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In anticipation of a new season of the smash hit "American Idol," Randy Jackson sat down with reporters to give us a few teasers about the newest round of auditions, what "tweaks" might be in store for viewers, and his plans to dress as a Jedi. Here is a transcript of his conference call, which was so long that it had to be split into two parts. If you're an Idol fan, you're in for a treat!
Simon has bitched and moaned about the guest judges that you guys bring in during auditions. Do you mind the guest judges or could you live without them yourself?
Jackson: I think I could definitely live without them. I mean the show works because itís the three of us on the panel and kind of what we do and how we interact. I donít necessarily think that we need guest judges. I think when people come into the arena that we judge in, itís often a little awkward and a little hard for them. I think people look at the show as a fan and go, ďI could do that. Iíd love to be there.Ē Itís almost like saying I could be a pitcher or I could with the Cy Young Award. Actually, I couldnít. I donít even know if I could pitch little league. I mean, yes, you could do it, but is it going to be great or are you just there for the TV face time?
Obviously, itís the executive directors who made that decision, right? The executive producers, I mean, make that call, right?
Jackson: Yes. I actually donít know who actually makes the call, but I think I could do without it, too.
How many days do you spend at each audition city and how many people do you see in each audition city?
Jackson: We spend about two days in each city. We generally see about 200 people a day.
A day? Holy cow.
Jackson: Yes. Thatís a lot of singing, dude. A lot of being sung at.
Every year they make a few tweaks to the show. Anything new this year that we can expect that you know of?
Jackson: Iím going to wear more yellow and lime green in honor of Gnarls Barclay. Iím going to come dressed like a Jedi every week like Gnarls Barclay. No. We have a few things that we change, but I think the formula is pretty much what it is. I mean youíll see a couple of wrinkles here and there, but of course, I canít tell you what that is.
I know the success of the show continues to surprise people every year that it just keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger. How long will that continue and what would have to happen for the show to suddenly not be as successful as it was the year before?
Jackson: Listen, I mean I think this is the greatest music talent show ever, right? I mean I know that me, Simon, and Paula, we never really think about the ratings or look at that or whatever. I think we just go out and kind of do what we do. I think thereís an abundance of talent in America and there will never be not a lot of talent out there.
I mean you see whatís happening to Jennifer Hudson, who didnít even win that year; that tells you right there thereís a lot of great talent out there. Itís just about finding it. I think the show can continue to be successful as long as we go out and find great talent. I donít know what the numbers are going to be each year. I donít even think about that really, because American Idol is a search for the next superstar. Itís not search for the next ratings boost to me. Do you know what I mean?
Yes. Any particular genre shine during the auditions?
Jackson: This year itís really weird, man. We had some of everything. There was, of course, more rock guys because of Chris Dautry and stuff that happened. I think there were a couple of more kind of Taylor Hicks kind of guys; I mean that were kind of in the middle somewhere, but itís the same thing. I think fortunately for us every year, the show gets more validation because people see that thereís great people that have won and gone on to great careers. So we get a lot more talented people every year, I feel.
Have you had a chance to see Jennifer Hudson since the whole Dream Girls thing came out? Have you had the chance to commiserate with her at all?
Jackson: Yes. I went to the premier here in LA of Dream Girls and talked to her for quite a long time and then I saw her at a dinner, the Carousel of Hope Ball here in LA that was honoring Clive Davis and Quincy Jones. We talked for a long time there.
Is she still maybe asking for advice at all or ...?
Jackson: No, but she did say, ďThank you for making me your wildcard pick,Ē because sometimes we forget; years go by. She was my wildcard pick that year.
I just say to all of them, ďMake sure you make the right record.Ē Thatís what itís all about. We talk about it on the show and we get a lot of flack from it on the show, but itís all about great songs on the show, great songs after the show. Thatís what makes hit records, great songs.
It seems like on CBS Rock Star kind of clicked with some viewers because the song selection was a little more modern. Are there songs that youíre just sick to death of from American Idol by now?
Jackson: Yes. There are a lot of songs that weíre sick to death of during the auditions. We mentioned ďAt LastĒ by Etta James, which is an amazing song, but people just butcher it; ďFallinĒ by Alicia Keyes, people just butcher that. There are tons of songs that people butcher and I have heard no one yet to ever sing a Mariah Carey song and do it justice.
Rock Star, I donít know if the ratings were that big, so I donít know how many people it really did connect with it. As far as I know it probably didnít connect with that many people. But listen, I think that what we do is itís about challenging people, so the song selections that we make; itís not about being modern.
