“American Idol” has a bunch of problems.
I know. “Breaking news!”
With the not-so-abrupt Friday afternoon news-dump departure of Kara DioGuardi, the only judge we assume is returning to “American Idol” next season is Randy Jackson.
Imagine if the Lakers jettisoned Kobe and Lamar and Pau and D-Fish and Bynum and sent Phil Jackson packing and then came out to season ticket holders and said, “Of course we’re the same team! We’re called the Lakers and we still have Luke Walton.”
That’s where “American Idol” is right now.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’ve been writing about “American Idol” obsessively for eight of the show’s nine seasons and I know that when the FOX executives say, “The star of the show isn’t the judges, it’s the format and the kids,” they’re absolutely right. Give viewers a true superstar or two, toss in a couple kids with really inspirational stories, add at least one horrible freakshow contestant with impressive staying power just for luck and it won’t matter if Simon Cowell or Steven Tyler or Biz Markie is the one critiquing their singing. You’ll have a successful season.
That doesn’t mean that this “Idol” off-season hasn’t become a nightmare, unless you truly believe that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
[More thoughts after the break…]
We knew Simon Cowell was departing and that was going to leave the show with an amputated bloody stump at the end of its judging panel.
The other two judging departures won’t be felt nearly as deeply, but they expose issues, probably with the show’s production, which always used to seem so steady.
Ellen DeGeneres was a woman-out-of-place from the very beginning. She was hired as a judge, but never had the desire or vocabulary to actually judge. But, oddly, she proved not to have the desire or vocabulary to nurture in the “Idol” context either. On her daytime show, Ellen is a master of puff-pieces, but somehow she never came across as even vaguely reassuring or inspirational to the “Idol” contestants. Was her problem merely that she didn’t have the right words to critique a singer’s vocal stylings and that she couldn’t find a way to make her own stage experience sound similar? And she wasn’t even funny, which is kinda what she has to be for her living. She didn’t know her role and some of the blame there has to be put on the “Idol” production staff for hiring a big name star without really knowing the purpose they wanted her to serve.
Very few people are going to miss Ellen DeGeneres on “American Idol.” There are plenty of other ways to see and enjoy Ellen in other milieus and there were really no ways to enjoy Ellen on “Idol.”
DioGuardi may leave a few fans behind.
But DioGuardi suffered from the same problem as Ellen, insofar as her role never felt clearly defined and it showed. There were moments, mostly in her second season, where I got an idea of what Kara brought to the table. As a songwriter herself, she was fiercely protective of words and she took singers to task for not having any clear awareness of what the songs they were performing were supposed to be about. But those moments of cogency were sporadic and they were usually quashed by Cowell, who evinced all of the respect for lyrics that you would expect from a man who recorded with the Telly-Tubbies.
More often, the show placed DioGuardi in awkwardly sexual positions. I don’t know who’s to blame for the revealing outfits and additional makeup DioGuardi wore through much of the second season. Maybe she saw how she looked in her first season and wanted a change, or maybe there was a push to pretty up her image from On High. It was Kara’s fault, for example, that she asked Casey James to disrobe at his first audition. She can’t be cut any slack for that. It’s not her fault that her “relationship” with Casey became a running joke through the entire season in a way that Simon never became a running joke for his slobbering over various female contestants over the years (Randy is and always has been an asexual presence on the “Idol” podium and his relative impartiality may be the best thing he has going for him). The producers could have, at any point, told Ryan and Simon to stop mentioning it. Kara over-compensated to try to see clear-eyed, but instead she just seemed erratic. And it was Kara’s fault that she decided to get into a catty, insecure bitchfight with Katrina “Bikini Girl” Darrell in the audition rounds of her first season, but I’m guessing it was somebody else’s bright idea to have Kara strip down as a finale climax.
Kara didn’t know who she wanted to be and when she sexualized herself, the producers jumped all over that means of defining her. It produced memorable moments, but not the kind of persona the show is going to miss next year. The show will, however, miss those random moments of clarity, moments I kind of hoped would be more frequent without the intimidating presence of Simon.
