If rock producer Steve Lillywhite gets his way, American Idol has already found the perfect replacement for Simon Cowell: Himself! A Grammy-winning producer, Lillywhite is a legendarily successful British producer who has been instrumental in the launch of numerous bands, including Ultravox and of course U2. (Lillywhite produced their first three albums, including War and songs on everything from their world-beating classic The Joshua Tree to How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb.) He's also worked on music by Peter Gabriel, Dave Matthews Band, The Smiths, The Pogues, Talking Heads and is in the studio now with Evanescence and working soon with Phish.
What began as an off-handed comment by a fan on Facebook has blossomed into a full-blown campaign, with Lillywhite making his pitch via YouTube, not to mention hiring a TV agent to approach the people behind Idol and make clear he's very serious indeed.
"The girls are definitely better than the guys," says the 54-year-old producer. "Though Casey James had a very good first week."
Along with Crystal Bowersox, right?
"Oh God, I hate Crystal Bowersox," laughs Lillywhite. "She's a subway singer! If they think they're breaking the mold by having Crystal Bowersox on the show, then... there are so many girls better than Crystal.
"I love Siobhan Magnus. To me it's all about, do you want to be in this person's world? You want to be in her world. You're interested in her. You buy into her. You want to know more about her, the way she looks at you through the camera. She's got good potential. I like Didi; she's not bad. And I'm interested in Lilly Scott. "Fixing A Hole" is such a difficult song to make your own and she did a great job with it."
Lillywhite is clearly paying attention this season, though he says he hasn't always been able to watch in seasons past since he's sometimes working overseas. And one thing is blindingly clear to him: the show is a terrific institution but it needs a kick in the pants. Even Simon looks a bit bored.
"His body language says he's not into it," says Lillywhite. "He looks done. He doesn't look interested.
"I would put my absolute everything into making sure this show [works]. I'm a slightly obsessive person so when I decide to go for something, well, if I got the job on Idol, I would give my everything for those five months. I would scour the country and really look for some great people to present to the American public."
Lillywhite doesn't have any specific on-air changes to suggest (original song night anyone?), even though the show makes tweaks in the format every year. But he seems especially focused on the auditions and is convinced there must be a better way to ferret out the absolute best talent. He's proven to have that gift for decades and even worked on a record label as well as a blink-and-you-missed-it role on the UK reality show Fame Academy, one of the wave of shows that followed the success of Pop Idol, the UK original. Mind you, he makes clear American Idol has delivered in the past.
"Katharine McPhee has a spectacular voice and I don't think her album does her justice," says Lillywhite about one of his favorites from the past. "And for pure pop sensibility, you can't beat Kelly Clarkson. She's fantastic. I like Lambert from last year, obviously. They've had some great people. But it feels tired at the moment. It's a great brand and I would want to help expand it.
So we know he can judge talent. (As can his son: Jamie Lillywhite just hit the Top 5 singles chart in the UK as the producer of Ellie Goulding, a hot new talent spotlighted in the very influential annual BBC Poll about the top new artists to watch for in the coming year.)
But can Lillywhite judge the other potential judges? What does he think of Perez Hilton and Howard Stern, two other names bandied about as possibilities? That's when Lillywhite -- who has been smartly politic when talking about the show -- gets especially pointed.
"Perez Hilton I don't quite understand," says Lillywhite. "He has a record label but I don't think he has very good taste in music. Because there's nothing I've seen on his record label that is really very good. But he's a celebrity and people know who he is. I think they'd be foolish to dumb down the show. America invented pop music and you take it seriously and I would take it seriously as well and help raise the standards of the show.
"Howard Stern? He's a bit of a nasty person as well. I can't see him being particularly empathetic."
People think Simon is nasty, don't they?
"Simon is completely empathetic," insists Lillywhite. "I agree with Simon most of the time. I can see greatness in slightly more [artists] than he. I would be my own person. And I don't suffer fools; to be honest I wouldn't be a soft touch. I believe 99% of music is rubbish. I've been successful for 30 years because I know the one percent."
When Lillywhite says he can see greatness in more artists than Simon, he means the central difference between them is their idea of what can make a star.
"The two sorts of singers I don't like are people who scream and rappers and I don't think either of those are American Idol types anyway," says Lillywhite, who insists he is bubbly and funny and certainly has the Twitter name to prove it: "Sillywhite."
"I would argue that my definition of a star is a slightly wider one than Simon Cowell's. His definition is... not cookie-cutter, but he would define it as a certain style of girl or boy singer who sings maybe poppy songs. I could argue a star in different genres. For me, my mantra is art and commerce can live together. I've always based my career on art and the commerce has followed from the art. I love developing artists."
So if Idol is tired, why isn't Lillywhite pitching himself to be on Simon Cowell's The X Factor, which launches here in the fall of 2011? For the first time, he seems a bit thrown off by that one.
"Can I be on the same show as Simon? Do you want two Brits?" Lillywhite says finally before focusing on the smart response. "I hadn't even thought about that. All I've been thinking about is American Idol."
So yes, Lillywhite made his bones with rock bands like U2 and Simple Minds but he has also worked with Jason Mraz (whose music is so omnipresent this season on the show he seems like the in-house composer) and Crowded House. He's a pop guy as much as a rock guy.
"I love that New York Alicia Keys song, 'Empire State Of Mind,'" says Lillywhite. "To write a song about such a big thing as New York.... U2 tried to do it [on the album All That You Can't Leave Behind] and they completely failed. But I prefer the Jay-Z version. I think the chorus works better with a rap verse. Also, I've got little kids and I've got a soft spot for Taylor Swift. She's a great songwriter and a great artist."
Would she have succeeded on Idol? He pauses for a moment.
"She's not the strongest singer live, is she?" he says bluntly.
They may have found their new Simon after all.
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