The one thing that I know, being a record producer, is that every kid out there in America knows every song on the radio right now. You could say, ďSing ďPromiscuousĒ to me. Sing Sexy Back.Ē They know all of that. But if I go back and say, ďListen, let me hear you sing some Nat King Cole.Ē ďWho is that?Ē Or better still, ďSing me some Beatles.Ē
ďWho are they?Ē ďWhat?Ē Then it creates the challenge part of the competition. Do you know what Iím saying? Having them sing whatever songs are on the charts is boring because I know they already know them. I know those.
Whatís this about you working with the Hilton out here in Vegas?
Jackson: You never know. There may be some things going on in Vegas, man. Youíve got to stay tuned.
Maybe a series of concerts?
Jackson: Maybe. Youíre pretty good.
Iím looking forward to seeing all of the horrible, horrible, horrible singers this time. I donít care about the good ones. I like the lousy ones.
Jackson: You sound like Simon Cowell. Are you guys friends?
Well, I donít know. Give me an idea of who is going to be the one that everyone is going to be talking about, about how bad he or she is.
Jackson: You know, every season thereís a number of those. Youíre going to have to judge this time for yourself. There are a number of those. Iím telling you wonders never cease to amaze.
Do you like these guys or do you just think theyíre ridiculous and wasting your time?
Jackson: I think for the first five seconds or so you like them. You think itís funny. Youíre laughing. Then you go, ďOkay. Come on. What is this?Ē You just know that people watch this show from year to year. Youíve seen Kelly Clarkson. What is she? Sheís great. You see Fantasia, Clay, Ruben, now Jennifer Hudson, Carrie Underwood, Clay, Katharine McPhee, Taylor Hicks. These people are great.
Then you go, ďYouíve heard them.Ē Then they show up and theyíre really horrible. You go, ďSomething must really be wrong with their hearing.Ē Then you start thinking, ďI wonder what theyíre seeing, too.Ē Maybe they have me and Simon confused.
You mentioned that sometimes youíll hear 200 auditions a day. How can you, as a judge, give equal time and your attention to the 200th person. Arenít you just dying by then?
Jackson: Fortunately for us one of the things that makes this show really, really cool is that myself, Simon, and Paula are really 25-year-plus music industry veterans. Weíve done every facet of it. Thereís nothing we donít know about the music business. So me having been A&R guy for 15 years and also being a musician myself and being on a countless number of auditions when I was growing up, youíre used to doing it. I put bands together. I just had Mariah out on tour with a huge band. I mean itís what I do, so I kind of know how to pace myself by this point. Do you know what I mean?
How do you explain Jennifer Hudson losing American Idol and now blowing away Beyonce in Dream Girls?
Jackson: Me personally, I donít think she blows away Beyonce in Dream Girls. I went to the premier of the movie. I think sheís amazing in Dream Girls. I think that Jennifer Holiday, who originally sang the song, was equally, probably even more amazing, because itís harder to be the original one than to be the second or the third one. I think sheís done amazingly well, but I remind people every time the girl that won, her name was Fantasia Barrino and if you want to know why she won, go back and listen to that ďSummertimeĒ version that she did. Itís the best Idol performance to date. Thatís why she won.
Iím reading my Entertainment Weekly last week and it has Nigel Lithgow talking about you.
Jackson: Whoís that?
He says, ďRandy only uses five words over and over all season. We sent him a dictionary, but he doesnít read it. How can you work with a guy like that?Ē
Jackson: You know thatís a lie, because weíve done a lot of these interviews, so you know and you watch the show. I think itís just been Nigelís running joke for a long time. I think what is really funny about it though is when he talks about the song selection, that we hate some of the song selections. I love the fact that he says the show is not about the songs; itís about the kids singing. Well, guess what? Itís about songs while youíre on the show, because if you sing a song thatís too hard for you, guess what, youíre not going to sing it very well, right? After you get off the show whatís it about for your career? Songs again, that song word comes up a lot.
Itís all cool. Look, I mean Iím a record producer. Heís a TV producer. The funny thing, when I was doing A&R for many years, everyone wanted to be the A&R person, from the guy in the mail room to the promotion guy, the marketing people, the publicist. I guess Nigel just maybe wants to be a judge.
Well, he was talking about your criticism of the final songs, especially from last year. I guess theyíre going to try and have some sort of competition to get a better final song. How do you feel about all of that?