“American Idol” has now had two failed attempts to hire a new female judge to replace Paula Abdul, a woman whose own “Idol” persona was rife with discomfort, mockery and not-fully-realized scandal.
Here’s where I have to wonder if it’s a coincidence that as Paula spiraled deeper and deeper into self-parody and as Kara and then Kara-n-Ellen failed to adequately replace her, “American Idol” has lost track of female talent as well.
Four of the past five “Idol” winners have been men (noting that they’ve been white men would only misdirect us into the show’s very real problem with race in addition to gender). The only female winner in that group was Jordin Sparks, whose Season Six victory was a tribute more to an all-time worst group of contestants (and the lack of commercial viability for the far-more-gifted Melinda Doolittle) than any powerful charisma of her own. I’m not going to question the validity of The Davids in Season Seven or Adam & Kris in Season Eight, but the flaws in the system were exposed this past season when Lee DeWyze butchered his finale night performances and yet scored a substantial win (no margin-of-victory was mentioned) over Crystal Bowersox, who shined.
Lee and Crystal spent most of the season neck-and-neck and if not for their very different finale night performances, I wouldn’t have felt any resentment at all about a Lee victory. Instead, the Season Nine result felt like a validation of just how reticent voters are to give the “Idol” crown to a woman.
In each recent season, we’ve had female talent that seemed to flame out far ahead of its time, whether we’re talking about Stephanie Edwards or Carly Smithson or Alexis Grace or last season, when folks like Lacey Brown and Paige Miles slipped into the Top 12 as Lilly Scott and Katelyn Epperly and others flamed out before the finals even began. Even moreso than their male counterparts, female contestants are asked to struggle with their self-defintion, as if they had positive, self-defined role model on the judging panel. What were Kara and Ellen ever going to be able to do to help Crystal Bowersox? How could Paula possibly relate to Melinda Doolittle?
The lack of a strong female presence on the judging panel championing other strong female talent almost certainly played a role. [The unpredictable tastes of the voting public played a bigger role. I know this.] For nine seasons, the balance was inherently uneven, with Simon as the only really strong judge, capable of swaying the entire series to his whims, if not necessarily to force America to eventually reward his favorite.
Simon is gone, but he left without a successor and he left without anybody capable of filling his vacuum. Ellen never could have done it. Kara couldn’t have done it in a way that the producers would have liked.
We can only assume that Randy Jackson is being kept around for continuity for another season, because The Dawg hasn’t added anything, including fresh catch phrases, in four or five years. He’s never insightful, funny or decisive as a judge, so you don’t need to worry how he’ll fit into any new judging mix. He’s inert. The most he can do, positive or negative, is dilute an otherwise worthy panel.
The worst part of this whole process is its piecemeal nature. Simon announced he was leaving in January. DeGeneres bailed at the end of July. Days later, FOX couldn’t tell TV critics about potential replacements, even though Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler were reportedly close to signing. Over a month later, Lopez and Tyler still haven’t signed and DioGuardi is out.
And both Lopez and Tyler are Star Judges — not to be concerned with the judges in “The Star Chamber” — and neither gave any indication in previous “Idol” appearances that they’re going to be Substance Judges. Both are powerful enough that the “Idol” producers are unlikely to be able to push them to define themselves as anything other than Stars.
Kara DioGuardi probably was never going to be able to define herself as a Substance Judge, so her presence with Jackson and Lopez and Tyler wouldn’t have made any difference anyway. But her absence means that Randy Jackson is the only balance to the hypothetical star power of the rumored replacements.
Like I said, “American Idol” has problems.
[Note: This article says absolutely nothing about ratings. I’m only talking about the favors related to my own enjoyment of a show that I want to love but which, all too often last season, I hated. “American Idol” dropped last season, but expecting otherwise after nine installments would be absurd. And it still help its place as the most watched show on TV in the wide, young demographic FOX cares about. It hasn’t “fallen off a cliff” as some people would led you to believe and it probably won’t fall off a cliff next year, especially if Lopez and Tyler prove effective lures. So when I say that “Idol” has problems, they’re structural and creative problems not the kind of problems that are going to lead to cancellation. I’m just sayin’…]
What do you think?