It’s back! American Idol hit screens in the USA last night (and tonight in the UK). Though there’ve been substantial changes to the format, the show still feels familiar thanks to the reassuring presences of Randy Jackson and host Ryan Seacrest.
The biggest change has been behind the judging panel. The Dawg still remains, but American Idol has severed its ties to past judges. Kara DioGuardi and Ellen DeGeneres may or may not be missed depending on your point of view, but Simon Cowell’s absence should have left a gaping, wry British hole in the panel.
Of course, the reality is that Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler actually brings an authentic rock n’ roll charisma that revitalises the auditions process – he cheers for the contestants, drums on the table and sings backing vocals with the auditionees, something which seems to raise some performances to new heights. He’s also got a certain way with words – he comments on one performance “f*ck a duck and see what hatches”. One thing’s for sure, Tyler’s curious sayings certainly beat the tired old talent show cliches!
Jennifer Lopez rounds out the judging panel. As accomplished as she is, it’s endearing to watch her finding her feet as a judge – after one audition, she looks past the camera and asks if it’s alright to clap for the contestant. Whatever your perception of Lopez before Idol, she’s tactful, respectful of the auditionees and nurturing without being a total pushover. Like Tyler, she’s clearly focused on the talent.
Can I say at this point that I thoroughly approve of a three-judge panel? Nigel Lythgoe, I will buy you a drink for bringing back this format. Four judges is a disaster – an opportunity to pad out an already overlong show with almost meaningless commentary. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
What struck me about halfway through the first episode was that I hadn’t missed the flat-topped king of the put-down that is Simon Cowell. Not at all. There’s a wicked new energy to the American Idol team, more light-hearted and fun. An example? Steven Tyler looks over at Randy Jackson during Tiffany Rios’ audition and quips that he’s looking at the girl’s ass: “Are you looking down there boy? I see you looking down!” They go on to hi-five each other.
For a show that’s frequently proclaimed to have lost its way, ditching the Englishman for an American rock hero might have been the smartest move this show ever made. I’m not saying that it’s instant credibility for Idol, but Tyler and Lopez bring much-needed musicality to the panel. And even as a fan of Kara DioGuardi last year, I don’t miss her waffling on about feeling the music every five minutes. I don’t think anyone will miss Ellen’s habit of comparing auditionees to teddy bears or restaurant silverware or whatever else sprang to her mind.
As to the talent – the New Jersey auditions managed to find an acceptable mix of singers and mentalists.
Interestingly, the panel were handing out tickets to some odd choices. Take Ashley Sullivan of Springfield, MA for example – a very emotional and overwrought girl who had a voice better suited to musical theatre. However, Ashley clearly had a very good voice and an unmistakeable passion for her performing, so the judges put her through.
I like to think that they put her through because as singers and songwriters themselves, the judges spotted potential there. Time will tell, but it’s not like me to be hopelessly optimistic! The idea that the new American Idol can spot raw musical talent and then foster that through the live shows really appeals to me.
Even though I didn’t think that American Idol need to be ‘fixed’, I really believe that the show has a distinctly different chemistry this year. Anytime I write about this show, I feel compelled to remind our American readers that Idol is a class act. If Simon Cowell’s Stateside Circus (aka American X Factor) wipes out Idol, reality TV will be poorer for it. Mark my words, America, Idol is the best damned reality TV show you’ve got.