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'American Idol': Motown night showcases 'Idolville U.S.A.'

March 24, 2011 | 12:54 pm

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It was only appropriate that on Wednesday night the “American Idol” contestants took on the songs of Motown, a label that rightfully earned its "Hitsville U.S.A." moniker.

Plenty of contestants in the show’s history have dusted off Motown songs over the last decade, hits that, despite being more than four decades old, continue to suggest a contemporary edge, perhaps the main reason “Idol” leans on Motown once a season as a theme night. Producers could be hoping that viewers will catch the similarities the aging competition bears to the historic label.

“Idol” plays out on screen each season like a classic-pop-hit factory: auditions, rehearsals, feedback on songs and selection from musical authorities and fans, both of whom help decide which musicians are best equipped for fame. It mirrors the stories of Motown's 1960s heyday, when a competitive spirit helped bring out the best in the artists and the songs.

The Hitsville studios in Detroit were known to be open for business up to 22 hours a day, and Motown artists would balance touring with recording -- reportedly using tour breaks to pump out more material. Sound familiar? Within days of "Idol" winners being crowned, they are ushered on a national tour (along with the other contestants in the top 10), where they perform for the very audiences who voted them to stardom -- all while recording debut albums.

Viewers at home, treated to mere one-minute clip reels of the contestants crafting the songs they are about to perform, might not grasp the workhorse that is “Idolville U.S.A.”

This season, the studio version of the songs that come out of those weekly sessions are on sale exclusively at iTunes as a compilation -- a first for the show.

At $7.99 a pop, viewers can -- the day after the broadcast -- snag a weekly album of full-length songs that they only got 1 1/2 minutes of on the show. The model sounds similar to the "Glee" model, in which the show releases to iTunes the songs viewers heard on the broadcast the night before.

In-house “Idol” mentor Jimmy Iovine, chairman of Universal Music Group's Interscope Geffen A&M subsidiary, is an obvious champion of the model -- the album is released on Interscope via 19 Recordings -- and can be seen each week guiding the contestants as they record their tune, much like the head of Motown, Berry Gordy Jr., did.

Iovine enlisted a stable of producers, including Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins, Ron Fair, Timbaland, Tricky Stewart, Alex Da Kid, Rock Mafia, Don Was, Jim Jonsin and Ron Fair to help with song selection, and arranging and producing the musical accompaniment.

“I think its genius. Jimmy is a genius for thinking of it. It’s the ‘Glee’ concept but original content. It’s crazy because now it gives us as the producers content that comes out fast,” Jerkins said. “If you’ve seen the schedule, you’d ask how we do it.”

Pop & Hiss promptly asked how they did it.

From 3 p.m. Friday "till 10 in the morning [Saturday] I have to produce two songs for my contestants. The artists come in three-hour blocks, and you only have those three hours for each artist,” Jerkins said. “I then have to turn in two edits: an iTunes version by Saturday night and a minute-30 version for television by Sunday. Once Jimmy has heard everything and approved it, we start the mixes. Monday, we have a one-hour block for tweaks and can get the contestants if we need them, but we have to get it mastered by Tuesday for Wednesday's performance night.”

“Its really extreme," Jerkins said. "We’re putting in 80 hours a week.”

Though Jerkins said he felt voters would be more concerned with picking and purchasing the tracks of the contestants they love, the first two compilations have both managed to break the top 10 iTunes charts. The Motown compilation was made available for purchase Thursday, so it has yet to chart.

-- Gerrick D. Kennedy

twitter.com/gerrickkennedy

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Photo: "American Idol's" top 11, clockwise from top left, Pia Toscano, Stefano Langone, Lauren Alaina, Paul McDonald, James Durbin, Scotty McCreery, Naima Adedapo, Jacob Lusk, Casey Abrams, Haley Reinhart and Thia Megia. Credit: Michael Becker / Fox

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