American Idol’s big change: it’s now about contestants as artists, not karaoke singers

With all the conversations American Idol‘s changes for its 10 seasons, the big one seems to be that season 10 will focus on developing contestants as artists, not just as karaoke singers who are part of a money-making machine. Discussion of helping them grow as artists was the refrain repeated by many of the panel of nine people–including and producers Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick, and new judges Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler, along with Randy Jackson and mentor Jimmy Iovine–who faced TV critics yesterday.

First, there was some news: There will be a semi-final round, with 10 men and 10 women (they will be split by sex after all), and a group of 40 is being narrowed to that 20 yesterday and today. The Las Vegas round is being held there simply because of the Cirque show Love–so it’s for product placement. Nigel said, “If the Beatles show had been in Wisconsin, we’d be in Wisconsin doing it. The idea was that they had to learn a Beatles song overnight and then perform it for the judges.”

Producer Cecile Frot-Coutaz said that they have turned the semi-finals into a single week because “there were too many kids to get to know,” and instead “we’ve extended Hollywood Week by one week, and we’ve added some musical and performance challenges to really give the kids that extra experience or that extra chance for us to really see what they’re like or the judges to see them.” The Beatles challenge was part of that.

Those additional challenges, producer Ken Warwick said, mean that “already the kids have done more rounds and have sung more than they have done in any other series up to this point, so they now know that the judges like them or they have something to offer, and the confidence is frightening.”

Also newsworthy: Steven Tyler is totally the new Paula Abdul, at least in terms of incoherence and unintentional hilarity. Besides saying laughable things, like that Idol would have discovered Aerosmith, he answered questions with head-shaking responses such as this one:

“You got to remember I come from the era where it was you got to blow the band before us off. So it was always competition and competing. And God knows, I’ve been judged all my life for what I do, and I just thought, you know, if I take a little bit of that and with a little bit of love — and I’ve got three daughters. Remember that. And I’m Italian. So take all that into this and…”

As to the contestants being artists this year, some of that comes from the new judges. Warwick said that J Lo and Steven Tyler’s “credibility is different in that they are artists, and they’ve been up there and still are up there and are doing it at this moment in time, so it’s a different dynamic than where Simon is coming from.”

There will be familiar elements, such as contestant-pimping; although producers insisted they leave it up to voters, Nigel did admit that producers play up certain contestants, framing that as part of the discussion of growth. “It’s really tough because the people themselves make it clear who we should put on. In other words, if their personality is shining, those are the parts we’re going to show on the show. Sometimes people get to the finale and you don’t know who they are. But it’s because they’ve not come out of themselves,” he said. “What we’re hoping to do now is make sure they come out of themselves.”

Jennifer Lopez spoke about the contestants as artists the most, saying, “We’re artists. We’ve been up there. We’ve auditioned. We’ve been through the ranks. … There’s nothing like having that type of discussion with another artist to help you grow. And at the end of the day, that’s what we’re there for, to help the kids either move on to the next level or break the news to them that they’re not going on to the next level.” She added later, “I love this show, and I actually all the experience I have in this business and everything I’ve been through and all the things I’ve learned, where else could I put it to good use but by helping other artists and helping being in that position? Because at the end of the day, like I said, we’re not here to kind of break people down or do any of that. We’re here to kind of help the kids move through it. At the end of the day, America’s voting. We’re judging. We’re there to guide them through it and mentor them through it is the real truth.”

I think she’s either confused about what “judging” means or she’s redefining it, which is maybe okay. By the way, the contestants’ actual mentor, Jimmy Iovine, basically said nothing the entire time, and we didn’t get a good sense of what his presence will be like on the show.

Steven Tyler said that while he is “not sure yet” why he signed on as a judge, “I did this because I’ve got, like, years of my father in me in musicianship, and I’ve got this melodic sensibility, and I’ve certainly learned it’s not just about singing. It’s about character, as well, and what it takes to be on the road to withstand the storm, because it is a storm out there. To be able to dance and sing is one thing. How you handle fame, and just all that thing you really can’t put your finger on, that certain something, I think I know what that is. I certainly when someone opens their mouth, I can see it, their character, what they got, and I hope I can evoke that from them, I can pull that out of them.”

Steven Tyler also said that, compared to him, “these kids have it so much harder. They haven’t had the good graces to play clubs and get beaten down that way. So they have their mom and dad telling them they’re great, and they feel entitled because they watch the show, and they gotta come up and really give it up, and it’s just excruciating. It’s been hard for me. How would I have done? Lord knows.”

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.