20 years after 'American Idol' launch, Randy Jackson says singing shows are 'too nice': 'There's very little truth being told'

Twenty years ago, in April 2002, a little show called American Idol began its first “Search for a Superstar,” with open-call regional auditions in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Miami, Atlanta, and Seattle. Roughly 10,000 unknown singers showed up, and one was diamond-in-the-rough Kelly Clarkson. Interestingly, Clarkson’s audition didn’t even air at first, as it seems the show’s producers were convinced that either Justin Guarini or Tamyra Gray were on track to win.

But original judge Randy Jackson tells Yahoo Entertainment, “To me, Simon and Paula, [Kelly] was always the frontrunner. When we met her in Dallas, she sang a little bit and I go, ‘Oh, that's the one.’ … She slid under the table. I put her in the judge's seat, then I went and joined and sang on her spot. It was the beginning. It was so relaxed. … This was the meager beginnings of this great show, and it was just classic.”

Clarkson obviously fulfilled Idol’s bold mission to launch a massive pop star. Her coronation song, “A Moment Like This,” went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was the overall top-selling U.S. single of 2002; her debut album, Thankful, then debuted at No. 1, sold more than 3 million copies worldwide, and spawned the top 10 single “Miss Independent.” Not even a flop movie musical with runner-up Guarini, From Justin to Kelly, could derail her success. And Clarkson is an even bigger superstar today, with 25 million album sales and 45 million single sales to her credit, her own hit talk show, and — ironically — a regular gig on a singing show that wouldn’t even exist if Idol hadn’t paved the way, The Voice.

Jackson, who was the longest-serving judge in American Idol history (12 seasons, plus a stint as an in-house mentor on Season 13), realizes that Idol probably would not have been so groundbreaking or long-running if someone other than Clarkson had won in that crucial inaugural season.

“I think everything that happened during that first season was really kismet,” Jackson muses. “It was meant to be, meant to happen. We were meant to meet her. … You only really need one great winner, and Kelly was that one. … So, when we found her, it was like, ‘Oh my God, this is it.’ … The gods were shining up upon us that brought her into the room.” Months later, at the Season 1 finale, Jackson recalls, “Simon and I looked at each other and we go like, ‘You know what? This is really gonna work.’ … I don't know how magically it came together, but we really didn't know if it was really going to work. And anybody that says they knew is lying.”

Kelly Clarkson wins 'American Idol' Season 1 in 2002. (Photo: Reuters)
Kelly Clarkson wins 'American Idol' Season 1 in 2002. (Photo: Reuters)

As important as it was to have a successful first champion, the lightning-in-a-bottle chemistry between the series’ first three judges — Randy, Paula Abdul, and Simon Cowell — was just as key to Idol’s success. Some would even argue that the judges, particularly Cowell, became even bigger stars than Clarkson or any other winner. “We just clicked,” Jackson recalls with a fond chuckle. “When we went live, no one could control us. We were wild! We said stuff that Standards and Practices would come down and say, ‘You can't say that!’ … talking about [host] Ryan [Seacrest’s] dating life. We'd say, ‘Ryan, we heard you out with somebody the other night. Who was it? You were in a car…’ Like, we were on TMZ. It was that off-the-hook. It was the wild boys-and-one-girl club. It was crazy, but we had a blast. We had fun. We hung out all the time. We’re the best of friends, still.”

Jackson, a veteran touring/session musician, manager, and producer who came to Idol with an extensive résumé that included being the head of A&R for both MCA and Columbia Records and playing with Journey, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, George Michael, Stevie Nicks, and Roger Waters, admits he was afraid that the show would be “corny.” He actually had serious reservations about taking the Idol judging job at all. “You know, this is my business, my life,” he stresses. “It's not just about being on TV and yapping it up. … What people don't really realize — what no one realizes — is Simon Cowell and I were A&R guys. We were not just performers, like you see on these [other talent competition] shows. We were A&R guys, so our life's work was to try and sign, develop, find, and discover new artists and make great records. So… that was exactly what we did.”

