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.
After Simon and Paula left, the show seemed to focus on adding a lot more musicians, like Nicki Minaj, Mariah Carey, Jennifer Lopez and Keith Urban. Do you feel this has taken away that initial honesty and earnestness?
I think all those judges were good, but I think, as I said, if you’re gonna replace Paul and John in the Beatles with other people, it’s not quite the Beatles. You can’t expect it to be the same result because everybody has a different personality. All those people are great, but they didn’t own it like we did. As far as I’m concerned, along with all the executives at Fox and Fremantle and CAA and everybody, the four of us helped to build and shape the show as well: the comments that we made; the stuff that we helped with the production; the whatever. So when you are the creator, it’s different than the inhabitant of the creation.
I think all those other judges were fine and great, but the show moved on. I don’t think any of us ever really thought it would be going into its 15th season. When you look at great shows in the television paradigm…How long was Friends on the air? [10 seasons] How long was Seinfeld on the air? [Nine seasons] To get this lucky and this blessed with a great show going on 15 years is a salute to the validity of Idol. I still think it’s the best ever show of its time.
I don’t think people were prepared for the number of legitimate music stars the show produced. Kelly Clarkson right off the bat, and Jennifer Hudson and Chris Daughtry…
Our thing was it needed to be proof of concept. When you think about it, we all come from the record business, and Cowell and I were both A&R guys. So what we did on the show is exactly what we do in regular life. We find artists, we develop them and we make records. We try to get hits on them. For us, it was like, “Hey, this is what we do, we better do it good if we say we’re the ones doing it.”
I think it was also looking for people that really had the legs and really could be stars. We got blessed with all the talent that we went out and found, from Adam Lambert to Carrie Underwood to Kelly Clarson to Jennifer Hudson to Fantasia Barrino to Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken to Chris Daughtry. I’d like to give us props for doing that because we knew what we were after, what we were looking for, and we were in a little bit of a different position because we’d been in the industry so long and knew the industry so well and had made so many records. We weren’t just artists that had made our own records. We’d made a ton of records for the artists. We were the actual record-making machine. So when the artist walked in, there’s like a [list] that went down by their face of like 40 [items], and you just start ticking ’em off: really made the song shine; voice is good in the higher range, not the lower range; what kind of song. You just start dissecting them right away, even before they start singing. It’s a different level of professionalism.
What kept you with the show for as long as you stayed with it?
Honestly, I love the show, and I believe in the mission we set forth. I knew it was going to be tough when you start breaking up the championship team. You start breaking up the [Golden State] Warriors, [if Steph] Curry’s gone, you know it’s still the Warriors, but it’s not going to be the same team. I think I was very hopeful in the brand and the brand certainly did sustain. It didn’t sustain with the numbers that we achieved, but it definitely sustained and it’s still sustaining.
What led you to finally departing the show in 2014?
I felt like, “OK, I’ve done everything I wanted to do on this now, maybe it’s time to do something else.” I equate that to you never want to be the last one to leave the dance. You never want to be in the club when the lights go on. [Laughs] Can’t be the last one to leave the dance. That means the party is really over. [Laughs]
How do perceive American Idol has changed popular music?
Being honest, I think a lot of the industry didn’t like the show or kind of hated the show during its season. They thought the show was going to be silly, and I think many weren’t sure the show was going to work either. Idol and all these shows like it, all the sort of copies, are all like taking rocketship to the top. Myself and the great Steven Tyler say to people, “I must’ve played a million bars before someone paid me four dollars.” I didn’t know any other way to do it. It wasn’t about going on a show. I was just at South by Southwest, for all those bands, you’re in a broke-down car with no money, and you’re on a mission, and it may take you 10 years.
Idol came, and I think for a lot of people that had been banging their head against the wall, trying to get in the industry, I think it showed them another way in. It became an option. It doesn’t work for everyone, and it didn’t work for everyone who won on Idol, but for the most part, it worked greatly for those that it did work for. It’s a choice. You can seek it out and you can be like an indie rapper and some indie alternative band and you get out that way, or you can decide to go for the big mothership and join one of these shows and be thrust in front of millions of people every night and hope that they love you. But I say, you gotta be ready for that. The people who won and did well must’ve been really ready for their spotlight.
