Nigel Lythgoe: American Idol Interview
“I’m just blessed that America is so big and has got such wonderful talent year after year.” Nigel Lythgoe: American Idol
Nigel Lythgoe: American Idol
By: Daedrian McNaughton
Eleven years of a successful talent show—this year viewers seemed rather fatigued with the excess of singing and talent shows. Is Idol still at the top of its game or is it time to close the door and gracefully bow out or say goodbye? Well we caught up with the mastermind behind one of America’s most successful talent show, Nigel Lythgoe to discuss the future of American Idol.
Has President Obama responded to the invitation to perform on the Idol stage?
Nigel Lythgoe: No response at all. I have the feeling he’s a little too busy to answer me.
Katherine McPhee, your Idol child is now in the new NBC series Smash. How do you feel about making stars through the Idol platform?
Nigel Lythgoe: I saw the premier a while ago now. Wow. I think Katharine McPhee is fantastic. It’s going to be interesting to see if the public stays with it. I’m not sure. It depends on the drama now, I think. I’m not positive that America is going to necessarily get a musical show at this time without the campery of Glee, if you like. I think shows like Idol certainly are especially as Katherine McPhee is the star of it. That Kelly Clarkson is being pulled in to sort of mentor on The Voice—I feel like we’re turning stars out. And my other program So You Think You Can Dance is feeding Dancing with the Stars so I feel in a wonderful position having come over here to create future stars for American television.
What is your opinion on The Voice?
Nigel Lythgoe: I think it’s a fun format. It’s very gimmicky, which is interesting at this moment in time. I particularly like the relationship between Blake and Adam, and other than that I think they need stronger talent. We’ll see.
Will Jimmy Iovine return as a mentor this year?
Nigel Lythgoe: If you classify what Jimmy did last year mentorship, yes he is. He’s coming back to do exactly what he did last year plus we’re going to have guest mentors as well.
Which artist was this year’s biggest influence?
Nigel Lythgoe: Adele has certainly had a huge influence on the auditions this year. I’ve never heard so many Adele songs. Last year it was (Lady) Gaga. This year it’s Adele, and boys and girls singing Adele. I certainly think those types of voices—I’m probably going to be very un-pc in saying that shape of singer as well has come out and feels proud—and rightly so—to come to the audition and expose their talent, and it’s really good.
Can you talk about Ryan Seacrest’s future with Idol?
Nigel Lythgoe: There can always be an Idol without anybody. I’m surprised that question’s still being asked after Simon left us when everybody said there wouldn’t be an Idol without Simon. I believe that Seacrest is probably the best host in the business. Why he hasn’t received an Emmy yet, I’m not sure. I would hate to think of him leaving American Idol. I think he is the glue that sticks it all together and moves it along. I’m a huge fan, from the moment I heard him on radio when I first came to America and asked him to come along and audition. I don’t have anything bad to say against Ryan. Apart from he’s too good looking, he’s got too much money, to be given $300 million to invest in companies. I hope he comes on for Nigel Lythgoe Productions. I just hope he doesn’t leave, to be frank with you. I think they should try and sort out a deal.
How do you feel that other shows have somewhat similar model as idol or does it impact Idol at all?
Nigel Lythgoe: I’m just blessed that America is so big and has got such wonderful talent year after year. I must say that going down to the 15-year-old area has helped us. It’s reinvigorated it. I think that talent is really good, really young. I don’t think The Voice is feeding off that talent. It seems to be sort of feeding off the talent that hasn’t quite made it and hopefully will remake it in the future. And X Factor sort of did a little bit of both and sort of opened its gates to the groups and everything else. So it didn’t really know what it wanted to do.
Do you think the diversity of talent last year impacted the show and the upcoming seasons?
