‘Idol’s’ back with a kinder, gentler Simon?!

SHARE ‘Idol’s’ back with a kinder, gentler Simon?!

By Doug Elfman

Sun-Times TV Critic

Has Simon Cowell grown a heart? When American Idol returns with new auditions Tuesday night, there will be viewers wishing Simon would lighten up, and those viewers might include Simon.

There are times, he says, when he hates himself for cracking on the wannabes.

You dont know the persons back story, normally, before they walk in the room, he says. For all I know, their dog died an hour ago, and theyre singing this in memory of the dog. And I or anyone else is rude.

Once he watches such episodes on TV, when you see the whole story unfold, its horrible.

Yet Cowell says he gets harsh because he gets bored. (Hes also a smoker. Last year I asked him if nicotine fits made him grumpier, but he assured me he takes cigarette breaks.)

Anyway, Cowell has deluded himself into thinking hes a softer judge than ever.

How have I changed over the years? he says, repeating a question during a telephone press conference. Maybe Ive become a little bit more tolerant.

Tolerant? Thats funny, because Idol producer Nigel Lythgoe says Cowell and the other judges, this year, are childish, pitiful the same as every year, with Cowell getting up to leave after a big row with Randy.

Told about the childish, pitiful comment, Cowell responds, Was he talking about his relationship with us?

Im kidding there, by the way, Cowell says, then adds seriously, We all find new audition sequences harder and harder, as years go on, because it is torture, and it gets on your nerves.

Therefore, you can become a bit argumentative or emotional. But I think to describe us as pitiful I mean, certainly someone in his position shouldnt be describing us like that.

The new season starts with bad news. Recent Idol concert tours werent sellouts. And J Records dropped previous winners Ruben Studdard and Taylor Hicks.

Cowell says its no surprise Hicks got dropped.

Ive always gone on record as saying I genuinely didnt think he was the best singer that year. I thought he was the most popular person, Cowell says.

Lythgoe goes further, calling Taylors victory a mistake by voters.

Taylor Hicks brought a performance and fun to the table, Lythgoe says. [Chris] Daughtry was really the musical star of that year. But mistakes are made because people dont vote [for a favorite when] they think somebody is so secure. And [viewers think], Oh, hes definitely going to win, so now Im going to vote for somebody else. Thats what happened that year.

When asked why certain contestants dont get as much airtime as others in the early rounds, Lythgoe insinuates that last years winner, Jordin Sparks, wasnt all that intriguing.

Jordin didnt get any screen time, I dont believe. … If theyre as boring as hell in front of the camera, Im not going to show them, he says. So they should be grateful theyre not being seen.

Both men claim this years contestants are more interesting and talented than last years group of Sanjaya et al. Looking back, Cowell doesnt think Sanjaya posed a problem for Idol, although the weak singers rise concerned him.

There was a point Ill be honest with you halfway through, when it did occur to me, after some absolutely horrific performances that we actually might have a problem, Cowell says.

At the time, this VoteForTheWorst site [based in suburban Chicago] and Howard Stern genuinely believed that they had a huge influence in promoting Sanjaya.

I dont think they did, in hindsight, Cowell says. I laugh about it, to be honest with you. And I think he was harmless, you know. He had a run. He had some fun. He was actually a very nice kid.

As this season progresses, dont expect to see as many Bon Jovi-type nights with star mentors. Lythgoe says he got carried away with the mentor idea last year. This year will focus more on singers, their back stories and what they want from this competition.

And take rumors of upcoming guest stars with a grain of salt.

Every year, somebody says, Paul McCartney is doing it this year, Lythgoe says. Let me say straight away to everybody: No, hes not.

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