"They should have a look and an image and they should carry that over into real life," he said. So start with the fake and make it real. How absurd. How frightening. How very rock 'n' roll. These young hopefuls are here to find a new self, one that will become the new them. The only them, in fact.
Oddly, this time the contestants had to pick songs from the last couple of years, which was a stunning concession to modernity.
In order to sell two hours of advertising at the TV concession stand, we got glimpses of the Seven's home towns.
First was Skylar Laine, of Brandon, Miss. She had chosen a Kellie Pickler song that was entirely foreign to Jimmy Iovine and his guest mentor, Akon.
Laine appeared with a guitar. It was surely there to hide any Hilfiger-influenced clothing. Laine is so authentic that she can even get away with hair from 1983. "Didn't You Know How Much I Love You?" was the song. The judges knew how much they loved it.
"I felt you for the first time in a long time," said Randy Jackson.
"I'm enamored by the women on the show this year," offered the typically incisive Steven Tyler.
Colton Dixon is from Murfreesboro, Tenn. They're very nice there. So he didn't seem to take to Iovine saying: "It's you or Phillip (Phillips). Let's cut the bulls---."
Dixon looked uncomfortable. The cut of Iovine's jib is a little raw for his taste. His rendering of "Love the Way You Lie," was the sweet sound of Skylar Gray, not the raw rasp of Eminem.
Indeed, Jennifer Lopez found it gray without the Skylar part. "I wish it would have been more of a song," she offered.
Dixon, like Phillip Phillips, hovers dangerously around the WGWG formula that has been so successful in the competition, but rather less successful in subsequent life. White Guy with Guitar (or piano) is what little girl voters seem to love while the show is running, but doesn't translate to enormous impact, after the "Idol" tent has wrapped and the preparations for Simon Cowell's makeup have begun.
Sadly, the producers continued with the idea of filling time with duets. There were commercials to sell. And "The Voice" has lost 39 percent of viewership over the last few weeks, so let's stomp on their gullets.
Phillips was bullied by Elise Testone into singing Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know." He really didn't want to do this. In fact, one is increasingly getting the impression that he really doesn't want to do "Idol" at all.
"She's just a better singer than I am," Phillips said after the performance. These duets are supposed to be like inadmissible evidence in court. They jury hears them, but is supposed to pretend it didn't. This demands some considerable mental dexterity from reactive minds.
Chula Vista, Calif.'s Jessica Sanchez chose "Stuttering" by Jazmine Sullivan. Jimmy Iovine's reaction was "What?" Shortly followed by "Who?"
Yet this was a sophisticated choice by Sanchez. With large stars hanging symbolically from her ears, it was clear that she was trying to make people believe she is more mature than her 16 years. At this, she succeeded largely stutter-free.
"You set the bar really high," said Jackson. "You slayed the biggest fish of the night."
For Lopez, however, the fishing boat had not left the dock. She was still desperate for Sanchez to "take us on the ride."
Tyler admired her shoes. The one problem is that some might see Sanchez as pretending a little too much. She is an excellent singer, but is her image authentic? Or is she Hilfigerizing a little too much?
Westlake, La., is home to Joshua Ledet. Bruno Mars' "Runaway Baby" is not, perhaps, the sort of song they rock on down to over there on a Friday night. But this was his attempt to show that he is a little more than a Ball(ad) Buster. There is something very pleasantly '60s about Ledet. He is a singer who deserves the horns, the tight suits and the backing groups. This was like James Brown and Jerry Lee Lewis had somehow got drunk together and created a timeless child.
Tyler, though, was very interested in the six-foot-tall lady who was dancing behind him.
Jackson stretched his vocabulary to describe him as "unbelievable." Jackson has been desperately trying to find a new cliche to rise above "He's in it to win it." It oughtn't to be hard. He is attempting to sell "He's gotta have it." No one is having it.
A country duet between Dixon and Laine was next. The show is desperately trying to imply that they're dating. This would be an odd coupling. Dixon, though, found another reason why this coupling would be inadvisable. "She owns a gun," he said.
"Don't You Want to Stay" was the song, first perpetrated by Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson. This was a fine showcase for Laine, with Dixon playing second fiddle - or merely a distant third viola. The execution was pleasant, if not entirely accurate. Jackson really didn't like it. The word "pitchy" reared its shrieking head.
McKinney, Texas, is the home of Hollie Cavanagh, who has a peculiar accent - one that melds Texan and Liverpudlian.
Akon explained as politely as he could that she was still something of an amateur confronted by professionals. She sang Pink's "Perfect." Of all the contestants, Cavanagh struggles for an image. Who is she? Who is she trying to be? How would she like us to feel?
She began unplugged, as if this would somehow bring out some more character. Ultimately, this was a little pedestrian, with several notes that might have stopped more than a few ears and more than a few cars.
"I feel you fighting," said Lopez. She was trying to be nice. "I'm rooting for you."
"It wasn't too perfect tonight for me," said Tyler. "But you look good tonight, girl."
She admitted that the last thing she'd said to herself before going on stage was "Don't F-up."
Suddenly we were in Leesburg, Ga., Phillips' home. Iovine tried to explain to him, too, that it was him or Dixon for the little-girl vote. His song was, prophetically, Maroon 5's "Give a Little More." Phillips tried to give it a little less. His gray jacket looked like it had come straight from the dry cleaners. But somehow this seemed deliberately, almost angrily low-key.
"It was a little bit underwhelming," said Lopez. "I've seen this performance a couple of times."
Jackson agreed with her. Oddly, they were both right. Phillips really looks like he wants to take his leave for Leesburg.
Then we had a trio. Ledet, Cavanagh and Sanchez. Kelly Clarkson's "What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger" had some moments that resembled stagekill. Notes flew in directions a compass couldn't recognize.
Finally, there was Testone, the lone representative of anything the compass might describe as, well, north. She is from Kinnelon, N.J. She wanted to start by playing the drums. Iovine looked at her as if she was from a very difficult part of New Jersey indeed. She was swiftly disabused. It was if Governor Chris Christie had shouted at her.
Lady Gaga's "You and I", in her version, was pleasant, but again curiously low key. This is the hidden truth of so many Gaga songs - they're very slightly forgettable. Still, Testone tried to give it a big finish. She had lots of string players, but could have done with, say, 30 gospel singers. What? They had the night off? Just when they were most needed?
Jackson adored it. "You let go, but you kept control at the same time," mused Lopez. She added that there's a reason why the producers so often put Testone first or last in the running order.
But where will the voters put her? I wonder.
TOP TWO: Joshua Ledet, Skylar Laine
BOTTOM TWO: Hollie Cavanagh, Phillip Phillips