We’re in a new age of reality-TV talent competitions, one, for better or worse, less concerned with the question, “Who will be America’s next breakout music star?” than it is with, “Who will be the judges?”
Ryan Seacrest—American Idol’s unflappable host, the physical manifestation of an energy drink, living Ken Doll—revealed Monday on Twitter that Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez, and Harry Connick Jr. will be sipping bottomless glasses of Coca-Cola at the judges’ table for the reality-TV elder statesman’s 13th season. Connick is a new hire (though he’s served as a mentor twice on the show), while Urban is a holdover from last season and Lopez returns after a one-season hiatus.
Yawn, right? Wrong!
Sure, these are old faces returning to an old show. And, as implausible as it is to say about a grouping of Harry Connick Jr., Keith Urban, and J.Lo, it’s not a very “sexy” choice for a judges panel. There are two veteran judges who stood out for being the most even-keeled and earnest members of their respective panels, and one adult contemporary singer best known for recording covers of songs by artists who had their heyday 75 years ago.
But with reality series casting judges through a process that can at best be described as closing their eyes, running their finger down the Billboard Hot 100, and saying “tell me when to stop” (take a look at the nonsensical judges jambalaya cooked up by The X Factor and The Voice in recent seasons for evidence of that) and Idol itself operating under the misconception recently that audiences are more concerned with judges’ table drama (let’s all have one last groan over that heinously exploited Nicki Minaj/Mariah Carey non-feud feud), the new Idol lineup is a refreshing one. It signals a move away from the never-really-worked strategy that a reality-TV talent series should be teeming with moments, manufactured or otherwise, that people will be buzzing about and toward a should-be-obvious game plan that’s been all but abandoned in recent years. The show should be good.
After a cacophonous 12th season of tired theme nights, diva judges speaking a language that sounded only loosely based on English, and accusations of producer manipulation in order to orchestrate an all-female finale, pundits began penning Idol’s obituary—particularly as the show hit a series of ratings bum notes while viewership for rival The Voice soared. But diehards, Idol addicts who double as the show’s biggest champions, could diagnose exactly what missteps the series was taking and what remedies could be applied to return the aging show to the riveting, zeitgeist-seizing, must-see TV status of its youth.
Particularly as The Voice gained popularity thanks to the boisterous (and, yes, entertaining) camera-hogging of its judges, Idol, perhaps desperate to stave off the perceived threat of the show to its genre dominance, mimicked the NBC rival’s formula, sitting big names at its judges table and crossing its fingers that sparks would fly. Though they occasionally did, those sparks never really set fire to the show’s ratings. The reason is quite simple. The kindling that made Idol so hot in its early days had little to do with Paula Abdul, Simon Cowell, and Randy Jackson, as beloved as they eventually became. It was all about the contestants, a group that, with its intense focus on the judges, the show had been ignoring.
There would be a two-hour broadcast in which 10 singers would perform for 70 seconds each. That’s less than 12 minutes of singing on a TV show about singers. But think back through the history of American Idol. What do we remember more fondly: Fantasia torching a rendition of “Summertime?” Kelly Clarkson tearfully belting “A Moment Like This” while confetti falls around her? Those chills when David Cook reinvented Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean?” Or that one time Mariah Carey rambled four minutes about butterflies and then blew glitter into the wind?
Bringing back Urban and Lopez and hiring Connick, at least optimistically, hints that the show is refocusing on those contestants. His voice was certainly muffled amid the din of crazy that was Carey, Minaj, and Randy Jackson last season, but Urban actually proved to be an astute and endearing judge. He never baited the audience with sound bites but routinely offered sound musical critiques to the show’s contestants. The same can be said about Lopez, who during her two seasons on Idol refused to allow herself to sit comfortably in an obvious role as the sympathetic female judge who only complimented the contestants’ outfits—though there was an appropriate amount of that—and actually pushed contestants, just as she was doing herself, not to sit lazily in their comfort zones.
Connick is actually the most exciting choice Idol could have made, by virtue of its very boringness. The trend in reality TV is to hire firecrackers like Cee-Lo Green and Demi Lovato and Adam Levine and Usher and Shakira as judges. Connick bucks that trend, but in the best way. Lacking the over-the-top silliness that those stars mask as genuine personality and certainly lacking their hit radio cachet, Connick appears to be hired solely because he will, as a judge should, be able to offer intelligent advice about singing.
A singing competition should be entertaining, and these three celebrities have star power in spades. It should be fun. (If this trio smiles twice, it will be once more than the dour, warring panel from last season did.) And it should be, you know, about singing.
After 13 seasons, it seems Idol’s finally figured that out.