American Idol executive producer, Nigel Lythgoe answered reporters’ questions on a conference call today. Here’s what went down, including dish on weekly voting rankings (this could happen!) wildcards, and how a girl could finally win it all.
The American Idol auditions begin next week with New York City on Wednesday, Jan 16 and Chicago on Thursday Jan 17.
You know those controversial voting rankings Simon Cowell revealed every week? Nigel Lythgoe has been wanting to do that for 8 or 9 years. Yes, he thinks it’s an awesome idea, and what he has to say on the subject, is pretty interesting. He name checks Carrie Underwood, who he says won every week, and Hawaii, “It’s very amusing to me. It’s something we’ve wanted to do for 8 or 9 years. We did it in England with Pop Idol. I’ve always been stopped doing it in this country with people saying ‘Oh no, people will stop voting if you show that the one person is winning–like a Carrie Underwood who won every week–people will stop voting.’ We always fought that back and said, ‘Well no…just because my soccer team is number 4 in the league, doesn’t mean to say I’m going to stop supporting them. I’m going to support them more.’ All of a sudden, they managed to do it on the X Factor. I was a little…’Damn. It now looks like we’re going to be copying them.’ The one thing I believe about American Idol, is that everybody else copies American Idol. Yes, I thought it was a good move. It doesn’t stop people voting. It makes them more passionate to see their person do well. I liked it. We’ll still discuss it. I’m not sure how we’ll do it.
Nigel would like to reveal regional statistics, “I also like the idea of doing…like the conferences like the NBA do. Let’s see how the west voted for you…let’s see how the east voted for you…and build the figures up so you can see where the votes are coming in from. I think it would be exciting. I think we’d see if they’ve got hometown support. Very interesting when you’ve got an Hawaiian contestant–how that can sway the vote. Every island votes for goodness sake (He’s talking about Season 3 and Jasmine Trias, who made it all the way to 3, presumably on the strength of the Hawaiians. So it was true.) Anything that garners interest and fills a show out that is generally 99% padding–any way we can make that exciting–I really want to look at. Now that X Factor’s managed to do that, I will be fighting tooth and nail.”
On the semi-final round changes and wild cards, “I’ve 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 t0p 13s and top 12s, and let’s give them wildcard here and let’s bring somebody back–It’s very plain and simple. As we’ve always done with So You Think You Can Dance–There’s your Top 10, It’s a knock out competition. We’ve always attempted to do that. But we’ve never found a way to do it with everything that’s been asked of us. And this year, we have.” Hm. The math is a little confusing here. The finals begin on March 7.
What makes a good judge and how much of a bonus has it been that we’ve already heard about the judges and the sparks that are flying between them, “I don’t think that’s been a bonus. It’s not publicity that I welcomed. It’s about the contestants. The judges are always going to be interesting because they are who they are. I don’t really want to know that there’s been a huge blowup between them and have it it all taken out of proportion. I’m not into that sort of publicity. It will, I guess, get people to watch to see if they blow up on TV. So, everybody tells me I should be grateful. I would much prefer that they watch because these judges are excellent. Nicki Minaj, I think, is one of the best judges I’ve ever worked with.”
What makes a good judge? Singing out of tune is not that big a deal! “Somebody who is honest with integrity. Not honest just telling somebody they suck and go home, pack your suitcase. Any information that they can feed into helping the kid in that short period of time I think is great. The different angles that they can come from, knowing that 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. Of course, if you’re making a single now a days, they’ll auto-tune it anyway. Is there more we should be discussing rather than ‘You were pitchy.’ I’m so sick of that remark! So now, we are constantly trying to find ways to help them. This panel is doing that. I think one of the best judges I’ve worked with is ME on So You Think You Can Dance.”
On a female contestant finally winning Idol, what do they need to do? “What they have always had to do, which is capture the vote. It isn’t always about the voice. It is about charisma, personality attracting an audience. And doing that week on week. If there was an absolute formula to stick to in order to win American Idol, we’d have probably found it by now, bottled it, and I’m sure one of the production companies would be selling it. It’s really what grabs you. Does the story grab you? Does the song of the week grab you? There’s more strength in the talent of the girls [this year]. It’s not to say that one of the boys will not sneak in. Because there are 5 or 6 really good guys and only 5 of them are going to make the top 10. At the end of the day, when you’ve got 5 guys and 5 girls, the depth of talent doesn’t matter. It’s anybody’s game at that stage.”
