American Idol: Rumors From The Road

After a summer filled with speculation about who would be judging American Idol in the coming season, the series has entered its traditional fall dead zone for publicity. The judges are currently visiting audition locations to vote thumbs up or down on whether young hopefuls should be sent on to Hollywood or not. Eventually the names of some of the more promising contestants should begin to leak out, especially as so many of them maintain a presence on YouTube. We can look forward to seeing whether the changes in the show format made this offseason (asking for more performance flair from the contestants, allowing the singers to stay within their genres more often) will make for a better Idol in the long run. It's hard to see how it could hurt.

But for now, most of what we're going to read about Idol amounts to unsourced or thinly sourced gossip, or obvious leaks from the show to whet appetites. Not surprisingly, much of the early chatter seems to revolve around the behavior of Jennifer Lopez, who has been a tabloid fixture for the last decade. And as could have been predicted, the leaks have not been flattering and tend to play off Lopez's image as a diva. One recent report claimed that J. Lo can't seem to remember the name of Randy Jackson, the guy she sits next to on the Idol panel. This rumor qualifies as a two-fer: Lopez as self-involved, and Randy as forgettable. Still, it seems a little too perfect. No one will ever confuse Lopez with a Nobel laureate, but she's never been thought of ditsy enough to forget a colleague's name. Now, if people said that about Paula Abdul, we'd likely buy it.

Another rumor mentioned that Lopez was battling Ryan Seacrest for Idol supremacy, with both demanding billing and special perks. Again, this plays on stereotypes -- Seacrest being something of a diva in his own right -- but given that Lopez has really only been at work for a couple of weeks, it's premature. Seacrest is going to be the most familiar part of Idol once the new season commences, but he's never going to be the "star" and likely knows this. And it's hard to see how Lopez could be throwing her weight around when the judges are currently on the road.

Jackson wasn't featured very much in the summer Idol news mix -- it was just assumed he'd be the one part of the show that would remain unchanged, unlikely though that may have seemed given his refusal to say or do anything memorable for most of his run on the show. But it now looks as if Idol is trying to reposition Randy as the new tough guy on the panel. The show released a photo of the new trio in its first day of work, showing that Randy has apparently moved to the seat once occupied by Simon Cowell. Fans have been conditioned to view that seat as the last and authoritative word on a contestant. So is the man whose words of judicial wisdom have rarely ranged beyond "You did your thing!" actually going to have something more substantive to contribute?

Seacrest did his part to fuel this new image of Randy as the enforcer on the new panel, telling his radio audience that "he's the one to shut it down the most." E! Online quoted an Idol source as saying that Randy "has stepped up his game and is being more blunt and bottom line," adding that the judge has "rebranded himself." While one has to take this all with several grains of salt, it's not impossible to believe. As the one judge who doesn't have a recording career of his own or much of a lovable public image to protect, Randy is better suited to playing the heavy (no pun intended) than the newcomers. And we've seen in the past that he is fully capable of making lucid criticisms; he simply hasn't put much effort into it, what with Simon around to carry that burden. If Randy has decided to finally wake up in his tenth season, that's good news for the Idolverse.

The judges made a few public comments after their first day of work, which didn't do much to answer the question of whether Idol was going to be "nicer" now without Simon around (leaving aside that Simon's reputation for meanness was always a little overblown). Steven Tyler said that contestants shed "a lot of tears" over their criticism, even though the judges tried to be constructive and not personal. And Lopez added that she wanted to put the hopefuls "through the wringer," which certainly sounds like they wanted to be tough. But Lopez also said that the experience she and Tyler have had in music has made them want to give everyone a chance. So this looks like another case where viewers will have to wait and see.

The three months between now and the Season Ten premiere will feature the release of the first post-victory album of Lee DeWyze (expectations here are low, to put it mildly), the first leaks about who is looking good as the new crop advances to Hollywood, and surely, more gossip about the new judging panel. With little in the new fall season gaining traction with viewers, Idol might again look like a welcome sight by the time January rolls around.