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Kara DioGuardi: Meet 'Idol' judge

What does it take to join Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, and Simon Cowell as a judge on ”American Idol”? For the songwriter taking her place on the panel this season, the keys to success are telling it like it is — and knowing ”when to shut up”

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Kara DioGuardi

Kara DioGuardi is ensconced in the black velvet cocoon of a small home-recording studio, laying down a demo track while warmed by the glow of spice-scented candles. She’s crooning a song she co-wrote — an encapsulation of falling in love that involves shooting stars and dancing shadows — in a powerhouse pop voice that lies somewhere between Natasha Bedingfield and Sara Bareilles. Somewhere good, that is. ”She kills it every time she sings,” raves her writing partner, Jason Reeves. ”He’s one of the greatest melody writers I’ve ever worked with,” DioGuardi returns.

Sweet, right? So sweet, in fact, that we’re starting to worry for DioGuardi, a heretofore behind-the-scenes songwriter-producer who’s about to take on the most-watched, most-dissected job in pop music: When American Idol returns to Fox on Jan. 13, she’ll become a fourth judge to Randy, Paula, and Simon. It’s a job that requires a distinct dearth of sweetness, and a certain amount of, for lack of a better term, Simon Cowell-ness. ”Oh, I’m not gonna be this nice on the show,” DioGuardi assures us.

In case we weren’t convinced, she drops this rant when the subject of Idol auditions comes up: ”A lot of times people will sing a big song that they don’t have the voice for instead of bringing out the uniqueness in their tone,” she says. ”Another thing is, don’t cheese me out. It’s not a wedding band. And emote. Make me feel like you mean it. Don’t just sing the way the song was written. That was Mariah’s interpretation. Now what are you gonna do?” Okay, we’re worried again — but this time for the contestants.

That’s exactly what Idol‘s producers are counting on. Heading into season 8, they’re hoping viewers will be as rapt with how DioGuardi shakes up Idol‘s ”dawg”/”beautiful”/”dreadful” judging dynamic as they are with which singer takes the big prize. And though the show has constantly worked to stay fresh — allowing contestants to play instruments last year, for instance — DioGuardi’s new energy comes at a critical time, after last season’s ratings took an 8 percent dip from 29.8 million viewers to 27.3 million. Idol actually tried adding a fourth judge once before in season 2, with New York radio personality Angie Martinez, but she quit just a few days in, saying it was ”uncomfortable for me to tell someone else to give up on their dream.” Producers expect no such trouble with DioGuardi, who regularly evaluates new talent as a VP of A&R at Warner Bros. and co-owner of music production and publishing house ArtHouse Entertainment. She’s the kind of 38-year-old who can rock a black leather jacket with leggings and write hits for everyone from Pink to Ashlee Simpson to the Jonas Brothers. ”She’s very strong-willed, and we needed that with Simon around,” explains exec producer Ken Warwick. ”I don’t want anybody too benign on that panel. Kara tells it as it is.”

NEXT PAGE: ”I always wanted to be a trial attorney. I love to argue.”