Almost immediately after American Idol premiered in the summer of 2002, the show became a brand name nearly as ubiquitous as the Coca-Cola its judges sipped from gratuitously placed, branded cups. And though the show has proven to be a reasonably reliable manufacturer of chart-toppers, its judging panel has become nearly as iconic as the show’s name itself. Simon Cowell in particular became something of a cult figure, equally adored and reviled for his willingness to tell contestants they sucked. So when it was announced that last season would be Cowell’s final tour of duty on Idol, the show found itself at a crossroads.
A few of the names thrown out there in the media to replace him (Howard Stern in particular) made it seem like Fox was looking to substitute in another jerk for the sake of entertainment, which made the selection of Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler all the more surprising. However, the move also made total sense. Whatever you think of Aerosmith’s recorded output in the last, oh, three decades or so, the guy has unassailable rock ’n’ roll credentials, something the show has never been able to lay claim to before. At the same time, though, Tyler has proven time and time again in recent years that he isn’t above doing things like performing with Britney Spears at the Super Bowl. In other words, he’s perfect for Idol. On paper, at least.
The other new face on the judging panel, Jennifer Lopez, has far smaller shoes to fill. Paula Abdul was just as polarizing as Cowell, but for nearly opposite reasons. The producers’ original plan of succession for the at-times-incoherent but always-memorable Abdul failed miserably: professional songwriter Kara DioGuardi was a good judge but had nothing resembling personality, while Ellen DeGeneres’ daytime-TV shtick failed to translate to a show based on judging talent in a field she clearly knew nothing about. Say this for J. Lo: Her showbiz cred is arguably even more solid than Abdul’s was, which should have made her a natural fit to work with Randy Jackson, the one constant for the show’s 10-season run.
Unfortunately, while it’s admirable that the show’s producers opted not to bring in a Simon clone, the formula simply does not work without someone willing to be an ass to kids with big dreams but no chops. Granted, the audition rounds are always rough at first, and Jackson, Tyler, and Lopez are still getting used to working together, but I couldn’t help but to notice how much the show’s standards are lowered with Simon out of the picture. The turning point in Wednesday’s season premiere, recorded in New Jersey, came with the audition of Ashley Sullivan, a peppy, Britney-worshipping self-proclaimed “showtune pop singer.” Her audition wasn’t good, and it was obvious that the judges weren’t feeling it. When they initially said no without really saying it (this is kind of a recurring scene so far this season), she got down on her knees and did the whole please-give-me-a-shot routine that longtime Idol watchers have learned to tune out by now. Simon would have had her thrown out of the audition room within 30 seconds of her starting this act, and I actually found myself begging in front of my TV for them not to let her through. And did they send her to Hollywood? Of course they did. That’s when it became clear that without Simon, there’s simply nobody on the show with a spine.
Seeing as how this episode was recorded in New Jersey, it’s inevitable that there would be some kind of Jersey Shore moment. We can forgive the fist-pumping competition Ryan Seacrest organized among the throngs of people filling Meadowlands Stadium. Not so easy to let slide, however, was Tiffany Rios, whose pre-audition video clip consisted of a demonstration of how to do one’s hair like Snooki. Idol is enough of a ratings juggernaut that this kind of pandering to other popular reality shows is totally unnecessary. I feel weird even writing this, but cashing in on Jersey Shore is actually beneath the show. On top of that, Tiffany was as annoyingly over-the-top as any Idol contestant ever, with stars on her bra and a ridiculous original song centered on how the show needs her for TV ratings (not true). Her singing was mediocre at best, and her outfit prompted the first of several hold-on-what-did-he-just-say? quips from Tyler: “Did you put ju-ju-bees on your ooh-ooh-bees?”
I still haven’t quite pinned down what kind of a judge Tyler will be, but he certainly brought the unintentional comedy in abundance. Tapping the table and singing along with early standout Caleb Hawley’s rendition of “Hallelujah I Love Her So,” asking one particularly inept contestant if he ate a lot of paint chips as a child, making borderline-creepy comments to several female contestants—even if he fails at giving any kind of feedback on their actual performances, you don’t forget the job he does very easily. I can only assume his criticisms will get more constructive when the show gets into the later rounds.
J. Lo, on the other hand, makes the notoriously overly-nice Paula look like Simon. No matter how forgettable a contestant is, as long as they burst into tears upon seeing her in the flesh and told her that they’ve idolized her since their moms took them to see Selena, they got put through, or at the very least got a very long, drawn-out whimper of a “no.” Rachel Zevita, the night’s first contestant, was a season-six Hollywood castoff that Lopez said she remembered (I don’t buy it in the slightest—I’ve been watching Idol every year since its inception and I had no idea who she was, and I highly doubt Jennifer Lopez sits around studying up on five-year-old American Idol rejects). If this is how out of her way J. Lo goes to be nice to contestants, I’d hate to think how she’ll do when she’s actually worked with these kids hands-on for several months.
The rest of the episode was the same old same-old: a few obvious put-ons designed for bad-auditions clip shows, a few sob stories (although to the show’s credit, this time most of them backed up their sympathy cards with talent), and a few actual standouts. I’m not entirely sold on Tyler and Lopez as judges, but I’m willing to give this a shot.