Last week, "American Idol" Armageddon broke out, as judges Steven Tyler and then Jennifer Lopez semi-shockingly announced that they were leaving the show, both after only two seasons. Veteran judge Randy Jackson, who's survived so bafflingly long, some viewers have started to wonder if he has dirt on Simon Fuller or something, is (as of this writing) still employed by "Idol," but Us Weekly has reported that he may possibly be demoted to an Iovine-like mentor role; if that happened, it would open up a third spot on the judging panel for Season 12. So naturally, the Interweb, Twitterverse, and blogosphere have been overrun with reports and rumors about possible replacement judges.
Adam Lambert? Mariah Carey? Aretha Franklin? Miley Cyrus, Fergie, Nicki Minaj, or Katy Perry? Charlie friggin' Sheen? Or even Caleb Followill from Kings Of Leon, a band that not too long ago actually refused to even license its catalog to "Idol"? All of these names and more have been mentioned. And some of these rumored candidates' names have been mentioned before, many times--like back after "Idol" Season 8 when Paula Abdul jumped ship, or after Season 9 when Simon Cowell, Kara DioGuardi, and Ellen DeGeneres all left, or earlier this year when Paula and Nicole Scherzinger got axed from "The X Factor." Similar speculation will probably run rampant again when "The Voice" likely retools its judging panel for its spring 2013 season. And frankly, these name games are getting a little old. Sometimes I feel like I could just dust off one of my archived "Who Will Be The Next [Insert TV Show Here] Judge?" articles from a couple years ago, refill in all the celebrity names, Mad Libs-style, and no one would even notice.
But I have a wacky idea...how about the "Idol" producers hiring some NON-celebrity judges?
Yes, I know this would probably never happen. With "The X Factor" having secured Britney Spears, one of the biggest pop stars of the past two decades; the "Voice" cast packed with big-name recording stars; and even ABC's fledgling "Duets" managing to convince original Idol Kelly Clarkson to be a judge, the pressure is now on "American Idol" to up the A-list ante. But hear me out, folks. There are many reasons why it would be wise for "Idol" to hire a least one or two non-celebrity judges, and not just because their lower (read: NOT $15 million) salaries would help put the show back in the black after its 23 percent ratings dip in Season 11.
First of all, just because someone is a talented, famous singer doesn't mean they possess the talent to critique OTHER, less famous singers. For instance, Steven Tyler came to "Idol" with decades of show business experience and a solid reputation as one of the greatest rock stars of all time, but that didn't prevent him from acting like a chicken-strips-shilling buffoon and almost being as ineffectual a judge as Ellen DeGeneres. And J.Lo regularly revealed her lack of vast musical knowledge--a requirement to judge a music competition, one would think--by confessing her embarrassing lack of familiarity with the catalogs of Ryan Adams, Dave Matthews, and even Jimi Hendrix. So I can't imagine Cyrus or Sheen would have any deeper insight to offer in this regard.
Second, many celebrities just seem afraid to tell it like it is. This could be because they've been in the contestants' shoes--up on the stage, giving it their all--and therefore they're just a little too sympathetic, and a little too reluctant to tear a fellow artist apart. Or, more likely, most celebrities just can't handle being villains. Famous people are accustomed to being loved, adored, and endlessly applauded by fans. They're not used to being viciously booed by a live studio audience of cardboard-sign toting "Idol" fanatics, or having their Facebook walls and Twitter mentions bombarded with death threats. So unless "Idol" hires a celeb with a long track record of shrugging off (or even encouraging) haters--a Kanye West, Noel Gallagher, or John Lydon type--the show is going to end up with another panel of life-coaching, coddling softies telling everyone they're "beautiful, just beautiful."
