Idol's Keith Urban on Song Deconstruction, Blunt Feedback and Guaranteed Use of 'The Save'

American Idol Keith UrbanThere’s no such thing as being “too honest,” says American Idol judge Keith Urban. But too harsh? “That’s a whole different thing.”

As Urban and fellow panelists Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr. wade deeper into Season 13, however, their challenge is to deliver pointed, actionable critiques without causing the voting public to decide the remaining 10 contestants are no longer worthy of their time and committment, he explains.

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“It’s a delicate balance,” explains Urban. “On one hand, we’re like the A&R department at a record company, trying to find talent. And that can be a pretty cold experience. There’s no softness or sugar-coating. On the other hand, we’re a TV show, and you don’t want to make people feel squeamish or awkward at home. Hopefully the three of us create a balance.”

In other words, says Urban, “If I just say, ‘Here are all the things you can work on,’ and I don’t mention one thing that was good, then I run the risk of the audience thinking the contestant just isn’t very good. Even if in my head, I’m thinking, ‘The person is excellent — they just need to work on these three things.'”

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TVLine caught up with the Australian judge to dish when it’s appropriate to use the Season 13 “Save,” whether or not he’s digging this year’s broader themes and how much risk is too much risk when it comes to contestant song selection.

TVLINE | As a production, have the judges and producers weighed the balance between giving pointed, specific feedback versus negatively swaying viewer perception of the remaining singers?
Yes. I can only speak for myself, but what’s interesting about the show is [thinking about] ‘What level are these guys and girls at?’ Harry said a couple weeks ago this is not the Little Leagues. This is a pro NFL team. “You’re all really good at this stage — Top 13. And now we’re going to tell you what you need to work on.” And that makes perfect sense — this is the big leagues, this is serious, and if you’re going to be a real artist this is the time to work on things. On the other hand, it is kind of the little leagues. Some of these guys and girls have been plucked out of tiny little towns and have never had exposure to anyone or anything, anywhere. So it’s a bit of a mix — Little Leaguers going straight into the Majors.

TVLINE | What I like this season is that the production — and the judges as well — have not coronated a “Chosen One,” so to speak. And that makes it feel like it’s an even playing field. Do you feel a difference in that regard comparing Season 12 to Season 13?
I have no say over production or things like that. For me, I’m just reacting to each and every singer from the audition process right through the live shows.

TVLINE | Well, what I’m referring to, to give an example, was midway through Season 12, when Ryan asked all four judges to list their personal Top 3 contestants. We haven’t seen anything that blatant, any demand that the judges or producers show their cards about who they’re digging.
I don’t feel like there’s any single front-runner right now. What I loved about last week’s episode was all these guys and girls have the ability to step up and surprise us — pick an interesting song within the criteria of the theme week, find something that’s a bit of a yin to the yang of who they are and what they do — while maintaining their artistic identity. So it’s any man’s game — or any woman’s game. [Laughs] That’s pretty cool.

TVLINE | We’ve heard you talk a lot to the contestants about taking ownership of songs, showing creativity, not following expected paths. And certainly, when you look at Season 12 — that paid off for a contestant like Candice Glover, who had a major major moment with The Cure’s “Lovesong.” And yet at the same time, we saw Ben Briley take a big risk with “Bennie and the Jets” last week, and it led to his elimination. Do you worry that that exit will make the Season 13 contestants more risk-averse?
Candice could probably sing anything and it would sound like Candice. She’s got such a distinct style and distinct way of being. And Ben is one of those guys who can do a lot of things — kind of like a multi-entertainer. That’s a particular calling and a great gift, being a jack of all trades. That’s cool, but I gotta feel like I know who you are in the midst of all that. And that’s what the contestants have got to figure out. Talent shows you what you can do, artistry shows me who you are. And that’s what everybody’s working on right now.

