'Idol' Maker

Randy Jackson was a familiar face in the music business long before "American Idol" made him famous across America.

"I've worked on over 1,200 records," says Jackson, "Dylan, Springsteen, Elton John, Billy Joel, Mariah, Whitney, Celine, Journey, Bon Jovi, 'N Sync, Madonna." He's played bass, written songs and spent 12 years in A&R at Columbia and MCA. "I've been behind the scenes with all these artists," he says. "I've seen celebrity up close, but I've never really lived it." Until now. Jackson is one of three panelists (the others are pop star Paula Abdul and British music producer Simon Cowell) on "American Idol," the hugely successful reality show that offers aspiring stars between the ages of 18 and 24 a chance at overnight fame. Last week, the two-hour premiere of the show's second season became the highest-rated non-sports-related night in the history of the Fox network. How big can this thing get? NEWSWEEK's B. J. Sigesmund spoke with Jackson. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: We weren't surprised to see that Simon is even meaner this time around, but you and Paula seem to have a little more edge, too.

Randy Jackson: Yeah. Paula and I have changed a bit, too. We've raised the bar and said, "Listen, this is not some show you don't know anything about." You've seen someone great win this [Kelly Clarkson, "American Idol's" first winner]. We want the most talented one. There's a new benchmark. These kids know what it takes.

Ever feel bad when you make some of your auditioners cry?

You know what, I don't feel bad about it. If you or I wanted to be a doctor, we'd have to learn quite a bit of stuff. We couldn't just say, "Yeah, as a kid I played doctor, and you know, I'm just gonna be a doctor. I'm ready to cut. When do we start?" This is no joke of an industry. What makes people think they can come up and say, "OK, I'm a singer." Are you really? Do you have any foreseeable talent? That's the thing that amazes me, man. You wouldn't do this about the lawyer profession. You wouldn't do this about anything else. You know, "I drive my Toyota fast, I'm a race car driver." Where does the mindset come from for these people? This is a hard, tough, tough business. I produced some songs on the new Mariah Carey record. You know, she works her butt off and she's amazingly talented.

Some of the kids say harsh things about you in front of the cameras. Does that hurt?

This is what honesty gets you. People [those auditioning] will say, "God, you're fat!" I say, "No kidding--are you sure?" People are nuts, man. There was one kid on the Tuesday night show that said, "I don't care about these judges. I hate these judges. Randy, he's fat. Simon's an a--hole, Paula, you're just plain.' And we're like, "Oh, God, we're so hurt." We're just trying to be honest with people. But they get mad because we're being honest with them. We're industry professionals. I think karaoke has done the record industry a huge disservice.

Come again?

People are taking it too far. They sit in their bars, they get drunk, they have a good time, they sing songs because they've got the words on the thing. And all of a sudden, someone will say, "You know, you're pretty good. You're almost as good as that Mariah. Keep going! You should be out there." Like it's easy.

Let's talk about your celebrity and the changes you've gone through over the past year. Do you feel pressure now that you're a public figure?

I don't know if there's a lot of pressure, but it's definitely a different life. I've been such a behind-the-scenes guy. I've been working with celebrities, I've been around it forever, so I know what it is. You gotta take it with the territory. I'm happy to be on the show, I'm happy it's a huge success.

You've said you think of the show as an alternative to trying to break into the record industry.

I look at it as a shot for people to try and get discovered who would probably have a very tough time with it any other way.

Talk more about that.

In my 12 years of doing A&R, I used to always think, "I'll bet you somewhere out in Portland or Boise, somewhere, there's some great next superstar that's just undiscovered." It's easier now to come on the show and take the ridicule and go through 50,000 or 70,000 contestants to try and win than to try to get a record deal. The music industry is in a really serious slump. Who in the world is gonna give a new artist, unknown from wherever, a hit song? Not [record producer] Jermaine Dupri. Not [producers Jimmy] Jam and [Terry] Lewis. Not any of the major record producers. Even for their stellar premier artists they can't find hit songs. So that's how hard this thing is. So you come to a show like this. You show up with your talent, your uniqueness and your hopefully star-style personality, and you've got a shot.

You said 50,000 to 70,000 people auditioned for the show this time. Did the three of you see every one of them?

No, no. We had a preselection crew that went through and picked a whole range of kids.

So someone listens to everyone who stands in line and waits for an audition?

Yes. We see the top 200 in each city. There were eight cities.

Is there anything you read about "American Idol" again and again that's wrong? Any misconceptions?

Some of the biggest misconceptions are people saying, "You know, it's just this reality show, it's just like 'Star Search,' whatever, whatever, whatever." I think what we're doing here is a reality show, but it's a real reality show. The music business is a real reality.