Fox has done the expected in an unexpected way, picking a quiet Sunday morning to announce the long-awaited official news regarding the American Idol judging panel. The headlines are that the show has returned to the four-judge lineup that made Seasons 8 and 9 something of a chore to get through, and that Idol is bringing on three new judges for the first time. Holdover (and apparently unkillable) Randy Jackson and the previously announced Mariah Carey are being joined by Nicki Minaj and Keith Urban.
“Nicki’s an unbelievably captivating international phenomenon who has made an indelible mark on rap and pop. And Keith is another great addition to Idol – he’s one of the biggest stars in country music and I know that our fans and contestants will fall in love with him,” said Fox reality chief Mike Darnell in a press release announcing the long-rumored news. Darnell also referred to Jackson as a “fan favorite,” indicating that he doesn’t spend all that much time reading stuff online.
Why would the brass decide to go with four judges again, given the negative feelings about the first time Idol tried it? Part of the reasoning is likely that four is the number that The X Factor and The Voice have settled on, but the judges serve in a more direct mentoring role on those shows, and don’t actually do very much judging. If there are no differences in opinion among this new batch, just four voices repeating variations on Steven Tyler’s “beautiful,” Idol is going to get very boring very quickly.
The bigger reason, though, may be concern on the part of Fox and the producers about last season’s drop in ratings, especially since the competition isn’t going away. The more stars on the panel, the more likely Idol is to retain viewers, the thinking may be. Fox was willing to go with the then-unknown Jackson and Simon Cowell as judges when Idol first began, because no one knew what was at stake. But picking someone with judging acumen who doesn’t necessarily have a big name is not something that was ever considered this time around, or when Tyler and Jennifer Lopez were first chosen for the panel.
Minaj and Urban each serve a purpose that could make them inspired choices. Urban is the first Idol judge ever to come from the world of country music, or who even has any affinity for the genre. Country fans have been the most loyal part of the Idol audience, and will no doubt appreciate having someone on the panel who speaks for them, even if it’s with an Aussie accent. Minaj is the first judge to ever join Idol from the rap world (even if she seems to want to quit rapping) and while at a career peak, which gives her some credibility in determining what might sell. She’s also been unafraid to be controversial, although most of her beefs have been with others in hip-hop.
And that’s the key: can Nicki, Keith, or Mariah go where Lopez and Tyler wouldn’t dare, which is in the direction of sometimes being critical? Negative reviews on Idol are virtually always booed by the studio audience, and these judges, even Randy at this stage, are in the popularity business. It’s not too soon to worry that the stars are going to go too easy on the young singers again as they attempt to preserve their images, and that the longstanding friendship and working relationship between Carey and Jackson means the two will too often sound alike.
I’m sure we’ll hear plenty of talk about an alleged Mariah-Nicki “feud” in order to stoke media and fan interest, but that will be no substitute for honest judging that doesn’t take the viewers for tone-deaf fools.