The American Idol judges love to complain about song choice, but contestants on the show have only one hour to select their song for the week.
In a story looking at the contestants’ weekly schedule and “the arduous preparations that take place behind the scenes,” The Washington Post reveals that on the first day, they “learn the theme of the upcoming show, chosen by executive producers Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick, and get a CD with snippets of 50 to 200 songs that fit in the category.”
However, they barely have time to listen to that CD: “Each contestant gets an hour to select a song and find a proper, comfortable key. Then the song is edited to fit the 90-second performance slot,” according to the Post. Later, “music director and bandleader Rickey Minor and associate music director John Beasley are e-mailed MP3 files of the contestants performing their songs,” and “they score each song and develop the orchestration themselves or delegate it via computer to one of 20 freelancers around the country.”
One of the show’s music directors, Michael Orland, calls that day, which follows the elimination episode, “the hardest day,” and notes that it’s entirely up to the contestants to select their song. “We are technically not allowed to help in the song-picking. However, we can say, ‘What did the judges say to you last week? What is it you want to show different?’ It’s all about the contestant bringing their best and showing a little something different every week — you don’t want to be a one-trick pony.”
The day before the performance, contestants “rehearse with the band several times and learn the group number they will perform that week,” and then on performance day, they “sing a song at least three times before showtime: once for sound check, once for camera blocking and lighting, and once for a dress rehearsal in front of an audience.”