American Idol is a better show than it's ever been, and the reason is the judges.
My wife and I love American Idol; watch it every week. We started close to the end of Season One, when Kelly Clarkson came out of nowhere to win, and we've seen it all. I know, I know, there are lots of AI blogs and fansites and commentary, and I know that's not a popular opinion. I stick to it, though. This has been a great season, and the reason is the judges.
When American Idol started, the real star was Simon Cowell. He was the prototype nasty Brit, proof positive of the notion than anything sounds more profound if spoken in a British accent (see also Hitchins, Christopher). The early episodes really were about Simon's gift for invective, as he would routinely (and comically) eviscerate deluded wannabes sent on from the contestants' pool by a sadistic staff as patsies, dupes, foils. Then, once the competition began, Simon could be nasty, but he was also pretty insightful. He was . . . right. A lot of the time. Paula would gush, and Randy would offer his few catch-phrases, and then Simon would say something pretty true and often helpful.
So you felt like a misanthropic jerk for watching the early 'crush the dreams of the untalented' segments, and then you stayed, because you did have this sense that Simon was good at his job, like you also sense that Gordon Ramsey is a genuinely gifted cook offended by mediocrity.
Then came Season Eight, and suddenly Simon met his equal. Adam Lambert dominated that season as never before. He was brilliantly talented, but also flamboyant, spectacular, theatrical. He had the best voice that the show had ever seen, and he also knew what he was doing; he turned each song into an event. Simon had no idea what to do with him. He'd call him 'music hall,' (a huge put-down from a Brit); and here's the thing: Adam knew Simon was putting him down, and didn't care. Adam had been doing musical theatre for years; he knew exactly what he was doing, and he fully intended to keep doing it. We all knew that someone that openly and unapologetically gay had little chance of winning--Middle America would be more comfortable with someone boring and bland and inoffensive, like Kris Allen. But what Adam knew was that winning didn't matter. Surviving is what mattered, using Idol as a personal showcase yet another week. I mean, check this out: Adam Lambert sings Mad World . (Simon actually liked that one, BTW).
We know that Simon was going to leave, that he had what Bill Simmons calls 'the disease of me', that they would never offer him enough money while poor Paula never got a raise. When they announced the new judges for Season Ten, it seemed lame. Steven Tyler from Aerosmith, with Jennifer Lopez and of course, the tired mediocrity of Randy Jackson. At least they fired Ellen. (Who I love, but she doesn't know enough about music to be an Idol judge.)
I was wrong.
People think the main function of the judges is as opinion-shapers. Contestants perform, and the judges speak, and the public's votes are swayed. I don't know how much authority the judges command, but it's irrelevant; that's not why the judges are important.
The judges cast the show.
That's it. That's their really vital function. So it doesn't matter if J-Lo loves everyone and hardly ever criticizes even a little. (You can tell J-Lo didn't like a female contestant when she says 'you look great in that dress.') So what if Steven Tyler's comments are frequently bizarre: "when you're in the spotlight, the shadows are all behind you, man." (My wife and I think Steven Tyler, in that rock star regalia, looks like the scariest old woman in the nursing home. We've taken to calling him 'dear old Mrs. Tyler, as in "do you think Dear Old Mrs. Tyler knows that in that blouse, you can see her mastectomy scars?") So what if Randy has to name drop. They cast the show.
And that matters. Simon, for all his talent, had an irretrievably mainstream mentality--he liked top forty pop, and he only cast people with the limited talent range to become pop stars. He loved Carrie Underwood. She was the ultimate Idol candidate, I think. And Carrie's good, I'm not dissing Carrie. But I don't think he would have cast Adam, without three other judges to overrule him; I think that was Kara Dioguardi's contribution to the show. I remember when Kris Allen sang Glen Hansard's "Falling Slowly." Simon chewed him out for singing something 'so obscure.' This, in response to the song that had just won the Academy Award.
This group of judges likes a wider range of music. Steven Tyler loves rock, obviously, but also blues, jazz, gospel. This year, the contestants were terrifically diverse and interesting. Check out this: Elise Testone sings Bold as Love; one of my favorites singing Jimi Hendrix. (She also rocked Zep: Elise Testone rocks Zep.) Or this: Colton Dixon sings Everything. Or this. Phillip Phillips sings Volcano. J-Lo is open to any kind of interesting music. I think even Randy sort of is.
Their comments after the singers sing aren't terribly insightful most of the time. J-Lo says everyone is 'crazy,' which she means as a compliment. Dear Old Mrs. Tyler says everyone is 'over the top,' which he also means as a compliment. But the show also features coaching sessions and comments from Jimmy Iovine, and he's great. He's every bit as insightful as Simon ever was, while also being a kind and decent human being.
Next week, the choices are Phillip Phillips, who the Idol blogosphere loathes as a Dave Matthews wannabe (so what, Dave Matthews is a terrific musician), or Jessica Sanchez, an insanely talented skinny sixteen year old with more pop tastes, who I like and root for, while still wanted PhilPhil to win. And if Jessica wins, I'm fine with it. I like Idol, because I like watching talented young musicians get a shot. They've never been better than this year.