There are multiple reasons why this current 12th season of American Idol has been deemed an artistic and ratings failure (at least in a relative sense), but a substantial amount of blame has to fall on the four judges. The number of four is critical, because the first time Idol tried that many judges, in Seasons 8 and 9, the experiment did not go well. Episodes routinely ran long, because none of the holdover judges were willing to cut back on their airtime to make room for the addition, and because the newcomers naturally wanted equal time.
The return to three judges seemed to work well enough in Seasons 10 and 11, but as part of the offseason revamping of the show, the powers that be decided to copy the competition (The X Factor and The Voice) and return to four. With three of the four judges new faces, the previous problem of defending turf isn’t really a factor, especially because the one holdover judge, Randy Jackson, knows by now how to make his points quickly (whether what he says is useful is another issue). But that hasn’t been the case with our new Villain of the Week, Mariah Carey.
For an entertainment program, the amount of time that Mariah spends during the average performance episode babbling endlessly is absolutely deadly. It’s an invitation to use the bathroom, open a bottle of wine, check Facebook, visit the neighbor over the back fence, pour another glass of wine, put the kids to bed, and wash the dishes before the show gets back to the next singer.
Idol wanted a big star judge to blunt the impact of the new competition, and Mariah has credibility that Jennifer Lopez can’t begin to match (or Nicki Minaj, for that matter). But she’s never been known as an especially deep thinker or an insightful interview subject, and it certainly seems that the producers never looked beyond her star power to make sure she knew how to communicate in a way that could take viewers – not to mention the young singers who need her advice – from Point A to Point B clearly.
The situation with Mariah finally reached a hilarious climax last Wednesday, when a two-hour show threatened to go overlong, solely because she was taking forever to get to a point, spending more than a minute on each of the first five performers. She picked up the pace later in the night because it was obvious everyone had been told to please hurry up, but what’s amazing is that she’s actually getting worse rather than better as the season progresses.
Mariah’s masterpiece was her critique of Lazaro Arbos’s horrendous performance of “Close to You,” which ran an incredible two minutes. It was one of the funniest moments in recent Idol history because the rest of the panel was so uncomfortable listening to her drone on – Randy Jackson rubbed his head, Nicki Minaj just kept laughing, and Keith Urban (who was waiting to talk) drummed his pencil on the table. Here, in full, is Mariah’s
inaugural address commentary to Lazaro:
So no, Lazaro. Here’s the thing. Honestly I’ve been accused of being too nice and la la la. The powers that be have reminded me and reprimanded me I’m here to judge. So please understand, like Randy said. You the person, we all understand, and in terms of your struggle, there’s no denying that you are beyond courageous to be doing this, OK? But at this point in the competition, there cannot be a key change and you’re in the – you don’t continue to – uh, let me, how do I express it? We can’t go into another key and you stay in the old key. Does everybody understand what I mean? There’s a thing that happens in the music where it takes you to another level. If you stay in the previous key, that’s just the end of the song. And it’s like, if you couldn’t hear yourself, that could be a reason why that maybe could happen. But that’s something I have to point out to you only because if you, if you’re not aware of that, this is like kind of a big deal. And um, sooooo, I think, OK. For a-a-a- um, hmmm, how do I say it, what is the word, darling help me out, Lord in heaven. Um, what I’m trying to say is this. (laughs, clears throat) Sometimes it can be harder to sing a quiet song that requires control, that is not belting. Remember when I said when you hit your sweet spot, that’s when you’re strongest, earlier, in another ….? So this type of song, you really need to be owning and comfortable and just like ‘I’m here, I’m singing, I’m casual,’ whatever. And that, you know, if you’re just – if you don’t have that ability to do that, which I only felt for like half a second towards the end, it’s not the right selection for you. And I’m sorry to say that, because I dearly – I dearly love you and respect you. But I’m just – I’m trying to help your next performance.
Well over 300 words to say what Simon Cowell used to take care of with “That was dreadful.”
The unfortunate thing is that buried within Mariah’s unabridged dictionary’s worth of goop, there is usually an insightful nugget or two. She has a good ear for what ranges a singer can and can’t handle. But she has such a hard time getting that information out without all the stammering, and separating it out from all the feel-goodism that gets in the way of real advice. Lazaro’s actual face as he was listening to her chatter on:
In the end, Mariah’s sin is the sin of most stars who become judges on singing competition shows: they care too much about maintaining their image to break the heart of an unknown singer by telling them directly that they sang badly. Instead of simply saying to Lazaro, “That wasn’t good mostly because you missed the key change – that’s something you need to work on, but you’re a nice guy and we’re still pulling for you” (honest and not all that harsh), she went on for so long that anything he could have gotten out of it was lost in her word tsunami.
Sometimes in reality TV, you can try so hard to be a sweetheart that you become unbearable to watch, and turn into a Villain instead. Mimi is turning Season 12 into “Me, me!”