American Idol is in trouble. You know it, I know it, FOX knows it, and this twelfth(!) season premiere sure as hell knows it. It opens with a single spotlight on last year’s winner Phillip Phillips, he of the infuriating double name and Mumford-esque voice. Phillip(s) seems like a perfectly nice guy, but he’s the living embodiment of what American Idol has become: a popularity contest that favors innocuous, fairly talented white guys.
The second Phillips finishes his song we get the inevitable seizure-inducing neon “this is why this show matters” montage, but this time, it takes pains to point out the wildly successful female Idol alumnae who have done their best to make us forget they were on Idol at all – Jennifer Hudson, Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood. Their faces flash by to the tune of Ryan Seacrest promising us everything will be different this season, and as Carrie morphed into Mariah Carey who morphed into a funhouse mirror reflection vaguely resembling Nicki Minaj, I realized I was in for a deeply, truly annoying four hours of television.
The irritation starts with the new judges. Don’t get me wrong - it’s not like Idol has ever truly depended on its judges. Yes, they’ve all had their roles and disturbing little flirty sideshows, but Idol’s judges began as proxies for the viewers. No one was watching Simon Cowell sneer or Paula Abdul blink at contestants for quality criticisms. We watched them to say the things we could never say, because most of us are pretty decent people. Shows are just recently applying the term “mentor” to their panels, but Idol basked in its panel’s total inability to connect. The problem with this season’s new panel is that it can’t decide whether it’d rather mentor or sit back and cast a glowering, twitchy eye.
In Ryan Seacrest’s words, Nicki Minaj is “bringing a little style back to the table.” Loosely translated, American Idol thinks Nicki Minaj is their batshit crazy ticket back to latter days Abdul-land. Now, I actually like Nicki, with her frantic snake charmer eyes, pre-auotuned speaking voice, and acid trip Raggedy Ann wigs, but she is still the most glaring ploy for publicity I’ve ever seen (and I watch the CW on a regular basis). Minaj is funny, unexpectedly empathetic to the more painful contestants, and a talented performer, but as “Pink Friday” proved, she’s notsomuch a singer. Having Minaj judge a singing competition just doesn’t make any sense unless American Idol is ready to admit it couldn’t give less of a shit who wins this thing as long as the judges’ panel makes headlines. And I have no doubt that Nicki “Business Casual Drum Major” Minaj will.
This brings us to Mariah Carey, Minaj’s alleged nemesis and “the very definition of diva.” Let’s be real: out of any of the judges this show’s ever had, Mariah Carey is the most qualified to judge American Idol. Hell, she is an American Idol, and every other contestant tells her as much. But her discomfort at being a judge and playing the part alongside this hastily assembled cast is so obvious that she might as well be judging this show while floating upside down in zero gravity space. She gamely tries to compliment some peoples' tones, but judging isn't a flattering look for Carey.
Now, Minaj and Carey would be lackluster additions all on their own, but it’s what happens when they’re together that makes this season so immediately infuriating. “Right away,” Seacrest ominously intones over the judges settling in New York, “we knew it was going to be an interesting couple of days.” So if you somehow missed FOX’s incessant “Minaj vs. Carey!” Doomsday ads, no matter – Idol is quick to point out that this judging panel ‘aint big enough for the both of them. There are multiple montages of Carey and Minaj spitting sarcasm and competing British accents (sure) at each other to the tune of David Guetta chanting, “oh, she’s a diva.” Sitting between them is described as “feeling like a scratching post.” Randy is eventually seated between them to “keep the girls under control.”
To be fair, the tension between Minaj and Carey doesn’t seem to be entirely fabricated. According to a variety of sources (including our own FOX coverage at the TCA’s), the fact of the matter is, they just don’t like each other. But I don’t care what they think of each other. I do care, however, that the show chooses to frame these two women as reality shows have framed women from the very beginning: as catty, petty, nonsensical timebombs that are just counting down to their inevitable onscreen meltdown. From Real World roommates to competing bachelorettes to screaming housewives, reality shows have spent an enormous amount of time building narratives that essentially boil down to, “bitches be crazy.” Just last week, we saw the results of Simon Cowell losing his $15 million bet that “crazy Britney” would show up to spike his show’s ratings when Spears exited the show after just one season. He had no interest in the Britney Spears that politely showed up and essentially told America she was getting too old for this shit. He wanted the Britney Spears that wore a different fire hazard wig per different personality and beat the hell out of a car with an umbrella. Still, not getting the Britney he wanted didn’t stop X Factor from running ads about Britney’s supposed unpredictability and storming off set before the show even aired; they’d be damned if they got caught without at least the hint of the breakdown they had paid through the nose for. I’ll be very surprised if Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey don’t get the same treatment if the ratings continue to plummet, which they almost certainly will.
I feel like there's something I'm forgetting…oh, right. Keith Urban was a person who was around, too. It’s cool, though; he disappeared halfway through the Chicago round and no one else seemed to notice, either. (Hilariously, the one girl who expressed an interest in him before her audition was excited because quote, “he’s married to one of my favorite actresses.”)
Meanwhile, Randy is now literally greeting contestants with "Hey! Yo! Dude! Dawg! Sup." Randy may be one of those dolls with a set of five catchphrases and a prop (in his case, the ghost of Simon Cowell). He does have the distinction of being the only judge currently present who understands that he’s supposed to be judging and not mentoring, leaving him to do the dirty work of telling someone their voice isn't up to snuff.
As far as the actual contestants go, they fall into the usual categories: Top 10, longshots, potentials, and punchlines. Their backstories have also become so integral to the structure of the show that half the time, American Idol feels more like Nightline, complete with sad family slideshows that fade into black and white as their stories get worse. On the bright side, I finally understood Carey’s discomfort after sitting through hours of this – it really was excruciating,
At the end of the day, it’s hard to watch these preliminary rounds. There’s a mean streak to Idol with its heavy emphasis on schaudenfreude, and I just didn’t have the energy to root for people to fail. I did, however, have the energy to wish the best singers had gone out for The Voice instead.
- If you were wondering what will happen in the event of a tie since there are now four judges, but you’ll have to keep wondering, because it somehow hasn’t happened yet.
- At the very least, I can appreciate Nicki Minaj on this panel because she has no subtlety when it comes to the producers’ notes. Every contestant can now expect to hear, “Can you tell us something interesting about your life?” And if they hesitate, she won’t: “Like, can you tell us about your weight?”
- Nicki’s preferred term of endearment of “ladybug” and now it is also mine.
- The editors give seven-time auditionee Brett not one, not two, but three fake-out dream sequences where the judges send him through. After a while, I thought I was just on a loop. For a split second, my life was going to be an eternity of American Idol. Think about that.
- I’m glad Gurpreet the Indian-American with a plaid shirt and matching turban got through, but I’ll be honest - I'm scared for him. They actually literally really made a graphic where he was “The Turbanator,” and Randy stopped his perfectly lovely rendition of Maroon 5’s “Sunday Morning” to request some of that “classical Indian music,” so…yikes.
- Hey FOX – if you’re going to make me cry with Lazaro, the painfully heartfelt Cuban with a stutter problem, maybe don’t put the hashtag #idolinspires in the corner because it will break the moment by making me laugh forever.
- Mariah: “I’m sorry, this is my first real job!”