'American Idol's' new season: It's about the judges, not the music

The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)January 13, 2013 

If the first two episodes of the new Season 12 of "American Idol" are any indication, the show is looking to make big stars of two talented female singers who are great performers and have big personalities.

That would be new judges Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj.

That's because the episodes, shown Wednesday night in special sneak peek theater presentations for an invited Philadelphia-area crowd and eight other cities nationwide, focused far more on the show's new judges than on any -- or all -- of the contestants.

The new season of "Idol" starts with the two-night premiere at 8 p.m. Jan. 16-17 on Fox.

It's been a criticism of the show in recent years that it's focused far more on celebrity judges such as Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler or Jennifer Lopez. But the episodes screened at the sneak peek went over the top, giving nearly all the screen time to Carey, Minaj and the third new judge, country star Keith Urban. (Randy Jackson's still there, but more invisible now than ever.)

Perhaps that's understandable: The show wants to introduce the new judges and get the audience invested in them (since Fox reportedly invested so much in the judges -- literally; Carey's salary alone is said to be $18 million.)

But the first episodes do it at the expense of the contestants. The episodes show auditions from New York and Chicago -- two large cities that presumably had a lot of people trying out and a lot who were put through to the next round in Hollywood.

But few are shown. Even fewer "real" contestants are shown; some are the "joke" contestants that the show beats to death every year. For example, there's a William Hung wannabe (remember Hung? The Asian guy who sang Ricky Martin's "She Bangs"?)

When the show did feature "real" contestants, they were mostly people with sappy stories, such as a homeless person, a boy with health problems he says leave him with a life expectancy of less than 35 years and a New Jersey girl whose family adopts and fosters medically disadvantaged children.

There's also a contestant who stutters badly in conversation, but sings -- really well -- without a misstep.

Maybe this stuff still resonates with viewers. The Philadelphia audience actually cheered the guy and clapped for him.

And it looks like there might be interest in the new judges. Urban's appearance on screen drew screams from the theater audience, as did, to a lesser extent, Minaj and Carey.

In fairness, Minaj was at least fun, and sometimes funny. And none of the new judges were as immediately unlikeable as the smug-yet-clueless J. Lo or the simply clueless Tyler were. Not that any of the new judges had one iota of real music knowledge or advice.

By the way, the vaunted "feuding" that supposedly happened between Carey and Minaj -- Carey reportedly increased her security after Minaj threatened to shoot her -- doesn't show up in the first two episodes. There are some very mild snipes and eye-rolling, but the arguments between original judges Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul were far worse.

After 12 seasons, there seemed nothing fresh or, frankly, interesting about it. For all the episode's self-adulation about "creating superstars" (both Carey and Minaj are shown saying that), it was ironic that some of the ones it focused on were Daughtry (who finished fourth) and Jennifer Hudson (who finished sixth).

If anything, that showed "American Idol" just doesn't get it.

"It's all about the music," Carey is shown saying at one point, explaining her judging style.

But with the hyper focus on the judges, the show clearly is not about music, now more than ever.

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