— “American Idol” made official on Wednesday what has been rumored for months — Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez will join Big Dawg Randy Jackson to form the “American Idol” panel of judges for season 10.
Though the announcement was preceded by the usual Hollywood visual effects (albeit with no sound, at least at the beginning), it had all the drama and suspense that could be expected from a surprise party a television show throws for itself. Wow, really? J.Lo and the Aerosmith guy? Who knew? (Besides everyone with an Internet connection.)
If we're rating the new judges based on star power, the new panel qualifies as a success. J.Lo could be the best female judge in the history of the show, with all apologies to Paula Abdul and less to Kara DioGuardi and Ellen DeGeneres. Lopez has done it all in the entertainment industry, has huge name recognition and is opinionated enough to avoid falling into Paula’s “I love everybody!” routine if she chooses to risk the hit to her image that being brutally honest would require.
Tyler is a rock legend for his work with Aerosmith, though most of the "Idol" viewers know him and the band more for being on their parents' classic rock stations than anything being done today. It’s also unclear whether he’s actually seen the show.
He yelled, “I want to bring some rock to this roller coaster!” apparently not realizing that the last three winners — David Cook, Kris Allen and Lee DeWyze — have been rockers. (Or more accurately “rockers,” given the general tameness of the music.) Still, he’s a big name with musical chops and is qualified for the position.
In addition, Jimmy Iovine joins the cast in the role of a permanent mentor. The music producer and executive works for Interscope Geffen A&M Records, and will advise the hopefuls each week, with the obvious hope that doing so will give them a more marketable product to sell. But he was clearly the third wheel in an event devoted to the two newcomers.
Since this is both a singing competition and a show that depends on entertaining and engaging an audience, both of the new judges should have more relevant feedback to offer than Kara and Ellen. Kara writes songs but doesn’t perform them; Ellen is a great entertainer but not a musician. If you didn’t like what either had to say, it was easy to dismiss their opinions in a way that will be harder to do with the new folks.
It’s also great that we’re back down to three judges, which gives “Idol” a fighting chance of not running long every week now that there is one fewer voice crying out for attention. Four is just too many, especially given that host Ryan Seacrest tends to elbow his way into the spotlight like an eager-to-please intern.
The big questions
But by March, nobody will care how famous any of the judges are. (Ask Ellen how her popularity as a talk-show host worked out for her a year ago.) It will come down to two points: The chemistry among the judges, and whether there's anyone on the panel who leaves the audience thinking, "I can't believe they said that!" at the end of the night.
Judge chemistry was lacking after Paula Abdul left the show a year ago. Neither Ellen nor Kara had the relationship with Randy and Simon that Paula did. Though Kara had her moments, she'll be mostly remembered for her turn in a bikini in the season eight finale, her role as the inspiration for the season nine Casey James "Cougar" storyline, and being reduced to a puddle of tears when Michael Lynche sang "This Woman's Work." As for Ellen, she seemed like someone who got what she thought was a great gig, only to find that it wasn't what she wanted or expected.
Both women made us miss Paula in a way that some of us (including me) never expected. The relationship between Paula and Simon may have been bizarre, but at its best it played like a screwball comedy. At its worst, we could always wonder if someone had slipped a stronger beverage into Paula’s Coca-Cola cup. That was lacking once she left, and it wasn’t helped by Simon’s increasingly disengaged body language, as he seemed to mentally be casting “X Factor” roles as the contestants sang.
But the big hurdle is probably the need for brutal honesty. Replacing Simon isn’t just about finding someone who can be mean, but about finding a judge who can rouse audience passions. Rudeness is everywhere in society, but clever cutdowns are more rare, and Simon had them in abundance.
Criticism on a show like “Idol” is a delicate balancing act, because the audience wants a lot of different things. By the time the show reveals the final 12 contestants, the audience has seen enough backstories to have a soft spot for the challenges many of them face. We don't want the judges to be gratuitously mean when crushing the dreams of young singers … unless they really deserve it, or we don’t like their act, or it’s done in a really funny or cutting way.
Simon was the standard that all other judges aspired to, so this panel will have a high bar to reach. He was seen as both nasty and honest, which had the bonus effect of making his praise and the ever-present wink the most meaningful compliments available.
Who’s going to be that judge in season 10? Randy? He’s been negative before, but “that wasn’t good, dawg” isn’t exactly earth-shattering. That leaves it up to J.Lo or Steven Tyler to become the Judge You Can’t Fast-Forward Through. Until or unless one of them rises to the challenge, all of the smoke and mirrors in California won’t get “American Idol” back to where it was a few years ago.