Would Nigel be personally disappointed if a guy won this year, “I get my favorites, I’m human, and I like my favorites. I’ve never been disappointed with any one of the winners with the shows I’ve been involved with. I’ve been disappointed in losing people a little too early along the way–Tamyra Gray, I was really upset at losing–but thrilled that Kelly Clarkson won. I don’t have a personal involvement from that point of view. Normally my favorite revolves around who I pick in the draw and hopefully I’ll win the 150 dollars at the end of the series. In truth, I don’t have a horse in the race, and I like to keep it that way so that nobody can make allegations about ‘oh his favorite won? How did that happen?.’ (Uhm, except this last season on SYTYCD where you namechecked your favorite every week–and she ended up winning Favorite Girl)
Why does American Idol produce bonifide stars while the others, like The Voice and X Factor have not? “In fairness, It’s right to say they haven’t been on the air that long yet,” admits Nigel. “I do think that other shows tend to concentrate on gimmicks–maybe their judges a little too much. I say that having just experienced two months of talking about our new judges. Hopefully the programs themselves will show we’re still purposing on the contestants. Also the amount people vote and get involved with–they want to see them successful after the show. Phillip Phillips‘ song “Home” was just tremendous. Scotty McCreery, again, very good in that genre, and people loved him. We’ve had success and we want to continue having success.”
What the judges are looking for, “Nicki is looking for an artist. Mariah is looking for the complete singer-songwriter. Randy is looking for somebody that sings on pitch. (laughs) Keith isn’t just looking for a country star. Keith is looking for an instrumentalist, a good singer, and somebody that can capture that magic charisma, and connect with the public. They all have their own agendas.”
Which judge is the toughest this season, “So far, Randy Jackson. You can see the other 3 judges wince, because although they may agree with that outright sentiment, they certainly feel like they’re not there to hurt anybody. So, where possible, they will try and send them away with either a good comment of how they can improve, or a suggestion of what they can move on into. Obviously, they haven’t met my little friend, Jimmy Iovine yet. He will have many words to say. These judges are judges–they’re not mentors. They’re not really going to be speaking with the kids during the week or helping them improve. They will make a judgement of the kids’ performance and then if it helps, then the kids take it on board. If not–it’s very difficult in that 30 seconds to make lasting comments for the kids to improve week on week. We’ve got other people telling them how to do that.”
On Keith Urban and country music on Idol and throwing shade on Simon Cowell! “It actually came up at TCA yesterday, where somebody said, all of a sudden, country music is being embraced by American Idol. Which, in truth, I tried to put right and say, ‘we had country music right from the beginning.’ Simon Cowelldoesn’t like country music. I don’t think he understands country music. I don’t think he understands all the different genres, whether it’s bluegrass, outlaw country or anything. He just thinks that everything is “Grandma got over by a reindeer”….that’s his assumption of country music and he always put it down. We always had good country singers. This is the first time I think that we’ve had a country judge–he is such a lovely man. He is the scratching post between Mariah and Nicki. He sometimes looks like he’s watching a tennis match with his head bobbing between the two girls. But when it’s his turn to speak, he gives his mind and he won’t put up with anybody else knocking a kid down. He’s had rows with both Mariah, Randy and Nicki–a big one with Nicki. They know they’ve got a big job on their hands, because, Jennifer, Steven and Randy did very well with Scotty McCreery and Phillip Phillips. They’re very competitive people. These are human beings who have experienced an incredible success in their own lives. Keith is a great addition this year.”
How empowering was it to have the success that Phillip Phillips’ had just at the time they are ready to launch a new version of the show, “Certainly that song has been one of the biggest. But Phillip still has to prove himself. We can’t jump up and down and say ‘Wow, he’s a major star now.’ There’s a long way to go to be the next Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Daughtry. But, thrilled for Phillip and it obviously validates the program. There are other people like Colton [Dixon] in that year, who have become a huge Christian star. Scotty McCreery–still a very big country star. We tend to produce the goods at the end of a series. But it’s maintaining them too. I’m not one of these people who just want to waive a flag and go ‘American Idol is a great thing.’ We’re a springboard. But one record does not make a career. I have every belief that Phillip will make a career, because I think he’s hugely talented. We are extremely lucky that a record like “Home” sells over 3 million. It’s astounding how successful that’s been. Hopefully, we’ll use that as a springboard to get the attention for this year’s American Idol.”
Nigel mentioned the bus tour that sent a producer out to far flung small towns. People who passed that audition went on to sing in front of the judges. Plus, producers went out with a hidden camera to surprise kids who were nominated by their friends and families.
Also, he mentioned what we already knew: Boys and Girls will be separated through the Vegas round. “It gives us a little more insight into who the talent is,” Nigel said.
Of course, there will be no guest judges. Jimmy Iovine is coming back as mentor. Like last year, record producers will join him to work with the kids. Nigel is trying to align the Idol experience with what the kids will encounter in the music business.
Will American Idol ever embrace hip hop music? Could there be a winner who raps? No. “I don’t believe so. I believe rap is an art form in itself. More akin to poetry, more akin to drama. Rap in the street, when they have rap competitions is thrilling, because these kids are making it up and having a go at each other. Hip hop is a way of life, it isn’t a genre in truth, in American Idol. I think what we’ll get–a lot of good R&B kids, and a lot of good street kids coming in–goodness knows we need it, because there’s very little music to get hold of now a days. I think we’ve heard the Adele songbook 2,987 times this season, because there are melodies there that the kids can latch onto and sing. You give them a whole list of 9 thousand songs and they sing Etta James’ ‘At Last’. We cannot win sometimes with the music. I do not believe Hip Hop will become a genre on American Idol.”