Well, there goes one of the few reasons why I ever watched American Idol.

Paula Abdul’s decision to leave Idol removes a crucial element in what is one of the few subtle things about this singing competition: the balance between the judges’ standards of quality, and their mix of personalities.

Paula was widely ridiculed — frequently by Simon Cowell as well as by fans and critics — for her often wildly discursive, breathless, looped logic in analyzing any singer’s performance. But Abdul played a crucial role at that table: she was the judge who identified most intensely with the performers, who took the “I’ve been there, I know how hard this is” position. She always came to praise, in the same way Simon comes to carve singers up.

Sure, she rarely gave us anything approaching real criticism. She didn’t delve deeply into technical analysis, or get off many good one-liners — that’s hard to do when you spend a lot of your time moved to near-tears (and often real tears) by a performance.

But that’s what was endearing about Abdul: She was all heart. Simon, Randy, and Kara, for all their differences, aren’t as hot-wired directly to their emotions as Paula is.

Sure, Idol is just one big, loud, glitzy singing contest. Sure, I’ve never been Idol‘s biggest fan. But I liked the way Abdul was there to throw off the curve, to send an often absurd show into even more surreal directions.

We have no idea what she’ll be doing next. But mark my words: her sincere wackiness, her heartfelt absurdism, her cheerful eccentricity, will be missed on American Idol.

What do you think?