'American Idol': In a Minor Key
The guillotine fell again on the Idol stage. After the show’s least compelling performances thus far, it was also the least shocking results show. Coming off last week’s stunning dismissal of Gina Glocksen, Wednesday night’s widely predicted ouster of Haley Scarnato seemed an orderly piece of business as usual. In the Idoldome, the crowd gave respectful applause to the departing Idol, but compared to the near riot and emotional outpouring last week, it was mechanized warfare compared to hand-to-hand combat.
Everything seemed neat and clean indeed, unless you happened to be one of the contestants whose lives hung in the balance.
As the one hour affair marched inexorably toward the scaffold, the endangered contestants slowly tied themselves into pretzels waiting to learn their fates. And while 30 million viewers waited for the verdict, only one person on that platform actually knew whose Idoldom was about to end. That person was not Angel of Death Seacrest, who can be seen opening his results cards just moments before announcing the results. Nor are the judges tipped off, frequently registering shock as they do.
Sitting at the back of the stage, the most low-key but perhaps most integral member of the on-screen family, Music Director Rickey Minor, begins every Wednesday night show with a little voice in his headset telling him the identity of the condemned, so that quietly but efficiently, he may prepare for that most hallowed of Idol traditions — the goodbye song.
Minor’s role in preparing this ritual and keeping the secret to himself for that one crucial hour is a telling example of how the unassuming bass player seamlessly guides each week’s show. But let not the low key smile and wave at the start of every show fool you – in a machine the size of the Idol Industrial Complex, not an acorn falls whose descent is not meticulously mapped to the molecule.
American Idol attracts mega-achiever type personalities. Not only its contestants who fight their way out of the multitudes to stardom, but also its host, Seacrest, who spends his day racing between his various other shows, to the producers who clone Idol and manage the careers of its minted stars worldwide, to Judge Cowell — who seems to kick off a new TV show of his own every week.
Add to that list the unthinkably vast reach of the show’s music director, whose recent credits include guiding the sounds of almost every major American awards show (including the Emmys and Grammys), the Super Bowl, VH1 Divas, and work on albums, tours and specials for a ridiculously encyclopedic client roster (including Whitney Houston, Britney, Christina, Justin, Ray Charles, Mary J. Blige, Beyonce, Josh Groban and the Black Eyed Peas to name the merest handful).
Visiting Minor at his bungalow office/production space in Hollywood one quiet Thursday afternoon, one quickly gets the eye-of-the-hurricane sense that just outside the frame of the peaceful picture of a man listening to some recent cuts at his work station, there is a storm swirling that could level cities in one gust.
Minor calmly gives his visitor a taste of the whirlwind answering the innocently posed question, "What are you up to today?"
“Well, last night I watched the show with Quincy,” he begins. “We’re working on the song for Idol Gives Back, which has to be done in two weeks. We talked about whether the song should be a ballad, should it be a ‘We are the World’ or should it be something that has tempo. I opted for the latter. We’ll have enough ‘no dry eyes’ video clips and the comedians will bring some humor into it. But the uplifting song needs to have the energy.
“For that show, I’m organizing a 44-piece orchestra at Disney plus the normal 22 at CBS, happening at the same time. Doing this in two weeks, plus two more weeks of shows with Jennifer Lopez and Martina McBride. Next week, I also have the TVland awards. The night of Idol Gives Back I have a jet leaving; I’m producing a festival in Tobago. Then I’m also producing, on that week Cedars-Sinai is opening the Johnnie Cochran brain tumor center.”
Not to mention some records he’s working on and bands he’s putting together for those musician friends.
Asked how he keeps all this straight in his head, Minor produces a legal pad with page after page of items jotted down in a meticulously clear hand. “I’m a Virgo and I’m a math major. It’s about organizing yourself. I wake up about four in the morning, write the projects down and write out my check list. Then through the day I go through my check list and I check the boxes for all my TV shows, my records and the shows I’m producing.”
What could be easier?
But despite the several dozen or so side projects that clutter Minor’s check list, it is his Idol duties that are the most consuming these days. Going through the week, he lays out the machine the contestants cycle through preparing their songs.
The process begins weeks in advance when the show receives the list of songs from each celebrity mentor and works it into a list of 30 to 50 songs that they can arrange clearance for. The clearance process in itself can be tricky.
