<EM>American Idol</EM>'s Randy Jackson American Idol's Randy Jackson

It's a little less than four weeks away, folks: Season 5 of Fox's American Idol premieres Jan. 17 with a two-hour special introducing a slew of the crooners who aspire to be the next Kelly-Ruben-Fantasia-Carrie. Once again making the calls (and leading the catcalls, when need be) is the judging triumvirate of Randy "You were pitchy, dawg" Jackson, Paula "Fabulous!" Abdul and, yes, Simon "Awful, just awful" Cowell.

This new round of Idol, however, may finally cross over into a reality-TV staple that it has since quite admirably dodged: backstage backstabbing. As host Ryan Seacrest recently told reporters — and Randy Jackson now confirms — that this flock of songbirds is more like a committee of vultures. "Every season, when we go out on the audition tour, we never know what we're going to get," Jackson reports. "I think the kids this time probably want this worse than ever, so there's quite a bit of interesting fighting and dialogue going on amongst them. People's egos are saying, 'We're friends and we're all in this together, but hey, I want to win this — and I don't want anybody to stand in my way.'"

Perhaps fueling the level of competition is the level of competition, which (you guessed it!) is being touted as the fiercest ever. "We say it every year, but this time it's 100,000 percent true: The talent is far better than any other season," proclaims Jackson. "There are great boys, great girls, and I think it's going to come down to the wire.

"Everybody is that good at the start," he adds. "This time, it will come down to who grows the most in front of the American public."

Of course, courting favor with the all-important vote-casting audience is easier when you're as American as apple pie (Carrie) or a big teddy bear (Ruben) — a recurring "requirement" that fuels some criticism of Idol wannabes for being championed by overzealous text-messagers not so much because of their pipes but their personas. Jackson practically laughs at the notion. "If you want to be really, brutally honest about it, here's a little insight: It's about who's got the great voice," he maintains.

 

"Sometimes I wonder what show people are watching," Jackson continues. "If you really watch and pay attention, you'd see that the ones who are really talented have nothing to be mad at. They're happy! Being that talented humbles you a bit."

The conversation then turns to possible changes that American Idol might be tempted to make — but won't — in its fifth go-round. Jackson has but one suggestion: "I would get a big red 'mute' button, so I could mute Simon's comments," he tells us with a big laugh. But seriously, he wouldn't change a thing, though no one would fault Idol for tinkering with its formula. "Listen, we are blessed to have a great show that's really, really working for all the reasons, right or wrong. Why would you change something that's really working?"

Case in point: One flirted-with folly that has since fallen by the wayside is the use of celebrity guest judges. "The problem was that they didn't speak that freely," Jackson recalls. "If you have [a recording] artist as a guest judge, what are they going to say? If they say something weird or bad, somebody could say, 'Well hey, we don't like your records either, and we're not going to buy them!' [That experiment] was a weird touch and one we don't really need." After all, in him, Paula and Simon, "You've got the professionals up here!"

Speaking of the judges, will Simon be making an eerily prophetic forecast of the winner as he did in Season 4 when he picked Carrie as the one to beat very early on? "If you asked Simon now, I don't think he could call who's going to win this season," says Jackson. "It's a dead heat. Besides, Simon just got lucky!"