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J-Lo and Tyler In, Randy Stays; Did Idol Fix the Right Problem?

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American Idol today officially announced its new judging panel: singers Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler, with holdover Randy Jackson. And it did it in classic Idol results-episode style, with a stage reveal that suffered from technical problems and told us something we all more or less already knew after stringing us along forever.

The audio went down for most of the 10 a.m. PT webcast with Ryan Seacrest (omen? blessing?) but cut on long enough for a few comments from the new celebs. J. Lo waxed Abdul-ian in her encouragement to would-be Idols—”You can do anything you want in life! Just concentrate on the moment!”—while Tyler reflected on the higher calling that is Idol judging: “It’s about being part of something much bigger than yourself.” Like the Army, but with a gajillion-dollar contract.

And Randy? Just glad to be here.

I see one immediate positive from the announcement: four judges was too many, often hobbling the show for time and commentary, so at least it’s the right number. But will hiring big-name musicians fix the right problems for Idol?

I can’t judge J-Lo and Tyler as judges per se; their public personalities don’t give much clue as to what they would be like behind the table, and it may be that they’ve shown American Idol something that it liked. (Idol producer apparently loved Lopez as a mentor. With Tyler, you get the immediate benefit of having a knowledgable judge to critique the 500,000 performances of “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing.”) What concerns me is whether American Idol decided to sign up a couple of big-name music artists because they took the wrong lesson from the failed Ellen DeGeneres experiment.

My concern is that Idol thinks Ellen’s problem is that she wasn’t a musical artist, and so lacked credibility. But Ellen’s problem wasn’t that she wasn’t authoritative enough. It’s that she wasn’t persuasive enough. She wasn’t a good judge, because she wasn’t willing to judge.

Now granted, one factor may have influenced the other. It may be that DeGeneres was intimidated judging music because she was a non-musician, though it seemed more like a simple function of her personality. (Kara DioGuardi, on the other hand, had a strong musical resume but never established her own voice on the panel.) Ultimately, what viewers at home respond to is a strong, well-expressed point of view, be it from a music pro or not.

I suppose the ideal Idol judge is someone with musical cred who is also an articulate, outspoken judge on camera. But musical chops are not guarantee someone is a good fit for Idol; we’ve seen guest judges and mentors who are incisive with their advice and criticism, and others who are wet noodles. (I remember thinking during her guest stint that Katy Perry would be a dream judge, but she’s obviously otherwise occupied.)

To work on the panel, a member needs to be a good TV judge first, and a good musician second. For all I know, J-Lo and Tyler could be both—I hope so. But if Idol has gotten those priorities reversed, this pick might hit all the wrong notes.