"American Idol" kicks off its fifth season on Tuesday (January 17) with what will inevitably be a horde of hideous singers with a few truly talented ones sprinkled throughout.
It's the same formula the show has relied on since the beginning, and for many fans, the auditions are their favorite part of the season. Certainly the popularity of William Hung after his unforgettably out-of-tune rendition of "She Bangs" proved America's fascination with the not-so-"Idol"-like.
On the other end of the spectrum, however, are those who find the first episodes cruel and a waste of valuable time that could be used putting more real singers in front of the judges and the cameras — something the producers and judges find themselves explaining this time each year.
"This is not a show that goes out and says, 'Listen, find me the crazy, weird singers, that's what I want to show because I want to be cruel to people,' " Randy Jackson said recently. "That's not even remotely what we do. We're just showing you a cross-section of what's out there, because we can't believe it as much as you can't believe it. We're like, 'What?!' "
By airing the bad, however, some might argue that it encourages the talent-less and attention-starved to give it a whirl. But Jackson and executive producer Nigel Lythgoe believe that's rarely the case.
"People genuinely think that they have it, and they are convinced that they have it," Jackson said.
"There are truly people who believe, given a professional's investment in them, they are going to improve," Lythgoe added. "They forget you need a module of talent. Perhaps it's because we've seen celebrity stars produced by good producers and songwriters and machinery [who go on to succeed]. However, they would not be able to do 'American Idol,' because you have to stand there and sing live in front of millions."
It's that sincerity the judges and producers look for when weeding out those who are just trying to get on TV.
"We had a guy who showed up with chopsticks in his hair and a hair net on, singing like somebody stepped on a rhino's penis — you go, 'This isn't real,' " Lythgoe said. "It's about a belief in themselves. William Hung was sincere."
When the bad do make it to the judges, Jackson said it's not about being insulting for entertainment's sake, but about just being honest. What the rest of us think to ourselves, they say out loud.
As for the bad singers taking up time that could be used for the good, "Idol" producers openly admit to using pre-judges to screen out the mediocre (although it's not shown on TV) and send "the very best and the very worst" to Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell, as Lythgoe described it. But no one's losing out because singers who have a chance are sent through.
"I would never put my hand on my heart and say we've never let talent slip through — we are what's called human," Lythgoe said. "But we do our best and we have a really good sifting process."
"It hasn't hurt the competition at all," added Jackson. "Every year the right winner won."
Jackson did admit, though, that seeing the bad with the good might not be the best thing for his own sanity.
"You see us on those audition tapes, looking haggard and bushed and tired," he said. "Singing and music is what I do, of course, and I spend hours and hours a day in the studio, but just having people sing at you all day is a very interesting thing. It can be kind of numbing at some points. After the day is over, you don't want to hear any music, I'll tell you that."
Especially, at least this season, any Rascal Flatts.
"Everyone and their mother was singing 'Bless the Broken Road' — which is an amazing song, by the way — but a lot of people were singing that," Jackson said. "I think people are smart enough to stay away from some of the more stylized singers, the Mariahs and all that kind of stuff."
Check out the feature 10 Reasons To Watch 'Idol'.