Ch-ch-changes on 'Idol'

Since 2003, there’s been a lot of changes to Fox’s hit show “American Idol,” on which I appeared seven (gasp) years ago.

First off is the live band. No more karaoke CDs for these emerging stars. The new contestants get to work with the best of the best in the industry to really make the songs their own.

That’s also something else that’s been allowed in recent years — contestants helping with the arrangements of the songs. Back in Season 2, we picked our “approved” songs from a very limited list and then left all the arranging up to our music director. Now the contestants get to be involved from start to finish, from changing the style of the song to choosing what instruments they want.

Contestants could not play instruments the season I was on the show. We had to stand on stage solo. I often thought how much better I’d feel — and sound! — if I could have played the piano during my song. Musical instruments — from keyboards to guitars — are almost a given now. Any contestant who can play a musical instrument has an immediate leg up on those who don’t. They’re seen as a well-rounded performer, a better entertainer, an actual musician and artist instead of some karaoke wanna-be.

Part of why people watched the show was not only for the contestants, but for the judges. Paula Abdul was the first to leave the show last year; Kara DioGuardi and Ellen DeGeneres have both tried their hands at judging but couldn’t seem to connect with the audience. Now both have followed in Paula’s tiny dance steps and will not be returning.

Even with all these changes, it seemed as if one thing was a definite constant for the show — an “American Idol” staple. And that thing was Simon Cowell. But nothing gold can stay, and even the most dreaded and respected judge said farewell to nine incredible seasons of “American Idol” and decided not to come back for the tenth — and what I think is going to be the final — season of this amazing show.

So who could fill such stylish shoes as Mr. Cowell’s? There have been rumors of Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, and even Elton John. While those two are certainly extremely well-qualified, I think this season is going to lack the magic and chemistry that made it so famous in the first place. Now Randy Jackson remains the only “original” judge on the show, joined next year by Jennifer Lopez, who just signed a deal with Fox for a cool $12 million.

With the kaleidoscope of change that has become “American Idol,” at least one person isn’t going anywhere: good ol’ Ryan Seacrest, thank heavens. Although I’m sure even he won’t be the same without Simon’s jabs about his self-tanning and perfectly manicured hands.

Ryan’s, that is. Although I’m quite sure Simon is every bit as bronzed and buffed as Seacrest.

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