The "American Idol" contestants face judging and criticism every week, with both judges and viewers dissecting everything the contestants wear, sing, and say.
But that same spotlight of criticism also shines on the show's four judges, including the newest addition to the panel, songwriter Kara DioGuardi.
Being "the new kid on the block" on the country's most-popular television show is "a hard job," DioGuardi told me, saying she's already learned from "stupid mistakes." For example, she no longer gets too close to the on-table microphone or bangs her hand on the judging table, both inadvertent mistakes that disrupted early episodes.
She's also found speaking in soundbites to be challenging. "It's hard to keep reinventing what you say," she said.
And viewers cut the judges no slack in that department — last week, the brother of then-contestant Megan Joy screamed "broken record!" at DioGuardi from his seat in the audience. (Viewers agreed with DioGuardi, not with him — Megan Joy was kicked off on April 1.)
DioGuardi could face even more vocal feedback, positive or negative, soon. She's currently writing a song that could be selected as the single the "American Idol" finalists will perform and the winner will release.
"I've always tried to write the final song so it's not really a big [deal] — they're either going to like it or they're not," she said.
That may be a good way to define life on a show that is defined by the way it incites passionate responses.
"People have their opinions about me, and it's difficult because you have 30 seconds, so I'm not sure you get a feel for who I am in the process because it is so limited," DioGuardi said. "I'm trying to do the best I can and really be a good addition to the show, and I'm critical of myself. I'm learning every week. I'm trying to get better."
Rumors that judges don't get along are untrue
DioGuardi is a Grammy-nominated and BMI award-winning songwriter whose songs have been recorded and performed by artists such as Christina Aguilera, Faith Hill, the Jonas Brothers, Enrique Iglesias, and Carrie Underwood. Kelly Clarkson's brand-new single "I Do Not Hook Up" was co-written by DioGuardi.
While she's used to working with artists one-on-one, the "American Idol" format presents a different challenge. "I always want to go back there and show them what they're doing wrong, and I can't really do that," DioGuardi said. "And that's hard for me, because I want to help them."
Her judging, she said, is "a combination of a lot of those things" that have come to define the other judges: "Simon is able to say what people may be thinking or feeling but they wouldn't dare to say. Paula is very nurturing. I think she is somebody who tries to find the good in everything, but also if something's not great she'll say it in a way that's comforting. Randy is a real musician and a studio guy … and he also has a way of saying things that makes people walk away with a little more knowledge," DioGuardi said.
Yet as a result of her years of experience in the industry, she isn't exactly echoing her fellow judges. "I can get more technical, and I talk a lot about the difference between singing and artistry, which is a big thing for me, especially now at this point in the competition," she said. "It's not just about singing; it's about looking at it like, 'What record are we going to make with you when we're done?'"
Her "technical" approach, though, has its drawbacks, as DioGuardi finds it frustrating that while she's "actually a pretty fun and funny girl, that doesn't always come across. Because you're trying to be serious about what's going on in front of you."
The jokers on the judging panel are Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul, and their antics don't bother DioGuardi. "I think it's good TV. It's fun, it brings up the show so the show doesn't get too serious," she said.
But DioGuardi said she is "really serious about what I'm doing," and "I take people's dreams very seriously. I really am trying to give them, as quickly as I can ... good advice for the next week." And she added, "while I think that Paula and Simon are adorable and very funny and colorful, I don't feel like I should start competing with that."
Reports of off-camera conflict between the four judges are "really not true," DioGuardi said. "If that was the case, how difficult would it be for me to be up on that panel? Can you imagine if we weren't speaking and we had real issues? Oh my God. I'd probably have to quit the show; I wouldn't be able to do it."
She also dismisses a common rumor that she was brought onto the panel to eventually replace either Cowell or Abdul. "How could I replicate either of them? I don't even see it like that," she said. "They're just such incredible TV personalities, they bring so much to the show. That's never been said to me; I think there would be absolute craziness if that were to happen, people would be so upset."
As far as this season of "Idol" goes, DioGuardi said she is "very excited" about the remaining contestants.
Although she said "I do think that there's a solid front-runner," she wouldn't name that person. "My job is to judge what happens week to week," she said. "To [predict a winner] sort of kills the rest of the season for me. I want to see what people can deliver. You never know."
Still, she cited highlights, including Adam Lambert's "outrageous range" and Allison Iraheta, who "sings like she's an old soul." Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson have predicted that Danny Gokey and Adam Lambert will end up in the finals, but DioGuardi said that while that's "a really strong possibility," it depends upon their performances going forward and whether Iraheta, Kris Allen, and Matt Giraud "keep upping their game."
Contestants' performances often hang on their song choice, at least according to the judges. "The reality is, you're going to live or die by your song choice after this competition, and that's going to be really important," DioGuardi said. "There are some performers who can take on many different songs and still make it their own, and then there are some which we're seeing, I think this season, that can't."
But much like the contestants themselves, DioGuardi notes that the judges cannot be too thin-skinned about what's said about them, good or bad.
The judges' criticism of contestants for song choice or other things is important because it's "delivering news to people who are sitting there and being judged by the country, and we're probably swaying the vote," DioGuardi said. But she doesn't let comments about her own performance affect her job.
"At the end of the day, when I look [at criticism], this isn't the Kara show, this is the 'American Idol' show," she said. "It's my job to give the best advice I can, the best critique I can, and not let anybody saying negative things about me keep me from doing that, because the show is so much bigger than me."