TVLINE | Ben actually said when I interviewed him on Tuesday that he felt the judges threw him “under the bus.” Any thoughts on that?
I’ve been one of those people who thought, “These theme weeks are just a bunch of bulls***.” Are we really going to find real artists with this process? But what I’ve become interested in is, “Can you maintain who you are within this context?” And these are pretty loose theme weeks. [Songs from Movie Soundtracks] provides an incredible array of songs to pick from. [Laughs] We had [Dexter singing] “Sweet Home Alabama,” which I’d never pictured being in a movie! So you have a million songs to pick from: Which one will show me who you are and work to your advantage? It’s not just about being different — it’s about showing me another side of you. And it either works or it doesn’t — that’s all there is to it.

TVLINE | Do you like the broader themes we’ve had this year, or do you miss the more narrow parameters of Season 12?
Broader themes are important for having the contestants not feel like they’ve been handcuffed in a particular performance. I’m an artist, too, and if I was on that specific journey, I’d be uncomfortable being told what to sing, for starters. At the very least, if I’m given a theme that’s pretty loose, I can put my thinking cap on and hunt for a song that meets the critera — and allows me to be who I am. And not just picking the song, but learning to rearrange it and make it my own. I may even say, here’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.” It doesn’t suit me, but I’m going to dismantle it and turn it into something that sounds like what I’d do. You may not even recognize it. But it’s about learning how to manipulate the criteria. That’s what great artistry is.

TVLINE | And yet I’d argue we haven’t seen many radical reinventions of songs this season. Do you want to see more of that in the coming weeks?
Maybe, but some of the contestants don’t have the experience. It can take a long time for an artist to get comfortable with dismantling songs and rebuilding them. That can require a lot of musical maturity — or a complete sense of fearlessness, and that fearlessness can lead to doing something that doesn’t work. But you’ve got to take chances! I said to Ben, “You dont learn from success, you learn from failure. You’ll take what you take from this moment and make changes accordingly, or you’ll just say, ‘We’re all just a bunch of hacks who are full of s***.'” And that’s cool too. You’re an artist, you can do whatever you want.

TVLINE | Harry made a comment on a recent results show that if he was the Season 13 mentor, he’d be with the contestants at their hotel, working with them ’til 5 a.m. every day. Are the kids getting enough help? And would you ever want to take a week to mentor them?
It’d be really fun. A lot of times there are simple little things we comment on at the desk — and had we gotten to them beforehand, maybe we could’ve helped them figure a way around that situation or that habit. At the same time, I think Randy’s doing a great job. And a lot of these guys and girls have struggles no matter who’s working with them. But that’s part of the journey; you may see the following week they work their way through a problem and really step up.

TVLINE | You said last week that sometimes what the judges hear live in the room is different from what the audience hears on TV. Do you watch back the episodes when you get home — and do you use what you hear there to shape your opinions about the contestants?
Whenever I’m able, I go home and watch it. From a visual and very much from an audio standpoint — it can sound different at home. Everyone has different speakers and TVs.
Plus, voting for someone isn’t just audible — it’s visual too. Something about the way the contestants connect with the camera goes to the people at home — and the vote is sometimes based on that. That’s why I spend a lot of my time looking down. It’s such a drag, the monitors we have are actually in the desk, so I have to look down to see the TV monitor. I want to see what everyone at home is seeing.

TVLINE | On a randome note, year after year, with the possible exception of Phillip Phillips’ “Home,” the winner gets saddled with a middling-to-awful coronation song. Would you ever take a crack at writing one, maybe get the Season 13 winner’s career launched with a potential hit, for a change?
I have no idea what the process of all that is: I’m sure there’s a lot of people involved in that decision. [Laughs] And among the things that fall way, way outside my job critera, that’d be one of ’em. But the [winners] that have really got talent ride through it and move on. A career is so much more than a song.

TVLINE | I’d still like to advocate that you write the Season 13 coronation song.
[Laughs] In all my free time, absolutely!

