'American Idol': Burning questions | EW.com

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'American Idol': Burning questions

Just how many songs are there to choose from? Why all the themes? The show's vocal coach and exec producer answer

Nigel Lythgoe, American Idol

(Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

During last week’s Top 12 party, EW.com caught up with American Idol vocal coach Debra Byrd and executive producer Nigel Lythgoe, and politely grilled them with some pressing questions from this year’s season so far.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why do contestants keep choosing songs that have been sung multiple times on the show?
DEBRA BYRD:
If they love a song, they’re going to do it. Sometimes it changes their mind: ”Oh, I don’t want to do what somebody else did. I want to do my own thing.” Blake [Lewis] was like that. Gina Glocksen was like that.

But, for example, Asia’h Epperson’s final song, ”I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” has been the kiss of death for two other semifinalists.
BYRD:
We told her that. And we named the people and [that] they were voted off right after. We said all of that stuff. Always remember, it’s their choice. I am just the bearer of news. I just say, ”I have to tell you, it’s been done before.”

How big is the list of songs the contestants get to choose from?
BYRD:
Well, it depends on the genre. It narrows down when there’s a theme. I’ve never counted, but, for instance, [with this week’s] songs, [from the Lennon-McCartney songbook], there’s only 25 to choose from.

Whoa. So if people choose the same songs, how does it get resolved?
BYRD:
Lythgoe and Ken Warwick said [that for] the [semifinal] phase of the competition that we just ended, a guy can pick a song and a female can pick [the same] song, but two guys or two women can’t do it on the same day. Now that they’ve come together, all that’s gone. So you’ve got to figure something else out — flip a coin or draw a name out of a hat.

How is Lennon/McCartney week shaking out for the contestants?
BYRD:
It’s quite interesting for them, because a lot of them don’t know those songs. It’s hard for a contestant when they know four Beatles songs and all four are taken. I’ve had that happen. It becomes extra work.

Now that four people are gone, did someone say, ”Oooh, now that that person’s out, I can grab their song”?
BYRD:
I’m sure that’ll happen. It happens every week, though: ”I want that song. Oh, but that’s my friend, I feel so bad about picking that song, but they’re gone, oh, I’ll take their song!” It happens every week.

Why were there themes for the semifinals this year? In past seasons it was completely open-ended.
NIGEL LYTHGOE:
Because I think last year we started on a strange footing, where people were choosing songs that they like, and you can’t just choose songs that you like. You have to choose songs that you think the public are going to like. I think they’re too naïve at that early stage of the competition to realize that. So we said no, we’ve got to choose songs with melodies, songs that you can perform, or songs that the public might know.

Well, when they get to choose songs they like, we do get a good idea of the kind of artist they want to be, right?
LYTHGOE:
Yeah, and I think [that’s what] the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s allows you. If you’re, say, a country singer, there’s an awful lot of good country songs in those 10 years. You’ve got 10 years of music to choose from. So it’s a good way of doing it, I think.

Are there any songs that you would like to be able to do but can’t?
LYTHGOE:
Another of David Archuleta’s performances was ”Crazy” in Hollywood week, the Gnarls Barkley song, which we could never show because we could never get it cleared. He was absolutely brilliant when he did that. And Jason Castro did ”Crazy” a completely different way, and he was brilliant too. And Asia’h also did ”Crazy” fabulously.

What other theme nights can we expect this season?
LYTHGOE:
Well, we’ve got four mentors. And then after that, there’s a lot of good tricks that we’ve used before. There’s music that was written in the year you were born. That’s always good for me, because the more I can get people to know the singers, the easier it is to decide if you like them or not. And I love putting their baby photos up, because everybody looks cute as a baby. It’s a nice little thing to introduce their family to you.