Urban is empathetic 'Idol' judge
BY RITA SHERROW World Television Writer
Thursday, February 21, 2013
2/21/13 at 6:49 AM
Soft-spoken country music star Keith Urban delivers the good news - and the bad - to "American Idol" contestants in a soothing tone. No brutal opinions like those handed out in the previous Simon Cowell era.
It's like that line from the Roberta Flack song, "killing me softly with his words." The dream may end but the blow he delivers isn't fatal. Urban, the Australian-born songwriter, singer, musician and virtuoso guitarist, was drafted this season to serve as a first-time judge, along with Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj and returning judge Randy Jackson, for "Idol" on Fox.
There's a gentle honesty about his critiques that rings true - for a reason.
He understands what the contestants are going through.
"I never forget the environment they are working in," he said in a teleconference from Las Vegas on Wednesday. "That's an extraordinary thing - particularly when you are young and standing in front of us (the judges) and about 1,700 in the theater last night with countless millions watching and there you are in front of everybody doing what you have to do in that limited time.
"I have tremendous empathy for what they are going through."
The "last night" he refers to is the taping of one of the show's sudden death rounds.
The top 40 contestants are divided by gender and the first semifinalist group of 20 girls (10 each night) performed Wednesday and will again on Feb. 27. The first group of 20 male semifinalists perform Thursday and again Feb. 28. Each night, five are eliminated, resulting in the naming of the top 10 contestants competing for the title of "American Idol."
Each contestant was allowed to submit five songs but the ultimate choice belongs to the "Idol" producers. They can also sing with a band or play musical instruments, according to Fox.
Whatever the circumstances, Urban is determined to help the artists on their way, even when a contestant combines talent with a completely over-the-top presentation. Artists like Tulsa's Zoanette Johnson, who stunned the judges by dumping her rehearsed song and going with a spur-of-the-moment name-dropping song and drum solo, made it through the group performance singing "Knock on Wood" with three other girls and offered up another solo performance in the Hollywood Rounds to move on to this week's rounds. The rounds where the rule is one song, no mercy.
"I got a feeling that we've done a pretty good job of helping her in the sense in letting America see her extraordinarily unique gifts in full flight," said Urban, who has won five Academy of Country Music Awards, four Grammy Awards and has sold more than 15 million albums. "Past that, we will see what she has in store.
"She's like a box a chocolates," he said, recalling the popular line in the Tom Hanks' film "Forrest Gump." "You never know what you're going to get."
Urban said it is too soon to tell who will be the frontrunners in the competition. Every night is different and anything can happen week to week, he explained. But he does agree that it might be the year for a female winner. Jordin Sparks was the last female winner in season 6, following Oklahoma's Carrie Underwood in season four.
Could this be the year the female winner drought is broken?
"All I can say is at least from what we saw last night it's absolutely a girl's year to win. It's really more a testament to how strong the girls are. I want to see the emergence of great artistry. ... The girls are just incredibly strong this year."
Urban, who tours, records, works on "American Idol" and is a husband to Oscar-winner Nicole Kidman and father to Sunday Rose, 4, and Faith, 2, said he can do it all because of his team.
"I feel immensely grateful that I get to do all of these things," he said. "I think, like a lot of times, it looks like more from the outside than the way it actually works. It's day to day. It's navigated a lot more peacefully now. Not every day. But, most days, it's balanced pretty well.
"I have an extraordinary team around me. It really does take a village. And, I have an extraordinary wife in Nic, who is an amazing mother and does a beautiful job of keeping it all in balance.
"It's still a day at a time."
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays
Where: Fox, channel 23,
Rita Sherrow 918-581-8360
Tulsa's Zoanette Johnson, seen here in the Hollywood Rounds, competed on Wednesday's "American idol." The reality singing competition airs at 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays on Fox, channel 23, cable 5. MICHAEL BECKER / Fox