American Idol, the highly rated star-maker machine that annually spins straw into gold…(and platinum), is all about comings and goings. But this year it’s not just the latest crop of hopeful contestants angling to capture the spotlight. Changes among the judges are threatening to obfuscate the music competition. Ellen DeGeneres joins the bench this season, as stalwart Simon Cowell, announces his impending fall defection to The X Factor.
“I want to leave Idol this year bigger and better than it was in the past,” Cowell said at the Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena, California, last Jan. But can the show survive losing its strongest, most knowledgeable judge?
“When we first started we had a record producer, an artist and an A&R man,” Cowell told People. “In simplistic terms, if you’re going to give a score you generally need to know what you’re talking about. I think over the years judges have been replaced by personalities. That in the long term will create problems because you’ve got to be able to spot a star. So whoever replaces me, my advice has always been to find somebody who actually knows what they’re talking about.”
DeGeneres, despite being a “personality” and comedic wit, may be a prime example of a judge without direct musical experience. During this year’s highly edited tryout weeks, DeGeneres provided fun comments and displayed her animated personality. However, during last week’s live judging exercise, her lack of musical sophistication surfaced. “I liked it and I like you,” DeGeneres told Janell Wheeler who was voted off last week. “I loved it and think you have a great voice,” she told Haeley Vaughn. To Siobhan Magnus she offered, “I loved it, loved the song choice, loved how deep you started and liked it a lot.” To Jermaine Sellers, Ellen advised, “I love your look and love that song…but thought you were trying too hard.” DeGeneris’s most colorful moment came in regard to Alex Lambert, “I like you. I like bananas and sometimes a banana is just not quite ripe and you’re like ‘oooh I wish it was more ripe because I’d like to eat that banana right now,’ but it’s not ripe enough.”
Contrast the above comments with some of Cowell’s observations. To Lilly Scott, “I actually felt you sang this song because you like it and it portrays you as an artist, rather than something to get you through to the next round, but I’m still not feeling star power from you.” To Lacey Brown he charged, “I thought it was quite depressing. After about 15 seconds, I was wondering how much longer we were going to have listen to this. It was kind of indulgent.” Cowell told Didi Benami, “You are a good singer but here is my problem: There’s too many people trying to sound like the same person, like Adele and Duffy. Shut your eyes and I could confuse you with three or four singers tonight. What I’m missing here is a spark, something that excites me.” Crystal Bowersox got this zinger, “The truth is, there are thousands of you doing this outside of subway stations every day. If I met you in real life I wouldn’t stop in my tracks and think you’re the most original artist I’ve ever heard. You doing Alanis is you doing a soundalike.” Cowell was especially harsh toward 17-year old Katie Stevens, “It was like your mom and dad had dressed you and given you that song for this audition and it was kind of annoying. I’ve heard this so many times. You’re 17 and you’ve gotta become a recording artist, not someone who sings at a family birthday party.”
With regard to replacing Simon Cowell, who reportedly earns $36 million per season, AI judge Kara DioGuardi, told Zap2it.com, “It’s got to be someone who’s an incredible character, who has a combination of music experience and is also great television. That’s what makes Simon so compelling. Not only has he catapulted many people into stardom, he’s also so damn fascinating to watch. We’re all sad, though.”
“You cannot just criticize, you have to offer constructive advice as well,” Cowell was quoted as saying. And perhaps that is the essence of why finding a suitable replacement will be critical to the show’s success. Despite Cowell’s reputation as a harsh, insensitive critic, he is capable of holding a talent mirror to a contestant’s eyes and forcing them to see what he sees. In fact, one could argue his high musical standards have resulted in the launching of stars like Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Daughtry and others.
Based upon the first week of judging it may be premature to question if DeGeneres will sit on the bench for one term or graduate to additional years, but it it seems altogether accurate to predict that the show’s producers had better choose next year’s panel wisely, if they hope to keep the franchise alive.