American Idol returns to TV tonight for a new season with new judges and new rules. Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler will be sitting alongside Randy Jackson at the judges table, and former producer Nigel Lythgoe is back running the show, promising big changes to the format of the reality competition: Contestants will only be allowed to use instruments on a limited basis; 15-year-olds can compete; gender parity is done; and a sudden-death round of 20 contestants is being introduced.
Given this overhaul, what lingering questions do we have as the show heads into its tenth season?
1. Is this the search for the next music superstar, or the next packaged artist?
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During her brief stint as judge, Kara DioGuardi started sounding like a broken record with her frequent critique that she couldn't see some contestants as "packaged artists." Simon Cowell salivated over the likes of David Archuleta and Crystal Bowersox—contestants he said he could already hear on the radio (which, as it turns out, we now hardly do). Recent seasons have seen an onslaught of singer/songwriters promoted heavily by producers and the judges, perhaps an attempt to capitalize on a pop music landscape that features the likes of Train, Jason Mraz, Taylor Swift, and Colbie Caillat.
But none of those singer/songwriter-types have caught on, and those seasons of searching for the perfectly packaged artist have been notorious snoozefests. This shift in mindset means viewers are missing out on what was one of the most endearing aspects of the show, and probably why it took off in the first place. These green singers were put on a national stage like fish-out-of-water, and found themselves organically. They weren't there because they had a sense of what kind of artist they wanted to be or sounded like Sara Bareilles; they could just sing. It was exciting to watch and, as these novices unexpectedly blossomed, made for a far less predictable show. Hopefully in Season 10 Idol foregoes pinpointing what kind of pop superstars these singers will be, and just lets them be contestants instead.
2. Will Season 10 be about the singers or the judges?
Nigel Lythgoe has trumpeted that the new season of Idol will return to being about the contestants. Truly, one of the most infuriating aspects of recent seasons—particularly last year with four judges—was that the contestants would sing for 90 seconds and then the Simon & co. would critique them for seven and a half minutes. There's one less judge this year—a good start—but the new panel's motivations for taking the job are a bit suspect.
Jennifer Lopez's new single was released earlier this week, conveniently timed with her debut at the AI judges table. Steven Tyler and Aerosmith are reportedly in the studio at work on a new album, one that would certainly benefit from the purchasing dollars of the young consumers who will be watching Tyler on Idol this season. Can we really buy that the judges will hand over the spotlight to the contestants when it's already clear that they're coming at the gig from a career resurgence angle?
3. How far will Idol distance itself from its "Karaoke Idol" image?