In Praise of Steven Tyler, Nigel Lythgoe and AMERICAN IDOL

I want to commend FOX and Nigel Lythgoe on many things regarding American Idol. First of all, they went the “Rebecca Howe” route in attempting to replace Simon Cowell. When Shelly Long left Cheers they didn’t replace her with another blonde with similar character traits like Diane Chambers. They replaced her with a brunette, with a completely different personality and most importantly, I think, a completely different relationship with Ted Danson’s Sam Malone. The show subsequently ran another 6 years. There  was no “will they or won’t they”. Well yeah there was sexual tension and in later years, they were having sex in order to have a baby, but you never got the feeling they were each other’s “soulmates”. (Sam had sexual tension with most people of the opposite sex, so that was keeping in line with his character).

Nigel and co. of American Idol didn’t look for another acerbic, cutting Brit to take Simon’s place. They went in a completely different direction. What I admire most about Nigel Lythgoe is that when he wasn’t a part of the show he questioned the need for 4 judges that the show had added after he left. I also found this to be a major part lacking in the show. First of all, since on this show most of the judges are in unison about their feelings, did we really need a 4th person on the panel to rip apart a contestant that didn’t deliver? Furthermore, since the production team seemed to have trouble (or didn’t care) about ending the show on time, an extra voice made that even more complicated. So I commend Nigel that when he was chosen to return as exec producer, his first order of business was to return the show to its 3 person judges roots. Regardless of what else happened, that alone was a step in the right direction.

Steven Tyler has essentially replaced Simon Cowell and in doing so, the show went in a completely different direction. Instead of a record exec for the last 20 years who was more comfortable with the pop sounds of Brit pop groups like WESTLIFE, they signed an American rock icon for the last 40 years who in addition to being known for the pen and voice behind “Sweet Emotion”, “Dream On”, “Walk This Way” , “Dude (Looks Like A Lady)” and many, many other classics, is also known for his past substance abuse problems, his electric on stage personality and many other different character traits. (He and Aerosmith are still making music and touring regularly, still a vital part of the music scene.) They are also different in another, major way. Where Simon was short, kinda mean at times, and in the the last couple of seasons seeming rather bored, Steven is the complete opposite. Steven is sweet, warm and completely engaged. In this respect both Steven and Jennifer Lopez (the other new addition)  have that in common. One of the things that I always had a problem with American Idol, was Simon’s unneccessary meanness to certain contestants. (I know I am in the minority on this one.). Don’t get me wrong, Simon gives good sound byte. He is witty, clever, knowledgeable, successful and in many cases completely correct. But in many instances he was just  mean, whether criticizing someones’s physical appearance or just piling on other ways to say “you weren’t good”. Steven (and Jennifer)  have been kind. I have always maintained that you can say “sorry that didn’t work” to someone without destroying them. When did we become a culture where the more cutting and mean you can be makes you a bigger celebrity (Gordon Ramsay, Dr. Phil, Judge Judy and various other reality shows are further examples) .

The new IDOL panel seems to eschew this. A recent example is the Civil War reenactor. I normally don’t watch IDOL, til they get to the real singing competition. I completely skip the audition rounds or as I like to refer to them as the “humiliation rounds”. This would be where IDOL would parade the people that couldn’t sing, had a gimmick, wanted their 15 minutes, etc and give an audition where Simon would proclaim something along the lines of “that was the worst thing I have ever heard”. All of it seemed rather pointless to me and in some cases severely cruel.  I don’t get off on seeing people (some of whom were clearly and honestly disillusioned) being mocked for sport. It dismayed me somewhat that the American people do, as these were the highest rated episodes of the entire season, Anyway, back to Civil War reenactor,  You can tell the way the package was set up that this guy wasn’t gonna make it through to Hollywood. He did a version of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and while he was way more in tune and on pitch that I have ever sang, again, you knew this was a unanimous “NO”. Steven listened intently to his performance and told him honestly “I like the song, I don’t think you’re American Idol, but I liked the song”. Basically he commended and validated the guy’s audition, but told him, “you’re not for this show”, all while not destroying him.  Imagine how this same audition would have played out a year ago. Steven as I like to refer to him is a “sweet Mensch”.

The other trade up the panel has gotten from Steven and Jennifer is two people who are completely engaged. Steven is scatting and singing along with contestants. Both of them, Jennifer especially, have struggled with the saying “no” part of it, the crushing of someones dreams. They have both been on the other side of that (as was Paula Abdul who always brought that much needed kindness to the panel) and knows what that feels like. The fact that Jennifer clearly doesn’t want to hurt someone in that way is heart warming to me and honestly is what I would want in an IDOL panel.

There is a natural chemistry with the 3 judges now. They all seem to really like each other and all want to be there. They seem to be genuinely looking for new, talented singers and are excited and jazzed when they stumble upon them. All of this contributes to a more fun show to watch. It’s hard to care enough if the people being paid to, don’t seem to want to be there. This is far from the case now.

The best thing about all of this is that the American public seems to appreciate it as well. In addition to stellar reviews from critics, ratings have barely dropped from last year, which in today’s TV age is unbelievable. In all honesty, my reservation aside, I am well aware that Simon was a huge part of American Idol’s success and I expected some drop due to the fact that he wasn’t there. The fact that the show hasn’t missed a beat in production and in the ratings is exciting. It’s a credit to Nigel Lythgoe who stuck to his guns about returning the show to a 3 judges panel. It’s a credit to him that he went in a completely different direction in replacing Simon. It’s a credit to him that he backed up his claim that the show is really only about the contestants, as he peppered the “humiliation rounds” with more real singers than not (and in the process got me to watch more episodes of this part than ever). I’d also like to highlight and give kudos to the American public. I am rather happily surprised that they don’t need just  “nasty snark” to get them to watch a TV show.

Actually I am not that surprised.  I have had major disagreements with people in the biz regarding the state of pop culture, specifically  how entertainment shows like “Entertainment Tonight”, “Access Hollywood” and others have resorted to more tabloid journalism and meanness than actual entertainment. I have been told “that’ s what the American public wants”. To which I have replied “That’s all they’re being fed. How do you know they wouldn’t  still watch straight up entertainment news”.  Nigel Lythgoe,  Steven Tyler and the American public have just proven that you don’t need people eviscerated on national TV for AMERICAN IDOL to be compelling. I assume and have faith that the same is true for the rest of the entertainment media and our culture in general.

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