Late last week, the affable and very busy Randy Jackson took a bit of time to talk to a group of journalists/bloggers about this season of American Idol [Fox, Wednesdays/Thursdays, 8/7C]: ratings, tweaking the format, the contestants and even the rumor that one of his acts might become a judge for a singing competition on, as they say, another network.
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I wanted to ask you specifically, obviously, since I’m in Houston and we’ve already seen the audition around here, but we didn’t actually get to see a lot of the people that made it through, because I think there was something like 54 or 55 singers that were put through. I wanted to know if you had any sort of specific recollections or commentary on some of the singers we didn’t see like Wendy Taylor, or Alisha Pace, or Crystal Omondi—some of the people who did in fact make it to Hollywood.
Jackson: Well, yes, I mean we remember Wendy because she tried out a bunch of times for the show and I actually had a lot of fun. We actually did those Houston auditions in Galveston. They initially were in Houston, the big call, and we judged in Galveston, which was amazing. I hadn’t been there in a long time since I was a kid, because I’m from the south, from Louisiana, as you know.
We had a good time. It was very interesting. There were a lot of characters for us this time in Houston, because we hadn’t been back to Houston in some years since I think it was the last time we were there some contestant poured water in Simon’s face, or whatever. But, we always have fond memories of them. Wendy Taylor, I really specifically remember, because she auditioned a couple of times.
Jackson: Yes. She was definitely ready and pumped for it. She did very well in that audition I remember.
I want to get a reaction. Have you spoken to Paula regarding the X-Factor shake-up for one? And why is it you think that your panel works so well together?
Jackson: I have not spoken to Paula. We texted back and forth. It’s sad to hear about all that’s going on with that show, but all of those people are dear friends of mine as you know and let me just say this. Idol started with me, Simon, Ryan and Paula and that’s what really brought us to our prominence. So those people are in my life forever, because we did something very unique and we had a chemistry that we lucked out with. I think when you do these shows with any kind of judging panel, what you’re really looking for is that chemistry, and we lucked out with it on Idol and we lucked out again with Steven and Jennifer.
Ryan and I sat down with them before we did anything with them and we had dinner together and it just clicked, minutes in, because we all knew each other for a long time. I think we just all have a kind of a common interest. We see it differently, but that’s a good thing, but I also it’s really about having that chemistry. Do you know what I mean?
I was wondering if you had any thoughts on why the ratings are down this season. Obviously, it’s still a very successful show, but we’re seeing drops this week.
Jackson: Listen, Idol is in its eleventh season. It’s still the number one show on television, not by the huge margins it was before, but just in the term of time and also, what I think now is I think the space of singing shows is definitely a little crowded right now. They’re on year-round now with us, The Voice and X-Factor and there’s even singing on Got Talent. So you got a lot of singing. So that’s what happens when your marketplace gets full. You know what I mean?
Any concerns at all about The Voice joining the … on Monday?
Jackson: No, no, no. Listen, I’m sure they’ll have huge numbers after the Super Bowl. I think any show after the Super Bowl will have huge numbers. Listen, they’ve got a great show and I think there’s room for everyone out there, … you will see.
Can you discuss any creative changes that we’re going to see on the show overall this season?
Jackson: We have a couple of little wrinkles that we’re going to throw in, because I think it’s always about finding ways to make it better. One of the things that we’ve been tossing and tossing around and we’ll get some ideas it is that judges save thing. You know what I mean? Because last season we said Casey was at the right time because it was the right person to do that with, but I certainly wished we had another one or two because it didn’t serve the rest of the team well. Do you know what I mean?
Who do you think would be a good judge in the X-Factor? I know the name Mariah Carey’s been floating around. Do you think she’d be a good judge for the X-Factor?
Jackson: Yes, she’d be amazing. I manage her and of course I’m going to say that, but she’d be amazing. I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen or whatever, but I think there are quite a few people. Look, Simon’s one of the smartest people I know. I’m sure he’s got some very interesting ideas up his sleeve.
I just have a question, because this is the second time around for Jennifer. Did you feel like she acted a little bit differently with everything that was going on in her life?
Jackson: No. She’s very cool. She’s very professional. She comes to work and she comes to work. She’s doesn’t carry anything with her. But I must say, her and Steven, this being the second season, you’ll see Hollywood week starting next week. We put these kids through the paces and we’re a little tougher. All of them were a little tougher on these kids. We were challenging them a lot more.
As far as the judging goes, which is what I can really speak about and what their role is on the show, I think they both really, really settled in. I think we’re in a real groove now.
You know, except for one episode—I don’t know if you actually watched the episodes— but most of them show very little conflict between you and the other two judges over either all three of you think the person shouldn’t go through, or all of you think that they should go to Hollywood. Is that really what happened across the board or is that just the way it was edited?