TVLINE | Have you been enjoying the dynamic on the Season 13 panel more than you did last year?
I love Jen and Harry — and Ryan and Randy — genuinely. We all correspond by email, or text each other about various things, and that wasn’t happening last season. There wasn’t that kind of genuine camaraderie on and off camera. So I’m loving that part. I’m a collaborative person. I don’t want to just go to my chair, do my job, get in my car and go home. That doesn’t interest me.

TVLINE | When you think about the Judges’ Save, have you got an idea of which of the Top 10 singers you might use it on, versus which ones probably wouldn’t qualify? Or can the exit performance sway that?
It’s a bit like gambling, isn’t it? Should we gamble this one now, or will we need this next week for somebody? The Save is a funny thing — using it on the person who the least amount of people voted for? [Laughs] But are they gonna have a miraculous turnaround? That is the spirit of the save — letting somebody work through an ill-conceived performance, and we think they’re better than that. But how long do we keep the save? The interesting thing is, it’s got to be unanimous amoung the three of us — that’s a fascinating little reality of democracy right now at the desk.

You guys never used it last year!
[Howls with laughter] That’s one of the most insane things you could ever imagine, right?

From a TV production standpoint, I could not believe that was left on the table.
Oh, dude, Tell me about it. Are you serious? We’re never gonna use it at all. Really? [Laughs] Good Lord. I guarantee we’ll use it this year.

Excellent. Thanks for your time today. And please, really give some thought to writing the coronation song.
[Laughs] Duly noted, Mike! Nice to talk to you, brother.

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  1. Zoo says:

    Well that was a nice read. I like Keith a lot. Michael, too.

    • Tom22 says:

      Ditto. I really respect Keith Urban, his intelligence and love for the art and very particularly the way he can express that without sounding stuffy or elite….because music is far too important to let distractions of elitism aspiring musicians break have break through in their artistry. I’ve started to listen to some of Keith’s songs and seeing that he has a lot of existential commentary behind his simple words. People don’t need to have a clue about the word “existential” to grasp that “there is more there than meets the eye” or “all hat, no cattle” etc, which refer to things that might take fancy or gushing words to express.
      I don’t listen to country radio and don’t hear country music in an ambient way around my suburb just north of San Francisco. I’ve gone and started testing some of Keith’s Songs,.. his “little bit of everything” has something intriguing about it that I’m still chewing on…there is something particularly interesting to the mind of someone who won(and hopefully won’t be faced with needed to win it again) a struggle with substance abuse, but , putting that aside, he has a knack of bringing to mind some of the best feelings/states of mind people listening can remember and look back on.
      I can think of the old Irish blessing “May the sun shine gently on your shoulder, the wind be always at your back ” and think that Keith evokes similar priceless senses of mind… broadly thinking of cooking as stand-in for nurturing and caring for and dancing on a bar as sense of a carefree self confidence not stymied by what others might think…. I love the phrase : “I want a cool chick that’ll cook for me, But’ll dance on the bar in her tan bare feet”
      Some people knock these shows and knock pop music that isn’t directed to their “sense of the world” as cheesy and cloying.. and, yes there is some of that if you focus on the negative…. but
      I wouldn’t have truly heard “Jesus take the wheel” without Idol or “over you” without The Voice — two really profound pop songs. (and I didn’t really mean because it let Carrie make the song famous but what I mean is that without girls covering it on Idol recently I still wouldn’t have heard it). Watching these shows made me watch the CMA, and now I’m taking a look at Taylor Swift who as damn a mega star as she is never really hit my radar as someone more than young teens from red state suburbs listened too. Being willing to listen and watch and seeing a depth to her eyes and bearing .. I’m going to look over her stuff.. maybe her albums… sometimes they let a pop artist put their true work on cuts on an album than they’d never let on the air.. i’m going to go look.

    • June Reed says:

      Keith, you’re such a joy and bring such pleasure to American Idol. Thank you for the man you have become and “right at the top” your sincerity. God loves you and so do I

  2. Blujazz says:

    Awesome interview!

  3. Name That Tune says:

    Nice interview. The judging panel is one of the improvements the show has made, but they can’t be afraid to hold back.
    And can we see them show a sense of humor about what they do?

