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1. What is the pre-audition like? What must contestants do to be seen by the judges?
It's a multi-stage process. It starts with those mass auditions where thousands of American Idol wannabes wait in line for hours, gathered usually in a large arena, and sing a brief song for a panel of Idol producers. Those who move on then sing for the show's exec producers, and only if they make it through that stage do they sing for Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, and Steven Tyler. These steps can and often do take place weeks, even months apart from the initial audition to the final audition before the judges.
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2. How did the new Myspace auditions work? Did they bear any fruit??
Potential contestants sang into their webcams and submitted the videos via Myspace (which just happens to be owned by Fox parent company News Corp.). After Idol in-house mentor Jimmy Iovine and his team of producers sifted through the videos, the lucky few who were chosen were flown to Los Angeles to audition for the Idol exec producers and then Randy, Jennifer, and Steven. And yes, exec producer Ken Warwick told EW last month that ''a few'' of the Myspace auditioners made it at least to the new 60-contestant Las Vegas round. (More on that in a bit.)
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3. Did the new 15-year-old age limit produce any good singers?
Here's exec producer Nigel Lythgoe on the 15-year-old contestants: ''That was very interesting. The kids that we got were either very immature or they were extremely talented. There wasn't a middle ground, which was quite amusing. There wasn't what I would class as a normal 15-year-old. They were either slightly childish or 'Wow!'''
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4. When the contestants are ''made-over,'' do they choose their new look?
Ultimately, yes. For fairness, Idol's stylists can only strongly advise contestants on their appearance and wardrobe. Some contestants take the advice whole cloth; others — like season 8's Adam Lambert and season 9's Siobhan Magnus — have a, well, distinctive vision for their Idol ensembles.
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5. How do they choose their songs, and if two contestants choose the same song, what happens?
Exec producers give contestants a list of cleared songs to choose from, although they're also free to request a song within the parameters of that week's challenge and producers can attempt to clear the rights for the show. If contestants choose the same song, they have to work it out between themselves and Idol producers, since no one wants a repeat of Clay Aiken and Josh Gracin both singing ''To Love Somebody'' on Bee Gees night in season 2.
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6. How much control does each contestant have over a song's arrangement? Is the bandleader allowed to intervene?
Much like with their wardrobe, all the Idol music team (including new bandleader Ray Chew, pictured, and vocal coach Debra Byrd) can do is strongly advise contestants on their arrangements — ultimately, the Idol wannabes control what they sing and how they sing it. But expect in-house mentor Jimmy Iovine, chairman of Interscope Geffen A&M, to help shore up the show's sonic profile with a team of top tier music producers — like Alex da Kid (Eminem's ''Love the Way You Lie''), Christopher ''Tricky'' Stewart (Béyonce's ''Single Ladies''), and Rodney ''Darkchild'' Jerkins (Lady Gaga's ''Telephone'') — who will rotate among the Idol finalists. ''The goal is to elevate the quality of the music on the show,'' exec producer Cecile Frot-Coutaz tells EW. ''The arrangements, the kinds of songs the kids sing, [and] how the kids express who they are.''
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7. Speaking of Jimmy Iovine, how will he play out as a mentor this season?
It appears the role of Idol's blunt truth-teller may have shifted to Iovine's desk from departed judge Simon Cowell's seat. ''Recording execs, including Cowell, really come from a different angle,'' says Lythgoe. '''Am I going to invest in you, so that you make my record company money?' It's a different attitude. They can literally spit in your eye from 10 feet and say 'That's crap!'''
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8. How will the judges whittle down to a Top 12 without semifinal rounds this season? Will there even be a top 12 this year?
Of the 325 contestants who made it to Hollywood week, 60 were flown to Las Vegas in December to sing Beatles songs on the same stage at the Las Vegas Mirage that Cirque du Soleil performs LOVE. That round knocked the talent pool down to 40; yet another round in Hollywood will narrow the contestants down to 20 singers, and only then will America vote in a single sudden death round that will select the Idol finalists. Whether there's a Top 12 or a Top 10 has yet to be announced.
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9. How will the sudden death round work?
Two groups of 10 contestants will perform for call-in votes from the main Idol stage on Tuesday, March 1 and Wednesday March 2, respectively. On Thursday, March 3, host Ryan Seacrest will announce the results.
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10. Can contestants still use instruments this season? And if the show is limiting opportunities to play instruments, why?
Instruments will still be permitted, but on a very limited basis — contestants may even only get to play their instrument one time (unlike season 9's Casey James, pictured above). ''The one thing that irritated me [last season],'' says Warwick, ''was that so many of the kids played guitars. Every one of them wanted to plunk away at it. 'Oh great, it's rock week!' Plunk-a plunk-a plunk-a. 'Oh, it's country!' Plunk-a plunk-a plunk-a. It became tedious [and] boring.''
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11. How many days do contestants have to rehearse their songs?
Technically, six days, from the results show night to the next performance show night, with time specifically set aside to work with the week's mentor (like Harry Connick Jr. pictured with Lee DeWyze or, in season 10's case, Jimmy Iovine). But contestants also have the Ford music videos to shoot, the week's wardrobe to figure out and shop for, the results show group number to learn and rehearse, and their interviews to record — and they have to, you know, sleep and eat.
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12. What's the maximum and minimum length a song must be?
It depends in large part on the number of contestants left and the length of the performance show, but the song length usually ranges from 90 seconds to two minutes. But you can do a lot in that time; in season 4, Constantin Maroulis managed to squeeze the nearly six-minute-long ''Bohemian Rhapsody'' into two minutes and barely break a sweat.
More American Idol from EW:
American Idol: A message from your season 10 recapper, Annie Barrett