Did anyone get the feeling something was missing? Or someone? While “American Idol” pretty much stuck to its time-tested formula in the 10th season premiere this evening, which introduced new judges Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez alongside original judge Randy Jackson, there was one major, very notable change, and that was the absence of Simon Cowell, the acerbic Englishman who always seemed to have the last, and most telling, word on the panel.
And, oh yes, in this longtime rock writer’s opinion, even with all the new star power added to the much-anticipated season 10 premiere from the Meadowlands, he was missed. While Cowell became a big celebrity on the show, it must be noted, at the start, he was probably the least-known member of the original trio, with Paula Abdul and even Randy Jackson sporting more of a public profile. But what made him brilliant, and by extension, what made his presence so crucial, was his ability to deliver the pointed put-down with the alacrity of an English headmaster. The judges’ job, like all talent execs in every part of show business, is to find a way to tell someone they’re not good enough, or to get inside that individual with talent and identify the secret ingredient that makes them great, and that’s precisely what I missed from this new trio, though, in their defense, they’re still working out their rapport.
TYLER=COWELL + ABDUL?
The first problem here, by putting together three musicians at the judge’s table, is that artists are generally loathe to criticize other artists. Steven Tyler is a ball out of left-field, fidgety, leering sexual energy, with a genuine passion for music. Can you imagine him doing anything else? He is prone to whoop along or bang on the table during an audition–and is capable of the Paula Abdul-like non-sequitur, like “We’re here because we’re not all there.” Actually, he sounded more like Buckaroo Bonzai. But I’m loathe to just criticize. If he gets comfortable and lets loose, he can single-handedly make “American Idol” exciting TV.
One of the best segments of the first show was a montage of Tyler flirting outrageously with the contestants. That could get old pretty quickly, but it was amusing in the premiere. Like Cowell, he’s not afraid to speak his mind, telling one contestant, the hapless Ivory Coast native with the thick African accent who mangled Madonna‘s “Dress You Up”: “You got no notes. You’ve got to pull those wild horses in.” And to the thoroughly misguided Indian crooner, he said: “Singing… I’m not sure it’s your forte.” Then, of course, there was the classic playground retort to Michael Perotto, the burping, plaid-wearing nerd who tried to sing “Ike and Tina Turner‘s ‘Proud Mary:’” “Did you eat a lot of paint chips as a child?” I also approved his use of Yiddish as in, “You can sing your tushele off.” This jury’s still out on Steve Tyler. But whether he’ll ever be able to look Joe Perry in the eye again is another story.
Tip: Remember, you’re a rock star. You can say anything.
JENNY FROM THE BLOCK
Conventional wisdom is that J. Lo will be this judging panel’s version of Paula Abdul, someone who can bond with the contestants (beware, Marc Antony), and empathize with them. And indeed, Jennifer started right off insisting, “I’m going to be compassionate. I’m not in the business of crushing spirits.” But who’s going to help her? When faced with the tears of one failed hopeful, she moaned, “I hate this. Why did I sign up for this? I just want to go home.”
Watch Jennifer Lopez’s “Idol” Debate
She also wore her prejudices on her sleeve, voting in Snooki wannabe Tiffany Rios, a fellow Puerto Rican with stars on her ample breasts who attributed her robust figure to worshiping Lopez from the time she saw the movie “Selena” as a child. Lopez did offer a revealing personal insight to jeans-clad singing waitress Devyn Rush, admitting, “This business is about image as well.” Lopez won’t ever be as wacky as Abdul, but neither did she bring much in the form of humor, insight or critique. Jenny, we know you have it in you. Our tip to you: Bring it.
Tip: Where’s Jenny from the block?
OLD DAWG, NEW TRICKS
And then there’s Randy Jackson, now sitting in Simon’s clean-up chair, the old hand attempting to guide the young’uns through the process. All your favorite meaningless cliches are back: “Crazy mad vocals,” “It’s a different table, but you know what? It’s hot.” Even his old standby “Yo, yo dawg,” was co-opted by one hopeful, earning points. Stuck alongside the star wattage of Tyler and Lopez, the newly thin Jackson seems to resent the fact all the contestants fawn over the two icons. That may turn out to be a season-long subplot, so stay tuned. The problem here is that Jackson, as the veteran, is trying to take over the panel, like Simon, but is handicapped against the sheer charisma of the Aerosmoth singer and J. Lo. It’s not the first time he’s run up against the difference between a session player and a star.
Tip: Be yourself – that’s great enough.
BEATS BY JIMMY
Interscope Geffen A&M ruler Jimmy Iovine, brought in along with parent company UMG as the resident starmaking mentor, will probably become more important as the show begins to winnow away the amateurs. He could just turn out to be the real replacement for Cowell if they integrate him earlier in the decision-making process. On the pre-show, he exclaimed, “If we help those artists develop, we can create some great talent.” And potentially sell a lot of whatever it is the music industry is selling these days, he should have added.
Grade: Not applicable yet.
Tip: Be present, get more involved.
ARE THEY GOING TO HOLLYWOOD?
You bet they are. Tyler and Lopez are the real deal, Jackson is solid, and face it, the format works; and because of all that, it’s too early to rush to judgment. At the very least, the new additions are a marked improvement over Kara DioGuardi and Ellen DeGeneris. As for who’s going to replace Cowell, we’ll have to wait and see if that problem can be solved. It’s fine if the whole idea this season is to be a kinder, gentler “American Idol,” as executive producer Nigel Lythgoe has stated in the press. Still, some people deserve to be told they’re no good – and viewers want to see that. We also want to see greatness. Presumably, as the cream rises to the top, the criticism will become more and more pointed. If that happens, if we hear the truth from Tyler, Lopez, and Jackson, we can have a great show.
Overall Judges’ Grade: B
Tip: Get excited, let us hear what you know.
What did everybody else think? Who was your favorite of the judges? Which was the best line of the evening? Will Jennifer Lopez get tougher? Will Steve Tyler grow more bored? Will Randy eventually disappear in a puddle by his chair? We will be carefully monitoring these and other issues as “American Idol” continues.