Jackson: It’s just probably the edit that you’re seeing. I have not seen all of them. I’ve seen a couple of them. My ego is really good. I don’t need to watch myself on TV. Like some others—maybe Ryan loves watching himself back. I’ve heard rumors that he gets a bowl of popcorn and says, ‘Oh, my God! I’m good there. Oh, my God! Look at my teeth!’ Or whatever.
So, no, listen, we disagree a lot. It’s hard when you do those because we don’t see everyone the same ways. You’re probably just seeing a different edit sometimes, but you’ll begin to see that and people that we champion, we champion them straight up. As soon as that person’s done singing, ‘Oh yes, yes, yes.’ If not, you see a little hesitancy from all of us. Do you know what I mean?
There’s always speculation about Ryan Seacrest leaving and I was just wondering what about you? Do you see yourself ever moving on? And if so, how much longer do you think you’d stay on with the show and what would you do in that case?
Jackson: Listen, this show can go on for quite a number of years. I think and hope and wish and pray that Ryan is definitely going to be there because as I said, somewhat earlier, he and I, Simon and Paula started this thing and I can’t imagine doing the show without him. I don’t think anyone else could either. He’s the best at what he does. It’s hard to find these hosts that can really wrangle all of us and do all of the stuff that needs to be done.
Yes, I think I will be there for a while; at least, I contract there for a while now. Listen, you never know what the future brings. Both Ryan and I are working on ideas together. We’re working on ideas separately. There’s a lot of territory out there still to explore: TV, … shows, … movies, … everything. Who knows, maybe I’ll become the next Brad Pitt or something and just be like …. Be a leading man. That’s what I always wanted to be—the leading man.
I want to ask a little bit about someone that was on earlier in the season—Amy Brumfield. Do you remember her? The girl who lived in the tent?
Jackson: I remember the tent. I don’t remember. Yes, I remember there was someone that lived in a tent.
Yes. Well, she has quite a past—arrested a lot in the last couple of years. I’m wondering…
Obviously, you didn’t know that. Would that have affected the way you voted had you known about her entire background?
Jackson: Listen, all we can really judge is their singing and their singing ability. I remember a story about the tent. I didn’t know. None of us knew anything about the rest of the background. Look, Idol’s a show that’s an open audition. It’s almost like saying that the main street in Knoxville where you live—we show up with the FOX TV camera and microphone and we go sing. It wouldn’t have tainted whether she’s a great singer, whether I believed in her voice or not, I must say, but certainly, it’s not like we condone having a criminal past. It’s not what we do.
It looks, according to my schedule, like we have one more audition episode after tonight, and that’s going to be the New York, New Jersey auditions in East Rutherford. Can you look a whole week ahead and maybe give us a little bit of a preview of what we might look for in that. Is the New York area talent as good this year as it was?
Jackson: Yes, I must say. You hear us say this every year and everybody always gets on us about it that the talent’s better every year. I think what’s happening now with these shows, because there’s so many of these shows on the air—I think the talent that we’re getting is very different and very unique now which I’m loving, loving, loving. I think last season we had Casey, we had Haley, we had the two country ones that won. We had a little bit of everything. We had like a rocker flavor—but more of a heavier rocker flavor in James Durbin.
So, we’re getting more of that this year and I think the talent this time in that Jersey thing was very, very interesting. I think they’re some cool people. You know what I mean? Really cool people.
Then, while I have you real quick—any thoughts in the passing of Don Cornelius? I imagine you guys must have known each other and worked together at some point.
Jackson: Dude, listen, what Don was to urban music and just black people and just music in general, dude, it’s just—other than the great Berry Gordy, Don is right next to him. Dude—the nicest guy in the world. Always did it with a smile, always loved music, loved people, helped me, helped everyone I know in their career. So, I’m just really, really sad about that. One of the greatest ever I’m telling you, in this business that we’re here and to be able to do it with a smile and do it with some kindness. Yo! That’s … really up.
How did he help you?
How did he help you?
Jackson: By putting all of the acts that I was in on this show, by having any acts when I was A&R guy at Columbia records or MCA Records would call him and say, “Hey, yo! I need my actor on Soul Train, man. I need to put him on.” He helped. He would just do it. To get TV exposure, just, you know, my God, amazing, amazing guy.
I’m sorry to keep asking about Mariah, but I was just wondering since you manage her would you object to her going on the X-Factor?
Jackson: No, no, no, not at all. Look, I mean, she’s her own person. She can, of course, do whatever she wants and she always will do that. Of course not. Simon is one of my dearest friends in the world, so of course not.
I know in the past some of our winners, like I remember Kris Allen was barely shown at all during the audition season. Do you know, if there was anyone of the episode that you’d seen that you think could be great that we just barely saw at all?
