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?
The criticism that American Idol is ostensibly karaoke on national TV stretches back to its debut in 2002. Recent seasons, however, found several contestants receiving positive attention for rearranging songs entirely—translating into immediate buzz for the show and massive iTunes sales (David Cook's "Billie Jean," Adam Lambert's "Tracks of My Tears," for example).
Perhaps catching on to the in-season success of these performances (neither artist has fared particularly well post-Idol), Lythgoe has brought in top record executive Jimmy Iovine to be a full-time mentor for the contestants. Other music producers including Alex da Kid (Eminem and Rihanna's "Love the Way You Lie"), Christopher "Tricky Stewart (Beyonce's "Single Ladies"), and Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins (Lady Gaga's "Telephone") will also be collaborating with contestants on a rotating basis. Does this mean that this season of Idol will be more aggressive about convincing contestants to play with a song's arrangement? Furthermore, though there have been brilliant Idol moments owed to rearranging classic songs, it's not always a good thing. Does anyone else remember this country-fied version of The Beatles' "Eight Days a Week?"
4. What will the judges' chemistry be like?
Simon Cowell will be missed this season for reasons that go beyond his deliciously nasty comments. As the show's biggest personality, his repartee with Paula Abdul—and then after she left, Ryan Seacrest—made the amount of focus on the judges less agonizing because it was at least entertaining. The biggest failure of the Kara DioGuardi-Ellen DeGeneres experiment was that the two clearly just didn't get along with Randy and Simon, resulting in awkward, eternal judging sessions after each performance.
Lopez and Seacrest already have a playful banter going on after years of his interviewing Jenny From the Block for his radio show. Randy Jackson has always, to be fair, been a nonentity, leaving Steven Tyler as a wildcard in the group. If this roundtable interview is any indication, the chemistry should be a little odd, if not mostly amusing.
5. Will the big voices be back?
Another change Lythgoe is adamant about introducing is the scrapping of theme weeks, which have at their worst found country singers attempting to warble their ways through disco hits and Billy Joel songs. But perhaps Lythgoe is missing a little bit of the point: that these themed nights have failed in recent seasons because contestants have become so niched that they are eaten alive when forced to perform outside their genres. Early seasons—with singers like Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Chris Daughtry, and Jennifer Hudson—didn't necessarily have that problem. These were singers who, as Randy loves to say, "could sing the phonebook" and make it sound good.
It certainly bodes well that producer Ken Warwick is supplementing the end of theme weeks with a limit on the use of guitars, so accurately observing that, "Every one of [the contestants] wanted to plunk away at it. 'Oh great, it's rock week!' Plunk-a plunk-a plunk-a. 'Oh, it's country!' Plunk-a plunk-a plunk-a. It became tedious [and] boring." Which is quite true: American Idol was so good in its first few seasons because the singers were so impressive. As nice as it is to be occasionally moved by a subtle performance of "Hallelujah," when a series is called a "singing competition," the contestants should blow us away with their belting abilities and massive vocal ranges. And probably be 15 while doing it.