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‘American Idol’ Backlot Talk

Mar 15, 2007  •  Post A Comment

Chuck Ross: Hello again everybody, it’s Chuck Ross, editorial director at TelevisionWeek. Once again we’re talking to Nigel Lythgoe, who’s an executive producer and showrunner at “American Idol.” How are you this morning, Nigel?
Nigel Lythgoe: I’m good. I’m a little tired; the results went into the night, and so I had to wait for them and find out who was going home tonight.
Mr. Ross: It was a very exciting show. Let’s start off with some things people having been e-mailing us. One of the things they wonder is if, with such a seeming advantage of the women being stronger this year, did we give them an added advantage last night by going with Diana Ross and the Supremes as the first person?
Mr. Lythgoe: I think that’s a fair comment. At the same time, when you look at some of the people that have recorded Diana Ross/Supremes songs, like Phil Collins, he’s certainly not a woman and did a great job. There are a lot of good songs there…and there are a lot that they left out, but they didn’t know the songs in the best of times. But there were a lot of good songs that could’ve easily been turned around to be sung by a guy.
Mr. Ross: Some of the songs were actually some of the lesser-known songs.
Mr. Lythgoe: Yeah, the Jordin Sparks song I didn’t know from the land that time forgot.
Mr. Ross: Well, let’s start off with Brandon, who was very excited to meet Diana Ross, as any of us would be.
Mr. Lythgoe: Well, I thought it was marvelous, by the way. I think Diana Ross was absolutely superb with the way she handled the kids and what she said to them.
Mr. Ross: I agree.
Mr. Lythgoe: She’s a really good mentor.
Mr. Ross: But I think Brandon had a tough time last night. The judges certainly weren’t too impressed.
Mr. Lythgoe: Well, he was a bit shocked. Don’t forget that he was the first one up on that stage. It’s the first time they’ve performed in front of over 600 people, and he wiggled his hips at one point, and the audience responded and that took him by surprise, so he forgot his lyrics. I think that threw him.
Mr. Ross: We might have to have him on your show.
Mr. Lythgoe: [Laughs] So you think you can wiggle?
[Laughter]
Mr. Ross: Next we had Melinda, who along with Lakisha is one of my favorites this season. Again, I thought she nailed the song. She sang “Home” from “The Wiz.”
Mr. Lythgoe: That’s right, and she picked it up from the bridge halfway through, which is very interesting, and really went for it and it really kicked in. I think Simon said on occasions it can be a bit of a boring song, and she certainly changed that and made it very special.
Mr. Ross: And a big compliment from Simon, saying she reminds him of a young Gladys Knight.
Mr. Lythgoe: Yes indeed, yeah.
Mr. Ross: Next came Chris, and he certainly had a great sense of humor in that line to Diana Ross that their hair was very similar. Then it was a new Chris out there without his glasses, which took me for a big surprise.
Mr. Lythgoe: Yeah, he asked me at the end of the show what I thought, and to be frank, I wasn’t sure; I quite like him with glasses. I absolutely disliked the arrangement that he did. For me it was sort of that flamenco-type rhythm; it was a bit like Lionel Richie sings “Man of La Mancha,” and I didn’t like it.
Mr. Ross: Speaking about arrangements, let’s actually skip around and go to Blake, because Blake took a very well-known song, “You Keep Me Hanging On,” and tried to modernize it and give his little thing. I actually thought that worked. I know Simon and some of the judges didn’t agree, but what did you think?
Mr. Lythgoe: I disagree with you, Chuck, I’m afraid. I think Tamala Motown has got such an incredible sound; it’s not like doing the ’60s or the ’70s or the ’80s, where they’re all different things. Tamala Motown has a specific sound, and if it was good enough for Phil Collins when Phil Collins recorded it, it’s certainly good enough for anybody else that might appear on this show. Phil Collins has got a lot of technical things behind him, he can do anything he likes and he decided to stay with the sound, as did Billy Joel when he went down that route. It’s an incredible sound; it’s bright; it’s energetic, and when you start messing it around, you lose something. And if you start changing the melody and the tune of it, you lose a great deal.
Mr. Ross: Do you give Blake any credit for being Blake and just sort of doing that anyway?
Mr. Lythgoe: Well, I think with everything that’s modern nowadays, don’t forget, they were using four-track machines in those days. So we’re talking about a modern period now. We’ve got synthesizers, we’ve got lots of different things; we’ve got samplers. You can always make something modern without losing the generic sound of that song.
Mr. Ross: Very good observation, Nigel. You know, I think maybe [we can] attribute that to Blake’s youth.
Mr. Lythgoe: Yeah, I think they’re learning all the time. And we sit back and we’ll say, “Try it, if you want. Try it.” There’s nothing we can do once they decide this is what they want to do. They live and die by the sword, if you like.
Mr. Ross: Next we had Gina come up, and it was one of those ones where Simon actually liked it a little better than Randy. She sang “Love Child,” and God knows I wouldn’t want to sing that knowing how the Supremes and Diana Ross had done it.
Mr. Lythgoe: Well, I thought it was good for Gina. I think the sound was great. I must say that having that big band last night was terrific; the orchestra was sensational. And I think she slotted right into that feel. It’s still not an easy song to sing.
Mr. Ross: Next we had Sanjaya, and I sort of felt like Simon: I didn’t know what to say afterward.
Mr. Lythgoe: Well, he sang “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and I think it’s fair to say, “There is.”
Mr. Ross: Is this typical of “Idol,” where you find every season a person that is, in the public’s mind, immune to the judges and just seems to be a very, very popular person? Because he seems to be that person this season.
