The revolving door over at “The X Factor” might be pausing long enough to welcome in a new pair of judges. Kelly Rowland and Mexican pop star Paulina Rubio are the two names currently being bandied about as the most likely to fill the shoes of exiting judges Britney Spears and L.A. Reid. It seems Simon Cowell and the rest of the gang have decided once again that previous experience may be, if not necessary, helpful.
Rowland was a judge on the eighth season of the U.K. “X Factor,” while Rubio was a judge on “La Voz… Mexico.” While that doesn’t necessarily translate into Stateside success, it at least suggests Rowland and Rubio will know what they’re getting into. Of course, judging experience didn’t help Nicole Scherzinger (who had previously judged “The Sing-Off” for two seasons) or Paul Abdul (the iconic “American Idol” judge) keep their jobs. But I have to wonder if Cowell didn’t miss both of them a bit during Britney Spears’ stint on the show.
After shelling out a reported $15 million for Spears, the show discovered that the woman who can be so charismatic on stage wasn’t so interesting as a judge. She had opinions, yes, but wasn’t able to articulate them in a way that was pithy or unexpected. She wasn’t as warm and fuzzy as Abdul or even Scherzinger, and while she definitely understood what worked and what didn’t on stage, she didn’t enlighten audiences with her insight, either. Lovato, on the other hand, was equally inexperienced as a judge but quickly carved out a niche for herself as the smart-assed kid who took great pleasure in yanking Cowell’s chain.
What Lovato understood (and which not all judges do) is how important chemistry on the panel can be. It’s an intangible, something that can’t be faked (well, not entirely) and which makes the difference between a show you want to watch and a show you can’t stomach. That “American Idol” has been swamped with friction on the judges’ table and has seen ratings continue to drop suggests that people want would rather watch the playful, teasing camaraderie we see on “The Voice,” for example, than an extension of “The Real Housewives” franchise. There’s enough drama inherent in a competition show. The judges don’t need to add to it.
Even when we’ve seen bickering and arguing at the judges’ table on other shows, there’s usually a sense of something more like sibling rivalry than actual dislike. What made Cowell so successful on “American Idol” wasn’t just his snarky commentary (though that was key), but the weird, love-hate relationship between him and Abdul. When Piers Morgan was on “America’s Got Talent,” he seemed to save his bitter commentary for the talent and teasing for his fellow judges.
Still, camaraderie isn’t all or even half of it. Judging looks easy, but given how hard it’s been for “The X Factor” to find the right mix, it clearly isn’t. There’s a need for smart commentary, a sense that a judge is having fun and isn’t thinking of all the things they’d rather be doing (sorry, Spears) and an ability to click with the rest of the panel and with audiences. What I’ve seen of Rowland’s stint on the U.K. “X Factor” is that she’s likable yet opinionated, and is able to pal around with her co-stars without coming off as a slacker kid in the back of a high school English class. Her career may have foundered without Destiny’s Child, but she may have found just the right spot as a high-profile talent competition judge.
It isn’t official that Rubio or Rowland have been offered the jobs, but I hope they get them for another reason — if they do, Cowell will be the only guy on the panel, something we haven’t seen on any other reality TV competition. Cowell can, of course, stand up for himself and is best as the lone gruff curmudgeon. That he’d surround himself with talented, opinionated women is heartening and suggests this could be great fun and a unique twist for the show which is now looking a lot like all the many, many other reality talent competitions that have flooded the market. If it is, we can hope “The X Factor” employment door will stop spinning for a moment.
Who do you want to see at the judges’ table?