Search for singing star reaches crescendo

STEPHANIE HOLMES
Last updated 05:00 20/05/2014
American Idol
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REACHING CLIMAX: Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr.

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As the studio lights dim, the brightly dressed audience of predominantly teenage girls is buzzing with excitement.

Behind a three-storey video screen, the unmistakable voice of Ryan Seacrest says the words the crowd has been waiting all day to hear. ''This IS American Idol.''

The opening credits roll and the crowd erupts, the noise beaten only when Seacrest - dapper in slim-fitting grey suit, white shirt and black and white tie - invites the season 13 judges out on stage.

Harry Connick Jr, Jennifer Lopez and Keith Urban make their way to the judging table and the audience reaches fever pitch. While most of the crowd weren't even born when Connick Jr got his big break providing the soundtrack for Rob Reiner's romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally, he's been a popular addition to this year's judging panel.

The show has brought him to the attention of a whole new generation of fans and given him the chance to pass on his extensive artistic knowledge to this year's American Idol contestants. It's a role he's taking incredibly seriously.

''I've never done anything like this in my life,'' Connick Jr says, talking on the red carpet after the top five elimination show. ''I've been a mentor and I've taught but to be a judge is to be a person who casts a very specific opinion week after week and I've never had to do that before.''

That hasn't stopped him having fun, however. During commercial breaks, after obligatory make up and hair touch ups, Connick Jr - as well as Lopez, Urban, and Seacrest - pose for ''selfies'' with as many audience members as they can.

''I love that. The judging part is the only part that I'm really serious on. The other stuff, I'm having a great time and screwing around,'' he says.

''But when it comes to the judging, I'm taking it very seriously because their livelihood is at stake and I think it's very important to treat that with as much respect as possible.''

Older viewers will of course remember a time when singing competitions like this didn't exist - when the only way to make it big in the music business was to start from the very bottom, perform for tiny audiences in dingy clubs, building up a fan base and hoping one day you'd get discovered by a record label. But for many of the contestants - the majority of whom are in their teens - American Idol has been a part of their consciousness for almost their entire lives.

''I've always dreamed of being on the show and now it's actually happening,''  final-five contestant Alex Preston says. ''I never even thought I had a chance of winning and now I'm like, maybe I do.''

For the contestants, the chance to be guided by big name stars like Lopez, Connick Jr, Urban and mentor Randy Jackson, has been invaluable.

''They all add something different to the table,'' Preston says. ''They're all really different. I respect them all in that way.''

Twenty-three-year-old Jessica Meuse agrees.

''Sometimes they don't say what I want to hear but you don't need to hear what you always want to hear, you need to hear things that are true. So I appreciate all their honesty and I respect them a lot as artists so I love everything about them.''

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Preston says the best piece of advice he was given - and advice that could apply to anyone hoping to become a successful artist - was to stay true to himself, no matter what happens.

''I don't want to be anyone else than myself. I don't want to change during this competition, I just want to grow into a better me.''

It's advice also taken on board by the youngest competitor in the final five, Jena Irene. At just 17, Irene wowed the judges with her natural stage presence and confident performing style, but she says she had to work hard to get so far in the competition.

''What I've learnt about myself is that work ethic is key. If you're not motivated to do something then you're not going to be successful. And that's the same with anything,'' she says.

''But learning it at a very age is kind of a wake up call and this is definitely a decision point - I've realised that I do want to do this for the rest of my life.''

Caleb Johnson, who brought the house down with his top five performance of Whitesnake's Still of the Night, says he's excited about the opportunities the show affords.

''I'm making a living doing what I love, which is exactly the goal of the whole show. I hope to have a really great career after this, because this is just a stepping stone into the world of the entertainment industry.''

Reality competition shows like this of course have their critics, but Connick Jr believes American Idol is an important tool for musicians, both new and old.

''I think this is the biggest stage in the world for emerging performers and established performers,'' he says.

''This is just the way music gets heard, new music and older music. So it's a very important thing for people in my business.''

American Idol 7.30pm, Wednesday and Thursday, Prime.

- Fairfax Media

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