Nigel Lythgoe: I loved last year because we had such a diversity of talent. That we had jazz, we had country, we had rock, and we allowed them to stay in their genres. And I think that was very important for us last year. And I think that has brought more and more diversity to the judges this year so that the jazz singers felt comfortable in coming. As usual, it’s up to America to decide whether it likes the talent or not. I certainly do, but then again, I’m not going to say, “Oh, no. It’s much worse than last year,” am I. So I think the talent is terrific. I think the diversity of talent is terrific. I haven’t agreed all the time with the judge’s results, if you like, with their choices but that’s great. That’s what makes it subjective. That’s what makes it interesting, and that’s why people watch the show.
What surprised you the most about this year’s contestants?
Nigel Lythgoe: I’m shocked to a certain degree that having been there for ten years and the kids have watched this since some of them were five years old, I’m shocked that they still don’t realize how tough “Hollywood Week” is. A lot of it has to do with geographic circumstances of being East Coast kids coming to the West Coast. Not realizing how dry it is and especially with our winter this year it’s been so hot, that they’re just not drinking enough. And most of our people passing out and they were dropping like flies. There’s no question about it. You’ll see it, but they just weren’t drinking, and it’s all dehydration basically. There was one we had, Amy Rumsfeld, “Tent Girl” came ill and she certainly passed a bug around, which didn’t help. People were vomiting. But the passing out was purely down to either stupidity or dehydration. When I say, “stupidity” if you drink five bottles of five hour, the vitamin thing that keeps you awake for five hours, if you have five of those and don’t eat it’s not going to help. And that was just one of the parents, for God sake. It’s just a surprise that people don’t realize what they’re going to be put through because we haven’t changed it, and yet it’s still that sleep deprivation the night that they’ve got to work. The best ones were going to bed by 11:30, 12 o’clock, and the ones that sucked when they started and sucked when they finished were going to bed at 3:45, 4 o’clock in the morning.
Do you have a favorite this year so far?
Nigel Lythgoe: One of my favorites was cut in Vegas.
What will the Vegas stage be like for the upcoming performances?
Nigel Lythgoe: We’re on the Elvis stage just to give us somewhere to go and make the kids feel like they were performing. And the songs, the style of music was late ’50s going into the ’60s so Buddy Holly, Elvis himself, all of those sort of close harmony groups. That’s what that particular show is, and then, of course, when we went to Le Reve, which is just an incredible venue at Encore and the Wynn. That was the solo song with a solo instrument so they could choose the instrument that they wanted playing or play it themselves and just the solo voice. The more we can show their natural talent the better.
There is always a bit of drama during the auditions or Hollywood Week. Any of that this season?
Nigel Lythgoe: Actually, it’s extremely dramatic because of all of the sort of passing out. It really is. Because of where I sit I was right by Symone Black, who was the girl who fell off the stage, and it was almost like slow motion. And when I watch it back—because the cameras weren’t expecting it, we just caught it on a wide angle, unfortunately—it was like whoever was asleep on his camera went, “Where did that girl go?” And she just disappears below the frame. But when she dropped I watched myself walking towards the body, as it were, in slow motion, and the cameraman watched it happen just below the stage, and she wobbles. You literally see a wobble and her eyes dropping to the back of her head, and she falls. And the camera man, bless him, tries to dive to catch her because he’s on the floor on his knees, and he doesn’t get there and knocks his camera that falls on top of him. This is terrible. I’m shouting for medics and it’s scary, to be frank.
Why do you continue to put contestant in groups to perform during Hollywood Week when they will all have to perform solo?
Nigel Lythgoe: Because we see how they cope with people, to see how they cope with individual harmonies. Each one of them gets a solo within that.The choreography doesn’t matter. You can stand there on a microphone as far as we’re concerned. That’s up to them. If they want to do it, it shows off their personalities. That too is exceptionally important as well in a performer. It gives us lots of different areas to look at, gives us comment, and, at that point, hopefully everyone’s got a good voice. So then you start looking for other qualities to put them through on. They’re exactly the same as So You Think You Can Dance. Why put them in pairs because it’s a solo competition? Because you can judge them against somebody else, that’s why.
