'American Idol' Set for Third Season

For the record, at Fox's "American Idol" session Friday, it took less than three minutes for Paula Abdul, Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson to start acting like tall, well-dressed, preposterously overpaid children.

Appearing before critics to promote the third season of the monster hit, which premieres next week the three talent judges were asked about the fact that "a couple of ordinary-looking guys," as the questioner put it, had won last year's "American Idol" sing-off and the recent "World Idol" competition.

Ordinary-looking? The irrepressibly snarky Cowell begged to differ: The "World Idol" winner "wasn't ordinary-looking," Cowell protested, "he was ugly!"

Abdul, giggling naughtily: "Simon said he looked like a Hobbit!"

Cowell, warming to his subject: "He was really, really ugly!"

Jackson, indignantly: "Ugly? He was not ugly! (The audience choice of the 'World Idol' winner) says not everyone has to look like a quote-unquote pop star!"

Cowell, firmly: "I can take it as it comes, (but) we have ugly people on that show! It just so happens that the people with personalities right now are ugly! It would be nice to have some cuter people on the show!"

But Cowell may not get his wish -- at least, not if it means tinkering with a winning formula. With last year's "Idol" and its winner and runner-up, extra-large Ruben Studdard and pint-size Clay Aiken, having scored huge successes, co-executive producer Ken Warwick said he'd be foolish to make too many changes this time around.

"There's a lot to be said for the 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it' school of thought."

If the judges couldn't agree on how the singers looked, they did, surprisingly, agree on how too many of them sounded: gimmicky.

Jackson blamed the gospel influence for what he believes is an overemphasis on vocal pyrotechnics. Cowell said he longed to hear someone come before the judges with the effortless vocal style of, say, the late Nat King Cole.

"It's like a breath of fresh air when someone comes in and sings pure melody," Abdul agreed.

And, in a moment of rare humility, the three pop professionals even reflected that perhaps they themselves were not blameless in encouraging flash and frills over stylistic elegance and purity of tone.

"I think the audience is probably a better judge of singing talent than we are," Jackson admitted.

They also were in agreement about the increasing role that theatrical gestures have played in "American Idol" -- not just those of the ever-hammy judges, but those of the contestants, too.

Jackson and Abdul smiled knowingly as Cowell called last year's Studdard and Aiken "incredibly media-savvy." Cowell noted with amusement that the diminutive Aiken, whose aw-shucks, country-boy demeanor made him a crowd favorite, liked to clutch at other contestants in exaggerated agony as important results were about to be announced. "And he absolutely knew he wouldn't lose," Cowell said with a laugh.

Speaking of losers, were there any particularly horrible songs in the weeks of preliminary judging the trio recently endured?

"Oh, yes, that Disney song," Cowell said, staring into the middle distance as if remembering dental surgery or childbirth. " 'A Whole New World.' Yes."

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