AI6: A New Interview with Nigel Lythgoe: Not a Fan of the Music
FOX arranged another conference call with Nigel Lythgoe. Nigel was drilled with questions on Sanjaya to another World Idol to even some questions on So You Think You Can Dance. I want to thank Nigel, who is very busy, for taking the time to answer all these questions.
Are you disappointed that you guys didnít end up with a country singer this year because youíve had so much success with country artists in the past. Were you surprised?
N. Lythgoe: I donít think we think what weíre ending up with, do you know what I mean? I think the top 20 chosen from what the judges believe are the correct ones and then America brings them down, as you know, to the top 12. So we donít have that much say in it.
And ratings are down a little bit the past couple of weeks, the performance shows are down about 10% and the results show a little bit less. I know some of it has to do with the earlier daylight savings times, but do you have any theories on why the ratings are down a little bit?
N. Lythgoe: Listen, I would just like to watch all the other networks thinking God, weíd love our ratings to go down as badly as that. Even if we lost 50% of our audience weíd still be in the top three programs in the country, so Iím not really that worried and everyone keeps telling me it is a great deal to do with the daylight savings and also it affects the programs with the most ratings the highest, obviously.
But to be honest about it, people are saying this is not our greatest year for talent; I donít necessarily agree with them. I think weíve got five or six probably the best singers weíve ever had on American Idol. But if it is a bad year for talent and weíll find out I think over the next few weeks, then we do always watch a ratings drop of between 3% and 4% in that area.
Randy is always the guy whoís saying you shouldnít touch Whitney, you shouldnít touch so and so; heís always saying thereís all these artists that you shouldnít even do. Do you agree with that?
N. Lythgoe: I think whatís so great about the show is itís so subjective and the fun is in disagreeing with what people say. If I was a contestant and listening to everything thatís been said over the last six seasons, I wouldnít know what to do from one week to the next because they tell you one week, oh you know, youíre playing it safe. Another week theyíre saying oh, itís dangerous to do this and oh, youíve chosen the wrong song. Itís a tough one. Youíve just got to get out there and sing the best you can and knock peopleís socks off. End of story basically.
Weíve been talking to the eliminated contestants each week and every one of them has talked about how close this group is. Do you think that this group is closer than previous groups and talk just like why these guys get so close to each other in your opinion?
N. Lythgoe: Iím not sure itís closer than any other group. Generally you find that they do get very close because everyone is in the same boat. Theyíre all going out there and theyíre all going to be killed at one time or another by Randy or Simon. I think this is the first season that Randy has been really tough with everybody so that might be having some effect.
But it is that we are sharing the same experience that draws people together. Itís a bit like Lost.
Ken told a publication that the song writing contest has been put on the hold because of the all the time that Idol Gives Back. So, one, is that true?
N. Lythgoe: I think it is true, actually. No oneís put their mind to it.
The follow-up to that is will the song that the winner sings be selected as it was in previous seasons?
N. Lythgoe: No. Hopefully theyíre still going to do the song competition. The song competition hasnít really anything to do with Ken and I. Itís to do with 19 and 19 Music, which is a separate area and then Ken and I were talking about trying to bounce off the song competition by offering Fox a special or a couple of specials on it.
I do believe the song competition is going to continue. I think itís a keep your eye on the Web site scenario, but as Ken rightly said everyone sort of focused on Idol Gives Back which sort of sprang up very quickly and grabbed us, but Iím sure the song competition will continue.
Could you talk about the genesis of Idol Gives Back, where the idea came from and how you got Bono and Border?
N. Lythgoe: Well, the whole genesis of it is really through Simon Fuller and Richard Curtis. Richard Curtis runs a thing called Red Nose Day in the U.K., which is a complete day of television, which they spend all year thinking about and producing and itís done through Comic Relief and all of our major artists get on board and whatever Americans are in town at the time all get on board and itís done for the BBC.
And I think he and Simon Fuller were talking. Richard Curtis, as you probably know, is the guy who wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones Diary and did all of the original Black Adder stuff, Mr.Bean, that sort of thing. And they were talking and decided that American Idol would be a good vehicle to break it here. Richard is much more interested in charities in Africa. With us being American Idol we really wanted it to be 50-50 and children was the major appeal for us. So that was the genesis of it and it grew from that basically.
