‘American Idol’ Season 9: Let The Countdown Begin

We’ve practiced hitting redial. We’ve got popcorn ready to pop. All we need is for Ryan Seacrest to intone “This. Is. American Idol!” We’re armed and ready for the national gladiator match that will be Season 9, now just days away. For some, it feels like the clock has barely Tik Tok-ed forward since Kris Allen and Adam Lambert duked it out, but personally, we’re on the edge of our seats to see what will clearly be a pivotal season—for Simon, for television, and possibly, for this girl. Who? Our Idol coverage begins below.

Season 9 begins with the show drifting on a rising tide of uncertainty: the relationship between winning Idol and career success seems ever more tenuous. Simon may soon be following Paula Abdul out the door. And we imagine we’re still stuck with newbie judge Kara DioGuardi’s constant references to her own resume (and her drecky songs being imposed on contestants.)

So what’s really going to happen when Idol springs back onto the tube next Tuesday?

A few changes to last year’s format are expected: show producers are doing away with the Wild Card round, and the competition will return to the Top 24 format (with men and women split into two groups of 12) instead of a Top 36. Plus, the show’s charity bonanza Idol Gives Back is reintroduced after a two-year break, airing April 21 during the Top 7 results show.

But by far the biggest change comes with the arrival of daytime talk show superstar Ellen DeGeneres, the show’s surprising pick to replace Paula. Idol will attempt to regain its bearings for a few weeks before the real gamble begins—we won’t be seeing Ellen take an active part until the Hollywood rounds kick off on February 9.

With a lineup of guest judges for the audition episodes (a roster that includes Joe Jonas, Victoria Beckham, Katy Perry, Mary J. Blige, Kristin Chenoweth, Neil Patrick Harris and Shania Twain) Idol producers may be setting the stage for viewers to embrace any permanent face in place of Paula’s bejeweled visage when February rolls around.

“They all really did their thing,” Randy Jackson assures us in an interview with Billboard. “Of course, Mary J. Blige was really amazing. I was impressed with Joe Jonas; I didn’t really know how he would be, but he was great. Shania was brilliant…Even Neil Patrick Harris and Kristin Chenoweth, who were both from the theater world, were really amazing and had great things to say.”

That brings us to the next factor—or rather, The X Factor. Rumors are deafening that Simon will begin ramping up the American version of his hit British series once the ninth stint of Idol wraps up in May. And given that his contract with AI will be fulfilled after this season, that means, like Paula, the British music mogul could be saying adios.

Cowell is “extremely competitive,” noted singer-songwriter Ryan Tedder, who’s worked closely with several of contestants to come through the Idol mill, when he spoke to Idolator last month. “Once X Factor starts [here in the U.S.], Simon’s going to… attempt an overthrow of the American Idol paradigm. He’s gonna shift it to X Factor. I’m pretty sure that’s gonna happen.”

So far Cowell and and the other judges are playing it coy.

“If Simon goes I go,” DeGeneres jokes in the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly.

Cowell’s reply: “That’s quite a tricky situation you’ve put me into! I think right now we have to concentrate on the next season and just get through that and worry about everything else afterwards.”

In his interview with Billboard, Jackson comments, “I won’t believe it ’til I see it. I haven’t spoken to him about it. You just never really know; there are a lot of alleged things going on, but who knows, right? We’ll see what happens.”

Well, that’s certainly three ways to say nothing and everything at the same time. So, American Idol is a singing competition, right—what of the actual contestants this year?

“Expect to see less and less of Simon this season. The focus is going to be back on the contestants and less on Simon’s harsh criticisms of them,” an insider tells Rob Shuter of PopEater’s Naughty But Nice column.

Mjsbigblog has been scouring the Internet for the floated names of rumored contestants and shining a spotlight on several of the possible hopefuls who’ll be competing this season. Here are just a few the site has dug up (though bear in mind this comes with the warning, “…since we never see some of the competition round contestants until the competition starts, we might never see some of these people. We might have even found the wrong person with the same name”):

Jason Diaz — A singer-songwriter whose tune “Paper Roses” appeared on a November episode of Gossip Girl, according to his MySpace blog. Here’s Diaz performing “Oh Sweet Saviour”:

Jennifer Hirsh — This Berklee College Of Music student grew up in Agoura Hills, California, and has an EP titled Sweet Words that’s available on iTunes. Her website touts her as “a raw, soothing, soulful breath of fresh air to the New York City music scene.”

Ben Honeycutt — Here’s something we haven’t seen before on Idol—a guitar playing rocker from the South. (Har har!) Ben’s MySpace has a clip of him strumming along while crooning Leona Lewis’ “Bleeding Love,” which, depending on his mood, could either impress or irk Simon should Honeycutt choose that as his audition song.

Heather Todd — A girl of many hair colors, Heather is another singer with an EP available on iTunes. The songs (which you can stream on MySpace), are guitar driven, and Mjsbigblog refers to Todd as being reminiscent of a “frequent ‘type’ on American Idol…the red-haired ‘rocker chick’ with varying levels of credibility.”

Todrick Hall — The MySpace bio for Todrick, 22, says the singer/dancer made his Broadway debut in Oprah Winfrey’s The Color Purple, which led to him creating his own company called Drama’l Musicals. (Drama’l being Hall’s middle name.) Check him out here taking on Cooley High (and, later, Boyz II Men) classic “It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday.”

Tune in next week as we begin covering the first American Idol season of the new decade. We can’t wait!