It's sudden death time on American Idol, as the show moves into the Vegas round this week. The Top 20 girls will perform on Wednesday's show (8/7c, Fox), and the Top 20 guys will take the stage at the same time on Thursday. And according to judge Keith Urban, this may be the season the show ends its six-year streak of having a male winner. "It's absolutely a girl's year to win, in my opinion," Urban said in a conference call Wednesday. "That's not to say the guys aren't strong, because they really are. It's really more a testament to how strong the girls are this year. ... We saw over 270 people to get it down to where we are today, and the girls were just incredibly strong."
Could that have something to do with the presence of iconic female musicians Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj alongside Urban and Randy Jackson at the judges table? The country superstar seems to think so — particularly in the case of Carey, whom he refers to as "inarguably one of the world's great vocalists."
"This is a global vocal powerhouse, and any girl I think would love the opportunity to sing for Mariah and get feedback from her and get direction from her," Urban said. "I think that's been a real plus for the show, to have somebody like her on the panel."
Though he griped during the audition rounds that he felt like "a scratching post" between the oft-feuding Minaj and Carey, Urban had nothing but good things to say about his colleagues — neither of whom he had met prior to joining Idol — as individuals. "When we got into shooting, what I really liked about Nicki was just her straight-shooting directives," Urban said. "I like being around people that are just absolutely raw and straight and tell it like it is. And so, I just kind of clicked with Nicki right from the get-go.
"For me, I've always found this immediate connection with singers and musicians in general because I'm so used to playing in bands," he continued. "When I joined this panel, I felt like I'd just joined a band. I'm on guitar, Randy's on bass, we've got two chick singers, and this is our band. That's what it feels like to me."
Though the concept of the judges as a band is purely metaphorical at this point, Urban says he's been pressing for the opportunity to perform on the show. "We got asked that question early on in one of the press conferences: Would we be up for singing?" he said. "And I threw my hand up and said, 'I'm up for it. Let's go,' and was met with a rousing silence. ... I'm going to keep coaxing Randy to see if we can put a little band together, because I would love to do it. I think it would be fun, and I just think it feels quite natural for us, to be able to do that."
But back to the contestants. After whittling down the 270-plus hopefuls who were sent to Hollywood to just 40, Urban said he's already had to deal with the more difficult aspects of being a judge — and realizes that it's not going to be getting any easier from here on out. "There were a couple of people that I thought just needed a little more time," he said of the Hollywood round. "That's a particularly tough week for people. I think that environment is particularly tough. Having to learn songs in a nanosecond, dance steps in a nanosecond, being with a group that you didn't choose to be in, et cetera, et cetera. it's a really tough process. But at the same time, to see what we saw [in Las Vegas] emerge from that, it's very possible to get through that and still be very strong.
"I'm one voice of quite a few," he added. "All it takes is the other three saying no, and they're done. There's nothing I can do. And unfortunately sometimes ... I might have to be the person who delivers the news to that specific person as well. So that's particularly hard for me, because I get connected with these artists and I see something in them that I wish got a chance to shine a bit more next week, and it's really disheartening to see them have to go."
Having already been a judge on the Australian version of The Voice, Urban said with Idol he's trying to focus more on the "whole package."
"The voice is very important, obviously, because that's the vehicle that's being used to carry the art and the expression and the creativity," he noted. "But in this day and age, there's more to it than that. Now, having said that ... there's a lot to be said for just an extraordinary voice. It can make up for all the rest if it's not there, as far as the entertainment aspect or the dancing and all that sort of stuff. There really isn't one rule across the board, but there's just got to be the right combination, I think, for each person. Someone who might have a lesser voice may have an extraordinary charisma and presence and way about them that's just magnetic. So, as [producer] Jimmy Iovine said, it just really comes down to feel. How does that artist make me feel? Do I feel something from that artist?"
Urban's quickly gaining the reputation of being the "nice" judge on the panel, and he says he's adopted a "do unto others" philosophy when it comes to his approach to giving feedback. (In Vegas, Iovine will act as a tiebreaker if the panel is split evenly.) "I think every person handles critiquing differently, and I'm trying to sort of get a feel for what the artist is comfortable hearing, what they're not going to be comfortable hearing," Urban said. "Something that's just straight soul-crushing and not helpful to them, I just don't see any worth in it. I'm trying to give specific directions, if it's something they can work on. And again, it's just my opinion. ... I try to deliver it in a way in which I like people to deliver it to me."
Prior to the live shows (which Urban says "is what I've been looking forward to since we started"), he said he got a refresher course of sorts through watching earlier episodes with his wife, actress Nicole Kidman. "It's funny watching the audition rounds because they had happened so long ago. We would sit down to watch them and Nic would be wanting to know, 'Does he go through? Does she go through?'" Urban said. "It was actually good to watch it like that, because I'd gotten a bit of time away, and getting to see them and hear them like that was great. I wouldn't say I take my work home with me, but ... Nic is always curious if I've seen somebody that stands out."
The couple's two young daughters, Faith, 2, and Sunday Rose, 4, recently spent some time on the Idol set. "Nic and I love them being around that kind of environment, watching people sing, watching them perform and being around the music," he said. "It's all they've both ever known, is being around that and being around a movie set, since they were born. They're certainly music fans. They haven't watched the show yet, but I have a feeling they will be this season."
While Urban stopped short of naming frontrunners outright heading into the Vegas round — "It's still too early to tell" in this stage of the competition," he says — he did address a few contestants specifically. Here are his comments:
Angela Miller: "I think the original song of Angela's that [she performed during Hollywood Week] has really resonated with a lot of people," Urban said. "She rightly had the confidence in a song like that. I thought it was superb. The performance was superb. I think it really helped her, not just because it showed that she could write ... but I think to see her confidence singing a song that she wrote was very helpful for her. For me, I like getting to see another side of who they are. And obviously if they write a song, it speaks a lot about who they are as a person as well as an artist."
Kree Harrison: "Kree is an extraordinarily gifted singer, in an unusual way, because she's just so effortless in the way she sings. There's nothing over the top. There's nothing theatrical and large about her as a performer. There's just this incredibly authentic voice, in the same way Adele has that incredibly authentic voice. And I just believe her when she sings. She's definitely a contender."
David Willis: "David's got a good voice. With everybody, obviously the song choice is very important. But I think David particularly, because his tone is really suited to certain songs, and I think if he finds those, he's going to do really well."
Zoanette Johnson: "I got a feeling that we've done a pretty good job of helping her to this point, in the sense of letting America see her extraordinarily unique gifts in full flight," Urban said, pausing periodically to choose his words carefully. "Apart [from] that, we'll see what she's got in store for us. Because you never know. She's like a box of chocolates, right? You never know what you're going to get."
Which contestants will you be keeping an eye on in the Vegas rounds? Do you think it's a girl's year to win?
American Idol airs Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8/7c on Fox.