Has any particular contestant surprised you in any way so far this season?
N. Lythgoe: Jordan continues to surprise me, to be frank. Iím watching her grow week on week. From this 17-year-old that I saw a number of years ago when she auditioned for American Juniors Iím watching a young lady come to fruition and a huge talent.
How do you feel about the fact that it still could practically be anyoneís game?
N. Lythgoe: Itís great; itís great for the audience as well. I think over the years people have always said oh, itís one of two people and this one is wide open for about; I donít think itís wide open, I think between four or five of them.
So for you personally, regarding theme nights rather produces better shows, sort of a very restrictive theme like songs of Diana Ross or something like this week where with pop music it could be basically anything.
N. Lythgoe: Well, this week it couldnít really be anything because itís artists that have inspired Gwen and Gwen has given a list of artists that inspired her. So itís pinned down a little bit, shall we say. I think for the contestants itís much better when the genre is open. British Invasion turned out much better than we had all dreamt actually because a good song has the ability of changing and coming right up to date as well.
I love the older songs more because there is more melody there and a proper written song so itís got verse, chorus and a bridge and it just makes it a little more interesting.
Well, does it defeat the purpose to some degree if, say for example, last week, several of the songs were originally and more famously recorded by American artists?
N. Lythgoe: Well, that was the British Invasion. I mean apart from the Beatles, that was the British Invasion; all of those songs were Brit songs that were then brought back over here, which is the joke of it. Itís a little bit like American Idol to be frank with you. Weíve brought the American dream from England back to America. Itís the same thing.
Okay, but you donít feel it sort of cheapens it if contestants each week are trying to find different ways to sort of sneak around the theme?
N. Lythgoe: Well, all of those songs were sung by Brits and brought back over here and they had hits with them, every single one of them. Although things like ďTell HimĒ was originally done by the Exciters, Billie Davis, a young girl in the U.K. had the huge hit with it. It was at that period of time that was theÖ match.
You know, I remember Cilla Black in the U.K. releasing ďYouíve Lost That Loving FeelingĒ and it getting to about number two in the charts and then all of a sudden these two guys called The Righteous Brothers, we got that and we went, wow, these are really great. How come Cilla is up at number two when youíve got the Righteous Brothers singing it? So it was that period of time where songs were just passed across the Atlantic and it was so much more of a divide in those days, you know?
Can we safely say that the All Starsí thing that you mentioned the last time you talked to us wonít be happening this season?
N. Lythgoe: Iím sorry, whatís the All Star thing?
The idea of bringing back favorite contestants from the past to do the Song Writing Competition songs.
N. Lythgoe Ah, I donít know, to be frank with you. I mean Iím still trying to push Fox and say, hey, whatís happening, whatís happening; would you like it, would you like it? But we are being sort of sucked into this black hole at the moment called Idol Gives Back where all our attention is going to that. But, no, I hope not. I do believe that some competition is going to happen and if it is going to happen then I think that is a really good way of presenting the songs.
I donít know if you heard about it or saw, but on Saturday Night Live this week they had a little bit where they were clearly mocking Sanjaya Malakar and Iím wondering if you can laugh about those things, if you find it funny or if you have a thick or a thin skin about those things when people kind of take shots at your contestants and, you know, sort of indirectly at the show.
N. Lythgoe: Well, to be honest with you, I donít need the thick skin. Sanjaya needs the thick skin. Listen, Iím old school so any time my shows are talked about Iím really happy in whatever way itís discussed. Iíll always defend anything thatís on the show if I feel as though itís defensible, but that doesnít alarm me. Saturday Night Live has often had pot shots at us. And weíve always enjoyed it. I mean, I donít mind. Part of our humor here is making fun of ourselves so it really doesnít worry me that anyone else makes fun of us.
And just a quick follow-up; Sanjaya has appeared to become a bit of a lightening rod, I mean every year there is somebody, right, that people kid of seem to pick on.
N. Lythgoe: Strange, isnít it?
It is, you know, but I guess you just kind of roll with that and figure that if youíre going to have fan voting and fan debate that this is the back end of that.
N. Lythgoe: Itís all part of the mixture of it. I think weíre going to have this thing called the Sanjaya Effect and I feel as though last week I was myself Sanjayaed purely and simply because heís got guts this kid and you have to applaud that and if half the people with more talent than him had his guts, weíd get better talent all around.
