I haven’t been watching much American Idol so far this season, particularly the audition rounds, because of a general sense of life’s-too-short-itis. Also, past Idol judge transitions have taught me that you can’t really get a sense of the new judging panel from the heavily edited audition and Hollywood rounds; you need to see them assessing singers one-by-one.
Last night I watched the first Las Vegas semifinal round to get some first impressions of this year’s new panel. And I was… kind of impressed? Cautiously? At least for one night, it seemed like the end of the Steven Tyler / Jennifer Lopez era means that the judging panel is again willing and encouraged to offer specific, substantive feedback on performances. You know: to judge.
In that spirit, a few very preliminary judgments, going right down the line:
Keith Urban: I didn’t have much of an impression of him before he joined Idol, other than his being Mr. Nicole Kidman. I still don’t have that much of an impression of him, but I became guardedly hopeful for him when critiqued Brandy for not connecting emotionally with the Travis Tritt ballad “Anymore,” smiling at odds with the song’s lyrics. Smiley-itis is a longtime Idol pet peeve of mine, so this was bound to appeal to me, but it’s also the kind of specific, intangible-but-important feedback that the show has been short on since Simon left.
Nicki Minaj: If Keith is there for laid-back critiques, Nicki has clearly realized she’s there to stand out like a pink dye job. Some people will love and some will hate it, but so far I’m loving how she’s owning her judginess: “Get ready to boo again!” she taunted the crowd at one point. But she didn’t seem critical for nastiness’ sake last night; she was also attentive and specific in her praise. OK, Nicki also told nearly every girl she looked pretty, a longtime Idol-judge tic. But it meant something a little different every time—sometimes consolation, sometimes part of her judgment of the singer’s presentation and sometimes, basically, just one final kick in the ass.
Randy Jackson: OK, Randy’s the one element on the judge panel who hasn’t changed. Except he has, a little. No longer obligated to be the only one behind the table willing to say anything negative, he can be more frank than he seemed in the Steven Tyler / J-Lo era, while he’s also free to push back against negative reviews. He at least seems to be having a better time so far.
Mariah Carey: Mariah, you look really pretty, but so far this isn’t working for me. There’s no doubting the musical cred she brings to the panel, but last night she was the new panelist most clearly in the mealy-mouthed Tyler/J-Lo mode, with all the evasive generalities and stalling tactics. (Note to every Idol judge ever: you don’t need to tell us how amazing the artist who originally recorded the song was. We already know! Aretha Franklin is not competing here!) I have no problem with a judge who’s positive because she simply likes more things than the rest of the panel, but if you can’t back it up with specifics, it seems like you’re just trying to win a popularity contest.
I don’t need every reality competition show to involve harsh judgment; The Voice pretty much avoids it like poison, and I watched the last season with pleasure. But that’s what The Voice does and what works in its structure. Idol is a show with judges, not coaches, and I’m hoping that this season, Idol will be comfortable being itself.
I reserve the right to change my opinion within the week, of course—and we still need to see how the panel works in the live-finals weeks of Idol. In the meantime, are you on anyone’s team yet?