The talents who have entered the competition this season are more serious than they have is previous years. What do you make of that?
Nigel Lythgoe: We certainly are more constructive than last season. We haven’t had that many bad ones that are bad fun. William Hung is bad fun, and we haven’t had many of those. And therefore, you’re always a little bit weary of the people coming. Are they coming just to have fun with their friends from university or I’ll go in and I’ll make myself look stupid or you don’t know if the people are ill when they come to you. So I think we’ve become a lot wearier about how we treat people. I think we have had some extraordinary talent, and we’ve decided we would like to feature the talent. If you just want people to be made fun of we will do that with ease. I mean being English and having that sort of lack of sensitivity, like I’m ready to take the piss out of anybody, whoever they are. But at the same time, we have a responsibility to say, “If we’re a talent show at the end of the day— and I’ve always said this for 11 years—it’s about the talent.” Not about the production, not about the judges, it’s about the talent, and we are as strong or as weak as our final talent that we present to America, and that’s what we have to stand by.
Do you feel the judges are honest in their feedbacks to the contestants?
Nigel Lythgoe: You’re dealing with artists here who are dealing with other artists. This whole process of judging is extremely difficult in being as honest and as articulate as you can be, and at the same time trying to support the artist. So you’re constantly saying, “Oh, it was pitchy. You need to get up to the note. You need to do this. You need to—.” Rather than saying, “You suck. Go and sue your singing teacher. Pack your suitcase. You’re going home.” Which a recording executive like Simon Cowell can do very easily because his thought behind everything is, ‘can you make me money?’ And that is that world. I’m not condemning him for that because Jimmy Iovine’s exactly the same—if I invest in you will you make me money? And that’s how their brains work. An artist like Jennifer or Steven go, “Oh, God, I remember when I took criticism for this or I took criticism for that. I don’t want to be too harsh. My fans won’t love me if I’m too harsh.” And that’s the way that goes. So they are as honest as I think they can be for themselves and at the same time as supportive as they want to be for the artist. Now, if that fails when we get down to the final 12, as it were, it’s only because they truly and honestly believe in their final 12. And even last year—and I’m quite a ruthless judge, I sat down and thought, “Now, what do you say negative about this kid who’s just sang this song brilliantly?” And if all people want is negativity—when you talk about being honest, if all you want them say is, “You didn’t sing that well, and that top note, you shouldn’t have gone for that, and that was rubbish, and I don’t like what you’re wearing,” then don’t watch. If what you want is real good talent without gimmicks, without fireworks going off, without flashing lights, and just bloody good talent on the stage then watch American Idol because that’s what you’re going to get.
Idol has been getting some bad press about their ratings. Would you change anything?
Nigel Lythgoe: Well, you’re asking me in the 11th season when I thought I was going home after three weeks. Don’t forget, Simon Cowell only packed for three weeks when we first came out here. Listen, we have survived for 11 years and whatever sort of bad press we’re getting about these rating— my God, the rest of the world would love these ratings for God sake. After 11 years I’m thrilled with these ratings. We’re constantly compared against ourselves and against our own ratings. So whatever’s happening now, we’ve survived for 11 years. Of course there’s going to be come kind of deterioration in the ratings. We’ve now got two major programs in The Voice and X Factor against us. Whether people like them or dislike them they’re still feeding from the same talent, and it’s still going to dilute our audience. But am I worried about the ratings? I’m more worried about getting the show right. My job is to worry about making the best shows that I can make, and that’s what I would like to continue doing. Why on earth would we start looking at other things to put in there? I have no idea. There’s going to be fatigue. There’s going to be, “Oh, yeah. American Idol.” But American Idol is now in the history books and it will remain there, and let’s hope all of the other shows like X Factor and The Voice continue to be successful for 11 years. I’ll celebrate. I worship talent so, I’ll keep my fingers crossed for them, but 11 years is a long time to go.