Mr. Lythgoe: Oh yeah. I think there’s a certain immunity you get with the way that you look and the way you are. Diana Ross absolutely adored him; she turned around and said he was love. Howard Stern, I believe, adores him…not, and asked everybody to vote for him just so he could look at Simon’s face in the finale when Simon is asked, “How did Sanjaya get to the finale?” It’s one of those characters that stands out this year, a bit like Kevin Covais’ Chicken Little; he’s just a great character and people love him. There’s nothing wrong with personality winning. At the end of the day, it is a singing competition and that needs to be thought about by the voters.
Mr. Ross: What’s interesting about [Howard Stern’s appeal] is you may get a certain number of people doing that, but I think that so many people watch it and you guys get so many votes that I doubt that will ever win out.
Mr. Lythgoe: There’s no question about it.
Mr. Ross: Next we had Haley, and I was very impressed with Simon last night because…I thought he was very compassionate last night.
Mr. Lythgoe: Yes, hooray! Or as Paula would say, “Whoopee!” I think that Simon was particularly cruel to Haley the week before, and I think somehow that’s been probably plaguing him a little bit, it’s been playing on his mind, you know? And she wasn’t bad last night. I think she sings in tune.
Mr. Ross: I wish she wasn’t so disappointed after she had sung. She just looked so upset about it, and it wasn’t bad at all.
Mr. Lythgoe: No, but the relief when Simon said to her, “I thought you were good.” The relief, her whole body shuddered and she collapsed in emotion almost. It just shows you the power that the judges have over the contestants, not necessarily over the vote, but over the contestants. And it only takes Randy to turn around and say, “That was terrible, dude,” and that shudder goes all the way through backstage, and it affects the entire show.
Mr. Ross: Next we had Phil Stacey, and he’s one of the people I think a lot of folks like this year, singing “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me.” I thought that was a tough one last night.
Mr. Lythgoe: It performed a little too slow for me. It’s a great song and he sang it well, but it was just a little dragged down for me.
Mr. Ross: Next we heard Lakisha taking one from “Lady Sings the Blues,” and singing the Billie Holiday song “God Bless the Child.” She’s just so terrific.
Mr. Lythgoe: Well, I think the judges nailed it last night when they gave her props basically because she contained herself. I mean, she is somebody that could’ve outsung the song, and she remained within the song and she did it brilliantly last night.
Mr. Ross: As we move out of her comfort zone to some music that she can’t do so well, it’ll be interesting to see how she handles that. Next we have Stephanie, who had a real nice interaction with Diana Ross, and sang “Hangover.”
Mr. Lythgoe: Sure, and they were disappointed that she didn’t go into the disco version. Just to go back, if I may, on something you just said though, which is moving out of her comfort zone. The one great thing about this show is that you are always in your comfort zone when you are a great singer, and I think we’ll find that people like Melinda and Lakisha will never, ever move out of their comfort zones because they have just got such fantastic voices and will be able to sing anything.
Mr. Ross: Excellent. Well, we’ll see how that plays out. Another astute observation. Next we have the other Chris, and he sang “The Boss,” which was an interesting choice.
Mr. Lythgoe: I think it was a great one for a guy to sing. I felt as though he was sort of singing on helium a little bit last night; it just got this little tremor, this little wobble in his voice.
Mr. Ross: Do you think it was nerves?
Mr. Lythgoe: I don’t know; I’ll keep my eye on it. He needs to be careful of it, because it sort of takes away the strength.
Mr. Ross: Then we ended up last night with Jordin, who is a real good singer and I think she’s been sort of under the radar with such strong women. But she really came into her own last night.
Mr. Lythgoe: Yeah, I think she’s going to be a huge star, this girl. I remember that she auditioned for “American Juniors” about three or four years ago when we did the junior version, and she didn’t get in. And now they’re sort of coming through and actually starting with “American Idol.” This girl is a huge talent and I think somebody that we’re going to see grow throughout the series now.
Mr. Ross: Well, I want to do just two things before we hang up for today. I want to encourage everybody to participate in April with the wonderful charity work that was announced and hope you raise lots and lots of money for the needy children here and in Africa. It’s I think a really good cause, Nigel.
Mr. Lythgoe: Chuck, thank you very much. I think it’s sensational to be able to use the power of the American vote, if you like, to sponsor the phone calls, and that’s going to be sensational. And you don’t have to do anything because the phone call’s free for each individual. I think the most calls we’ve ever had is something like 65 million, and if we get sponsors to sponsor it for 10 cents a call or something, that’d be an awful lot of money.
Mr. Ross: Can you tell us what song Diana Ross is going to sing this evening?
Mr. Lythgoe: Yeah, she’s going to sing a great song off her new album, which is called “I Love You More Today Than Yesterday.”
Mr. Ross: Wonderful. And the question I always end with and you answer however you want to: Any surprises this evening?
Mr. Lythgoe: There are always surprises on “American Idol,” always surprises, Chuck, and none more so than tonight.
Mr. Ross: Excellent. Well, I want to thank you so, so much, and it was a great beginning for the final 12. You’ve got America hooked and you’re doing an incredible job. Thank you, and I want to urge everybody out there: Let’s raise a lot of money for a very good cause. Thank you so much, Nigel.
Mr. Lythgoe: Thank you. And I’ll keep telling you all the different stars that are coming on that show. We’ll talk about it each week, because they keep coming in, you know?
Mr. Ross: Fantastic. Thank you, my friend; we’ll talk to you soon.
Mr. Lythgoe: Thanks, Chuck. Bye-bye.

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