Get ready for a kinder, gentler American Idol. That was the first impression from the new panel of judges that Fox finally made official on September 22. Aerosmith lead singer Steven Tyler and pop-music diva/actress Jennifer Lopez will join Randy Jackson at the dais when television's top-rated show returns for its 10th season in January.
"I believe in tough love, but I don't think I could ever — as an artist myself — be cruel to another artist," Lopez said after being introduced at a glitzy spectacle of a press conference at the Forum in Los Angeles. Tyler, whose band is well known for its roller-coaster career, also doesn't see himself as a dream killer. "With all we've been through in our careers, we'll live vicariously through this young talent out there," he said.
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That suits Idol executive producer Nigel Lythgoe just fine. "I think gone are the days of kicking someone in the testicles and, to be frank, I don't want to see that," he tells TV Guide Magazine.
It sounds like a risky course, as the cutting and candid Simon Cowell, who left Idol to launch a U.S. version of talent competition The X Factor, is what turned Idol into a pop-culture touchstone. But contestants shouldn't expect a free ride, as the show's newly anointed resident mentor, Jimmy Iovine, chairman of Interscope Geffen A&M Records (the new label for Idol winners), is notoriously tough. "He's the type of guy who can stand there and look you in the eyes, when he's heard your CD, and throw it in the bin and say, 'Not good enough,'" Lythgoe said.
Lythgoe also believes that the antidote to the show's sliding ratings is to find an Idol who can succeed on the scale of a Carrie Underwood or Kelly Clarkson. Craig Marks, editor of the music industry bible Billboard, says that's been the show's real problem of late. "Idol was built to create pop stars and divas," he says. "Those are the biggest stars in music, and they require the least authenticity. As the show became more about rock singer-songwriters than pop, it lost its way because the audience for those kind of singers is much smaller in the music world than it is for the big, glossy, Mariah Carey—type singers. They've got to get that schmaltzy pop thing back."
But are Lopez and Tyler compelling enough for viewers to want to follow the search? Marks says yes, as Tyler is known to be a spontaneous free thinker. He's also acquainted with the kind of reinvention that Idol contestants often go through, as Aerosmith itself was transformed from a hard-rock band to a pop-radio favorite and has several generations of fans. "He's an accomplished figure in the different worlds that Idol contestants tend to run in," says Marks. "He's a rock star. He's outrageous. He looks great and has that sort of swagger and attitude about him that makes interesting television on a show that needs to be revitalized."
As for Lopez, Marks sees her fitting the bill as the nurturing, experienced professional that Paula Abdul once played on the show, with one big exception: "She's probably not going to be as charismatically loopy." Straight up.
Additional reporting by Shawna Malcom