Jackson was tough on Idol contestants, but of course not as tough as controversial center judge Simon Cowell, and he confesses that he was taken aback at first by Cowell’s harsh commentary in those early days. “Of course there were times [when Cowell was too mean]. I'm remembering the time Simon called someone a name — I'm not gonna use it — and I was like, ‘Bro, you can't do that! This has gone too far now!’” But Jackson believe the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, and now singing show judges are too afraid of hurting contestants’ feelings.

“Now I think they're all too nice. This is a tough, hard, mean, give-zero-Fs business,” Jackson says bluntly. “Being honest with someone — if you're terrible, you're terrible. Wouldn't you want to know that? Maybe me saying you're terrible is going to help you get your thing together. Maybe you're gonna go back to the drawing board, like, ‘No, I'm gonna defeat the Dawg! I'm coming back. I'm coming back to get you, Dawg!’

“One of the things I don't like today is there’s very little truth being told on these shows,” Jackson continues. “I say all the time in interviews, the thing that helped me the most [when I was starting out] was the no’s — the people that didn't like me, didn't like my playing, didn't like my songwriting, didn't like my producing. That's what made me work and try harder. … The competition and the challenge helps us get better — not the yeses, not the ‘You’re lovely, but not today.’ That doesn't do anything for anyone.”

Jackson believes that shows like American Idol and The Voice are too soft now because they are exclusively judged by pop stars, without any industry insiders on the panels. (The current Idol judging panel comprises Katy Petty, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan; the most recent Voice lineup featured Clarkson alongside Blake Shelton, John Legend, and Ariana Grande, who referred to themselves as “coaches,” not judges.) “The problem with that is, no pop star wants to be mean or wants to be that honest with any contestant... because they don't probably want to get it back. They don't want to get it back. And they want to be liked,” Jackson says.

Randy Jackson during his final season as a regular 'American Idol' judg in 2013. (Photo: Reuters/Phil McCarten)
Randy Jackson during his final season as a regular 'American Idol' judg in 2013. (Photo: Reuters/Phil McCarten)

But Jackson — who struggled with his weight during his early Idol years and “tried every diet on the planet” and even “pregnant women's urine,” before undergoing gastric-bypass surgery, founding the wellness brand Unify Health Labs, and losing 114 pounds — says that unlike celebrities and pop stars, he was able to handle the flak. “When I'm judging and saying, ‘That was terrible,’ [the rejected contestant] could say on the air, ‘Well, you're terrible too, Randy Jackson!’ But for me, I'm good with it, because Cowell and I took one oath: If you dish it, you gotta be able to get it back. Contestants would walk in and say, ‘Dawg, you’re fat!’ And I’d go, ‘Oh yeah, I got mirrors in my house. I know I am!’ So, that rock-'em, sock-'em of reality is gone to me. An artist is never going be that brash with someone.”

Jackson says, “The whole judging thing, I felt like I’ve been there, done it, loved it,” so he’s happy to return to American Idol’s original network, Fox, in a very different capacity: as the bandleader on two seasons of “fun game show” Name That Tune. But he clearly loves to talk about his old show’s legacy, dishing about his favorite Idol winner (“Kelly Clarkson, hands down”), favorite season (Season 2, starring Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken), favorite performance (Fantasia’s “Summertime” in Season 3), favorite guest star (Quentin Tarantino), and what he considers to be the series’ most shocking eliminations (Season 3’s Jennifer Hudson and Season 8’s Adam Lambert).

And as for the various music stars who bashed American Idol over the past two decades, claiming success stories like Clarkson’s were ruining the music business for everyone else, Jackson just quips in his typical frank and Dawg-like manner: “They were wrong. But, to each their own.”

Watch Randy Jackson’s full, extended Yahoo Entertainment interview below, for more conversation about American Idol, his return to the Journey lineup and the upcoming Journey album, Name That Tune, and wellness.

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— Video produced by Jen Kucsak, edited by Jimmie Rhee