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It's time for 'American Idol' judges to get mean

“American Idol” has its 13 finalists, who now will be whittled down one by one until the champion is crowned in May. A trio of judges are supposed to help the viewers make that decision, and with two newcomers arriving and the legendary Simon Cowell departing, they’ll be under as much scrutiny as the singers.

So far, those judges have been better than expected ... and worse. The addition of Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez have brought much-needed humor, energy, and practicality to a group that spent season nine going through the motions, but also appears to have a chance to go the entire season without every actually being mean to a contestant. It’s a kinder, gentler “Idol,” this season, but that doesn’t mean it will be better.

First, the good news.

Steven Tyler is the biggest "American Idol" surprise since Taylor Hicks. Almost everyone was skeptical that he would be anything other than a disaster, but he's been funny, irreverent and supportive. He's like Simon in the sense that he's the judge viewers have to pay attention to, if only to see whether he drops a few F-bombs or stares inappropriately at the female contestants as they sing.

Jennifer Lopez has a smidge of Paula Abdul in her, as we saw when she broke down eliminating Chris Medina (which wound up doing Medina a favor, since it got him on "The Tonight Show" and saw his iTunes release sell a few thousand more copies). But unlike Abdul, she offers advice that goes beyond complimenting the singer's outfit or good looks. Telling singers how to treat the cameras, or how important it is not to overthink things, is a lot more useful than just talking about songs being “pitchy.”

And Randy Jackson ... well, at least he's trying. The Big Dawg has Simon's old seat, and to the extent that anyone is replacing Cowell as the meanie/realist, it’s him. While Tyler and J.Lo seem to want to have everyone stick around, Jackson keeps the season moving along and reminding us that not everyone can win.

Because sometimes, everyone else seems to forget that.

Say something critical
It’s a cliché that has stood the test of time and the revolving door of judges: “American Idol” is a singing competition. Normally, that’s said by the judges to the contestants to emphasize the need to sing well, as opposed to simply being entertaining or looking snazzy — it’s a SINGING competition, not a general talent show.

This season, the judges are the ones who need reminding that it’s a singing COMPETITION. This can’t be Lake Wobegon ... we already know that everyone remaining is above average, since they’re the last 13 standing of the thousands who auditioned. The show should be more like “Top Gun” at this point, with only the best of the best moving forward each week.

In the past, Simon was the bearer of the brutal honesty required to keep things moving forward. If someone was subpar, he’d tell them so in very colorful and mean language that could horrify and entertain at the same time. Viewers might be grateful he wasn’t their boss or teacher, but his track record as a judge of others was tough to argue with.

These judges can’t seem to do that. They’re all very nice, and they all seem to genuinely like the singers who are still here, even if some are clearly better than others. But unless a viewer is willing to carefully dissect specific word choice, it’s easy to think that they love everyone equally (except for Lauren Alaina, who they love a lot more).

Take Julie Zorrilla's semifinal solo. It wasn’t very good. She knew it, the judges knew it, the American people knew it. Simon would have said something brutal and cutting about her blowing her big chance, and Zorrilla likely would have broken down in tears, and it would have gotten everyone on the morning talk shows.

Tyler, J.Lo and Randy were comparatively nice. Steven Tyler didn’t like the song choice, but quickly talked about her “great voice.” Randy didn’t think it stood out. J.Lo didn’t love her connection to the lyrics. All very tame.

Or how about Jordan Dorsey? He made a terrible song choice in Usher’s “OMG,” and had his decision dinged accordingly. But the “criticism” we heard was that it wasn’t his best performance and not who he should be as an artist. When the feedback is something that everyone in the audience could have given, there’s not much of a reason to pay attention.

Those were arguably the two worst performances of the semifinal round, and judging from the instant reaction online via Twitter and Facebook postings, most of the viewers knew it. But the judges were unwilling to strongly state the obvious, perhaps because they like everyone too much to do so.

Someone needs to step up
Simon’s shadow still looms large, and “Idol” made a smart decision not to have an obvious stand-in for him. He was a unique personality to say the least, and this keeps any of the new judges from being dismissed as Simon Lite.

But if Simon's particular accent and the painful similes and metaphors aren’t essential, his brutal honesty is. It’s a competition that only one person can win, and if someone isn’t good enough the judges have to say so.

It’s a difficult competition for everyone, and the singers all know they have to step up their performance to advance. The judges are going to have to do the same.

Craig Berman is a frequent contributor to TODAY.com.

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