Judging the new American Idol judges: EW review
American Idol returns this Sunday on ABC, two years after ending on Fox. Cue lame gag about the swiftness of reboot capitalism, like does this mean Fox will revive Once Upon a Time this fall? But the last two years were untold decades in our psychological calendar, so maybe it’s time. There’s not much to complain about with the new American Idol, nor really to praise. On Sunday’s premiere, there are more cutesy-inspirational sob stories than trainwrecks, but this was already a trend in Idol‘s Fox incarnation, an evolution towards smiley positivity. Ryan Seacrest is still here (for now). The new judges are Luke Bryan, Lionel Richie, and Katy Perry, and this is their dynamic in a nutshell:
Luke Bryan: “You have a great voice.”
Lionel Richie: “I love the quality of your voice. I don’t even know if you know that you have the kind of voice that you have.”
Katy Perry: “I don’t think your voice has seen its ultimate potential, for sure. But I think you’re kind of, like, a dream for Hollywood to be able to, kind of, carve out.”
The joy of Idol was always in the carving, of course. The show’s legend comes from the latter days of each season, in Hollywood, where a combination of actual singing talent, camera-loves-you-charisma, and dream-factory processing transformed a few storied contestants into stars.
The weirdest thing about neo-Idol, if you’re in macro frame of mind, is how many contestants have already experimented in elaborate self-branding. Nobody arrives as a Tiffany Montgomery anymore; life on the internet has already transformed them into Ryan Starr, with personal websites and soundclouds and followings. One Idol contestant already competed on a foreign version of The X-Factor. Another Idol contestant has a backstory that features a cameo from Robin Roberts.
It’s weird, and maybe won’t matter once Idol moves from audition to true competition. At that point, we’ll know if the new iteration has found a personality to match yesteryear’s Underwoods or Lamberts. So rather than properly review the show, I’d like to take a look at the new judging panel and try to tease out what the new trio can contribute to this franchise. Silly to grade anyone’s performance after just one episode, but they grade people after a couple minutes of singing, so:
He has the benefit of dominating any conversation by just casually mentioning his tenure with the Commodores, his work with Michael Jackson, or that time he wrote “All Night Long (All Night).” In the premiere, Richie is very much the eminent sage. He doesn’t tell people they’re bad; he tells them that, for one reason or another, they’re just not ready. “This is not a business of, ‘It’s Cute, And I Love To Sing,'” he tells one young contestant. “I don’t want to give you the opportunity, and then you get there and it destroys you.”
You feel that Richie’s speaking from brutal experience, peddling an image of the music business that feels much harsher than the “live your truth!” shiny musical dream that the whole foundation of American Idol indulges. He’s never mean, but his exit lines have a tough-but-fair honesty: “You won everything today. You come back at 21.” You’d hope someone with Richie’s singing/songwriting chops would have more advice in terms of pure craftsmanship, but in the premiere, he falls back a little too often on pop-machine platitudes, “This is an identity business.” (He also says that Katy Perry is “the American Idol dream come true,” a vague statement about which there’s more later.)
Richie would be my favorite judge on the panel, but he makes a tactical error in the premiere, a kindness that is also a revealing lameness. He’s confronted by a good singer with a great backstory. And he tells the man No, cutting off a Cinderella Story at the knees. Brutal, but that’s life…until after the commercial break, when Richie has a change of heart. A troubling tone to set in the premiere: Here’s a judge who’s already second-guessing his own opinions. B-
You have to remember that there was tough grace in the brutality of American Idol‘s mockery, all those stinging critiques of deplorable singing voices. When you talk about a mean Idol judge, you’re ultimately talking about Simon Cowell, who became a star in America by telling Americans they just weren’t good enough. The freak show aspect of the audition rounds could grate on you, or trend into bullying schadenfreude. But it was cathartic, too, how Cowell nominated himself the resident Dreamcrusher. You have to remember that every great novel about the American Dream lands on the idea that the American Dream is a lie, and you have to cast your mind back to a distant moment when being rude on television felt transgressive, not federally mandated.
Will there ever be a truly blunt Idol judge again? Hard to imagine, and maybe hard to support. I won’t crucify anyone this year for being nice, even if they’re just performatively nice. But weirdly, the one judge in the new Idol who even comes close to Cowell’s truth-bomb fusillade is Perry, a pop star who rose to prominence by playing herself as a fifth grader’s dream of adulthood. That singer who Richie refuses, but then saves? Perry tells him the most interesting critique of the night:
I know about your story, and I respect your story, and I think it’s beautiful and inspiring. Sometimes you have to separate the story from what we’re really going for.
What she’s saying there, I think, is: “I’m aware of how your personality is built for a touchy-feely reality show montage, but at some point you’ll have to actually prove you can get onstage and wow us.” This is a kind way to say no, but later, she’s a little more straightforward:
KATY PERRY: “What do people usually say when they hear you sing?”
CONTESTANT: “‘Oh my gosh! Have you ever tried out for American Idol?'”
KATY PERRY: “Really? I think that people are not telling you the truth.”
Boom! That statement’s not meant as a complete insult — the singer has a hyperbolic delivery that seems built for musical theater — but Perry’s sunny delivery somehow makes the line sting more. “Here’s the deal,” she continues, “You’re not a pop star.” This strikes me as the whole dark thesis of American Idol in a nutshell — many try, only one succeeds — and makes me think Perry is the most essential addition to the musical thunderdome. As a pop star, Perry’s in a tricky place on this show, and there are moments when you can see her switch on her public persona, Goofy Katy Your Pal With The Cartoon Eyes. Perry has the most interesting comments, but she’s also got the biggest brand to manage. Watch this space, though: Her time on Idol could be something special. B
There is honor in being the glue, a friendly face on a panel between two far extremes. Bryan sure seems friendly. “Something about you is pretty dadgum inspiring, buddy!” he’ll declare. “I’m not critiquing you, I’m just saying yes!” he’ll say. After the other judges let a contestant leave, Bryan cheerfully grumbles, “Oh, I should’ve fought you!”
So far, no fighting. And since Perry and Richie aren’t really that extreme, Bryan doesn’t offer too much in the premiere, outside of generalized Nashville charm. He’s a little self-deprecating, but that’s a weird vibe given he actually does hold the contestants’ future in his hands. Having a country musician on a musical-competition judging panel is a 2010s innovation that became a tradition, but that means Bryan is openly competing with the memory of Keith Urban — and the ongoing prevalence of The Voice‘s Blake Shelton. His presence on the show can feel endearingly loose, which is a nice way of saying he looks just happy to be there. C