Minor acknowledges, for instance, that getting approval for Beatles songs has been very difficult (to date, only one Beatles song has been performed on Idol and none of the band’s songs were on the list on Britpop week, Minor says.)
On Thursday mornings, “the contestants each get an hour with the vocal coach. They get that list of songs on the Sunday prior to the show so they have to already be thinking about what song works for [them.] They have the music and the lyric sheets to the song to try it out. They all get one hour, the same amount of time so no one can be accused of hogging the time, so you have to come in with your idea.
“People like LaKisha and Blake,” he continues “they have ideas already, ‘I’d like to start at the bridge with just strings,’ they might say.”
When the coaches finish their run through, “they make a CD of the contestants singing. We have a team that is shooting it over to us, sending a PDF, of the chart that’s marked up and audio of the songs. So I listen to it and make my suggestions. I decide the songs I want to work on and I decide what arrangers would be best for this song in this genre, and then we put it up on my mac account and the arrangers and the musicians can go look at it immediately. Thursday night all the arrangers are called in and they have one day to do the arrangement. They have to turn it in by six a.m. Saturday morning.”
Continuing his run through of the week, he says, “Sunday morning we’re at Capitol Records recording the long version that goes up at americanidol.com. Monday morning, the contestants go to the studio and record their vocals for the full length versions. The band goes to CBS and we rehearse the short versions for the audio team that puts it out to air so they can get their mix and their balance. Monday afternoon, the contestants come in and they get to rehearse with me as long as they need. Monday is all music day. It’s not cameras, it’s not lighting. It’s not producers, it’s nothing but music, it’s me and the band.
“Generally at the end of the day on Monday, I have all the contestants in the room with me. It’s one-on-one. The first thing I say to the top 24 is 'I’m not here to help you win. I’m here to make you better. By doing this process you’ll be better when you leave than when you came.'”
The biggest obstacle, Minor says, is that inevitable by-product of stardom. “The first week they’re frightened but when it gets to the top 12, I tell them, ‘There’s going to come a time when your ego is going to surpass your talent and for some of you that’s starting to happen already. So I would encourage you to put your ego in check.’”
The other great problem Minor deals with, is that inevitable by-product of youth, deadly to a chanteuse, chattiness, a problem accentuated in this particularly chummy particularly young group. “They need vocal rest. But they’re young so they run around, talking too much, laughing too much. It’s a big problem.”
One of the most frequently commented on elements of watching the show from the Idoldome and comparing the live performance with the televised is that there will be some that looked better or worse on television than they did live. Minor, having produced not just Idol but the Super Bowl is one of the world’s authorities on screen spectacles and can describe what is missing from – or should be added to – the televised version.
“It’s about attention to details. It’s really understanding the genre of the music and what you’re trying to accomplish and then the details.”
He goes on to describes the meticulous process he goes through each week to create the sound mix for each song. “But,” he says, “you just can’t replace the energy of sitting in a room and hearing the live music and singing. On television, you are exposed...If you’re there live you’re looking at the band and the lighting and everything is perfect. You’re looking at a full on-view. Where on television you’re looking through this kaleidoscope, of what the camera shows you, what one camera shows you. Live, you’re watching them make their steps up but on TV you may be looking at just one horn player. The experience is totally different.”
But ultimately, the choice of how to perform each song is left to the singers.
He refers to LaKisha’s very public dismissal of celebrity mentor Tony Bennett’s advice not to throw in a tag at the end of her rendition of “Stormy Weather.” “She had said ‘What should I do?’ and I said, 'Well listen, it’s Tony Bennett. He’s got 80 years of singing and experience and you can either do what he says and what the band says, we have 400 years of experience collectively. Or you can do whatever you want.'”
It comes as little surprise to those whom have observed her in the Idoldome that LaKisha went with what she wanted.
Asked how he rides the whirlwind of life in the middle of this monster of a show, combined with his myriad other projects, Minor cites advice given him by Quincy Jones, advice which could be the motto for the show itself.
“Quincy said, ‘You know what to do when it rains?’ I said ‘No, what.’ He said ‘Get wet! Get soaking wet man!’”
With the phenomenon continuing to grow in its sixth season, there are very few staying dry in the house of Idol today.
(Haley Scarnato photo courtesy Fox; Rickey Minor by Al Seib/LAT)