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There’s no question that Steven Tyler has been one of the stars of “American Idol” this season. Along with fellow newcomer Jennifer Lopez, he's brought some freshness and humor to a show that had started to go stale. And during the auditions and the Hollywood round, he was the most unpredictable member of the crew.
From the beginning, there didn't seem to be a filter between Tyler's brain and his dialogue, which caused host Ryan Seacrest to jokingly give him a mouth covering that mimics the graphic the folks at Fox put over his mouth when he swears. And the thing is, Tyler can get away with that language because those profanities are never mean-spirited. They're just his way of saying he really likes someone or what they are doing onstage.
But as he's caused the censors to get that extra cup of coffee and turn off the cell phones to avoid distractions, Tyler is also walking a fine line. Not in the words he uses, but in what he's actually saying — which usually boils down to nothing.
Tyler will talk about how the girls look, of course, but as far as specific critiques on how anyone is singing? Not so much. It turns out that he’s not the new Simon Cowell, or even the new Randy Jackson. Between the always-positive platitudes and the wardrobe fixation, Tyler instead is an even more positive version of Paula Abdul.
The judge who’s everybody’s friend
Tyler was critical at times in the early stages of the competition. In fact, it was originally J.Lo who was the judge who couldn’t seem to say no to anyone with a decent voice and compelling backstory. The fact that he’s now the one playing nice just puts him in the same boat as J.Lo and Jackson, his fellow judges on the podium.
Though this season definitely misses having a judge in the killjoy role that Simon occupied for the first nine seasons, it's not fair to assign blame for that to Tyler, since neither of the other judges are filling that void either. And even without Simon, this is the most pleasant group of judges to watch in years, particularly compared to last season’s botched experiment.
The problem is that Tyler really isn't saying anything at all when he judges. He's just sitting there playing the role of the Rock Star Emeritus with tenure presiding over a class of graduate students, spicing up his comments with a joke or a risqué phrase to stay relevant to the younger generation. While Jackson is at least occasionally making an attempt to be critical and J.Lo seems to see herself as their coach, Tyler talks like his central aim in the show is to be everyone's friend.
That does not seem to be an act. It appears he likes everyone and would like to anoint everyone as a future superstar in the seconds after their performances end. He’s become a cheerleader, apparently under the impression that his job of being a critic was completed when the final 13 were selected, and his role now is simply to be supportive of those singers who remain.
Last week’s performance episode was typical. As the 11 remaining finalists took on the songbook of Elton John, some performed better than others ... but all earned praise from the Aerosmith frontman.
Scotty McCreery was the first onstage, and Tyler was the initial judge to respond. His feedback: “Scotty, there’s nothing I could say to you that an old-fashioned pair of high-heeled cowboy boots wouldn’t fix. I love everything about your voice, and the fact that you tip your hat to grandma is the best. You did it again, Scotty.”
OK, so McCreery’s performance was pretty good, and none of the judges criticized him. But what about Naima Adedapo? She went on next with a reggae version of “I’m Still Standing” that didn’t work, and both of the other judges questioned whether it was the right decision.
Not Tyler. “Boom shakalakalaka, baby. And good for you for picking a song that fits you,” he said.
The same went for Paul McDonald, who wound up in the bottom three after a performance that was too understated and uneven to make a positive impression. With McDonald, Tyler first joked about the outfit, which included the hopeful's familiar decorative white jacket. “Let me ask you, have you been watering that suit? Because there are a lot more flowers on it this time than last time,” he said.
Then he got more serious ... sort of. “When you start hitting every note, that’s the day when I’m not gonna like you anymore. I like the character when you sometimes hit a note and sometimes you don’t. I can name great artists right now that sing that way right now.”
Similar comments followed the other singers' performances. The only time he was at all critical, it was his good-natured swipe at Jackson for telling Pia Toscano to stop singing ballads. He wasn’t a judge but the contestants' lawyer, arguing their merits before the audience to help them win votes.
Though it looks as though Tyler likes all the remaining singers, there’s one who seems to have a special place in his heart: James Durbin.
Tyler appears more energized when Durbin takes the stage, paying rapt attention to the performance and looks truly happy when the young man pulls it off. That’s no surprise, since Durbin is the only rocker this season and is the closest thing the show has to what Tyler must have been like when he was that age a hundred years ago.
It’s interesting to watch the dynamic between them, and if Durbin doesn’t wind up winning, it’s possible that Tyler will take on a larger role in steering him in the right direction. This has the potential to be a mentor-legend relationship that most aspiring performers can only dream about.
Of course, the problem is that Tyler is supposed to be Durbin’s critic, not his patron. But the way Tyler has been judging the competition since the finals began, it’s not unexpected either.
After all, like Abdul before him, Tyler is every "Idol" hopeful's friend.
Craig Berman is a frequent contributor to TODAY.com. Follow him on Twitter as he live tweets each episode.
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