Pop Culture

‘Idol’ judges have grown into their roles

The contestants on “American Idol” change every year. The permanent cast, however, does not.

There are four cast members, and three of them are the show’s judges (the other is Ryan Seacrest, its host). The judges have been the same judges since the first season, and without them, the show would collapse.

FOX’s reality talent search series might let the public select their idol, but it would not be the most popular television show in America without Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, and Randy Jackson.

Over the five seasons they’ve worked together, the three have grown into their roles. Sometimes they’re more serious, while other times they that the entire show is a huge farce. Even as they grow more alike, their differences become clear, as each fills a certain, necessary role in the “American Idol” equation.

No other show has been able to create a judging panel quite like this one, and that’s thanks to their distinct personalities and clear understanding of the job they were hired to do.

Paula Abdul: Cries with you, cries for youPaula Abdul’s job is, on paper, to provide the perspective of a pop idol. Of the three judges, Abdul was the only household name when "Idol" began in 2002. Still, back then, she hadn’t been seen dancing with animated cats or doing much at all for a number of years.

As Simon Cowell explains in his book “I Don’t Meant to Be Rude, But…”, Paula nearly quit the series during the first auditions because of his caustic remarks and the overall tone of the show. Simon writes that Paula was crying hysterically, upset over his criticisms and the responses of the contestants.

She stayed, of course, seemingly just to provide a counterpoint to Simon’s nastiness. Paula quickly became the “den mother” of the show, and the person who would never say anything bad about anyone. Any criticism she does offer comes .

Last season, she told one semi-finalist, “It wasn’t my favorite song choice, but I still think you were true to who you are, and that’s what’s important in this competition.”

That nice-at-all-costs tone fell away somewhat during “American Idol 5,” when she behaved so erratically that host Ryan Seacrest repeatedly suggested on-air that she was drunk. Perhaps bruised over former contestant Corey Clark’s accusations that she’d had a relationship with him, claims that surfaced at the end of season four, Paula’s behavior was atypical, to say the least.

A few times she even criticized contestants, telling Paris Bennett last season, “I felt like it was kind of a struggle for you to find that place where you own the stage like you always do week after week.” That caused the shocked audience to boo Paula.

Yet ultimately she stayed in character, offering more and more praise, with more and more emotion behind her words. After finalist Elliott Yamin performed one song, she burst into tears and told him, “You move me. You celebrate what this competition is all about. ... You have a beautiful, beautiful voice.”

Randy Jackson: Sliding towards SimonRandy Jackson may be a former member of Journey, and a record executive and manager, but his talents have been reduced to uttering the same phrases over and over again from his seat on the far left-hand side of the judge’s table.

“Yo, yo, dawg,” he might say, “that was pitchy.” Entertainment Weekly’s Michael Slezak organized Randy’s comments from one episode last season into poems, and the results are hilarious: “Yo, baby, Elliott/So check it out, dawg/Elliott/So check it out, man/I hated/Check it out.”

Unlike Paula, however, Randy actually says something. He’s willing to challenge both Paula and Simon about their opinions, but he’s also willing to tell the contestants when they’ve screwed up.

For nearly every evaluation, Randy goes first, and that works because if he criticizes a performance, then his words are softened by Paula Abdul’s disagreement — and she usually disagrees. As a manager and producer, he’s essentially guided by the same principles as Simon, but he offers more constructive criticism. He sometimes even offers actual suggestions or points out what someone did wrong.

But like Paula, he’s moved more toward Simon’s end of the spectrum in recent seasons, as he’s willing to tell contestants — especially those who are auditioning — that they’re pathetic and awful. He can even be cruel, telling one auditioning contestant last season that she should be “doing voices. ‘Rugrats,’ or dogs, or whatever,” not singing because of her odd voice.

Simon Cowell: Mr. NastyThe person who's really in charge of insulting the contestants is Simon Cowell, who was known as “Mr. Nasty” during “Pop Idol,” the UK’s predecessor to “American Idol.”

Without Simon there would be no series, and not just because he came up with the concept.  After the karaoke ends, he is the entertainment. The lemmings in the studio audience may boo him, but most of the time, he’s right, even if he’s an obnoxious jerk.

The audience boos and pretends to hate Simon because he goes beyond criticizing contestants’ vocal abilities, although often he’s the only one to do that even after a truly terrible performance. He often adds comments about how fat or ugly or weird contestants are, and it’s because of this that he gets his reputation as a horse’s ass.

Still, his behavior is somewhat defensible, in that his role is as a record executive who’s there representing his own financial interests (his label signs the winner and any other finalists it wants to).

In his book, he says he told Paula Abdul, “you and I know what the music industry is like, and we have promised the American audience that we’re going to portray it honestly.” In other words, record-label executives are going to make decisions in part based upon a person’s appearance, so the judges (e.g. Simon) might as well be honest about it.

Does he have to be so vicious and cruel? Of course not. But he — and his fellow judges, but mostly Simon — are the reason why America tuned in back in the summer of 2002 to a show that otherwise would have seemed like a cheesier version of “Star Search.”

is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.

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