Pop Culture

‘Idol’ translator: ‘Likability’ means ‘big teeth’

You know what the judges say every week on “American Idol,” but do you know what their critiques really mean? “Idol” has developed its own lexicon, where up can be down, bad can be good, and Paula Abdul can be considered coherent. Here, we present a guide to some of the expressions you’ll hear most often, and what they really mean.

Pitchy: Probably the most famous word in the “Idol” lexicon, it theoretically relates to whether notes are sharp or flat, and it is sometimes used that way. In most cases, however, it actually means something like, “That will make people’s dogs crawl under the table.”

Making it your own: Often used for performances that require a particularly large number of notes to render a particularly simple melody. Roughly translated: “I’m sure John Lennon would appreciate your help improving ‘Imagine.’”

Cruise ship/theme park/wedding: According to Simon Cowell lore, the worst music in the world is performed at weddings, the second-worst at theme parks, and the third-worst on cruise ships. Generally, “wedding” means you were overly earnest, “theme park” means you were overly happy, and “cruise ship” means he can’t put his finger on it, but he sees you wearing sparkles.

Karaoke: Usually, this means you were stuck with a terrible arrangement, although it can also mean you look like you’re covering the song on an episode of “The Brady Bunch.”

You look beautiful tonight: This is a Paula Abdul expression meaning “You can’t sing.” It is slightly different from “You’re a beautiful girl,” which means “You can’t sing, and you’re probably going to be eliminated this week.”

Self-indulgent: “You have forgotten that this is the fourth round of ‘American Idol’ and not your induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.”

Likability: “Big teeth.”

You blew it out the box: This means Randy liked it very much. This compliment is significantly higher than “hot,” which is in turn higher than “you worked it out,” which is higher than “pretty good,” which is higher than “just a’ight for me.” At the bottom is “weird.” “That was kinda weird for me” is Randy Jackson’s version of Paula's “You look beautiful tonight.”

You’re current (or “relevant”): “Every time I look at you, I can feel myself and my business partners growing richer and more powerful.” Generally, this is said when a contestant bears some particular resemblance to some strand of popular culture, such as the current attention given the fact that Adam Lambert has dark hair and looks at people as if he wants to devour them in an unsavory fashion, and that reminds the judges of vampires, and that reminds the judges of “Twilight,” which is popular, which means Adam Lambert is “current.” This is not, in other words, a construct with a lot of integrity.

Yo yo yo yo/what’s up?: Often, Randy Jackson begins critiques with either some number of “yo”s, or with questions about the contestant’s well-being. If he offers one “yo,” that is usually bad news. More than one “yo,” particularly if he makes it to four “yo”s, is good or very good news. Questions about how you’re doing — “How are you?” “How you feeling?” “How you doing?” etc. — generally mean he hated your performance but pities you. Occasionally, he starts a critique by laughing, which means, “I don’t know who’s voting for you, but apparently someone is.”

America still gets to vote: “Not for you, of course.”

I had a great time: Used by contestants rather than by judges, this means, “You are right that my performance was extremely embarrassing, and I wish I had something more clever to say in response.”

You know who you are: Taken literally, this might be considered damning with faint praise. In context, however, it means, “You sing the same way every week, and we have decided that’s a good thing.”

I want to see you stretch: “You sing the same way every week, and we have decided that’s a bad thing.”

You had fun up there: “Perhaps next time, you should try it without the part where you act like a buffoon.”

You just don’t touch that song: “You have sung a song by Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, or Celine Dion, who, as we know, are the three greatest singers in the history of American and Canadian music.”

I had the honor of working on that record…: “I am Randy Jackson, and I am concerned that you may have forgotten why I am a judge on this show, so I am about to say the words ‘Mariah Carey,’ my secret password to legitimacy.”

That song was too big for you: “You are a small woman from Oklahoma, and that was sung originally by a large woman from Detroit.”

I think America will like you: This is something Simon Cowell says, generally with a sneer disguised as a warm smile, when he’s thinking, “For all of the reasons I can’t stand America and consider it a nation of cretins, I expect you to do well here.”

You have vocal chops: This is meant to be a general compliment directed at your musical abilities. In practice, it means “loud.”

That song was too old for you/old-fashioned: “Those clothes are too old for you/old-fashioned.”

You’re commercial: “On the one hand, I don’t think 13-year-olds aching for acceptance would be embarrassed to own your CD, but on the other hand, I don’t think 50-year-old office managers would find you in any way threatening.”

First of all, props to the band: Those will be the last props offered. That is the end of the part of the critique involving props. Kiss your props goodbye.

Dreadful: Means “dreadful.”

Linda Holmes is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com

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