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'American Idol': Contestants not afraid to defy Jimmy Iovine

April 14, 2011 | 11:05 am

MB1_5572 Interscope Records kingpin/"American Idol" mentor Jimmy Iovine has worked overtime to make this season one that’s musically and commercially viable. 

Much has been written about the transformations of the show, notably Iovine adding marquee music producers to help the finalists dress up theme nights. 

Iovine enlisted his own dream team of soundsmiths to rotate duties, including Polow Da Don, Rock Mafia, Rodney Jerkins, Don Was, Jim Jonsin, Ron Fair and “Tricky” Stewart, Timbaland and Alex Da Kid. The hitmakers all have a hand in arranging and producing contestant tracks, all under the watchful guise -- and, often, criticism -- of the chairman.

But Wednesday, the contestants appeared to have had enough of Iovine’s heavy hand during the season's tribute to songs that have appeared in movies.

After last week’s “shocking” elimination of Pia Toscano (cue tears, mostly from judge Jennifer Lopez), the contestants were clearly feeling the threat of uncertainty when it came to voters at home -- it certainly didn’t help their confidence that the judges reminded them Wednesday how unfair Toscano’s exit was.

Iovine’s the kind of presence that the show hasn’t had in the past. He's not only the in-house mentor who lends a critical voice to the contestants, but he also is the man who will be be signing the winner (and whomever else from the show he good and well pleases -- reports say he has already inked a deal with Toscano). 

The chairman has a commitment to cultivating some of the greatest finalists the show has seen -- his words. He has gone on record plenty of times saying he hopes this season will provide longevity for the finalists, and, ultimately, more hits for his imprint. And given the exhaustive resources he has deployed on their development, he will certainly broker most of the contestants' post-"Idol" record deals. 

As the music producers seemed to have taken a backseat in recent weeks -- for a second week, Iovine was joined by Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am -- viewers and contestants got an extra dose of Iovine. 

But his influence has clearly weighed on the finalists, who have resorted to not only defying him but also flat out telling him he’s wrong.

"Who can tell whether a song is a hit just from hearing it for the first time on a piano?” finalist James Durbin mouthed off toward Iovine after the head honcho was less than moved by Durbin’s audition of Sammy Hagar's "Heavy Metal."

"What do you mean who  …  You think I'm an accident," a visibly annoyed Iovine fired back. "I know a song is a hit before it gets to a piano, when someone is just humming it.”

It was an awkward moment, which will.i.am tried to defuse by offering an anecdote of when he argued with Iovine over BEP’s decision to flirt with electropop for its current records, which Iovine was apparently against. (Perhaps all those smash hits were the band’s “told you so.")  

Casey Abrams also had an “I don’t care what you say” outburst and refuted Iovine's suggestion that Nat King Cole's "Nature Boy" made him sound small, then passed on his suggestion to tackle Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight" instead.

"It's so hard to find a song that defines me as an artist," Abrams said. The singer, who the judges used their one coveted save on, angered Iovine.

But what separates BEP or any other artist that has vented about its  label's involvement in its project is John Q. Public at home picking up the phone. When listeners don’t like the route an artist takes on an album, they just don’t buy it.

“Idol” finalists have the aide of Iovine, but in the end they are still at the mercy of voters. And the voters have been ruthless this season -- despite a female not winning since Jordin Sparks back in 2007, only females have thus far been sent packing, leaving only two.

From his perspective, Iovine is looking for a hit in today’s market (the studio versions of "Idol"  songs are available for purchase), as well as paying attention to how it's going to look on TV in front of millions. And 13-year-old female voters -- which Jimmy Kimmel joked was the demographic on his late night show Wednesday  -- might not care about the contestants arguing about their artistry, and older "Idol" purists who have tuned in from Day 1 might have seen some of the interactions with Iovine as disrespectful -- especially when Scotty McCreery, who also shrugged off Iovine's advice, called him "dude" before catching himself.

"He chose not to take the help," Iovine said of Abrams' steadfast arguing. "He better be right."

In the end, voters will let him know who’s right.

-- Gerrick D. Kennedy


Photo: James Durbin performs in front of the judges. Credit: Michael Becker / Fox