  4. Kaba says:

    “If I just say, ‘Here are all the things you can work on,’ and I don’t mention one thing that was good, then I run the risk of the audience thinking the contestant just isn’t very good. Even if in my head, I’m thinking, ‘The person is excellent — they just need to work on these three things.’”
    I’m glad Urban said this. I couldn’t understand why people didn’t figure out why they’d be so nice.
    If we can agree the judges say has a LOT to do with how well someone will be voted for, I don’t understand why more people didn’t reach this conclusion. They have the ability to absolutely torpedo someone

  5. Spurdy B. says:

    Loved that you asked him what was different between watching live and watching on TV. I’m always wondering what, exactly, he means.
    And the fact that there’s camaraderie and collaboration this year has been obvious and pleasant. Nobody seems too big for their britches, and I know Michael finds Randy’s mentoring questionable, but I at least appreciate the toned-down version of Randy Jackson.

  6. Sue says:

    Great interview. I second the motion to have him write the song!

  7. karenb says:

    You had a much better day than I did Slezak…talking to Keith and all. lol

    He is one of the best judges that’s ever been on Idol. Love that he doesn’t want to call in the judging thing. Sounds like he really likes the job.

  8. Dene Andre says:

    Umm… Keith is not Australian, he’s a Kiwi or New Zealander who happens to live in Australia. Yes there’s a strong similarity but we Kiwi’s like to think that the human side of Keith is a very Kiwi thing. Otherwise, thanks for the fab blog and all your hard work!

  9. enuff said says:

    Whenever this man opens his mouth it renews my hope in the human race. Mr. Urban you are such a gift.

  10. marie says:

    I agree with Keith about the looser theme weeks.
    I think it’s funny that the song he chose as an example of a song that would be far from something he’d sing was the Aerosmith song. Actually I think that could very easily arranged as a country song.

  11. Adam Fachry says:

    People overrate Harry, claim he’s the best judge ever, and overlook Keith. I think Keith is better than Harry at giving critiques.

    • Callitags says:

      I don’t think Harry is overrated, but Keith is underrated Their styles and what they focus on are different, but I think it makes them a great team. I liked Keith last year, but I enjoy him more now with Harry on the panel.

  12. *lg* says:

    I think it’s interesting that he said that not a lot of contestants have the experience to feel comfortable to chop up a song. I’m shocked that no one has mentioned that these contestants are so young this year. Most are under the age of 20 and yes, there are a lot of young, talented kids. But you are never going to get the level of originality of a David Cooke in someone who is still trying to figure themselves out.

    • Callitags says:

      I couldn’t agree more. Some may have that kind of talent and instinct from a young age, but the sense of self and the experience that contestants like Cook, Allen, Lambert, Bowersox, et al. had is hard to match.

  13. osborn1116 says:

    I wish that for a select few contestants that they would let them choose an original for their single. Alex’s Fairytales, Jessica’s Blue Eyed Lie or I’m Done, and Jena’s Unbreakable Me would be amazing Idol singles

  14. Walt says:

    I really like to hear the very good voices on American Idol. I only wish I coiud hear the good voices with out the loud screaming. I know these voices have a fine sound and I think the times have a lot to do with this, I am calling it noise.I really wish I could really feel the quality of these peoples fine voices.
    pass it on and good voices to all of them

    Thanks for lissining, Walt

  15. Karla says:

    I really appreciate that Michael is the same person with the people he interviews as he is the person who reviews the show week to week. He does not go soft on an opinion.

  16. Meghan says:

    I LOVE this interview. And I love everything about Keith. Great job Slezak!

  17. mj says:

    Great interview…enjoyed the comments. My fav is from enuff said–couldn’t agree more!!!!!

  18. asherlev1 says:

    Ahhh. Kudos to you for really going there with some of your questions! Professional as always, but you asked the stuff that us Idol watchers (or simply Reality Check watchers) wanted answers to!