Can you talk more about industry backlash? I feel like Idol almost transcended the stigma of coming from a reality show given the success stories…
Let’s be real here: If you’re the record label and you’re saying the only way to get success is through [the label], it’s going to take time for them to slowly build it. Then a TV show comes along that says “Hey, just come on this show for like two or three months, and then win and your name is Kelly Clarkson and your first album is gonna sell like 700 million copies,” the guys at the label are gonna be like, “What? Wait a minute!”
All of us on the show knew that 15 years ago, you could see the demise of the record industry and where it was changing more than going. The idea was that this was a better way to try and break artists who were real because you come off the show with a real audience.
It’s not about radio promotion. It’s about gaining an audience and getting hit songs, and you can just go out on tour and make money and do things. That’s why hits are so valuable today, and that’s why Max Martin iss the king of the pop record industry right now because he’s the best of our times.
Do you see a correlation between what American Idol did to the way that YouTube or Vine works in breaking people like Justin Bieber and the Weeknd?
I think we inspired all those YouTube kids. Idol was before that. We opened up the doors and said, “Hey there’s another way to do this, and there may be other ways to do it.”
Look, I think it’s still increasingly hard [to break in the industry]. If you look at the amount of people that have broken from Vine or YouTube of the 80 billion a year that go on there and do that, the ratio of the numbers is very small. It’s probably less than one percent. I do think it’s a vehicle. I think if you’re ready and you got an amazing song, then you can make something happen.
That’s the thing that Idol was. You didn’t necessarily need an amazing song. You can sing other people’s songs but if you were ready and if you listened to a 25th of the things that we actually said and soaked them in — because we actually were giving good advice, contrary to what other people believe. [Laughs] But, you know, we were doing it in our own way. I’m doing it my own way, Cowell is doing it his own way, Paula is doing it her own way. But I think we’re actually trying to nurture them, you know: “That song is too basic. It’s pitchy.” If you’re pitchy, it means you’re singing out of tune. And, you know, “This is not the kind of song you would want to put out there, with the outfits, the hair…” We were really doing it in a tongue-in-cheek way when we were really trying to give them advice that probably no one else will give them because we’ve lived in the industry and we still do. Industry professionals tell you and try to help you. Idol was a different thing than just being on YouTube in our eyes.
What was the most difficult moment for you as a judge?
Probably one of the most difficult things was seeing some kids that you thought were almost there, almost ready, and you’re trying to get them advice, and they’re still not almost ready but you wish for them, you hope for them; you think they can do something but it doesn’t quite come to fruition. I think about that Jennifer Hudson season. She was my wildcard pick, and she got bounced out at like sixth or whatever, but you can see that her career erupted and she’s phenomenal and uber talented. I could see that, but it didn’t quite come to fruition on our show. But it came to fruition in her life. A big part of that was the testament that she kept striving, pushing and believing.
I’m happy that Kelly Clarkson was our first winner. One of our proudest moments was from that finale because, in my mind, it really gave me the sense of validity that, “Hey, this thing can actually work.”
After all these years, do you have a favorite contestant?
No, man. It’s hard because I’ve got so many favorite moments. I mean, I did think Adam Lambert was going to win his season, but I love all of them. I loved the runner-ups. I’ve loved the winners because I think these people fought the toughest of times — the craziest comments from the public, all the social media, all the press, all the craze, all the everything — and they stood there and also stood the test of time. But also, that helped to build that armor that you need to really be a star, to be able to take criticism and shove it off and say, “No. I don’t care what you say, this is what I’m doing, and I’m gonna get it.”
Is there one particularly crazy memory that stood out to you?
That guy Keith in Atlanta that was doing “Like a Virgin.” It was really wild. That was like, “Wow. Where am I? What planet?”
There was another guy who thought he was a cat or animal or tiger or something. I don’t know. That’s also the great thing about the show. I mean, people used to criticize us about the cross-section of talent that you saw but that’s what made it entertaining, because if you and I went out on Fifth Avenue on New York with a microphone that said Fox TV on it and we had a camera, we would just take all comers. People would come up out of the woodwork or whatever because a lot of the world is sick of singers trying to be famous. You’re gonna get people of all types: the delusional ones, the good ones and the great ones.