Jackson: I donít really know much about the song choice, but Iíll just say this about songs: Listen, hit songs are very hard to come by. If you look at the charts every year, there may be five or ten memorable songs from each year. If theyíre that hard to come by by the greatest writers in the world you know this is a very hard feat, so I wish everyone success with that one.
I was reading my Entertainment Weekly also and I saw that you were quoted as saying youíre going to call up Mariah Carey and ask her to be a guest judge, not a guest judge, but to mentor the kids and sing on the show. Is that going to happen?
Jackson: I donít know. I mean Iíve been thinking about it. Weíve tossed it around a bit. I think sheíd be great because I think still, for me, she and Whitney and Celine are those three big great divas, I mean some of the better singers of our time that weíve ever known.
Have you talked with Mariah about it?
Jackson: I mentioned it to her. Weíll see. I donít know. Weíll see. Youíve got to stay tuned on that one.
She was open to it?
Jackson: Yes. I mean definitely open to it, so weíll see what happens.
Whatís this I hear? I hear some rumors going around about group performance situations where the kids will be judged or the contestants will be judged in groups as an element, not just during Hollywood week? Is there any truth to that?
Jackson: Youíve got to stay tuned to see if that comes true or not.
Any standouts so far, good contestants? I also saw that people were saying thereís really no front runner and thereís no Carrie Underwood or Fantasia this year. Is that true?
Jackson: I think whatís going to happen this year is Simon and I have been saying itís more like season one. I think itís going to be somebody that really grows during the competition. Do you know what I mean? I donít know. There are a bunch of standouts, but you know what happens is what weíve seen over the years is that you see these people audition in their audition city and theyíre great. Then they come to Hollywood week and theyíre not so great and the tension just gets worse and worse and worse as the season goes on. So itís who can really stand in there and take it and show up every week and be amazing.
Whatís up with Seattle? Everyone is saying itís the worst city ever. What happened there?
Jackson: I donít know if it was that bad. I thought we found some pretty good people in Seattle, so Iím not going to say it was the worst city. To me we found three great people in Seattle. Iím happy.
Thank you very much.
I want to go back to Jennifer Hudson for a second. The irony is that in Dream Girls she plays someone who has an amazing voice, but is bounced because she doesnít have the looks and the charisma of some of the others. Some people thought thatís what happened in American Idol, too. That she had an amazing voice, maybe one of the best there was, but she just, for whatever reason; I donít know; looks, charisma, something, was bounced sooner than she should have been. How do you feel about that?
Jackson: I think she was bounced sooner than she should have been. But if you remember that season, and itís hard for people to go back and think about it; people donít even remember that she was my wildcard pick. We had our own Dream Girls that season. We had LaToya, Jennifer Hudson, and Fantasia Barrino. So the thing that was going to happen is who was ever the best singer at that time.
Fortunately for her, Fantasia, as I said, ďSummertimeĒ is the only time that Iíve gotten goose bumps from any singer on Idol during the show. She blew that out. That was better than anybodyís performance for me to date, so to me she deserved to win that season. I mean, look, you saw Ruben win. Itís not about weight. Itís not about look. I mean thatís what Idol is about. Itís not about any of that, so I donít think thereís any truth to that.
In other words itís song choice and ďSummertimeĒ was the ultimate song choice for Fantasia?
Jackson: It was the ultimate thing for Fantasia. Fantasia is an amazing singer, so I mean she lost to someone equally amazing and at that time probably was better on the show than Jennifer was consistency wise. I mean itís just really being honest. The public only calls it as they see it. They donít have the industry savvy that you and I have. Do you know what Iím saying? I mean, listen, she lost to a very, very talented singer.
Last year there was a lot of personality in the finalists you guys chose. Iím curious how big a part of the formula is that? Iím thinking about people like Dautry, who kind of nothing to everything. Then there was Kelly Pickler and others. How much of the back story really figures in what you these people for?
Jackson: Well, the public actually picks these people to put them in the finals. We do the auditions, but then the public starts eliminating them, as you will start seeing next week on the show. Definitely, personality plays a huge part because you know the three qualities I look for is unbelievable, unique talent, and some sense of star potential, if you will. That means some great personality, something thatís going to engage people and also that confidence, that really eye-of-the-tiger kind of persistence. Do you know what I mean? So I think you look for that in all singers. I think if you think back to Elvis, Elvis had all of that. If you think to whomever you love, whether itís Sinatra, Nat King Cole, whoever you love, whether itís Prince or whomever, they all had all of those things. I think thatís what makes up a great, great superstar.