But I donít think heís stupid and I think he looked at two songs, ďIím Into Something Good,Ē which was the sort of normal, virginal, bright-eyed and big smile Sanjaya and this sort of jumping around, manic, throwing his hair around Sanjaya of ďYou Really Got Me.Ē And he picked up an awful lot of votes with that.
It doesnít seem that Idol in the past has focused on a non-winning contestant, such as Chris Daughtry, as much. Heís been mentioned a lot by Simon Cowl, the song is used each week. Is he being focused on? Is he the tension sort of taking away from Taylor Hicks?
N. Lythgoe: I donít know why Simon Cowl is doing it apart from itís Simon Cowlís company, BMG, that has released the record and the record is doing well, so I would imagine Simon Cowl is doing it for publicity purposes for him. But we havenít really focused on him apart from the song ďHome,Ē which I heard long before it was released and thought it would be a good one to send kids home to. But heís not been on the show.
Is he going to be on the show and is Taylor Hicks going to be on the show this year?
N. Lythgoe: Oh, of course, Taylor Hicks, of course, yes.
And is Chris Daughtry going to make an appearance?
N. Lythgoe: I donít know yet; not on the series as Iím aware.
So the show, if there are Taylor Hicks conspiracy theorists, the show is not officially favoring Chris Daughtry over Taylor Hicks?
N. Lythgoe: Well, the show has never done anything to show that apart from use that record, as I say, and had Taylor Hicks recorded ďHomeĒ or a piece of music that was what we felt was right to send contestants home to, then weíd have used Taylor; of course not. Taylor Hicks is our Idol this season.
Do you like the Taylor Hicks album?
N. Lythgoe: Personally? Are you asking me personally if I liked it?
N. Lythgoe: I havenít heard it to be honest.
Is that unusual or just busy?
N. Lythgoe: No.
Have you heard all the other Idol albums?
N. Lythgoe: No.
You havenít heard any of them?
N. Lythgoe: Kelly Clarksonís I like; Iíve heard Carrie Underwoodís. I havenít heard Fantasiaís, havenít heard Rubenís, havenít heard Taylorís and havenít heard an awful lot of the other releases. Itís not my type of music, to be frank with you. I like more middle of the road stuff, and when they leave us they sort of go to different genres. I quite like country, which is why I played Carrie; I wanted to see where Kelly was going as she was our first Idol. But I have very little time to listen to outside music. Iím constantly listening to music that weíre doing of that week and trying to get everything downloaded to give the kids as wide of spectrum of choice as I can.
I heard somebody say that American Idol is the most important show in the history of television. Could you make a case for that being true?
N. Lythgoe: Well, only Foxís ratings. No, as far as Iím concerned, itís a really good talent show that appeals to families and I think at a time when the proliferation of television around the home is occurring and the break up of families because theyíve got their own rooms to go to is occurring, this actually brings people back together and brings families back together, so itís important as a sort of social glue, number one. And, number two, itís extremely important for Fox who go from fourth place to number one place in the ratings.
N. Lythgoe: Is it the most important show? No, of course itís not; itís a talent show, a television talent show. Letís not lose perspective on what this is. Itís phenomenal in its own area. Outside of that it doesnít really mean anything in real life.
But as far as being influential in television, it has caused a lot of other shows to put voting elements in.
N. Lythgoe: Well, people are always going to try and copy success, so from that point of view thatís always going to happen. Itís very nice to be known as ďThe Death StarĒ and nobody wants to schedule around us. That comes with the success of the program. But, itís a television show.
And just as an aside, have you thought about any return or permanent role for Lulu because she was fabulous.
N. Lythgoe: She was very good, wasnít she? I donít know, but Simon Cowl is doing shows in the U.K., maybe he should think about using her for one of his judges because I thought she was terrific and very passionate.
I think even despite what people were saying earlier about itís a wide open contest; I think some people still sort of see it as a Melinda/Lakisha showdown, maybe even Jordin Sparks.
N. Lythgoe: I think people bring themselves into the equation. I think Jordin certainly has over the past few weeks. Itís that one thing why Iím wary, in truth, is Iíve seen it happen before, Martin.
