No one would have faulted Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler for hanging up his colorful scarves and taking a nice long vacation earlier this year — he’d recently completed rehab and a lengthy tour, after mending fences with his bandmates following a 2009 war of the words. But 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, he says he’s having a great time as a judge-and is convinced he’ll discover the next music legend.
So you weren’t a fan or a regular viewer of “American Idol” in the past.
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?”
Did anything in particular change your impression?
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] Second City Wazoo, or whatever we called all those groups-in-training. 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.”
When did you first have an inkling that being an “Idol” judge might be an option?
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”]. It’s huge.
What’s your business relationship with Kovac like?
He really is that different, and what attracted me to him is that he’s smart, in what he thinks and what he sees. Honest to God, I met him for a week and we were talking about “If you manage me,” and he said, “What do you really want?” And I said, “Well, I want to patch up what’s going on with Aerosmith. No matter what, that’s first and foremost. And then give me something on the side to do.” I was going to go to colleges and talk. For a lot of money, trust me. It was very appealing. But I just said, “Zero in on Aerosmith. We need to go away and take care of some business. And get me something else. I don’t know, like ‘Idol’ “… And God knows I had a little part of making this Aerosmith thing. I’m not going to let it fall apart. We’ve been married to each other for 40 years and that stuff just goes on.
What was the next step?
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.
How did you reply to that text?
I responded, “How were the ratings?” [Laughs] And then my curiosity started coming up… I live by what Dylan said: [sings] “Gather ’round people throughout the land, and don’t criticize what you don’t understand.” So I started asking questions and found out what was going on in the inside… I always thought J-Lo would be good. I thought that would be the perfect matchup.
What kind of advice did Kara give you?
[She] and Marti said, “You’d be perfect for this.” I figured, “What the fuck?” 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.
Did you have any hesitation?
It was hard for me to make a judgment because I live on fear. I take fear — fear of getting onstage, fear of writing a song, fear of living together with a bunch of guys — and turn it into the most positive things, as the world knows. So, it’s always been, if you boil it back, fear that you conquer. So any hesitancy around “American Idol” was just… “Wait now, how many people? Where do we go? And what do we do?” And then I met Randy and it was over from there, because he was so honest and open, and after five minutes he was like the brother that I hadn’t met.
Kid Rock recently questioned why you were doing “American Idol.” What do you say to that?
Kid Rock was there when we went to the White House [on Dec. 5 to perform during the Paul McCartney tribute at the Kennedy Center Honors]. I looked at him and said, “You know what, man, I’m not going to argue with you. If I agreed with you, we’d both be wrong.” [Laughs] Look, we’re all an outcome of what we’ve been, and he’s certainly lived a rough life. He’s got a single coming out and he’s like a pregnant animal. When you have an album, you want to protect it. You want to do whatever you can to make it happen. I just know that deep down inside, his comments don’t mean shit. It just doesn’t mean anything in the great scheme of things. It’s television. I’ve never done this and it’s going to be fun, and if he thinks for a minute that it’s going to take my career down… I want what he’s smoking.
How does the scrutiny of being on “American Idol” compare with the scrutiny of being in Aerosmith?
Well, the show isn’t on yet. Once it is, I’ll be under that microscope. But I’m so used to being under the microscope, whether it’s falling off a stage — I’m not sure if the public really wants to know that I had surgery on both feet — or that, yes, I’m a drug addict and alcoholic from the ’70s with a problem… You have the band finding another lead singer, and all that goes with that. But the scrutiny? Bring it on! I live for it. I went from being told in rehab by my therapist, “Your best thinking got you here,” to being in the White House and being told by the president, “What are you doing here?” [Laughs] It was fabulous. I’m so busy doing so many million things, so many irons in the fire that people don’t know what to think. I don’t need to be validated by someone’s opinions or show. This will last for three years if I stay with it, or four months if I just do this year. But I’m in Aerosmith forever.
What do you want to see in a prospective “Idol” contestant?
That certain something which can’t be defined. When I hit on a song [sings intro to Aerosmith’s “Jaded”], I go, “Oh, shit! 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.
So you’re not looking for a technically perfect singer, per se.
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. It’s not just a good voice. It’s not just how they look. It’s the whole package.
About how many singers have you seen audition so far?
And out of those 700, how many people have impressed you as having that “madman,” soul quality?
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… I’ve got to keep reminding myself that we’re looking for an “American Idol” — something that’s so fucking good-and that’s exactly how I judge myself and the songs I write with Joe Perry.
Have the contestants been showing improvement in the early audition rounds?
When we got to Hollywood Week, suddenly they were performing with a band and I went, “Oh, my God!” The production really is key, because [at first] they’re singing alone, but nestled in a band, with a bass and drums and snare… it took what I was listening to up 20 notches.
Do you have a favorite contestant right now?
Oh, yeah. I’m not sure if I can say. I’m not allowed, and it might disqualify them. I don’t really know the rules yet so I love breaking them.
Are you having fun when the cameras aren’t rolling?
You have no idea the shit that goes down. I keep forgetting we have a lavalier on, and every time I lean into J-Lo and say something — make a judgment call on something that hasn’t happened yet or coming right out and asking a contestant, “Did you eat paint chips as a child?” — it’s right into that mic.
Did you know Jennifer Lopez before this?
No. I was coming home from Donington [Park in England, where Aerosmith headlined the Download Festival in June 2010]. And we had just finished up in Europe. We did Venice, and we flew home from Venice. And I’m on the plane. I’m watching this “Backup Plan” movie with J-Lo. Her name had come up once before [during early conversations with “American Idol”] and so had mine, and we had to do a lot of talks and quiet-this-and-quiet-that. So I’m watching her on “In Living Color” and “Jenny From the Streets” or whatever she was doing before in her early songs, and she really was a little “streeter” to me. She was the real deal, so steeped into her culture that that’s all she represents. She’s the what-it-is-ness of Latina. She’s a hard-ass. She also has a very loving heart, and for better or worse she says what she means and she lays it down. She’s an alpha female.
When the kids are auditioning and someone would do something like come out dressed as a car, [we’d say], “What the fuck are you doing?” And I loved it. I loved stopping the show with little outbursts of shit. Randy would say, “This is a family show!” It was very funny. J-Lo as well, she just said what she meant and I like that a lot. That’s why I say she’s an alpha female… and I get to sit next to her all night.
Does Randy call you “dawg”?
[Laughs] He calls everybody “dawg.” He’s a real character, and I love his character.
Jimmy Iovine, chairman of Interscope Geffen A&M, will serve as mentor on “Idol.” Did you know him before the show?
I knew Jimmy Iovine when he was a tape op at the Record Plant in New York City and we were doing [Aerosmith’s 1975 album] “Toys in the Attic.”… I remember him in the studio with [producer] Jack Douglas. We used to call him “Shoes.” That was his nickname way back when, and look at him now.