Grooming the next American Idol

Award-winning singer Lionel Richie will talk about the reality of what it takes to be an artist on the show

Lionel Richie, who is one of the judges of the new season of American Idol, has criticised the show over the years for promoting cookie-cutter talent.
Lionel Richie, who is one of the judges of the new season of American Idol, has criticised the show over the years for promoting cookie-cutter talent.PHOTO: NYTIMES

LOS ANGELES • In Lionel Richie - who will join pop titan Katy Perry and country dreamboat Luke Bryan at the judges' table beginning on Sunday (today, Singapore time) - American Idol may have found an ideal counterweight for Perry's screwball enthusiasm.

The judges have sold a lot of records, but only Richie can speak with the authority of a man who started out in the age of Motown and has survived into the age of the meme.

For him, the Idol gig is another opportunity to do what he has become adept at - trading on millennial pop culture's ironic fascination with his pleading 1983 hit Hello without letting himself become the joke.

But it is also a chance to share wisdom gleaned from six decades of lived experience. "Hip means now," he said. "I've never been hip. I've always been popular."

At 68, he is as busy as ever.

There is Idol, of course. Beginning this month, there is also a return to a residency at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas. There is a home-goods line, whose Instagram feed features many photos of Richie's bejewelled hands touching fine bed linens. There are also grandchildren, to whom the pop icon is pop-pop.

"For a Gemini who probably has about 15 to 20 minutes of attention span," Richie said, "this is pretty darn good."

Although he has made cameo appearances on American Idol and Canadian Idol, his decision to join the judges' panel full time is a surprise.

Like many artists whose achievements predate it, Richie has criticised the show for promoting cookie-cutter talent. In 2009, he suggested to Blues & Soul magazine that Idol would have quickly sent Mick Jagger and James Brown packing.

When reminded of these comments, Richie smiled and lowered his head until it was almost touching the table, as if he had just been ambushed with a cringe-worthy childhood photo. "Was I a fan of these shows? Absolutely not. I was not."

But when he was asked to join the reboot - Idol is getting a fresh start on ABC after 15 seasons on Fox that ended in 2016 - he said he began thinking about how best to make use of the platform.

For years, he said, he has watched an increasingly dysfunctional music business fail to mentor artists for the long haul. "Instead of sitting here moaning about how the world has changed since I started, I'm going to tell them what it takes," he says.

"You think it's just singing? No, it's not. What kind of style do you have? What kind of stamina do you have? How many times can you take 'No'? How many times can you come back? That's an artist."

Perry said she insisted Richie join the judges' panel after running into him one night at the Sunset Tower and spending hours listening to him talk about his experience in the music industry. "It was just jaw-dropping," she said. "I went to the producers and... I was like, Lionel Richie is the uncle, historian, the wisdom we are missing on this show."

Had Idol existed in the 1960s, when Richie was of auditioning age, he would have gone nowhere near it. As a young man, he was painfully shy. He likes to say he thanks God for the Commodores because, without them, he would never have discovered Lionel Richie.

He was born in Tuskegee, Alabama, and grew up on the campus of Tuskegee University. He was a freshman economics major at Tuskegee when one of his future bandmates spotted him carrying a saxophone case and offered him a spot in the band that would become the Commodores.

At the time, Richie said, he had been contemplating dropping out of school to join the Episcopalian clergy. Then he did his first show with the band. The curtain rose, Richie heard the sound of young women screaming in delight and there went his interest in the priesthood.

With the Commodores, Richie helped write the wedding-reception staple Brick House, but soon discovered he had a knack for ballads.

He said: "One of the things I heard growing up was, 'Mr and Mrs Richie, the problem with Lionel is he's too sensitive.' All that meant was that I was a songwriter. I was not a football player and I was not going to be a hunter. I'm the guy that shot a bird and cried over the bird for the next two days. That's just who I am."

He assumed he would retire as a Commodore. He said everything changed after the 1984 Olympics.

During the closing ceremony, in front of a worldwide television audience, Richie performed All Night Long, dancing on a mechanical riser like a single man atop a wedding cake.

At first, this did not feel like a turning point. "I left the house," he said, "went and ran around this field for 20 minutes, got back in the car and left the stadium."

Then he stopped at an intersection. "I am three cars back from the red light," he said, "and people are walking up to the car." In that moment, he said, "I became 'Lionel Richie All Night Long'. These people have just gotten off the plane from Taipei, but they know Lionel Richie All Night Long".

This period blurs together when he talks about it now. It was not all one year, but it feels that way.

The Oscar nomination for Endless Love. The Olympics. Leaving the Commodores. Sitting with Michael Jackson, writing the USA for Africa charity single We Are The World and meeting Jackson's albino python Muscles, who slipped into the studio unnoticed and greeted Richie with open jaws. ("Lionel, he wants to say hello to you," Richie recalled Jackson said. "Why are you screaming?")

For a natural workaholic, the pace was addictive at first, but Richie said being a star on that level also brought with it "unbelievable stress". He went home to Tuskegee to care for his dying father. Doctors found nodules on his vocal cords. His marriage grew strained, then imploded in tabloid-ugly fashion - in 1988, his first wife, Brenda, was arrested on an assault charge after catching him with another woman and kicking him in what newspapers referred to, perhaps politely, as the "stomach area".

By the end of his most successful decade, Richie found himself at home in Tuskegee, living in his childhood bedroom. When he was at his lowest, a family friend dropped by, saying he had brought some inspirational music.

"And he brought my albums by," Richie said. "He'd labelled which songs to listen to. He said, 'Be sure to listen to the lyrics.' He gave me my music back."

So Richie sat in his old bedroom and listened to his own songs, the ones that had touched so many and brought them so much joy, so much comfort. He sat and cried and found the strength to go on.

In the time that he has been a public figure, the very nature of celebrity has been changed by social media.

His younger daughter, Sofia, has been romantically linked to Scott Disick, the estranged partner of reality TV star Kourtney Kardashian.

Over dessert, Richie considered how the hubbub around this liaison compares with the early 2000s, when his daughter, Nicole, had her own moment of infamy while joined at the hip to socialite Paris Hilton.

"I'm a veteran now," he said, "but Nicole was the Gulf War. Nicole and Paris were Vietnam for me. Because I had no experience. What's happening now with Sofie is easier because I know how to approach it. With Nicole, it was like being shot in the head every morning. Did she get arrested? For what? We didn't know what was coming next."

He laughed. To hear Richie describe it, fatherhood is a job not unlike being the elder-statesman judge on American Idol. You are there to provide an example of constancy in an ever-changing world.

"There are moments where life should have scared me," Richie said, "but it didn't. Why? Because I was 19 and my parents were the mountain. And I get it now.

"You know, one day I pulled out of that driveway with the Commodores, in a van with five guys with Afros the size of Kentucky. There was no Instagram, no nothing. They didn't know where we were until I called them again. I'm sure it was not what they wanted. But I give them all the props in the world, because they faked it very well."


• American Idol airs on Sony Channel (Singtel TV Channel 316 and StarHub TV Channel 510) every Monday and Tuesday at 6pm, with encore telecasts at 9.45pm.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 12, 2018, with the headline 'Grooming the next American Idol'. Subscribe