N. Lythgoe: Iíve seen the three divas, if you remember they were Latoya London, Jennifer Hudson and Fantasia. And Iíve seen them cancel each other out. So Iím always wary; I let everyone else say itís this and that. Donít forget, I know the results every week so I can do my own equations, thank you, and so itís really difficult for me to talk about it, but I would just counsel that this has occurred before. Donít jump to any conclusions at this moment in time. So thatís why Iím saying it is an open race at the moment because people can end up cancelling each out.
Well, what do you think? I mean, weíve never run into two people of color that were in the finals. Any sort of thoughts about that?
N. Lythgoe: I think thatís up to America. We still hear people calling us a racist show and I think itís so idiotic and such a stupid statement. Number one, you can see by the show itself that weíre not racist. Number two, it isnít down to the show at this point. Itís down to America. So itís an idiotic statement and is so easily disproved.
Okay, there are obviously strong sentiments afoot here; I mean, young people every week having their dreams brutally crushed. Do you have sort of a crisis, I call it a team, backstage to take care of the people being booted out or is that an issue at all?
N. Lythgoe: Brutally crushed and booted out from having been turned into a celebrity. Itís tough; there is no question itís tough, and by the way, yes we do; we have counselors here, but thatís for the entire time that theyíre with us, not just for the time that they leave the show. Itís quite interesting how you say brutally crushed and booted out and I say asked to leave the show.
But they are there and it isnít just for that. I mean this entire period of time we are working them so hard, Jon. They work every single day; they donít have a day off. They are live on television, the strains and stresses of that are enormous. In truth, the younger they are the easier they take it. I donít think they sort of realize that nerves should be playing a part.
But certainly that moment, and thatís why we really do the bottom three because rather than just saying okay, Sanjaya, youíre cut from the show; itís much more of a youíre in the bottom three and let it seep in and let them realize, oh, I could be cut here. So we are somewhat gentle in our cruel approach.
Whatís the strategy for future installments? Are you planning on developing the show part, the show component of the show?
N. Lythgoe: We continually tinker with it. We watch everything that we do very carefully. We try and figure out if this worked or if it didnít work, so that results show on a Wednesday is constantly changing. That is something that we change every single week and find a different way of sort of saying youíre cut from the show, which would take all of 30 seconds for Ryan Seacrest to tell somebody that and most of the time weíre given 60 minutes to do it in, so weíve got to continually change it. That is constantly reviewed.
The actual show itself, we think we are almost there with the format. Now it depends on the talent that we have each season and the different genres of music, how well the host carries the show through, how well the judges speak, how good the contestant, the teacher, the mentor that week is and so weíre reliant on a lot of things to either produce a good show or a bad show. So the format, I think, is pretty near set now.
Oh, I did have a question about So You Think You Can Dance. Did you ever, on that show when you do the judging youíre considered to be a little bit more harsh than the others sometimes, so do you ever get help from Simon on how to be real harsh, but still really brutally honest on how you judge your dancers?
N. Lythgoe: Unfortunately, Simon canít help me with dance. Itís not his area. Or were you saying help me with being hard and brutal on this?
Yes, just kind of training you on this is how you do it.
N. Lythgoe: Iím older than Simon, unfortunately, and Iíve been hard and brutally honest for most of my life before I even met Simon. Also, donít forget, I was the nasty judge on Pop Stars before Pop Idol was even conceived. So Iíve not needed any help in being hard or brutally honest.
The help I need from Simon is finding out how to make the same sort of money as he is; thatís where Iíd love him to help me.
Then my other question, Nigel, I know we were talking about all the controversy kind of surrounding Sanjaya and I know that there has been a lot of controversy with the voting processes here as to who is staying on, who is getting kicked off and how America is voting.
N. Lythgoe: I donít think thereís any difference than any other year, to be frank with you. I think it was John Stevens and then it was probably Kevin Covais.
Yes, but this year Vote For The Worst.com has kind of surfaced more in the media than it has the years before. Do you get surprised by the fact that people take the show so seriously that theyíre going to create a Web site?
M. Lythgoe: Yes, they did that in the U.K. on the first season of Pop Idol. The thing is itís a bit like a fly buzzing around a cow; you want to waft it away with your tail. When youíre getting 30 million votes, whatever that Web site can do is just not enough.
Itís not enough, right? Because theyíre just trying to jump on the bandwagon of the success.
