Allen, and Lee DeWyze — for the past three seasons, and this move seems like a shot across the bow of not just those singers, but of performers like Casey “Top Scallop” James, who seemed to get absolutely petrified whenever he was taken out of his comfort zone.

So this move is both a way to shake up the contestant pool and to play up the show’s post-Rickey Minor shift toward dance-centric, top-40-friendly pop and away from the somewhat-stodgy arrangements that plagued so many of the contestants’ efforts. Recall that when Jimmy Iovine was announced as permamentor, he said that he’d bring in producers like Timbaland and Swizz Beatz to work with the hopefuls. While both those knob-twiddlers have certainly worked with guitar players in the past, they built their bona fides on uptempo, beat-heavy music that’s more modern than Minor’s wedding-band-esque musical stylings.

There is a bit of irony afoot with this particular change, however. This, after all, is the year that the producers lowered the minimum age for auditioning to 15, in hopes that they’d catch some Bieber Fever and find a teen idol who would light up the phones (and text-messaging lines). And on the same day that Lythgoe announces that he doesn’t want contestants to hide behind their instruments, what happens? Bieber announces that he’s releasing an acoustic EP, one that’s covered by a picture of him semi-awkwardly holding a guitar.

There are still a slew of other changes that might help the show — most crucial among them to me is the idea of limiting voting, so power-voters who are dumbstruck by a particular contestant’s presence won’t figure out a way to send 4,000 text messages in a two-hour period. What other shifts do you think ‘Idol’ needs to make as it warbles its way into its 10th season?

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

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