Judging American Idol's judges: In its 10th season, can the show prove itself to us again?
Critics may blame him and his fellow competitors for nearly destroying American Idol's ratings dominance.
But St. Petersburg native Michael Lynche has a different message for those who wonder if TV's most-watched show is teetering on the edge of irrelevance:
At long last, focus on the contestants. Please.
You've got to keep the focus on the fact that that these kids are trying to find their dreams," said Lynche, who eventually placed fourth among a crop of Idol contestants last year some critics derided as lackluster and uninspiring. "There was this sense of 'Are (the judges) really focused on what I'm doing?' You would catch them looking off to the side, instead of honestly looking at what I'm doing."
As Idol returns tonight for what may its most crucial season since its debut, producers face the same paradox they force on contestants every season. In the same way aspiring singers are told to be unique but fit established industry roles -- singing cover tunes they're expected to make their own, but not change too much -- Idol has to re-invent itself before the world's eyes on the fly, adding two of its most famous judges at a time when even its producers say the focus should fall on discovering hit singers again.
That's the odd truth about Idol: Its biggest challenges often come from its greatest advantages.
Developed to mimic on television the process of discovering a pop star, it has instead bridged the transformation from old-school show business to the new now, where consumers choose everything online and no one buys albums anymore. The explosion of texting among tween girls means the show's winners have increasingly been attractive, unassuming white-guy guitar players who struggle to keep the spotlight after leaving the series.
The viewer voting that bonds fans so tightly to the show also bars producers from weeding out lackluster contestants. The army of websites that keep America talking Idol also provide an endless source of surprise-busting scoops and -- in the case of heralded site Vote for the Worst -- encourage haters to actively undermine the contest.
"On the one hand, American Idol has brought democracy into prime time; you're turning over the controls of the show to the audience," said Richard Rushfield, who has covered Idol for the Los Angeles Times and the Daily Beast website, producing a new book on the show's history, American Idol: The Untold Story. "But Idol is more the end of something. Idol is the last show on television watched by the entire family . . . where everybody watches a show and talks about it the next day. It's sad to think Idol may be the last of that."
I wrote on this at length for Sunday's paper. Click below for my look at the new judges' table, with a few predictions on what the new dynamic will be like:
New Idol identity: Part Simon, Part Paula
Why? Sitting in star judge Simon Cowell's old "authority seat," Jackson will be the last to speak and the most experienced judging voice, forced to pare down the hipster jive and put his newbie colleagues' comments in perspective.
What's he saying? "You'll see a little more of an assertive dawg, a different side of the dawg, maybe a little bit more hair on the dawg, if you will … Fewer 'yo's.' "
Idol identity: The New Paula
Why? In early clips, Tyler's fondness for convoluted language and limited attention span have made him seem the most ditzy, an odd development from a guy who fronts one of the world's most powerful rock bands.
What's he saying? "Why did we do this? I'm not sure yet."
Idol Identity: All Simon
Why? As president of the new record company releasing the Idol winner's record, Iovine has to actually sell to the American public whoever tops the competition. And as the guy who discovered Eminem and produced U2, he has few problems speaking his mind.
What's he saying? "My role is to help make sure we find an original voice … They have to improve every week. And I believe in the past they weren't really getting the proper help to (achieve that)."
Idol identity: Part Randy, Part Paula
Why? As the biggest star currently on the panel, Lopez may have a tough time telling contestants who idolize her when they're terrible. Early clips reveal a direct but supportive approach that may not work with the show's more deluded auditioners and contestants.
What's she saying? "If we weren't crazy, we wouldn't be here."