The question of Steven Tyler, in or out, doesn’t really make much of a difference regarding Season 10 for American Idol. The problem is the whole process seems to be pointing towards a more fundamental problem with the show. Finding a good fill-in for Simon is something the show needs to be more seriously worrying about, because for many fans, he was American Idol. The first mistake they’re making is that they’re looking for stars to fill his seat – a la Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez. Here’s how I see the problems and some ideas that could be solutions.
To start off with, what made Simon Cowell perfect for the show was that he is, first and foremost, an Artist and Repertoire executive, and a damned good one at that. A quick look at Randy Jackson’s resume and we see that aside from his playing bass guitar and singing, he’s got the titles record producer, music manager and an A&R executive. Kara’s qualifications include her being a singer-songwriter, music publisher, record producer and also an A&R executive. See a trend here? Even Paula Abdul has done some music production, but she’s more on the performance side of the business, and it showed in her judging. Finally, as much as I like Ellen DeGeneres, she wasn’t really qualified to be a judge on AI, despite some good input and great comic relief (if they ever have a talent show for stand-up comedians, she’d be perfect).
But what is an A&R executive? Basically, they’re the talent scouts that discover new artists and then help them start out in the industry. How much does that sound like exactly what American Idol was always supposed to be about? I’m betting there are bunches of these guys running around, shaking their heads, thinking that AI without Cowell is basically just a waste of time, and they’re probably also laughing at all the hubbub of rumors and facts around his replacements. With all due respect to the Aerosmith singer, his talents are going to be wasted watching a bunch of kids try to become the next big music star. True, having a judge from the world of heavier rock and blues rock certainly would seem have its advantages for all the rocker-styled wannabes in the crowd, but is that what American Idol is supposed to be about? Moreover, haven’t we already seen that people who are more focused on the performance side than on the production side of the music industry don’t actually make great judges? My first advice to AI is for them to stop talking to or about Jennifer Lopez and start looking for a real talent scout to replace Simon.
Next, if it wasn’t obvious until now, let me remind you that AI is actually supposed to be about pop music, being commercial and appealing to the widest audience possible. But all that means that is that this isn’t really just a talent contest, but rather a musical popularity contest. Perhaps, then, AI should reinvent themselves and give more focus on the talent part and less on the popularity of their contestants. But doing this would mean the need for some changes, and some of them might be huge.
Let’s look at that voting process, for instance. Because the final voting is left up to the American public, there is a great deal of validity in the contention that this isn’t a talent contest. It seems that there is little they could do to change this, unless they find a way to minimize – even slightly – the weight of public voting. One way to do this is to have the input of the judges and/or a separate group of behind-the-scenes A&R executives also weighing in for the eliminations. What’s good about this idea is it would also help keep such vindictive groups like “Vote for the Worst” from having as much influence as they have now.
This also means that the hopefuls need to have more than just a good voice – they must have that “something else” as well – let’s call it star quality. Season 8 showed Adam Lambert’s unique talent and intuitive ability to entertain as well as sing was much appreciated. This bled over into season 9 where both the judges and the public began to look at competitors as not just singers, but all-round performers that could give the public something they hadn’t heard before. More of this is definitely needed, such as allowing the competition to include playing musical instruments. This did a great deal to help people such as Casey Jones and his amazing guitar playing get as far as he did in season 9. This was a bit step in the right direction, but is it enough?
Probably not, so how about trying something really huge? Why don’t they include the writing and performing of original compositions? This might not work as well for the earlier weeks, and might be best left to when it gets down to the top six or so. However, this would give the judges and the public a much better idea of what kind of artist these musicians really are. No, it isn’t a perfect solution, since not everyone is a singer-songwriter. But if the judging is done primarily on the performance of the song and not on the quality of the words/music, this could be a really great addition to the show.
This could also add to the audition section of the show by having the contestants also be allowed submit original songs – which they can, if they want, sing as their initial song. If that seems too problematic (meaning that less people would audition because of it), perhaps they can at least get rid of the stupid group song section in Hollywood Week and substitute it for an original song section. This would certainly help them see if these hopefuls have that talent as well. For those who don’t write their own songs, they could be allowed to do group songs instead. Again, performance quality, more than song quality, would be what they are judged on. By the way, back in the UK there was another series of this same ilk – Fame Academy – which called their contestants ‘students’ and focused on their writing and performing their own songs. While the show didn’t last (as it was too similar to Pop Idol that was running there at the same time), the concept worked very well for them. Of course, this would change the whole face of the show, and just might be too overly radical a change.
Barring this completely new direction, something that is easily solved is the problem with song choices. How unfair is it for a judge to complain about a bad song choice when these guys are given such a limited list of songs to choose from? It’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy for failure and inevitably most of them get it wrong at one time or another. Moreover, these guys need to be given the chance to sing more songs by their contemporaries and personal favorites, and less of the old standards and inane weekly themes. Disco, Beatles and Frank Sinatra songs are wonderful for people who want to be those kinds of artists, but there’s a plethora of other genres and new artists making such varied types of music these days. AI totally ignores this and it not only hurts the contestants, but also the quality of the show.
There is so much more that AI could do to revamp the show, regain the public’s interest and boost their ratings. Unfortunately, my feeling is that the one thing they have done isn’t going to work – Steve Tyler is a wonderful artist, and Aerosmith is a fantastic band, but Steve simply isn’t a talent scout, and therefore is no replacement for Simon. At best, he can semi-replace Ellen, but since that was more fluff than substance (albeit very fun fluff), it won’t really help the show. With the public showing that they’re getting bored with the old format, unless they can shake things up with more than just finding replacement judges, my fear is that season 10 could easily be American Idol’s last.