On Sunday morning it was officially announced, at the first "American Idol" Season 12 callback auditions taping at New York's Lincoln Center, that hip-hop diva Nicki Minaj and country crooner Keith Urban have finally signed on to be the new "American Idol" judges. They'll be joining the panel alongside longtime judge Randy Jackson (who is still on board to give the show continuity, despite earlier reports that he was being demoted) and Randy's star managerial client, Mariah Carey. The odd foursome made their first public appearance at Lincoln Center this Sunday morning.
Although Nicki once claimed she didn't want to be a full-time TV talent show judge, back when it was rumored that she'd been approached by Simon Cowell to join "The X Factor," the split-personality star has apparently since changed at least one of her minds. This is probably due to the reported $12 million (plus possible additional allowances for hair and makeup) that Fox will be paying her. Or maybe when she once joked about filling Jennifer Lopez's seat with her own equally famous curvy behind, she wasn't really joking after all.
Keith is coming in as a relative bargain, since he's reportedly "only" getting paid somewhere around $4 million. But regardless, neither of these two new judges will be getting anything close to the cool $18 million that Mariah is supposedly pocketing.
Randy will presumably be pocketing two salaries--his own as a continuing judge, and a cut of Mariah's earnings, of course. All this for a man who only days ago was supposedly stepping down. I have to give the man kudos for his tenacity--clearly he is in it to win it. Either the man has dirt on Simon Fuller and is blackmailing the show, or "Idol" producers have realized that it's not wise to throw the Dawg out with the bathwater and change up this time-honored show too much. I admit I'm glad Randy still in the mix, if only for branding and nostalgia's sake. Hey, even Randy's former "Idol" co-star Simon Cowell tweeted that this was the right decision on Fox's part!
Anyway, this ought to be interesting--especially where Nicki is concerned. Miss Minaj is certainly a colorful and polarizing figure, and she'll certainly make for some fantastic television. But is she really the right fit for "Idol"? There seems to be at least one person who may not be too happy about this news--Mariah, who according to TMZ was furious to learn that she'd have to share the spotlight with someone as flashy and flamboyant as darling Nicki. I have mixed feelings about this hiring myself, which I'll get to in a moment.
As for Keith, when rumors of "Idol" judge replacements first started circulating following the departures of Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler, the names of divas like Katy Perry, Celine Dion, and Aretha Franklin were mentioned, but no one was speculating that some country-boy-next-door type might land (or even want) the job. However, now that Keith has officially joined the "Idol" cast, I don't think it will be a bad thing for the show at all. In fact, Keith might be just what "Idol" needs.
Here are my thoughts on "American Idol's" new recruits:
ON NICKI MINAJ
She'll bring in an urban audience - Hip-hop and R&B are arguably the biggest genres on the charts right now, and have been for some time...but "Idol" has become increasingly white-washed over the years. There hasn't been an R&B-singing champion on "Idol" in eight years, and the few R&B singers who do tend to go far on the show, from Ruben Studdard to Michael Lynche to Joshua Ledet, usually traffic in a more old-school style. Meanwhile, "The X Factor" has become the singing show of choice for urban music fans, with a judging panel that includes former LaFace Records co-founder/Island Def Jam honcho L.A. Reid and an inaugural season that included many hip-hop/R&B-influenced finalists. "The Voice"--which features hip-hop star Cee Lo Green as a coach and crowned an R&B singer with Alicia Keys connections, Jermaine Paul, as its Season 2 winner--has also siphoned off some urban-music-fan viewers from "Idol." So Nicki, especially paired with Mariah, could definitely draw in a different audience aside from the core viewers that have consistently voted for five guitar-strumming rock/country/folk singers in a row--thus making "Idol" diverse and competitive again. This, of course, is a good thing.
