Pop Culture

Don't hate! Nicki Minaj is awesome on 'American Idol'

Michael Becker / Fox / Today
New "Idol" judge Nicki Minaj is adding some much needed spice to the singing competition.

Opinion: When "American Idol" judge Nicki Minaj is unhappy,  she's not afraid to show it. Just last week, after it was revealed that contestant Curtis Finch Jr. was in danger of being sent packing, she threatened, "If you go home, I’m going home." And when the hopeful got the boot, Nicki left the stage.

Her exit was great news for the vocal portion of the Internet who would've been thrilled had she carried out her plan and stayed away for good.

But she didn’t, and thank the reality TV gods for that. Though the Nicki haters may be muting their sets whenever she opens her mouth, she’s the best thing to happen to “Idol” in ages.

The "Starships" singer is clearly polarizing. She says wacky things. She shows up late sometimes and -- as viewers saw last week -- departs early when it suits her. There are some nights when she seems to be paying limited attention.

And who among us can turn away from that action?

Judge drama essential

As judge Randy Jackson reminds us every time he can’t think of anything else to say, "American Idol" is a singing competition. It’s a high-end talent show, the likes of which go on in every small town in the world and are available 24 hours a day to anyone with a basic cable TV package. Particularly given the increasing competition in the marketplace, “Idol” needs more than its brand name and Ryan Seacrest’s smiling face to avoid being tossed off its perch and lumped in with every other network’s copycat effort.

“Idol” found its secret right away: drama from the judges. Simon Cowell was the original bad boy who people thought they hated but secretly loved. For all the faux outrage over all the barbs he's thrown to guileless teenagers with outsized dreams, he guaranteed that every week, “Idol” would have something worth watching other than forgettable vocalists singing disco tunes.

Ever since he decided to leave the show for “X Factor” (and how’s that working out for him?), "Idol" has drifted into dullness and safety, relying heavily on the idea that viewers in the habit of DVRing the show will keep watching on autopilot.

Replacing Simon and the rest of the crew (aside from Randy, who’s apparently indestructible) with Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler was a great way to add buzz, and there was always the chance that Steven would do something wacky like hit on a teenage female contestant or show up in drag. But most weeks, viewers saw average contestants given below-average and unmemorable feedback from the judges, and sitting through the commercial-padded episodes got harder and harder.

Newbies to the rescue

The show needed a reboot, and it’s gotten one. Keith Urban has been outstanding in his opening season, offering encouragement, advice and gentle but firm criticism as warranted. Mariah Carey provides the tight outfits and forgettable prose. Randy is also back to remind people that this is technically the same show that saw Kelly Clarkson burst from obscurity to stardom in its first season.

But Nicki is the key. She’s the one person on the show who’s impossible to ignore because she’s impossible to predict. You literally have no idea what you're getting when you turn on the TV every Wednesday and Thursday. She might use an upper-crust British accent in the night’s commentary, or she might cause the Fox censor to work overtime. She might undress all the men with both her eyes and her feedback, or tell her favorite woman that she reminds her of pancakes with syrup and butter. It’s like combining a talent show with performance art.

She’s the first judge since Simon whose comments are impossible to ignore, and she’s under no pressure to conform. She’s a top-selling artist who’s only going to gain credibility among her fans if she’s controversial. She has a lot of rope, and she knows it.

What’s with the kindness?

Surprisingly, where she’s not like Simon is in her evilness.

Simon was, let’s face it, a jerk. Many thought that given her status and reputation in hip-hop, Nicki would have more to gain by being cutting than being nice. She fed into that soon after taking the job, noting that she didn’t plan to advance people just because of their touching backstories.

She hasn’t done that. If Nicki doesn’t like something, she’ll say so, but there’s no likening a bad performance to a lounge act on a sinking cruise ship, or whatever simile Simon is beating into the ground these days. She’ll offer useful ideas when she has them, and she’ll passionately urge those she doesn’t like to mend their evil ways.

Put bluntly, Nicki makes "Idol" worth watching again.

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