No one would have faulted Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler for hanging up his colorful scarves and taking a nice long vacation earlier this year. After all, he'd recently completed rehab, finished a lengthy tour, and mended fences with his bandmates following a 2009 war of the words.
Instead, Tyler signed up to be a judge on "American Idol," a show better-known for melisma and makeovers than hard rock. Despite questions about how the motley crew of Tyler, Jennifer Lopez and Randy Jackson would breathe new life into the show, Tyler says he's having a great time as a judge and convinced he'll discover the next music legend.
Billboard: So you weren't a fan or a regular viewer of 'American Idol' in the past.
Tyler: I didn't watch "American Idol" a lot, and my feelings about it back when were, "How can you get anything out of this?" It wasn't that I wasn't a fan of "Idol." I just believed that the only way that you could make it was to work hard in the clubs, smell the sweat, sing in smoke and do the grind. Some of these kids I saw singing — I wanted to say, "Wait a minute. So, where have you sung before?"
Billboard: Did anything in particular change your impression?
Tyler: The more I saw the content of "American Idol," I realized that some of them sang in church. Well, guess what? So did I. And they sang off-Broadway. So did I. That would've been all the groups before Aerosmith. [Laughs] That was my thing, though: "They haven't trained, and how dare they?" And you know what? I was wrong, because what inspired me? Church, and the lunchroom in high school. I got beaten up for having long hair, spit at, peed my pants and all that stuff. But I'd show them in the lunchroom. And this is America's lunchroom. Everyone turns [the TV] on after dinner and watches "American Idol."
Billboard: When did you first have an inkling that being an 'Idol' judge might be an option?
Tyler: I spoke with my manager [Allen Kovac] a year ago and told him, "This is something I'd like to do," so he started looking into it. But meanwhile, I checked into [the] Betty Ford [Center] for three months [December 2009 to February 2010], and when I came out the wormhole, I met with [producer/songwriter] Marti Frederiksen and Kara [DioGuardi] to write this song for this Japanese flick ["Love Lives," for "Space Battleship Yamato"].
Billboard: What was the next step?
Tyler: I got a text from Kara sometime around July, when we were on tour in France, asking, "Did you ever think of being a judge on 'Idol'?" And I thought, "I'm in front of no less than 80,000 people a night now. Could I do that? Would I want to do that?" Half the things in life I've done, I just jumped into blindly.
Billboard: How did you reply to that text?
Tyler: I responded, "How were the ratings?"
Billboard: What kind of advice did Kara give you?
Tyler: [She] and Marti said, "You'd be perfect for this." I figured, "I can get up there, and I certainly would know when someone comes on for real. I could hear their soul and their hearts — their putting-it-forth like a madman, the star quality. Because I'm a peripheral visionary, you know? I don't usually look straight on at something. I like to savor what I don't see.
Billboard: What do you want to see in a prospective 'Idol' contestant?
Tyler: That certain something which can't be defined. When I hit on a song [sings intro to Aerosmith's "Jaded"], I go, "Where did that come from?" Or [sings "Sweet Emotion"] and I go, "Oh, my God, there it is!" And whatever it is that magic comes from, it's the unknown. You can't put your finger on it. You can't say, "Well, sing in church and you'll be a great singer." It's an unspoken thing.
Billboard: So you're not looking for a technically perfect singer, per se.
Tyler: A lot of stars out there may not be the best singers, and a lot of stars may have, you know, a quirky quality. Just look at Lady Gaga, look at Mick Jagger and look at my own self; the character that you turn into, that your music allows you to be...that's what I'm looking for, that little quirky something.
Billboard: About how many singers have you seen audition so far?
Billboard: And out of those 700, how many people have impressed you as having that "madman," soul quality?
Tyler: Twenty...and by the way, out of those 20 that Randy and I and J.Lo love, there's only 10 of them left. Because they would come out and perform, and we'd look at them and say, "Why'd you pick that key? Who told you to sing that song? You were much better last week!...That was terrible!" And it hurts my heart to say that. I just wasn't brought up that way...
Billboard: Do you have a favorite contestant right now?
Tyler: Oh, yeah. I'm not sure if I can say. I'm not allowed, and it might disqualify them.