It was the retirement of Simon Cowell from “American Idol” last year caused the wholesale changes that greet TV’s top show when it returns for its 10th season Wednesday.
But its changes seem to have less to do with addressing the erosion of the audience than it does the need to find an actual superstar at the end of the show.
While numbers have been going down for the show, it may be more concerning to producers that the caliber of winners in recent years – can you even remember their names? – haven’t lived up to the [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Kelly Clarkson[/lastfm]s and [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Carrie Underwood[/lastfm]s of yore.
So instead of trying to install a judge with the same degree of brutal honesty as Cowell, the quality that arguably made “Idol” the hit it’s been, making it stand out from other talent search shows, its producers are tending toward nurturers, mentors and pros who would ensure more of a platinum selling debut than has been managed by Lee DeWyze or [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Kris Allen[/lastfm] (oh, right, that was their names!).
So when the audition shows begin Wednesday from the Meadowlands in New Jersey, the hopeful singers will come before just one original judge – the affable Randy Jackson, on a thankfully shortened panel that also features two bona fide stars: [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Jennifer Lopez[/lastfm], a show fan who has served as mentor in previous seasons, and perhaps more surprisingly, [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Steven Tyler[/lastfm], the rocking lead singer from the Boston institution, [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Aerosmith[/lastfm].
J-Lo combines the encouragement that came from Paula Abdul, with a glamour that goes beyond Kara DioGuardi. And yet her very starpower proves to be intimidating to singers who had grown up with her as a role model. In one case, a singer refuses to look at her in fear she’ll lose it (eventually she does, and starts crying).
Likewise, the cartoonish Tyler has an equal spell over prospective rockers who, win or lose, are living out a dream by standing before him, or in the case of one woman, getting to sing a duet of “Dream On” with him right there.
It is Tyler, not Lopez, who’ll be the wild card among judges – singing along with contestants, making funny faces with his rubbery face and occasionally lapsing into bleeped epithets that were common in his regular job that have no place in the current one. And his 62 year old face will be a jolt for HD.
Still, there’s nothing about him that’s nearly as mean as the honest truth Cowell dished out and the harshest thing he says to one singer obviously not right for the competition is that he likes his speaking voice better than his singing voice and he should stick to that.
The new age of nice on “American Idol” might have been ushered in by Nigel Lythgoe, the producer who uses a similar style while judging “So You Think You Can Dance.” He is returning to the show this year after an absence reportedly caused by a rift with Cowell – possibly about their different approaches.
Either way, the most telling change about “American Idol” in its 10th season may be the addition of a full-time mentor backstage. Longtime record producer Jimmy Iovine has been added on to help singers find songs (and possibly themselves), consider arrangements and encourage unique approaches – all in mind of creating recording stars that will enrich them all.
Reality TV’s chief role model in this position is doubtlessly Tim Gunn on “Project Runway,” who speaks individually with contestants, consults with them on their choices and whatever he does, is behind their success whatever they decide. Iovine at first doesn’t seem quite so touchy/feely as Gunn, but will likely have an authority that goes beyond that of the vocal coaches they used.
A few other things are different in the show this year, starting with the age of eligibility. After chiding teenage Connecticut finalist Katie Stevens for being too young to know what kind of singer she wants to be, the eligible age has been lowered to 15.
This may be more an effort to draw in younger viewers who have been abandoning the show in bigger numbers, than it is to find the next Justin Bieber. With a range that is now 15-28, that’s a pretty wide span, able to take in high school sophomores and married moms.
The Hollywood round makes way for another round in Las Vegas, mostly so contestants can sing a Beatles song of their choosing on the stage of Cirque du Soleil’s “Love.” And when the semifinalists are announced on Feb. 24, there will be 20 of them – 10 male and 10 female, after which public begins their voting.
The idea is to shave the numbers down to a number in which viewers can get to know each singer better than they did before. Judges will add their wild card picks to the mix on March 3.
“American Idol” is still enough of a cultural phenomenon to weather a transition year without worrying about faltering too much in the ratings. But if things don’t work out for the season of nice and “Love” for “Idol,” there will always be the debut of “The X-Factor” in the fall for Fox, with a familiar mean face presiding: Simon Cowell.
“American Idol” premieres Wednesday at 8 on Fox with auditions from New Jersey; auditions from New Orleans are scheduled for Thursday at 8 p.m.