She'll bring in a younger audience - Sure, many of Nicki's raps aren't exactly family-friendly, but she nevertheless has a very young and very adoring fanbase, the kind of kids who dress up like fairy princesses and perform viral videos of her songs. So Nicki will undoubtedly bring in that all-important youth demographic, something "Idol" sorely needs after years of being blasted for fuddy-duddy themes (Sinatra Night, '60s Night, Billy Joel Night) that appeal more to boomers than to record-buying tweens.
She'll be tough - Nicki has never been one to mince words in her raps, so I have no reason to believe she'll play the nicey-nice role once she's in the "Idol" hot seat. Just imagine if she took even one-umpteenth of the venom and fire in one of her diss raps, and unleashed all that on any hapless tone-deaf "Idol" auditioner. It'd be enough to make Simon Cowell blanch.
She'll rock some cray-cray outfits - Think Steven Tyler's rocker-gypsy scarves and Paula Abdul's QVC bling were outrageous? You ain't seen nuthin' yet. Why do you think Nicki needs a wardrobe allowance? Her endless array of alter-ego personas (hiring her is kind of like hiring 10 judges in one), cotton-candy wigs, and space-cadet get-ups will surely be enough to make even Mariah Carey's sparkly Barbie-wear look as plain as one of Simon Cowell's old black T-shirts. And that brings me to my next point...
She'll bring on the battle of the divas - Until now, Mariah obviously assumed she was going to be "Idol's" queen bee. But with Her Minajesty now on board, it'll be a weekly battle royale for divalicious supremacy between the two loud ladies. Normally I am all about solidarity among women and not one to encourage catfighting, but in the case of a Mimi/Nicki catfight, it'd probably be great fun to see the (pink, faux) fur fly. So pass the popcorn, I say.
She'll encourage contestants to take risks - This is the woman who channeled Linda Blair in that bizarre Exorcist-inspired skit on this year's Grammys, remember. Obviously, Nicki is the type who wouldn't even bat a false eyelash at some of "Idol's" more out-there past spectacles, like Heejun Han's "My Life," Adam Lambert's "Ring Of Fire," or Blake Lewis's "You Give Love A Bad Name." So who knows what Season 12's kooky contestants could get up to under Nicki's watch?
She isn't really qualified to judge singers - Nicki is a rapper, and when she does sing, she utilizes enough Auto-Tune to make T-Pain balk. When she cancelled her recent appearance at Britain's V Festival due to "strained vocal cords," the amused widespread sentiment messageboards and Twitter was basically utter disbelief that Nicki even had any cords to strain in the first place. Sure, a lack of singing skills didn't stop "Idol" from hiring J.Lo (or, come to think of it, Paula), but still. Considering that multi-octave belters like Aretha Franklin and Adam Lambert were supposedly up for this job, it's pretty disappointing that "Idol" didn't hire someone with real vocal chops or musical skills. But hey, I guess that's one way Mariah has Nicki beat, right?
She hasn't been around that long - Although Nicki started releasing mixtapes and guesting on other artists' singles sometime around 2007, she only has two official studio albums to her credit, and the first one came out less than two years ago. A background like that makes a couple of the teen stars who were once rumored to be in the running for this gig, like Nick Jonas and Miley Cyrus, look like legitimately long-in-the-tooth industry veterans!
Her shtick could get old fast - Remember how awesome token "wacky judge" Steven Tyler was when he first signed on to "Idol" in Season 10? Viewers just could not get enough of his metaphor-mixing Tylerisms, tendency to break into song at random intervals (usually in the middle of some poor kid's audition), and shameless flirting with anything in a skirt. But shortly after that season kicked off its live shows, it became obvious that Steven didn't have much to offer when it came to actual constructive criticism. I suspect that similar viewer fatigue could kick in with Nicki after a few Season 12 episodes. And all of her voices could get grating after about, oh, five minutes.
