On January 16th, American Idol returns for its 12th season – and it won't take fans very long to see that the Fox staple has shaken things up radically. Who could blame the Idol team for taking risks? The judges didn't click with each other or the audience last season; Steven Tyler gazed off passively into the middle distance, Jennifer Lopez gently encouraged the performers to be true to themselves and Randy Jackson just tried to make everyone stay on pitch.
Now J. Lo and Tyler are gone and Idol has laid out the red carpet for an all-new panel of judges and a new crop of auditions in Charlotte, Chicago, Long Beach, New Orleans, New York, Oklahoma City and San Antonio. Here are five reasons to tune in to American Idol this season:
1. The Judges
Joining the panel of judges this year are Mariah Carey, a/k/a the best-selling female recording artist of all time. She'll be doling out judgment alongside quadruple-platinum singer, songwriter and rapper Nicki Minaj and four-time Grammy winner Keith Urban. The only holdover is Idol mainstay Randy Jackson – who lingers along with host Ryan Seacrest.
The straight-talking Minaj – who was encouraged to take the job by none other than Lil Wayne, apparently – will be filling the long-vacant Simon Cowell role on Idol, cutting through the BS and telling it like it is to contestants. Don't expect the addition of Minaj to bring rap or hip-hop to the Idol stage, though. The show's executive producer Nigel Lythgoe told USA Today, "I do not believe hip-hop will become a genre on American Idol." He does, however, think, "We'll get a lot of good R&B kids, a lot of good street kids coming in."
On the other side of the musical spectrum, Urban will provide much-needed cred to the show when it comes to critiquing the country performers. Idol has a long history of recognizing country talent, including kickstarting the careers of Carrie Underwood and Scotty McCreery, but it's never had a country mentor on the panel before. As for Carey, her songs have been a mainstay of the Idol songbook since the first season. It's only fair that she gets to start judging the people mauling her songs under the pretext of paying homage to them.
2. The Fireworks
The battles between Carey and Minaj have already livened up the normally staid Idol audition rounds. Last October, while Idol was in Charlotte, North Carolina, Minaj threatened to "knock out" Carey during a taping. The fight was leaked to TMZ, who promptly made it national watercooler gossip. This fight led Carey to add more security to her detail, which just made Minaj laugh.
The dynamic duo has apparently made up and are prepared to work together for a successful Idol season. The Sun reports that when they were asked how they made up, Minaj replied, "I put on my sex tape" just as Carey said, "Time heals all wounds." Minaj added, "And we watched my tape. . . We're professionals."
Unfortunately, watching a sex tape hasn't ironed out all the singers' differences. Last week, at the Idol panel in front of the Television Critics Association, when Minaj and Carey were asked to say something nice about each other, the two started throwing shade all over each other again. When Idol goes live, the fireworks between these two should keep the Idol producers at the edge of their seats as they pray any foul language doesn't make its way to the air.
3. Bigger and Better Auditions
When it comes to auditions, fans of the show know what to expect: An endless stream of contestants, good, bad and ugly, singing for the increasingly slaphappy judges. Expect that to change this season when Idol goes where they have never gone before: to small towns in search of talent. "American Idol has always gone out to the cities en masse," Lythgoe told reporters during a conference call last week. "We've actually taken a bus, an American Idol bus, out to little towns this year and with a producer onboard, who has brought kids into the audition – kids that wouldn't necessarily be either close enough to one of the cities we were at or even have the financial means to get to one of the big cities. So that introduced new talent to us, I must say."
As dramatic a shift as that is for the show, that's not the only change in store for the audition process. This season, people were able to nominate talented friends and family who were too nervous or intimidated to audition. The show then sent a team to stage an audition intervention. "Randy Jackson actually went out, and we did some hidden camera stuff, and shocked them and surprised them and then gave them a number – an audition number – so that they actually skipped the lines and everything and came straight in to see the judges," Lythgoe explained.
4. Big Changes During Hollywood Week
Lythgoe has done away with the Wild Card. "I've never liked a Top 11 or a Top 12 or a Top 13," he said to USA Today. "It was always created in order to fill the transmission times Fox wanted." This season, when the Top 10 finalists are chosen, that's it. Many fans will applaud this decision, especially after last year's debacle when one Wild Card contestant, 'gentle giant' Jermaine Jones, was kicked off the show after it turned out that he had several outstanding warrants and had misled producers about past criminal charges.
That's not the only change in the Idol winnowing process this season. Come Hollywood Week, the contestants will be divided up by gender. "We split the weeks up and gave a week to the boys, then a week to the girls," Lythgoe said. When the contestants head to Las Vegas, expect a similar split, which Lythgoe felt helped the judges divine the true talent among the contestants.
5. Idol Delivers Results
From Kelly Clarkson to Phillip Phillips, Idol has a proven track record of creating bankable, chart-topping, Grammy-winning stars. On the eve of the new season – and perhaps in response to the rise of The Voice – Idol is reminding viewers of its bona fides as a results-oriented talent show with a new slogan: "Everyone dreams. Idol delivers." Everyone associated with the show, from Nigel Lythgoe to Jimmy Iovine to the new judges, seems on board with the mission to do what The Voice thus far has failed to do: make a star. Even with all the sparks between the judges, they know that they are on the show to elevate a true talent from relative obscurity to, hopefully, the top of the charts.
"There are some strong personalities here," Carey said during a recent press conference. "I knew, starting this process, that there could be a difference of opinions. This is a very passionate panel. The fighting is what it is, but this is American Idol: It's bigger than that. It's bigger than some stupid, trumped-up thing. It's about the next huge talent, a [potential] superstar that will come from this show."
American Idol returns with back-to-back, two-hour episodes on January 16th and 17th on FOX.