Last year you said you got terrific people out of Greensboro and I noticed Greensboro wasnít on the list this year. Any thoughts on that?
Jackson: No. We had the best time in Greensboro and I think we loved it. Iím sure weíll be back in those parts some time, but we move it around every year and try and go to different cities. Who knows? We may not come back to Greensboro, but maybe weíll go to Charlotte again or something. I donít know. Do you know what I mean? Weíll definitely move it around because we had a good time down there. Itís a great place, man.
Randy, as Iím sure you know, people in Birmingham have come to expect to see an Idol finalist from our city ...
Jackson: Well, Birmingham has definitely done itself proud over the years I must say.
Tell me, what do you think about the chances for that happening again this season?
Jackson: Listen, you never know, but Iíve got a feeling the winner is going to be from somewhere else this year.
Donít tell me that. Did you see any good talent in Birmingham?
Tell me a little bit about what you saw there.
Jackson: Listen, we had a very good time. I mean I love the city. We had a great time. We saw some really talented people. You never know, though. I mean I think it may have been someone that auditioned in Birmingham, but maybe not from Birmingham. I donít know, but we had a good time there and we found some good people.
Randy, when it comes to the songs that the two finalists at the end are singing, that they record, do these have to be in your opinion, these big, swelling, sentimental ballads?
Jackson: Do you mean with words like blessed and love and thank God and without you, I wouldnít be alive? Do you mean stuff like that?
Yes, like that.
Jackson: No, not necessarily, but I think, listen, itís a very emotional competition, right? So I think what theyíre trying to create is to try and find a song that takes you through the journey. Itís like when you graduate from college or high school and theyíre singing ďPomp and Circumstance.Ē Itís that song, you know, or like the season that we had the Sinatra song, ďI Did It My Way.Ē It kind of encapsulates the whole emotion of the season. These kids go through a lot and they come a long way, so it doesnít have to be that, no, but I think that is kind of the whole general concept.
Iím always interested to see what the contestants learn from the celebrities, who come in to coach them, and then kind of what they take with them in other performances. What I see a lot of is people like Barry Manilow or whoever will say to them, ďYouíre singing that fine, but thereís no emotion behind it.Ē I mean tell me a little bit about that. Do you think thatís something that the technically competent singers arenít thinking about or maybe at this stage in their careers they just donít know how to do the emotional part?
Jackson: Yes. I think what really happens is we pick kids off the street. This is an open call to whomever wants to show up if theyíre between the age of 16 and 28, so these are people that are not seasoned veterans. This is the reason that we, myself and the judges, keep talking about song choice during the season; because guess what? Not only what these guest judges tell them, what we tell them, if they really listen and really went back over everything we said to them theyíre getting the lessons of life from three industry professionals plus the guest judges.
What Barry is basically saying is a song is comprised of a bunch of things. Itís the lyric. Itís the melody. Itís also you being able to tie in emotionally to what that song means. Whatís the lyric saying? What are you trying to convey to the next listener? Also, the difficulty of the degree of singing in that song; as if if you canít sing like Mariah Carey, then you shouldnít be trying to sing Mariah Carey songs. If you are not as good a singer as Celine Dion, you shouldnít be trying to sing Celine Dion songs. No matter whether you love them or not, I love a lot of things. I love Mario Andretti, but I donít race cars. Do you know what I mean?
What heís saying is do you feel the emotion of this song? Do you know what itís saying? Have you taken the time or are you just so technically fixated on the runs and whatever? I have a lot of that problem with a lot of singers during the season as well, because I know that theyíre not tying in emotionally to the song, so it doesnít quite get across to the listener. Do you know what I mean?
Maybe itís a torched blues song and theyíre smiling through the whole thing and look happy.
Jackson: Or just giving it the wrong treatment, but I think a lot of that really is they just donít really know who they are. Thatís when you pick the wrong songs, but the reason that we tell them that itís the wrong songs is because if you donít know who you are you should learn who you are, so that you sing better, so that you can have an easier road to some success.
Randy, this is the first time youíre back in the New York area for a while. How was the crowd at the Meadowlands?
Jackson: It was actually really good. We had a good, good time in New York this time. We hadnít been back there in years, so it was good to be back.
Anyone stand out from that group?
Jackson: Yes, there were some talented people from New York this time. I donít know if there was an abundance like thereís been in past times that weíve been there, but there were definitely some talented people there.
[Continued in Part Two.]