Jackson: I haven’t as I said to someone earlier. I have watched a couple of them. I don’t usually watch back. I’m sure you’ve seen quite a few people that probably could maybe win this thing. What it takes in these shows—it’s a good time bring this up—is that you have to be great every time. It’s the consistency of your greatness, because if you’re great and truly great, you’re not just great once. Everyone has a bad day, but even your bad days are better than most of the people on their good days. So, I don’t know who or what’s been shown and it’s really hard to tell, but I must say last season we spotted Scotty and Lauren pretty quickly.
I want to see if you could give a few more details about the challenges coming up in Hollywood, because we heard they’re going to be—there’s one that’s a fifty sort of number and there’s one that’s one voice, one instrument. Can you give us a few more details about what—
Jackson: Well, listen. We kind of switched it up a little bit because it makes more fun for us every year and it brings a little tougher challenge to the kids. That’s all I’ll say about that. But, let me just say this—you will see—I don’t think we’ve had a tougher, more challenging Hollywood week ever. There were tons of people fainting and passing out. It was crazy. I think, always we want to turn it up a little bit for these kids. This is not yet singing, but we want to challenge you. If you are great, come on, show us at every turn you’re great. What about this? What about that? Try this. Try that. Do you know what I mean?
So the medics were called in a few times then?
Jackson: Yes. More than ever. It was kind of weird, but you know, look, it just shows the intensity of what’s going on.
I was just wondering—I know that you go all over the country and if there were areas of the country that were more musically rich for you, for your ears, if you feel like there’s hotbeds of talent? I’m always curious about that, whether it’s genetics or the mix of – for the vocal richness in the general population—if you had an opinion.
Jackson: Well, let me say, it’s called American Idol and I think America is just chock full of a lot of talent.
Jackson: You know, no, it is, because you couldn’t have three of these kinds of shows on the air at the same time or at different times of the year, because they all need contestants. In the end, there’s a lot of talk about the judges, who the judges are, what the judges do. But in the end, it’s about your talent. It’s about the talent that you have to become successful.
Knock on wood, Scotty McCreery’s record’s platinum now and this is … from last year. So, he’s doing quite well, because platinum today is selling ten million records seven years ago. But, I’m going to say, me being from the south—I love the south and I love the Midwest. I love those kind of more homespun areas. That’s what I really, really love, but look there’s amazing talent we found in San Diego. There’s amazing talent we found in Jersey, New York, Boston. I mean, there’s just amazing talent everywhere. But of course, I will always give some big ups for the south where I’m from.
What about your friend, Steve Perry? Will he be back or will he ever be sitting as the guest judge after Journey?
Jackson: He and I have joked about that from time to time. About every couple of months we’ll grab a breakfast and catch up. He’s doing amazing. I know he’s working on some new music. The guys’ just God’s gift to voice. He’s one of the best in the world ever. I don’t know. We always joke about him going on as a guest judge. So, you never know.
I’m curious, do you try and change judging style or criteria from season to season, especially in regards to what makes the contestant stand out to you?
Jackson: Well, not really. The criteria always is kind of the same for finding and discovering and bringing to America amazing talent. Are you unique? Do you have any star quality and is your voice amazing or unique? Whether it’s a Mariah Carey voice or Bob Dylan voice or a Dave Matthews voice or a Beyoncé voice or Rihanna or Katie Perry, or whatever—what stands out about you? I think those things are always the same.
What I do and what I say always changes, because we grow and we evolve a little bit. I might not be saying this year are you in it to win it. I think that one’s been retired. That was last season, man. It’s so last season.
You’ll come up with a new one for this one, right?
Jackson: Yes, come on, you got to feel it in the air. Come on.
I was wondering if there were any special challenges you were facing this year on the show?
Jackson: Special challenges that—?
That you yourself were dealing with this year. Anything—?
Jackson: No. Listen, Steven and Jennifer’s second year. I think we’re in a great groove now. I think it’s just about us maintaining who we are and being who we are. As I said, everyone in all of these shows make so much fuss about the judges, but it really is that talent. If you don’t have that talent, we could up there talking about anything, and people might want to watch about five minutes and they will be like “Okay!” So, I think it’s really about that talent and what we get back from these kids.
I was just wondering—you have a lot of contestants this year that have competed. You know, last year like Colton Dixon and Baylie Brown and Hollie Cavanaugh. Do you think they have an edge going into Hollywood week and maybe even handling the new challenges that you threw at the contestants this season?
Jackson: I think the only edge that they have is that they have been there before wherever they wound up last year or the year before or whatever. What’s really funny about this—I’ve been hearing a lot of people talk about ‘Well, there’s so many returning people.’ Well, every year if you watch the auditions closely we say, ‘You’re not ready yet. Maybe, you should come back.’