She'll take even more focus off the contestants - How is anyone supposed to pay any attention to some humble small-town nobody covering Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" or Edwin McCain's "I'll Be" for the jillionth time, when you've got Nicki and Mariah fighting for screentime on every episode? I've repeatedly argued that the trend towards superstar judges on TV talent shows has practically made the contestants--you know, the people these shows are supposed to be turning into superstars themselves--mere afterthoughts. And having a scenery-chewer like Nicki on "Idol's" panel will only make this situation worse. Much worse.
ON KEITH URBAN
He'll be the perfect foil for Mariah and Nicki - Mariah and Nicki's additions to "Idol" changed the entire judging-panel equation, making it pretty unlikely that another flamboyant celebrity like Adam Lambert, Fergie, Janet Jackson, Kanye West, or Miley Cyrus would now get the gig. Keith, a down-to-earth, salt-of-the-earth sort of fellow, will no doubt provide the perfect non-Mariah/Nicki balance on the show--which is necessary, since too many over-the-top judges would, like I said before, overshadow the actual contestants. Lovably geeky Ben Folds, from NBC's sadly cancelled "The Sing-Off," would have served this purpose well too, but Ben isn't a country artist, which brings me to my next point...
He'll appeal to country-loving "Idol" viewers - Some of the show's biggest success stories--Carrie Underwood, Scotty McCreery, Kellie Pickler, even Kelly Clarkson, whose duet with Jason Aldean was a huge crossover hit--have been country singers. Last year, country fans voted two country contestants into the Season 10 finale, and earlier this summer, fifth-place Season 11 finalist Skylar Laine, a country girl through and through, had the top-selling CD at Wal-Mart with her "Idol" highlights compilation. And yet, "Idol" has never had a country star sit on its panel on a permanent basis. Keith is extremely popular--and thanks to his heartthrobbingly handsome looks and high-profile marriage to A-list actress Nicole Kidman, he's a country star with massive crossover appeal. And he even wrote a song on Season 10 "Idol" winner Scotty McCreery's debut album! So he certainly seems like the right country man for the job--as opposed to, say, Eric Church, who's made it abundantly clear that he's no fan of reality TV.
He'll bring in an Urban audience - Those country fans who aren't watching "Idol" yet might give it a chance in Season 12, now that Keith is on board. Hey, it worked for "The Voice" with Blake Shelton, arguably that show's most beloved judge, who has attracted devoted country fans to NBC despite "The Voice's" relative lack of actual country contestants. If the "Idol" powers-that-be truly aspire to establish even more of a foothold in Nashville--and be competitive with "The Voice"--Keith's expertise and marquee name will surely help their cause. (And there's no doubt that he'll keep the cougars, who already comprise a substantial portion of "Idol's" core voter base, excitedly tuned in.)
He has the experience - Earlier this year, Keith was a judge on "The Voice Australia," which was a big ratings hit Down Under. So he has already proven his skills as a talent-show judge and mentor--which is more than can be said for many of the other celebrities who were reportedly in the running for this gig.
Viewers will love his accent - Come on, didn't you miss Simon Cowell when he defected to "The X Factor" and took his charming English accent and colloquialisms with him? Yes, yes, I know Australian and British accents are not the same. But they're somewhat similar, and they're both charming. I just know that Keith's Aussie inflection will make even the harshest critique sound just slightly dreamy to American ears.
So there you have it. I was seriously hoping that "Idol" would recruit someone from the rock 'n' roll world, or a less famous behind-the-scenes industry expert, since I don't really think either Mariah or Nicki are qualified to critique any of the guitar-strumming musicians who audition for (and win) "Idol" in droves. But obviously Keith is a guitar man, and hopefully Randy can finally step it up now that he's been granted an 11th-hour reprieve, so who knows? Maybe it'll all work out and this panel will gel. But I have a feeling that Mimi and Minaj will likely dominate the proceedings, and every episode of "Idol" will end up looking something like the video below. So good luck not being upstaged, Keith and Randy.
Do you think Mariah, Nicki, and Keith will make good "American Idol" judges? Are you pleased that Randy is sticking around? Let me know on the message board below.