Thanks to several major changes in the judging panel, "American Idol" is being reborn. Again.
Paula Abdul was the first of the originals to leave, freeing up space for Kara DioGuardi and Ellen DeGeneres. They departed, as did Simon Cowell, in 2010 ... opening seats for Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler. They're gone now, too, so remaining judge Randy Jackson and host Ryan Seacrest will be joined by other music superstars -- Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj and Keith Urban -- when the Fox talent competition starts its 12th season of twice-weekly airings Wednesday, Jan. 16.
"American Idol"Returns to Fox with a two-night premiere at 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, Jan. 16-17
In recent months, country music staple Urban has been working "Idol" auditions into a packed itinerary. It also has entailed Nashville recording sessions for his next album, the planning of an upcoming concert tour and visits to his Oscar-winning wife, Nicole Kidman, in France, where she's been filming a biography of Princess Grace of Monaco.
"I've been racking up some serious miles," friendly four-time Grammy winner Urban confirms, having visited such "Idol" audition locations as San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Charlotte, N.C. "But I'm a musician, so I've toured my whole life. It's something I enjoy doing."
And thus far, at least, Urban also enjoys doing "American Idol." Previously a judge for a season on the Australian version of "The Voice," he says, "The side that I genuinely like is being able to maybe help somebody. When someone walks onstage, and they're just the most unlikely-looking person for this, then they sing and you just go, 'Gosh! You just need the slightest bit of help, and you're off and running,' that's a wonderful opportunity for people. And that's what I love."
Seacrest has known the new "Idol" judges to varying degrees through his multifaceted media work, but he's excited to build new connections to them within the contest's context.
"All of them are very different," he notes, "and all of them come with their own unique perspective and background and with a specific and strong point of view. I think the contestants relish that. They certainly seem to look forward to it before they go in, and each (judge) is not shy about saying what they see or don't see in them."
Those vying to be the next "American Idol" will hope to score the sort of stardom cemented by such past winners as Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood and last season's victor, Phillip Phillips, whose single "Home" is continuing its long run on music charts.
"I think we've got plenty," Seacrest says of the new season's promising contenders. "Now it's going to be a game of who can perform under pressure."
To that end, Urban is eager to hear the variety the entrants will bring over the coming weeks. "I listen to every kind of music," he says, "and when somebody is good at what they do, regardless of what genre it is, I think that's really apparent. There are people who come on and want to do something, but their intrinsic talent is more suited to another style.
"We had somebody (during the auditions) who had done a lot of gospel singing, and they wanted to do another kind of music, but then we had them do a gospel song ... and there was no comparison. When you're born and bred for something, you shouldn't deny that."
Nor are the judges likely to deny their own expertise, as suggested by reports that things became rather heated between Minaj and Carey along the "Idol" audition trail.
"It's certainly calmed down since the media frenzy over it," Seacrest says. "You have strong, opinionated individuals coming together for the first time, and inevitably, that is going to cause some sparks along the way. And that's what happened. I don't believe it was for any reason other than each of them believing in what they were trying to do and say."
Adds Urban, "We're singers and musicians, and performing is what we do. If you put us behind a desk and have us give our thoughts on other people, it's a strange phenomenon to begin with, so the environment is already primed for unusual manifestations of our passion."
The "Idol" passion certainly isn't only the judges' table, Urban adds. "I still marvel at people who can walk onto that stage with nothing but a microphone and sing a cappella in front of the four of us, and they have only a minute or less to do it. It never ceases to amaze me how bold and courageous they are. Sometimes, someone will say, 'I'm going to do a Mariah Carey song.' And I'll think, 'A Mariah Carey song, in front of Mariah Carey? OK ...'"
And yes, a Keith Urban song has been tried in front of Keith Urban during his "American Idol" tenure already. "I've had that happen a couple of times," he confirms, "and there is a bit of leeway you have to give. It's hard to rag on someone doing a cover of your song, so I have to handle that a bit differently."