Pop Culture

‘Idol’ hopefuls get help on song arrangements

Wondering about how a certain reality show pulled something off? Have a question about a certain contestant?

Whether it's “Survivor,” “American Idol,” “The Apprentice,” “Real World” or another show, send in your questions. Andy Dehnart, msnbc.com's Television Editor and creator of Reality Blurred, will try to answer them.

Q: After watching David Cook's performance of "Billie Jean" on "American Idol" the other night, it got me to wondering: When a contestant on "Idol" wants to rework a song, who is responsible for the altering of the musical arrangement? A lot of what makes David Cook great is the remake of the original musical arrangement. It definitely seems to separate the quality contestants from the more average ones. — Erik G., Glens Falls, N.Y.

A: The "American Idol" finalists decide upon their own arrangements, but get advice and feedback from the show's vocal coaches.

The day after the live results show, the finalists select their song for the next week, once they learn of the theme and their options. Then, they work with the show's professional staff, such as the show's vocal coach, Debra Byrd, and arranger, Michael Orland (he's the guy at the piano), on the arrangement. Later, musical director Rickey Minor and others score the songs after listening to recordings of the contestants' initial performances.

All of this happens on Thursdays, the day after the live results show, so they have to make very important decisions rather quickly.

However, the contestants do have five days to rehearse and work with vocal coaches to perfect their songs and arrangements, and they perform three times on Tuesdays before the performance show, so they aren't exactly unfamiliar with the arrangement by the time they sing live.

Because Cook has been heavily criticized recently because he's used other people's arrangements of classic songs, we got some additional insight into the process last week. (While host Ryan Seacrest has started to identify the source of the arrangement in his introductions, the judges once praised Cook for his originality, ignoring the contribution of the person who created the arrangement.)

On last week's results show, Seacrest gave Cook a chance to address that criticism, and Cook admitted he finds his arrangements on the Web. "Throughout this whole process, I've tried to find arrangements that fit me. And in most cases, I've been able to find them online," he said, but then revealed that he was "going to do (his) own arrangement" for that night's performance.

By the way, Chris Cornell, the artist whose arrangement of "Billie Jean" Cook used, told Billboard that he wasn't upset. "At the end of the day, it's all good. It's a good thing for me. There was a moment when I was sitting there writing this new arrangement thinking, 'Is this a good idea or a bad idea?' Watching the response from the judges was really gratifying," he said.

Q: I would like to know how Michael Wray (the winner of "Hell's Kitchen" season one) is doing? Also, what happened to the young lady who chef Gordon Ramsay stated he would pay for her to go to cooking school? — Denise C., Grenada, Miss.

A: You're in luck, Denise. After appearing on the first half of the "Hell's Kitchen 3" season finale, Wray will appear on this season of "Hell's Kitchen," while season three's Julia Williams will appear next season, the show's fifth. Both will undoubtedly update us on their current projects when they show up.

Here's what we know right now: First-season winner Wray opted out of the show's prize, a mentorship with Gordon Ramsay in London, and instead received kitchen equipment and a cash prize.

He later went on to sell knives online under his Skull and Cleavers brand, and worked for some time as executive chef at Los Angeles restaurant Tatou.

Williams, the former Waffle House cook, consistently impressed Ramsay during her time on the show although she didn't have the culinary chops to win, prompting his offer to send her to one and to have her back on the show. In pre-season interviews, Gordon Ramsay said that she has gone on to culinary school, but we don't know if she'll be back as a contestant on season five.

Q: On shows like "America's Next Top Model", "Big Brother" and "Beauty and the Geek" for example, are meals brought in or do the contestants cook their own meals? On "Top Model" the girls seem to eat a lot of cereal or eat out of take-out containers, so how are the contestants/houseguests fed? There is always complaints about that the kitchen is dirty, but eating junk food or takeout can create a mess. — Linda G., San Antonio, Texas

A: The answer is both, but of course, it depends upon the show.

Typically, when contestants on competitive reality shows eat at their show homes, we see them both eating out of take-out containers or preparing their own food. (Sometimes, contestants eat at restaurants or have craft service food catered when they're on location, like for a photo shoot.) So, it varies and depends.

"Big Brother's" houseguests nearly always prepare their own food unless they win a reward of some kind, or the producers are feeling generous. The houseguests receive food for the week — whatever they've won as part of the food competition — in the storage room, and then cook in the kitchen. They also prepare their own "slop," the "nutritionally fortified porridge mix" that the contestants eat as punishment.

Most shows seem to vary between providing take-out food and letting contestants prepare their own. On "Survivor," perhaps the most extreme example, contestants forage for food unless it's provided for them. On last week's show, for example, Jason bludgeoned a rat to death and they ate that, and then the producers provided his tribe with pizza and beer after they won the reward challenge.

As to the messes reality-show contestants make, I don't think that has anything to do with take-out containers or cereal boxes, because most food preparation leaves a mess, whether that food comes in boxes or as raw materials. Perhaps the contestants on the shows you watch are just slobs.

is a writer and teacher who publishes , a daily summary of reality TV news.

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