Idol Judges – Critics and Guides

This is purely for fun, and really has nothing to do with the current Idol Judge Sweepstakes. But I’ve been an Idol fan for years and I’ve been thinking about the judging and what it means – and why good judges are important for things other than getting Idol ratings or keeping up with the Voice or X-FactorUS.

The judges on Idol have several jobs – they help determine who will, first, go to Hollywood, and then on to the live show. I say “help” because I do believe there is producer input along the way. That is, they know who the producers would like to make it to Hollywood, and possibly to the live show, but they have say as well. If someone is surprisingly good or bad in Hollywood, that would probably override producer fiat.

Once we reach the point of viewer voting, they have to critique the contestants in a way that both guides them to perform better – better performances make better TV – and informs the voters so that better performers go on and bad ones, even good bad ones like Sanjaya, do NOT. The latter are jokes that hurt the show and distract from the good singers. It doesn’t always work, and even backfires at times, but it’s what they’re supposed to do.

For seven years, Idol had the same three judges. And all three of these judges played a specific role – yes, even Randy. Randy was the former musician, and he was the one who made the technical comments – he invented the term “pitchy,” he spoke about how they used their range and how their voices were in general. I’m not saying he was GOOD at it, but that was his main job.

Paula was the sweetheart, the one who balanced Simon. She was the spokesperson for the viewer, who talked about the emotional impact of the songs. She also was freer with compliments. However, when she only complimented how someone looked, we all knew that something was wrong. And she may have had an eye for talent.

Simon spoke for the industry. His job was to be painfully honest, and chintzy with the compliments. He talked about commercial reality, and how well the songs fit the popular scene – even if the songs were country, which he despised. He understood the intangibles that might make a person a star. He may not have told the contestants what they wanted to hear but he said what he thought they needed – including if they were going too far in any direction. And when he gave a compliment, they and we knew it meant something.

The three of them did their job and managed to get the audience to vote for seven very different winners – pop girl, r&b guy, r&b girl, country girl, blue-eyed soul guy, urban pop girl and rock guy. Three African-Americans, four women and only two white guys, plus five genres. Two of the girls are genuine superstars, and the other two are recognized stars. The guys haven’t fared as well, and at least one was actually a backlash against Simon, one that possibly pushed Simon’s favorite out at fourth place, but it’s still fairly impressive. Certainly Rubin and Taylor are doing well anyway – Rubin had a number one song last year.

Then they started to mess with a good thing and with their obvious chemistry. And we had season 8 with a fourth judge – one without a role. Kara was an industry insider, but that was Simon. She wanted to be technical, but there’s Randy. And even if she had the personality to be Paula, well. There was Paula. So she tried to be all of it. Which muddied the field and confused everyone, including the contestants.

There were other factors, of course – the group rounds, the second year of instruments, the availability of texting votes – but the change of judges was a factor. They got contradictory advice from judge to judge and week to week. The contestants SPOKE BACK – not something that happened often before. And they faltered and made odd choices.

And then Paula left and took her warm, generous but knowing heart with her. Simon stayed but we knew he was halfway out the door and didn’t care anymore – and missed Paula. He had no balance now. And the fourth judge was a sweet, bright woman whose reputation was to be nice and funny, and not a musical expert. Paula, at least, was a singer and a choreographer. I love Ellen, but she was in over her head.

We saw a lot of talking back, and weird instruments. It was also an oddly lackluster group of contestants (I seriously wonder if Paula’s eye was that important) who seemed to ignore all guidance from the judges. And it wasn’t just in comparison to the previous season – they also seemed to believe that fourth place was good enough. And that affected their performances. They had one of the greatest mentorships ever – Harry Connick, Jr, spending the entire week with them – and still gave bad performances.

Kara did her best (despite going through FOUR failed in vitro fertilizations) but she and Randy couldn’t carry the panel, and the contestants floundered, as did the voters. As did the ratings.

So they had to do something radical the following year. Simon was gone. Ellen, knowing she was over her head, quit. Kara was fired, rather gracelessly. Only Randy was left. And the producers decided to go for celebrity over expertise. Which means that, like Ellen, the new judges had a stake in how they were perceived by the public – if they were thought to be mean, their careers could suffer. That wasn’t a problem for Simon. Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez, however, had to worry about that.

In a new interview, Steven said as much. He was supposed to be the mean judge, but he didn’t want to be. (And, honestly, I think he was right. To be effective, the “mean” judge has to be fairly articulate, and Steven just isn’t. He’s creative and he clearly lives and breathes music, but he’s not glib. None of them were.)

So for the past two years, we had a panel that was useless. All three could do technical, but they actually praised bad technique rather than be negative. They were unable/unwilling to be constructive to the contestants, and could not communicate good or bad to the viewers. Favorites left early, and we knew the victors before they even got to Hollywood. And while there was a ratings jump when the judges were new, it didn’t last.

Yes, of course, there’s someone I very much want to be a judge, but that’s not the point of this article. What Idol needs are a panel that can represent the viewer, the executive and the musician again. They need at least one person with command of language enough to be able to do the necessary guidance – and maybe prevent another bad copy/predictable winner. They need people who aren’t afraid to be negative, or have the skills to couch it in a non-off-putting way. They need people who aren’t in it for a career boost, or a lot of money or just a job. They need non-celebrities again, and that’s just not going to happen.

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About mamadeb

I'm a devoted fan of Adam Lambert, but also of cooking, knitting, science fiction and pretty anything pop culture. I'm @_mamadeb on Twitter.
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