The American Idol Makeover

By Andy Argyrakis | senior editor,
Posted: Wed, 02/16/2011 - 14:43

album promo image for The American Idol Makeover

Part two of a four part series chronicling the many angles of “American Idol.” To read part 1: "Why We Love American Idol," click here.

Even though it remains one of television’s most popular reality shows with plenty of nail-biting suspense and comic relief, a lot has changed on since the good old days of Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson as judges and Kelly Clarkson as a newly crowned pop princess. But with a record number of updates, facelifts and fresh faces, if there’s one theme that ties the entire 10th season of “Idol” together, it’s that change is the only constant.

Granted, the creative decisions were sparked by several key players leaving the show (including Cowell, plus adjunct judges Ellen DeGeneres and Kara DioGuardi), but the alterations were also an attempt to save sagging ratings and give an old warhorse a solid shot in the arm. And that’s exactly what’s happened thus far, providing fans plenty of reason to talk and watch, most noticeably a new panel of judges.

As the judges turn...
As the old adage “out with the old and in with the new” proclaims, Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez enter the line-up, sandwiching the returning Randy Jackson with their own brand of ruling and colorful commentary. Though pop singer/actress Lopez certainly fit the mold of Abdul’s previous personality (basically the bubbly one who’s quick to unload a platitude or praise, even if a little less is deserved), her partner-in-critique doesn’t seem as obvious.

For those keeping close tabs on Tyler, he’s the extremely outspoken singer of Aerosmith known to be one of rock n’ roll’s baddest boys back in the day. Of course, he’s drug-free now and has a clean bill of health, though that doesn’t mean his decision to take the job on “Idol” has been free of drama. To start with, his bandmates have been especially vocal about their resistance to the decision, suggesting it weakens the band’s cool image and takes away their most important member from his full-time job of singing and playing shows. But Tyler insists it won’t take up too much time and will only widen the band’s exposure, while he also seems to enjoy staying in the game as an advisor for new talent (often encouraging rather than scowling like that Cowell character).

Age is just a number
Add in Jackson’s generally happy-go-lucky demeanor, and this year certainly seems a slightly softer ball for contestants. Then again, they have to please the American people in the end or they’ll wind up on the short end of the voting stick. Perhaps the kinder judges’ response stems from the fact that the average age of competitors is younger, dipping for the first time to 15, to appeal to the continuously expanding tween pop contingent. A decade ago, artists like Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera rose to pre-pubescent fame as members of the “Mickey Mouse Club” turned solo pop stars, and once again, the same is the case with Miley Cyrus of “Hannah Montana” and fellow youngsters like Justin Bieber or Selena Gomez.

Since the pop charts are skewing younger, it’s only natural for “Idol” to sway with the times. This reduced age limit seeks to encourage younger hopefuls to showcase themselves in front of the entire world. Of course, this does lead to a potential problem of inexperience and wasting more of the judges’ (and audiences’) time on premature wannabes, along with the fact that youthful looks can sometimes take the superficial place of actual talent assigned to those a decade older. Thus far however, the age factor has made the show seem more inclusive and gives some of the more seasoned performers a reason to step up their game all the more, as the heat continues to rise with the younger class.

Several more shifting sands
One other obvious shift that isn’t as eyebrow raising (but vital to know about nonetheless) is the time slot’s shift from Tuesdays and Wednesdays to Wednesdays and Thursdays. At first it was meant to keep audiences on their toes, though by now, most are surely settled into the routine. However, something they may be less aware about is a switch up behind the scenes, mainly the show gaining a new record label partnership with Universal Music Group (replacing Sony Music, with whom Cowell was associated).
Though this might not mean a ton to the casual follower, it actually yields a fresh perspective from executives offering advice to contestants with all-star producer/songwriter Jimmy Iovine (U2, John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen) serving as a mentor. Given his lofty position, he’s also corralled a slew of red hot hit makers like Timbaland (Justin Timberlake, Nelly Furtado), Rodney Jerkins (Michael Jackson, Beyonce, Lady Gaga) and Alex da Kid (Diddy, Eminem, Rihanna), who will help select songs and sculpt arrangements.

That latter tidbit will also be integral to revamped theme weeks, which used to force singers to adapt to whatever style was on the docket, but will now be tailor made to everyone’s individual style. For instance, instead of insisting a hard rock singer turn in a R&B romp, a decade or category will be chosen (let’s say “the 90s”) and then a country-leaning singer could choose Garth Brooks and a grunge rocker could call upon Pearl Jam.

The move will surely level the playing field and let a performer truly shine for the way which their voice was originally intended, though it will also reduce each performers’ ability to showcase versatility. For instance, wouldn’t it be amazing for a church-reared soul singer to turn in a jaw dropping rendition of a Coldplay cut and a classic rocker to nail a Michael Jackson classic?

If there’s one theme that ties the entire tenth season of “American Idol” together, it’s that change is the only constant. In doing so, producers have clearly extended the show’s shelf life, even if some of the ideas are watered down compared to the program’s edgier beginnings. Thankfully though, audience involvement remains at an all time high (including the newly initiated opportunity to vote online), meaning as the weeks pass on and the fittest contestants survive, the tension will continue to mount much like the past ten years of “American Idol” dominating the airwaves.

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About the Writer

Andy Argyrakis is a Chicago-based entertainment writer/photographer who appears in the Chicago Tribune, IllinoisEntertainer, Daily Journal, Concert Livewire, Hear/Say Magazine and Image Chicago (to name few). His record label writing credits include Warner Brothers, Atlantic, Curb, EMI and Universal, with additional photo credits for Fuse TV, Live Nation, Nikon, Pollstar, Celebrity Access, Paste Magazine, and He’s also the author/narrator of "Access Matthews" (an audio CD tracing the career of Dave Matthews Band) and spends considerable time on tour, including outings with Arlo Guthrie, The Guess Who, Madina Lake (on Linkin Park’s Projekt Revolution) and Gospel Music Channel’s very own "Gospel Dream" (where he served as season one judge).

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