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Lionel Richie on ‘American Idol’: ‘We’re Taking The Dive Now’

The R&B/pop legend on playing coach, discovery of the self and the struggle to be a star.

Rolling Stone India
Rolling Stone India May 01, 2019

American pop/R&B legend Lionel Richie. Photo: CC/Flickr/Brian Solis

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When it comes to reinvention, Lionel Richie knows how to do it right. From his time with the R&B-funk/soul outfit The Commodores, to his sweet solo career where he produced the iconic hits “Hello,” “All Night Long” and more, to further cementing himself as a legend in pop and country music with Renaissance and Tuskegee (respectively), the music veteran has never been afraid of change. On returning to judge the all-new edition of the American singing reality show American Idol, Richie says, “I was looking forward to it, to be quite honest with you. I mean, it took last year for us to all get our feet in the water, if you will. We’re taking the dive now.”

Richie’s observation on the challenges contestants face includes the struggle to be the star. “We’re all parents basically, you know, and it’s somewhere along the line, it’s very difficult to tell your child, ‘You can’t be that today. But with a little more hard work…’ That’s why coaches work so well,” he says. Whether playing football or dancing ballet, there’s a coach behind you, telling you that you’re not ready yet. That’s what American Idol judges Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan are there to do. “We’re just instructors, just coaches to get these kids over the hurdle and to not destroy their dream but at the same time, make it realistic for them,” Richie explains.

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On his equation with the judges, Richie stresses the element of surprise. He never knows what Perry or Bryan are going to do, and has gone on to accept being outside his comfort zone as the norm. The only thing left to do for Richie is to “sit back and enjoy the ride,” an act made slightly difficult to achieve, given the incredible showcase of talent by contestants who keep him on his feet.

“The kids came out of the woodwork. And I will tell you something, when I say kids, [I mean] 15, 16, 17-year-olds with attitude. I mean, excuse me. So, I call it the attack of the 15, 16-year-olds. I mean, last year, they were kind of warming up. This year, they’re coming with the goods to win it,” he relates. Richie is hoping to find something interesting in the next American Idol, calling the process one of discovery.

He wants contestants to bring to the stage their real selves, which has a lot to do with them knowing who they really are. “If they know who they are, then we’ll know who they are. [As] opposed to saying, when a contestant walks in and says, ‘Well, I can do everything.’ And the answer is, ‘Yes, but who are you?’ That’s the part I want to get them to understand,” he says. But Richie knows when he will have found the one. And as the person walks in and delivers to the judges exactly who they are, he’ll see the contestant for what they are – a star.

American Idol airs every weekend, in India, on Zee Cafe at 9 pm.

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