Jackson Continues 'American Idol' Journey
After Taylor Hicks was crowned the fifth "American Idol" last May, the judges of the hugely popular FOX singing competition had little downtime. Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell were back on duty in August as auditions for another "Idol" round began in Los Angeles. The results start becoming evident as Ryan Seacrest hosts the two-part premiere of the show's sixth season Tuesday and Wednesday, Jan. 16 and 17.
"You never really know what you're gonna get," Jackson says, "but I'm always pleasantly surprised, and that includes this sixth season. These are people wearing their souls on their sleeves. They haven't learned to play the game yet, so you're seeing raw talent.
"Many years ago, I knew that somewhere in America -- and probably in many cities -- is an abundance of talent that record companies never see, just because of how they do business. To get a record deal, you have to show up with a hit song, plus have the talent, plus have the star potential. Then, who knows?"
Previous winners Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard, Fantasia Barrino and Carrie Underwood have had varied degrees of success. "All of them have had shots at careers, and that's the thing no one is guaranteed today," Jackson says. "Today, if you last more than three or four albums, it's an amazing thing. That's what means something to me, that you're in this for the long haul, not to have just one hit record."
Jackson speaks from bountiful experience. Before "American Idol" made him one of television's most familiar personalities, he performed with the rock group Journey and was a vice president at Columbia Records, then at MCA Records. He also has recorded with, toured with and/or produced for -- among others -- Mariah Carey, Madonna, Elton John, Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, Aretha Franklin, Destiny's Child and *NSYNC.
Given that background, any "Idol" contender takes a big gamble by attempting a tune popularized by someone Jackson has worked with.
"If you pick a song that was done by Mariah or Whitney or Celine, as many often do," he says, "you're dealing with the highest degree of difficulty. It's like you're in the Olympics and you're on the balance beam. It's going to show right away if you're up to the task or not: no ifs, ands or buts."
In assessing performances and offering suggestions on "Idol," Jackson has brought increased attention to his professional peers. "A lot of my friends come up to me and say, 'Man, I'm really happy you're on that show.' I think people sometimes forget the role the producer plays in making records happen. You're like the director of a movie, picking songs and musicians and deciding on studios and recording environments, every single thing. You're basically trying to guide [the artist] through the maze.
"I've been blessed to work with some of the best ever," Jackson adds. "Sitting in the studio with Aretha is like something close to heaven. From Springsteen to Dylan, just being around these people and how great they really are. Stevie Wonder is probably one of the best male artists of all time. You almost want to say to everyone who's trying to sing and is just OK, 'Just stop now. Listen to this. Follow this. If you can't, leave.'"
Typically as an "American Idol" year begins, much attention is paid to how the judges get along -- or don't -- in deciding which wannabes make the first cut and go to Hollywood.
"Listen, all of us are dysfunctional, slightly insane people," Jackson muses, "and that includes Ryan Seacrest. We all have become friends, but we're still very individual people. Simon and I disagree greatly, but that always happens. Either I'll hear something he doesn't or vice versa. Most of the time, I'm looking at it through the eyes of a musician and producer and thinking, 'Where can this go? What record could come out of this?' We have our moments, but it's like any great family."
Jackson, Cowell and Abdul were joined by guest judges during the audition process that lured more than 100,000 hopefuls. Jewel (who hosts the new season of USA Network's similar "Nashville Star"), Olivia Newton-John and songwriter Carole Bayer Sager participated, and Jackson says, "The cool thing about the panel of judges is that I don't think there's any facet of the recording business that we don't know everything about. That's what a lot of these kids don't quite understand. If we don't know about it, it's probably not worth knowing."
With past years' episodes now repackaged as "American Idol Rewind" in syndication, "Idol" is such a ratings titan, even ABC's hit "Lost" (which returns Feb. 7) is moving to a later hour to get out of its way.
"I think it's really good that none of us knew how big it would be," Jackson says. "Anybody who says they knew is a liar. You're just kind of blissfully in it, and it's benefited us to stay humble and just follow the ride. I always feel weird being at the Emmys. I'm happy that we're nominated, but I'll look over and see someone like that great British actor Jeremy Irons. I'll go, 'Dude! What is the Dawg doin' here with a real thespian?'"
Jackson's "Idol" visibility has brought him many chances for outside work, and he has endorsed products ranging from cookies to an at-home singing course. "Most have music around them," he says. "That's the center of my world, so I try to stay in my lane. I'm producing a record with Travis Tritt, I just did a duets record with Sam Moore, and I still work with Mariah quite a bit. I also have a production development deal with Warner Bros., so we have a lot of irons in the fire. It's full-on."
For the abundance of unscripted shows now dotting the television landscape, Jackson says "American Idol" remains the purest. "This is real `reality,' " he concludes. "These people aren't eating bugs, and they aren't on some trip around the world with only two dollars. This turns the camera inward, and they have to look at themselves. I truly believe that stars are born, not manufactured or made."