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'American Idol': Finalists lean on heavyweight producers to tackle personal idols

March 10, 2011 |  9:10 am


Much has been said about the transformations that producers would bring to the revamped season of “American Idol,” leaving purists to ask: Will it rejuvenate the aging show, or will the stream of tweaks flounder? 

One change that had the potential to make the most difference -- besides new judges, of course -- was the addition of some marquee music producers to help the contestants dress up theme nights. 

Viewers got the first taste of this when the 13 finalists took the stage Wednesday to tackle songs by their personal idols.

Jimmy Iovine, chairman of Universal Music Group's Interscope Geffen A&M Records and the competition’s in-house mentor, enlisted his own dream team of producers to rotate duties, including Polow Da Don, Rock Mafia, Rodney Jerkins, Don Was, Jim Jonsin, Ron Fair and “Tricky” Stewart –- and that was just for the first week (Timbaland and Alex Da Kid are also confirmed for the show as well).

The producers were each given a finalist and had a hand in arranging and producing his or her selected song, all under the watchful guise -- and often criticism -- of Iovine.

“Idol” fans at home are used to seeing the finalists vibe with their weekly mentor, but this year is very different. The series has been dotted over the years with one-off moments featuring boldfaced industry players working closely with the contestants, but never have the finalists -- or viewers -- been treated to the ongoing artist development that traditionally happens behind closed doors, before a new act is ready to debut.

Recruiting hitmakers with a great deal of gravitas -- a quick glance at their collective credits include Justin Bieber (Rock Mafia), Lady Gaga (Jerkins), Usher (Jonsin), Beyonce (Stewart) and Christina Aguilera (Polow) -- only shows Iovine’s commitment to cultivating some of the greatest finalists the show has seen. Which he hopes leads to longevity, and, ultimately, more hits for his imprint, which will likely broker most of the contestants' post-"Idol" record deals.

Sometimes the new marriage worked: Naima Adedapo gave Rihanna’s “Umbrella” a reggae breakdown –- courtesy of Stewart, the song’s original producer -– while Polow Da Don helped Stefano Langone take Stevie Wonder’s oft-covered “Lately” from a slow-burning ballad to a frenzied dance-R&B stomp, which led to praise from the judges. 

And sometimes it didn’t fare so well: After being compared to Michael Jackson, youngster Thia Megia took on the King of Pop’s version of “Smile,” and had her bubble burst when she was informed that the song itself was a cover (cue some B-roll of her stuttering on how to pronounce Chaplin) and both Lauren Alaina and Hayley Reinhart didn’t get praise for tackling country pop divas Shania Twain and LeAnn Rimes, respectively. Pat McDonald introduced Jennifer Lopez to the music of alt-country iconoclast Ryan Adams, whom the judge said she'd never heard of, when McDonald performed Adams' "Come Pick Me Up."

Despite the at-times uneven feedback from the judges, Lopez announced that the new structure would allow viewers to “see more of the flavor of the contestants.” It's too early to tell how the judges, viewers and the contestants will adapt to the rotating stable of producers with the "live" shows being a week out the gate, but the changes nonetheless will open up the show to a conversation from music fans that may not have been there. Ten years in, has "Idol" actually positioned itself to become a major player on the charts like "Glee" has? 

“All these producers were trying to do something different,” Randy Jackson said when Ryan Seacrest asked how he felt the night went. “It adds a lot of pressure,” Steven Tyler added.


Idol Notes: Video chats with the "American Idol" finalists

-- Gerrick D. Kennedy


Photo: (Clockwise from left) Stefano Langone, Naima Adedapo, Thia Megia and Casey Abrams. Credit: Courtesy of Fox.