N. Lythgoe: Canít you understand why little girls vote for Sanjaya? I can.
I can, too.
N. Lythgoe: So I donít even know what the controversy is, to be frank. Heís there, heís been in the bottom two for a quite a while. He pulled himself out of the bottom two last week, but thereís no controversy for me.
My question is are there any genres that you would love to see on the show that you havenít yet?
N. Lythgoe: Yes, lots of them. I would love to do the Eagles. I would love to do the music of the Beatles. And then there are a number of songwriters I would love to do. Iíd love to do the lyrics of Hal David, the music of Carole King; anything that gives the contestants really good melodic songs to sing and a wide choice.
I hate pinning them down too much because whenever we do the sort of songs of 2000 and the new Millennium and everything, thereís nothing really there to grab hold of and they never sound as good as weíve gone into an age of production and sound pools, which has never really been great for songwriters.
And what about specific songs? Say, you know Jordin has this wonderful voice thatís emerging. What would you think would be a really good song for her?
N. Lythgoe: One of the most silly comments Iíve heard from the judges recently was it was so depressing. Well, yes, thatís what the song is. That means she did a really good job when she sang, ďI Who Have NothingĒ she did it brilliantly. So I love her singing those big, dramatic songs. This week she is doing a really Ė I wonít tell you what it is Ė but itís a really cute pop song and sheís really jumping between these genres very, very well.
I wanted to ask if youíre able to comment at all on the Mario Vasquez loss?
N. Lythgoe: Iím not, Corey, thank you.
Then also there has been a lot of talk this year about the background singers being a little more shown and the talent has referenced them and stuff. Are they the same singers youíve had and can you kind of talk about how talented they are?
N. Lythgoe: They are the same singers to answer the first part of your question. But they are also individuals. Itís a tough job to be an upfront singer, as Melinda found until she found Idol, you know? But theyíre brilliant, the three girls are fantastic and we actually took the guy, Dorian, out of the team because there were originally three girls and one guy and Dorian now is one of our vocal coaches. So they are all brilliant in themselves. But I donít think theyíre standing out any more than theyíve done in the past; maybe the kids are just thanking them a little more, deservedly so.
And also Iíve heard some contestants reference that theyíve learned a lot from watching the past five seasons. Do you feel as the show continues to grow that youíre going to get more people who are sort of studiers of the show and do you think that does give people an advantage?
N. Lythgoe: I donít know if it gives them an advantage. I think for sure theyíre learning more. Iím sure weíre going to get more Iím a crack baby whoís father is in prison and Iím singing this for my late grandmother who died yesterday and that sort of letís try and find other angles to get America to vote for me attitude.
At the end of the day it comes down to talent. It doesnít matter how cute you are, how long your hair is, how gorgeous your eyes are, how wonderful your blonde hair and beautiful body is; it comes down to sing and then theyíve got to because that, at the end of the day, is the nakedness, if you like, of all of them to make them equal. Itís their voice and the way they perform and we know that America loves performers as well as good singers.
Itís generally the performers are the ones that remain in the competition longer and certainly with So You Think You Can Dance I think last season we had Benjy and Travis. Travis I look on as a very good dancer and good performer and Benjy was a very good performer and a good dancer. America went with the very good performer and good dancer.
Iím just wondering if you were able to keep tabs on any of the international editions of Idol; Iím thinking particularly of the Canadian version and do you ever see anything that is worth nicking?
N. Lythgoe: You must forgive me, I donít. But the things I understood was worth nicking we nicked and that was the British Invasion. We heard that that was one of your best shows and we thought, well, what a great idea. And, besides that, weíre all Brits so we know it backwards and we did last week and it was a great show for us.
Maybe to follow off that, if I could just ask you, will there ever be another World Idol?
N. Lythgoe: I donít think so. I think itís really difficult to get. Once theyíre idols, you know, they get this star quality to them and itís very hard to say, okay, now youíre going to compete against Kazakhstan and youíre singing against Borat and you could probably lose.
Itís really difficult to do that and why would you want to bring down your star of that year? It would be awful to lose to Borat, to be frank. Iíd prefer to wrestle him rather than sing against him. But if youíve got any other good ideas, Tim, would you mind e-mailing them to me?
Thank you to FOX for allowing us to participate in this media call.