American Idol paved the way for what a reality competition could be: a stellar, rotating cast of heartwarming contestants tethered by a charismatic crew of judges and a host. Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell were an all-star team; Cowell was the cynic, Abdul the optimist and Jackson kept it balanced as the level-headed one, often swaying the vote. There was chemistry, humor and heart in their tactics for the seven years the crew sat together.
Abdul left in 2009 before Cowell departed in 2010, but Jackson remained on American Idol until 2014 and has been only outlasted by host Ryan Seacrest. He watched a continuously rotating panel for four years before the time was right for him to move on and focus on his artist management business and branding licensing firm, continuing a lengthy music business career that had previously included time as a session musician, producer and A&R person.
As American Idol comes to an end after 15 seasons, Jackson spoke with Rolling Stone about his love and admiration for what the show accomplished. He discusses its legacy and influence on the music business today as well as what happened to the show once it “broke up the band.”
Over the course of the 12 years that you were a part of the show, how did you personally see it evolve from where it started to where it was when you left?
In the very beginning, I think we got incredibly lucky because the chemistry between me, Ryan, Simon and Paula was just magical from the start. And I think that none of us knew it could be that, but we had a hunch. And I think we had that chemistry and just got incredibly lucky. And I often say that there’s no facet of the music business that the four of us didn’t know almost everything about. Me being a touring studio guy forever with Journey, Mariah, Whitney, Celine, Madonna, and then working in the label for 20 years. Simon was working in his label and having huge success, and Paula being an artist, and Ryan being on the radio.
We just get incredibly blessed with that chemistry, and we also had the pedigree. Most importantly, there was a bit of an earnestness to us because we weren’t already all celebrities. I mean, Paula was the only one who was sort of a celebrity at that time but me, Simon and Ryan weren’t really celebrities. I think that helped us tremendously because you can have an honest and fair view of it and tell it more like you see it and more like it is. It started as the most honest entertaining show because it’s surrounded all of our unique personalities and qualities.
Over the years, it evolved. In its real heyday, it was the best ever. Say you got the Beatles. The Beatles are incredible. They were incredible. Then members started leaving. So, once you start breaking up the band, it’s not the same band. Once you start breaking up the show Friends or Seinfeld, it’s not the same show. It may have the same name, but it’s not gonna be the same because it’s not in the original state that brought it to its upmost prominent.