Guess what this year? A lot of them came back. They actually listened to us and they came back. The thing is if they’ve gotten better or grown, because we remember what their weaknesses were. As soon as we see them and they get up we go, ‘Oh, right. You’re the one that had this or didn’t have that or whatever, whatever.’ Other than the fact that they’ve been there before and maybe, this helps with their nerves a little bit, but that’s about it. They got to be better.
I wanted to touch a little bit more on the judges—Steven and Jennifer. You said, you really noticing that they’re really settling in this year. Do you find a real difference in them? Do you find that they’re more sure of themselves and their comments or just the three of you, kind of a tight-knit group than maybe you were when you first started last year?
Jackson: Yes, I think that and I think also they’re maybe just being just a little bit more stern. Not tougher—stern, because they’re a little bit more comfortable with it. But, I mean they’re having a good time and we’re all having a really good time, and I think you’ll see some change in that in them. Do you know what I mean?
So are they asking you maybe, less advice and less questions this year than they were last year?
Jackson: No. We still talk about everything. I mean, Jennifer will always say, ‘Well, what do you really think?’ I’m always one to go—‘No, I’m not feeling at all on any level, or you know, I like it.’
I think we’re closer in that way in that we talk about everything, but you may see them be a little bit more stern. They may surprise you.
Alright, we need to talk about this. Fainting? Fainting? What are you doing to these contestants in Hollywood?
Jackson: We’re just trying to judge them to the best of our ability.
It has gotten—we see this all the time. We see how stressed they get, if they can handle the pressure. What type of pressure did they go through? We really saw fainting?
Jackson: There was a lot of fainting, Mike. This Hollywood week was the toughest we’ve ever had on the kids and just—it was just more challenging in a weird sort of way and what’s interesting about this time is I would glance over to the kids waiting to get up to sing. There was a lot of amazing talent there, but I must say, all sorts of talent. But the talent this year is a little bit different. It’s equally as good this past season as last season, if not better in some respects, but it was across the board. If it’s a singer, song writer, if it’s a jazzy person, if it’s a church kid, if it’s a pop singer, if it’s a country—I mean really people that had it all dialed in. I think the pressure even just sitting there waiting, because this time, I saw a lot more kids stand up for almost every other performer.
And it is a training ground, man. This is a process that they get ready for a live show.
Jackson: Well, not only that. This is a process that you get ready for the future. People are put through the rigor so that you think Idol’s hard. Wait to you become an artist and you’re trying to put a record out, because you remember. Everyone forgets. Everyone who wins this show or any show for that matter—you just get the grand shot to jump into the super, giant ring with the girls whose video were premiering for her brand new single Madonna on this show tonight—you get to jump in the ring and duke it out with Madonna, with Rihanna, with Katie Perry, with Gaga, with Mariah, with whomever. So, remember, you’re setting yourself up for the competition of life and the competition never ends.
Okay, I’m calling up from …, a Hispanic newspaper. So for our readers, did you—I know there was a Spanish speaker/singer. Did you see any of those on the road?
Jackson: Yes, we saw quite a few of those. In America now, as you know, this is part of the fabric and the culture. Last season, I was really happy, and I was even happy a couple of years ago when we did auditions in Puerto Rico. We should go back there some day. But, really happy about that. It’s American Idol and this show is for everyone.
Hey, you know, maybe, it’s just me, but it seems like you guys are giving out a lot more golden tickets this year. You mentioned some challenges for Hollywood week. How is that affecting Hollywood week?
Jackson: Listen, you’re right on target, but actually last season, we gave out probably the most tickets ever. This season, we didn’t give out quite as many, but it was close. I think it’s affecting Hollywood weekend in the way that it’s just tougher for us. It’s way longer hours, but it’s actually more challenging for these kids. You have to see a lot of talent that goes before you when you’re sitting there with your nerves in a bunch and you’re seeing great voice after great voice after talent, after talent, after talent, I think you start really kind of doubting yourself.
As I said earlier, this show is to set you up for the competition of life, because you’re competing on the charts with whatever person who’s at the top of the game. Whoever now you’re competing with Adele. She sold ten million records in the world. Can you really go toe-to-toe with her and win some of those fans. You know what I’m saying. So the number of tickets I actually liked. Maybe, we should have a higher number.
Randy while I got you, I got to ask why do you guys keep missing Seattle, especially since Jordan Sparks and Blake Lewis came out of that audition?
Jackson: Dude, I love Seattle. My boys in the Dave Matthews Band been up there making a record now. I’m actually going to be up there in a couple of weeks. Listen, I love Seattle. I mean, we’ll be back.
Photos by Michael Becker and Warwick Saint/courtesy of Fox