American Idol Returns for a 20th Season

As television's preeminent sing-off returns for season 20, the panel opens up about a tried-and-true star-making process

As television’s preeminent sing-off returns for season 20, the panel opens up about a tried-and-true star-making process

The smash-hit music competition that launched the careers of Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson, Chris Daughtry and many, many more, is back for its landmark 20th season. Superstar judges Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan embark on another exhaustive search for America’s next pop sensation, and to mark the two-decade milestone, they’ll be joined by several notable Idol alums along the way. While there’s still no fast-pass to fame, this time around, there is a new shortcut to the stage. TV Week got the scoop from all three panellists, as well as longtime host Ryan Seacrest.

TV Week: What is the new “platinum ticket” thing you’re introducing this season?
Katy Perry: We were able to go and visit different cities—Nashville, Austin and L.A.—and in each place, there were three reserved “platinum tickets.” We identified the best talent and this ticket gives them the ability to go to Hollywood Week, and observe [their competitors] from the box seats at the theatre. They get to rest their voice, strategize, check out the competition and select who they want a duet with. Usually we’ve been selecting who people can duet with. So they get a tiny advantage.

What makes someone platinum-worthy?
Lionel Richie: For me, it was the fact that they’re just naturals. Some people just walk out and they are stars. They have all the boxes ticked: stage presence, delivery, sound and style. So, when they open their mouths, you know exactly who they are as an artist. When that happens, you give them the platinum ticket as fast as you can.

Just how much of a person’s success in the audition is dependent on their song selection?
Luke Bryan: Song selection is key. It tells us how sharp they are as an artist. It tells us how knowledgeable they are about where they want to take their career. When they’re rocking and rolling, they’re making great song choices.
Perry: Sometimes they’ll pick one of our songs and we’ll just be like, “Okay, walk the plank.” But we get surprised every once in a while. There was one girl that did “Harleys in Hawaii” that really surprised me one time. I was like, “Wow, girl. Don’t sing me out of a job.”

When you guys were starting out, what was the biggest challenge?
Perry: The thing for me was probably hearing “No” so many times and still betting on myself and believing—after having three record deals and being dropped, and having two cars repossessed and sleeping on couches and eating Trader Joe’s chicken tenders for, like, a year-and-a-half—that it was all a part of the process.
Richie: There is one thing that you just cannot overlook and that’s the time you have to put in. There’s always that moment where you say, “I’m ready.” And we hear these kids on American Idol say so many times, “I’m 15 years old. I’m ready to go.” And we’re saying, “No, you’re not.” That’s what was very tough for us [The Commodores], because here we are, 21 years old, and we just killed the crowd and the guy says, “You’re five years away from being where you really want to be.” And I just couldn’t put that in my head. But we didn’t have the experience. So, what we have to do as judges is actually tell them the same thing, which is, “You’re not ready yet.”
Bryan: For me, it was about each level of having to conquer… no matter what you do, you’ve always got to reinvent yourself and take it to the next level. The stress of that next level was always very, very challenging, and that’s what so many of these kids don’t realize, that the stress never ends.

Ryan, as the sole onscreen person who has been there throughout the duration of the series, what does this 20th-anniversary milestone mean to you?
Ryan Seacrest: To look back at all those moments and see some of those contestants when they first met us on the road and see the time that’s gone by and the success that they have had is pretty incredible. I got emotional watching some of those great moments. When we started, it was a purely pop- and personality-driven show. It’s become a very heartfelt, human and artist-driven show because of what the judges have done.

So many people from Idol have gone on to do exceptional things, whether it’s singing, acting or hosting. What is it about this show that sets it apart from others in the reality genre?
Perry: It’s about the contestants. It’s not really about us. We are just guiding them and supporting them and giving them cues and knowledge that we’ve been able to cultivate over the decades. And we really, really care, because we’ve been in their shoes and we want to set them up for success. We are hard on them because, in the real world, it is hard, but we are still doing it with grace. It’s not really about anything besides us holding that lottery ticket that we want to give to them.
Bryan: Fans love the music of the artist, but they love the story of the artist, too. When you find out that not only can they sing, they’ve navigated so many challenges of life, and when Idol tells those stories so beautifully, it makes the fans gravitate to that person even more, which sets them up to go on and be a superstar.
Seacrest: It’s also a function of going out into America and finding people that would not have the means to leave where they are, that have talent but also a ferocious hunger to make it and to get out of whatever it is they are doing, whatever situation they are in. Once that door opens, they are not going to let it go. 

American Idol returns Sunday, February 27th at 8 p.m. on City & ABC