Third, celebrity judges on these singing shows ALWAYS sign on with their own super-transparent agendas: i.e., to further or revive their own careers. Steven Tyler spent much of his two-season tenure on "Idol" promoting his autobiography, solo single, and Aerosmith's comeback, and he perhaps not coincidentally left the show only days after Aerosmith released "Legendary Child," their first music video in many years. Jennifer Lopez started off on "Idol" with her career at a standstill, between label deals and with a string of recent flop films and singles to her credit. Then she got her professional life back on track, thanks to "Idol," and went on to spend most of her Fox screentime promoting her new title as People's Most Beautiful Woman and all of her many non-"Idol" projects, including that ridiculously PDA-filled "Dance Again" video with her new boy-toyfriend, Casper Smart.
The bottom line is, I think Steven and Jennifer used "American Idol" for their own gain (duh), got what they wanted out of it, and moved on. And unless producer Nigel Lythgoe is really serious about changing the "Idol" panel's lineup every season (please, gawd, NO--I really, really don't want to have to deal with months of speculation every year), the show would be better off hiring some behind-the-scenes music-business types with no outside projects to promote. Because those people would be more likely to stick around and give the show some continuity, as Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson--neither of whom, it should be noted, were famous to the general public before joining "Idol"--did for the series' first nine seasons.
And that brings me to my final, and a related, point: Pop-star judges take the attention off the show's REAL stars. Remember, the focus of all of these TV talent shows is supposed to be on the contestants. But lately, that's not been the case. For instance, no one is talking about already-forgotten Season 1 "X Factor" winner Melanie Amaro, but everyone is excited to see if Britney Spears and Demi Lovato can cut it as Season 2 "X Factor" judges. And not a single "Voice" contestant has made the tiniest dent in the Billboard charts, but two of its celebrity judges, Adam Levine and Christina Aguilera, scored one of THE hits of 2011 when they teamed up for Maroon 5's "Moves Like Jagger," which they debuted on a "Voice" results show. And now, everyone is talking about Steven and J.Lo's "Idol" exits instead of talking about Phillip Phillips's recent gold record coup, and everyone will probably be gabbing about the new A-list "Idol" judge replacements right around the time that Phillip is releasing his debut album in the fall. That just doesn't seem right.
Basically, I want judges with real industry experience, who can offer constructive criticism that will ultimately help the show's contestants evolve into the A-list recording stars they're supposed to become in their own right by the season's end. And many of the famous names being bandied about right now in the gossip columns probably wouldn't do a much better job of that than Steven or Jennifer ever did. Sure, some performers would be up for the task. I'd totally nominate "The Sing-Off's" absolutely excellent Ben Folds, or past great "Idol" mentors like Harry Connick Jr. or Stevie Nicks...or the aforementioned Adam Lambert, whose fabulous wardrobe and utter lack of filter would make for great television, while his unique background as a successful "Idol" alum would make for some great advice. And of course, no one, myself included, could ever quibble with an executive decision to hire a legend like Aretha Franklin, especially since Aretha already has a history of shooting straight with errant "Idol" contestants.
But that being said, a couple industry experts really do need to be in the Season 12 mix. Heck, I'd be happy if the show even brought Kara DioGuardi back. Or hey, I'd do it, and I'd do it for a whole lot less than J.Lo's reported $17 million asking price, too. (In all seriousness, casting an "Idol" journalist wouldn't be such a bad idea. My colleagues like TVLine.com's Michael Slezak, The Hollywood Reporter's Shirley Halperin, MTV personality-turned-"X Factor" correspondent Jim Cantiello, or my own Yahoo! colleague Matt Whitfield would all undoubtedly do a bang-up job.)
However, it's truly behind-the-scenes impresarios like Rick Rubin, Quincy Jones, Linda Perry, Dr. Luke, or especially current in-house mentor JIMMY IOVINE (who, frustratingly, keeps insisting he doesn't want the job) who would give this show the cred it needs. Leave the idle chatter to "The X Factor's" Britney and Demi; when it comes to "Idol" chatter, I want judges who know what they're talking about, not celebrities who were hired just to get people talking.