'Idol' Judges Spring To Forefront

Z ON TV

April 19, 2009|By david zurawik | david zurawik,david.zurawik@baltsun.com

I would hate to think that the producers of American Idol are playing us like suckers again, trying to drum up some kind of judges' controversy for better ratings. But you have to admit that the judges have been in the news a lot lately, particularly Simon Cowell - and this is the time of year when there is almost always a flap, fight or faux pas involving the judges that adds drama and controversy down the home stretch of the Idol season.

Two weeks ago, the "news" was that Cowell might be leaving the show after his contract ends next year. It was based on an interview in Britain's Daily Mirror in which the 49-year-old reality TV producer and star said he felt overextended producing and appearing on three shows in the U.S. and the U.K., and that he thought one show "may have to go" - with Idol being the one "more likely to go because I have one year under contract." The ambiguous quote seemed to be reprinted and chewed over everywhere in the Western Hemisphere.

Then, last Tuesday, the judges were restricted in the length of their comments with only two of the four being allowed to critique each performer. Cowell grimaced and mouthed the word "no" during the reviews of contestants in which he was not allowed to participate. Many viewers disliked the experiment, and it appears to be history after just one week.

And when he was allowed, he got borderline insulting, telling Lil Rounds, an African-American contestant, that she shouldn't be singing songs like Bette Midler's "The Rose" after she performed the number. In telling her essentially that she should do more R&B, he was walking right up to the line of making it racial in his suggestion that a black performer should only be doing R&B. More than a few folks on the Internet noticed.

Wednesday night, the producers really stuck their hand into the pot and tried to stir things up, allowing the judges to use their one "wild card" vote to save a performer, Matt Giraud, who the viewers had decided should be eliminated. Lead after lead on the morning-after stories emphasized how the judges had made "history" using their first-ever, one-time vote to save a contestant and revoke the will of the people.

But you don't have to do much research to find a pattern of judge-related controversy - and most of it at this very time of year.

On April 28, 2005, a former contestant, Corey Clark, went public with allegations that he slept with judge Paula Abdul. The producers milked that one to the end of the season, acting like they might actually get rid of Abdul right up to the final week.

Last year on April 29, dozens of bloggers and columnists asked the question: "Was Paula drunk on American Idol last night?" That was followed by weeks of online chatter about Abdul's "instability" and possible alcohol and drug issues.

In 2006, the judge trouble didn't erupt until May 9 - that's the night Cowell told Abdul to "shut up," and host Ryan Seacrest compared her dancing at the judges' table to that of a stripper. Think they might have been trying to play the gender card that night?

So what is going on with the producers - and their attempt to toy with our affections for the show?

I have written a lot about American Idol as a cultural phenomenon during its eight seasons. And to make sure no one thinks I am dismissing it in this column as a cheap and manipulative production, let me point out that last year on the final night of its seventh season, I listed seven ways Idol has changed America. From showing young people voting can be fun, to bringing black and white audiences together as has never been done in the 60-year history of network TV, Idol has made a difference in our lives - in some ways, for the better.

But the producers do cleverly play with our attachments as they stage this great annual metaphor of meritocracy in which the most talented performers are supposedly rewarded regardless of race, social class, sexual orientation or gender. One part of the formula that became clear early on is the way in which the first half of the season features the judges and those of little talent often being beaten up by Cowell. And then, a few promising performers emerge and Idol becomes a talent show with the judges playing second fiddle.

This year, for the first time, I am starting to understand that there is a third gear that the producers try to engage in April and May to rev the ratings even beyond the 23 million-a-night range the show now enjoys. The idea is to peak during May sweeps. And that higher gear involves bringing the judges back to the foreground, foibles and all - and putting them in a position where they can mess with the deep affection and hopes viewers have attached to one or more of the contestants in the talent show.

With Abdul on her best behavior, thanks to the addition of Kara DioGuardi as a fourth judge, the spotlight has been on Cowell this spring. (I even question the timing of the release of the phenomenal YouTube post featuring Scottish singing sensation Susan Boyle. Cowell plays a huge role in the post - setting the stage for her triumph on one of his British productions.)

"It's a subplot," Sheri Parks, associate professor of popular culture at the University of Maryland, College Park, says of the judges' story line that starts to emerge this time of year. "Even as we're hooked on the battle of the contestants, we now become simultaneously engaged in the drama of the judges, who are celebrities and characters in their own right. ... Even if it's artificially constructed, you have to admit it's been pretty effective, hasn't it?"

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