The worst-kept secret in television is finally out of the see-through bag. Country superstar Keith Urban and rapper/singer/devotee of unsettling wigs Nicki Minaj will join pop diva Mariah Carey and Randy “Him Again?” Jackson on the American Idol Season 12 judges’ panel, a Fox spokesperson confirmed today.
“Nicki’s an unbelievably captivating international phenomenon who has made an indelible mark on rap and pop. And Keith is another great addition to Idol – he’s one of the biggest stars in country music and I know that our fans and contestants will fall in love with him,” said Mike Darnell, President of Alternative Entertainment for Fox, in a release. “With an unparalleled star like Mariah, fan-favorite Randy, chart-toppers like Nicki and Keith and our incomparable host Ryan [Seacrest], we’ve put together one of the most exciting judging panels around.”
It’s never easy to predict how well (or how disastrously) any first-time reality show judge will fare — especially under the intense pressure of a live telecast (and a rowdy studio audience). Who’d have thunk Ellen DeGeneres, a veteran host of the Academy Awards and the Emmys, would shut down like an iPhone in a swimming pool when asked to dole out succinct, honest critiques to the likes of Andrew Garcia and Tim Urban?
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With that cautionary tale in mind, I thought I’d dole out a little bit of friendly advice to Urban and Minaj as they embark on their “Idol journeys,” boiling it down to four bullet points apiece that they can print out and bring with them to the first round of Season 12 callbacks in New York City on Sunday afternoon. (For the record, I’m vehemently opposed to a four-person panel — there’s already too much yapping and not enough singing with three — but why gripe about what cannot be changed, no?) Without further ado…
* Honesty is the best policy | Pundits and prognosticators often argue that established recording artists don’t want to be viewed as “mean” or “discouraging” to wannabe singers, but I’d say it’s far more damaging to a judge’s public persona to be viewed as a serial enabler, or even worse, as patently dishonest. Let’s face it: Very few people are born with enough talent to make a living as professional vocalists. So is there really a greater act of kindness from a judge than (sensitively) cutting short a mediocre singer’s deluded hopes of being the next Sinatra or Knowles?
* A little homespun humor helps the medicine go down | As Blake Shelton has proven on The Voice, it’s possible to give negative feedback without making a contestant feel like you just performed open-heart surgery without anesthesia. If you can make a contestant chuckle, or better yet bring him in on the joke with you, then everybody wins.
* Somebody needs to steer the contestants toward offbeat song choices and interesting arrangements — and that someone is probably going to have to be you | The last couple of seasons, Idol judges seemed to place less importance on contestants turning well-known songs upside down, a la David Cook’s “Always Be My Baby” or Adam Lambert’s “Ring of Fire,” producing fewer water-cooler moments for the show. For the love of Randy Jackson’s “Yo!” pins, never forget that fresh renditions of familiar hits will always and forever generate more buzz and higher ratings than the umpteenth karaoke rendition of Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing.”
* Know your Idol history | We all know Idol judges have access to dress rehearsals, so be sure to use one of your assistants (or Google) every week to give you the low-down on whether any of the songs being covered have resulted in prior Idol Moments (i.e. “Summertime” or “Alone”) or full-scale nuclear meltdowns (“Against All Odds,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”). Sure, not everybody cares about season-to-season comparisons, but there’s nothing wrong with throwing an occasional bone to the Idoloonie nation.
* [BONUS TIP] If your budget for highlights is greater than Nicki or Mariah’s, keep it to yourself | This rule is kind of self-explanatory, no?
* Check your filter at the door | It’s been a long time since Idol audiences felt like the show’s judges weren’t offering up critiques coated in 50 shades of sugar. If you’re brave enough to bring brazen honesty back to the live telecasts, it’ll go down like a glass of cold water to the parched Idol audience, and possibly make you the most popular judge on television.
* Recognize that your job is, at least to the Idol faithful, serious business | Yes, we know your chair at the Idol judges’ table is the one labeled “crazy she-beast,” but you won’t succeed in your new job just by being outrageous just for outrageousness’ sake. Start by paying strict attention to the performances going on in front of you, then share your visceral, unfiltered opinions about what you’ve just heard. You can get away with just about anything, as long as we know you care as much as we do about discovering and shaping the next generation of music stars.
* When in doubt about what to say to contestants, remember that less is almost always more | Watch some tapes of Jennifer Lopez and Randy Jackson giving feedback in Season 11. Note the irritating way it often took them two or three minutes to get to the point of their critiques (or something sort of resembling a point). Then make a vow that you’ll never fall into the trap of thinking the Idol audience will somehow view every one of your words as a glistening pearl. To put it another way, treat your critiques like Usain Bolt in the 4×100 relay: Be quick and exciting, then pass that damn baton to the person next to you.
* Your gut instinct should always trump the whims of Idol producers | Nigel Lythgoe & Co. always claim they don’t have an agenda about which contestants they’d like to make it to the finale, but that seems about as likely as Obama and Romney secretly playing Words With Friends on the campaign trail. Unfortunately, the last two seasons of Idol found the judges adhering to said agenda so carefully, that there was almost never any disagreement among the panel about the quality of performances — a trend that was boring at best, and incredibly frustrating at worst. So please, don’t be afraid to follow the script in your heart rather than the one typed for you on Uncle Nigel’s stationery. You might only last one season, but what a fun season it’ll be!
What do you think of Minaj and Urban joining Idol? Any additional tips you’d like to give them before they step into their new roles? Sound off in the comments! And for all my reality TV news, interviews, opinions, and recaps, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!Follow @MichaelSlezakTV