Pop Culture

New judge will instantly improve ‘Idol’

“American Idol” now has a permanent fourth judge, as songwriter Kara DioGuardi will join Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson, for the show’s eighth season, starting Tuesday with the New York auditions.

The addition of DioGuardi to the panel has the power to be instantly transformative, changing the dynamic that’s central to the series and thus changing the U.S.’s number-one television show in the process. Although the show has a new group of singers every year, its core cast — the judges plus host Ryan Seacrest are its true stars, and they give the show its center.

It could also be ultimately meaningless. But DioGuardi’s experience, age and newness should inject long-overdue life into a show that desperately needs some credibility, hipness and vigor.

“American Idol” has watched its ratings slip over the past few seasons, but its reputation as a hit-maker has suffered more as its recent winners have failed to become true idols along the lines of Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood.

When producers suggested changes were coming to address the increasingly stagnant nature of the series, some suggested that would include the departure of increasingly extraneous judges Abdul and Jackson.

Obviously, that’s not what’s happened. Instead, producers have gone the opposite direction, which raises two key questions: Does “American Idol” really need another judge? Or does it just need fewer useless judges?

Because the judges are so much a part of the series’ identity, adding a new judge to their mix has the potential to be more interesting and dramatic than what would result if a judge was simply replaced. Now, Abdul, Jackson and Cowell will be like a family invaded by an outsider. At once, they’ll struggle to maintain their old dynamic while incorporating a new voice who will hopefully provide an entirely new perspective.

Of course, adding a fourth judge hasn’t really invigorated the show in the past; it’s actually been pretty disastrous, but not in any interesting way. However, those fourth judges were nearly always artists or people in the music industry who were on the panel for such a short period of time — often during auditions — that they never got over their insecurity about what they were there to do, and thus ended up being flat and completely unmemorable.

Younger, hipper, more opinionatedNo one knows yet what kind of judge DioGuardi will become.

In an interview with reporters Monday, however, she hinted that she’ll be more like Cowell than the other two, expressing general agreement with his criticism. And since she hasn’t been on the show for seven years, perhaps her criticism won’t be as rote and predictable as his.

What is clear is that DioGuardi brings qualities to the judges’ table that it desperately needs. First, and less importantly, she’s younger than the others (37, while Abdul is 46, Cowell is 48, and Jackson is 52). Age can certainly be meaningless, but especially now that executive producer Nigel Lythgoe (age 59) has left “American Idol,” perhaps the show will start acting like a series that wants younger viewers — many of whom abandoned the show last season — instead of ones who don’t know the difference between an MP3 and MTV.

More significantly, DioGuardi is actively working with artists that people actually listen to today.

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All of the existing “American Idol” judges have well-respected backgrounds in the music industry, but they’re not exactly known for their work in pop music beyond what they do on Fox every spring. Simon Cowell, for example, makes headlines for “Idol” and the other reality TV shows he produces, not for his work as a record executive or producer.

DioGuardi, meanwhile, is a songwriter and producer who’s worked with current pop stars including Christina Aguilera, the Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus, Faith Hill and Gwen Stefani, never mind “American Idol” alumni such as Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Bo Bice and Clay Aiken. And Fox said in its announcement that DioGuardi owns a company “where she develops and mentors fellow hit writers, producers and artists.”

Thus, of the four judges, DioGuardi instantly becomes the most relevant.

Perhaps because of this, Abdul already seems nervous, telling one radio show that she’s “concerned about the audience and acceptance.” The only thing Abdul should be concerned with is whether or not DioGuardi makes Abdul look even more irrelevant.

Abdul hasn’t been fired because she’s too valuable to the show, although not as an expert. Instead, she’s the source of comic relief. Last season, besides her well-publicized critique of songs that had yet to be performed, Abdul also entertained/horrified us, such as when she told David Archuleta, “I wanted to squish you, squeeze your head off, and dangle you from my rear-view mirror.”

It’s unlikely DioGuardi will also suggest she wants to hang the headless bodies of teenage contestants in her car. But she may actually offer feedback relevant to contestants who want to be contemporary artists. That may help “American Idol” deliver on its promise for the first time in years.

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

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