This is the last of three stories I sent to papers, previewing the "American Idol" season that starts Wednesday and Thursday, Jan.16-17. The previous blogs offer an overview and a box with details. Here's a story looking at "Idol" changes, especially the fresh interest in country music:
By MIKE HUGHES
On the surface, the new “American
Idol” season looks suspiciously like the 11 previous ones.
Kids sing; millionaires judge. Results
are greeted by cheers or tears, sometimes simultaneously.
Beyond that, however, the show has had
one big change – expanding beyond pop music, into rock and
(especially) country – and many little ones. Those changes include:
– New audition cities. There were the
usual ones – the season's first shows feature New York on Wednesday
and Chicago on Thursday – but there were also stops elsewhere,
including Oklahoma City and San Antonio … which became a favorite
of producer Ken Warwick. “We shot it in an old railway station,
which gave it kind of a character of its own,” he said. “The
talent was spectacular there.”
– Other efforts to throw out a wider
net. “We (put) a bus tour in, where the producers actually went
around to very, very small towns,” producer Nigel Lythgoe said.
– New judges. Mariah Carey, Keith
Urban and Nicki Minaj join Randy Jackson.
– A slight change in the semi-final
round. This time it will be split, with the top 10 males on March 5
and the top 10 females on March 6; viewers will vote and an overall
top 10 will be chosen March 7.
– And bigger changes that have crept
When “Idol” began in 2002,
contestants were singing to recorded music tracks, with little room
for innovation. Now they're backed by big bands, combos, chamber
orchestras and more. Some singers have their own arrangements; some
play their own instruments.
And the kinds of music has expanded.
Once confined to pop music, “Idol” saw rock 'n' roll soar with Bo
Bice in 2005 and Chris Daughtry in 2006.
Some people have toyed with rap music,
but Minaj (a rapper) has doubts. “I would never go on a show like
this as a rapper,” she said, “and I wouldn't encourage anyone
else to …. I don't think it's authentic.”
And country? “We embraced it right
from the beginning,” Lythgoe insisted.
It was a mild embrace, at best. Simon
Cowell, then the dominant judge, mocked country.
“I've wanted to have country music
for a long time,” said Mike Darnell, Fox chief of alternative
shows. “But the network said, 'No, that's not Fox.'”
He gradually won the battle; Fox now
has the annual American Country Awards. And after barely nodding to
country in its first three years, “Idol” had a transformative
“Carrie Underwood is probably one of
our most successful Idols to date,” Jackson said. “She is truly a
superstar and will have a great career until … she decides to
Underwood won in 2005; the next year,
it had two finalists – Kellie Pickler and Bucky Covington – who
went on to make successful country records. After a pause, the burst
– In 2011, two country teens, Scotty
McCreery and Lauren Alaina, finished first and second.
– And this year, Urban became the
first country singer to be a regular on the judging panel. “I lived
in Nashville for 20 years and it ('Idol') has always had a big
country viewership,” he said.
Now “Idol” has country people as
contestants and judge, part of its expanding world.