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Most important ‘Idol’ judge? It’s Paula Abdul

Simon’s more honest, but Paula’s randomness reflects the voters
American Idol judge Paula Abdul ponders a question at a news conference during taping auditions of the show in San Francisco, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2005. They discussed the upcoming \"American Idol\" season that will start airing in January 2006. It remains up to the \"American Idol\" audience to decide whether TV's No. 1 show has retained its credibility when it returns - along with Abdul, who's getting to keep her job with the backing of lawyers and the Fox network. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)Paul Sakuma / AP file
/ Source: contributor

On a recent “American Idol 5” performance show, host Ryan Seacrest asked judge Paula Abdul to compare this year's finalists to past groups.

Here’s what she said: “Ryan, I think that this is the most unique, well-diverse, most-talented and most talked about top 12 that we’ve ever had. There’s not a day that people don’t come up to me and everyone has different favorites, so it’s anyone’s game, and it’s exciting as can be.”

Paula said 50 words, but she actually said not much at all. In Paula’s universe, stating the obvious incoherently qualifies as answering a question that demands subjective, critical analysis. This isn’t really a surprise, as she does this all the time.

A few weeks ago, Ryan asked her why the show is more popular this year. Paula said, “I think we’ve a gained a larger audience.” Yes, Paula, that is the definition of “more popular.”

In fact, Paula Abdul rarely answers the question just as she rarely offers a negative critique of a performance. If she does offer some kind of criticism, she buries those comments inside so many layers of fluff and drivel that it requires detailed analysis just to figure out what she really said. After she’s done, she claps her palms together as if her nails were drying, or as if she were a seal still learning how to perform. It’s absolutely maddening. Based on her lack of actual judging, she’s not even fit to be a judge.

Except Paula Abdul is the most important judge “American Idol” has.

Puppies kittens sunshine happinessWhen judging the contestants’ performances, Simon Cowell basically says something like, “You really sucked just then, mate” while Paula tends to say, “Puppies kittens bunnies teddy bears not the best song choice for me but that’s okay, sweetie, sunshine happiness flowers.”

Last week, she told Melissa McGhee, the first person eliminated from the top 12, “You should wear dresses more often. You look absolutely beautiful. So you messed up the lyric — ‘recognition’ instead of ‘premonition.’ But do you want to know something? When you open up your mouth to sing, there’s something very, very soothing about your voice, and it’s like a breath of fresh air, and it’s like, ahh, I love that voice, and it’s different from any other voice in the competition, so keep on going. I think you did a really nice job.”

Earlier, she told Ace Young, “What I love about you is your spirit, you put everything into it; you even had some cool dance moves in there. And you entertained everyone, it was a great job.”

Paula basically offers most contestants a variation on these lines, which are mostly just empty compliments. A few weeks ago, she told the now-eliminated David Radford, “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.”

Of course, that makes little sense (is it even possible to not be “true to who you are”?), but her statement encapsulates what Paula — and the voting audience — think is the best criteria to use in making judgments.

The insufferable studio audience nearly always erupts into applause after Paula says something inconsequential, and then obnoxiously boos Simon for being honest. He never softens his responses the way Paula does, and they hate him for it.

The audience boos Simon because many of its members do not want to be reminded that this competition is supposed to be about talent. They’d rather feel good about their favorites even when their favorites screw up. And that’s why they love Paula, and that’s why she’s so vital: because she reminds the world how “Idol” voters are making decisions.

“America,” or at least the legions of teens and others who bother to vote after the performance show airs, does not decide to vote for someone based upon talent alone. Sometimes bad performers stick around (John Stevens, from season three) while performers who are good go home (Jennifer Hudson, who was eliminated even when Stevens said “it should have been me”).

On some level, this makes perfect sense. A few weeks ago, Simon Cowell said the show and the judges “have now trained the American audience to be good music critics.” That was perhaps his biggest fib ever; most audience members have no idea what constitutes good or bad singing. When Randy says something is “pitchy,” it means nothing except to those who have had some kind of musical training.

Viewers respond instead to the person: their story, their clothing, their personality. That explains all of those packaged segments about the contestants, and explains why someone with a confrontational personality never has a chance.

In his judging, Simon Cowell has increasingly been acknowledging this phenomenon, even though it’s been present since season one. Simon referred to it as the “it factor,” or the “X Factor,” borrowing the name of his other UK talent search show. After each performance, his criticism tends to focus on the actual singing and song choice, but he’ll often acknowledge the role other factors play. This season, he told one contestant, “This came over as a bit of a joke. Having said that, I have a feeling the audience at home will like you.”

Paula Abdul is viewers' intrepid guide into the world of likeability. She finds the most absurd and random things upon which to compliment contestants, as if she were there to protect them. That explains why Paula is sometimes referred to as the show’s “den mother,” hovering over and protecting her cubs, particularly from the scary man next door, Simon Cowell.

Paula’s also an important judge because, let’s be honest, Simon Cowell has been flinging the exact same insults for the past five years. Paula is unpredictable and often hilarious.

In the middle of this season’s semi-finals, she erupted into giggles during the results show and said that Heather Cox and Brenna Gethers were going home “because one of them ate pizza and the other ate salad.” Later she said, “Simon gave me advice and said on ‘The X Factor’ he always refers to a fortune cookie and says the moth who finds the melon finds the cornflake always finds the melon and one of you didn’t pick the right fortune.”

As hysterical and completely insane as this was, it also betrayed Paula’s core constituency, because they expect her to coddle the contestants and reassure the audience. Her flippant, absurd response came dangerously close to betraying her true feelings about the competition, that it’s more of a joke than a serious talent competition, a competition where arbitrary, pizza-or-salad decisions made by the audience are the rule.

But really, that’s what Paula Abdul reaffirms nearly every time she talks about a contestant, and that’s why Paula Abdul is the show’s most important judge.

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