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Last night, Fox announced that all the principals of “American Idol” — host Ryan Seacrest and judges Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban and Harry Connick Jr. — would be returning for a 14th season. Left unsaid was the notion that this could very well be the last season of “Idol” — in the face of steeply declining ratings, the show is steeply cutting back its hours next season. Gone are the days when viewers would automatically tune in to two nights’ worth of a bloated singing competition.
And yet not merely is the entire cast of a crumbling series not held responsible, they’re all rehired, presumably at quite some expense. And Lopez in particular has used the show to entirely revamp her image. Though she hasn’t made the show into a hit, she’s remade herself into a star on the back of “Idol.” Perhaps the greatest legacy of the show’s latter years is Lopez 2.0, a singer of limited talents who’s nevertheless the show’s biggest winner.
Lopez, when she initially signed on to be a judge on “Idol” for the 2011 season, was a star whose best days seemed to be behind her. Her 2007 album “Brave” had tanked and her movie career, after the underwhelming romantic comedy “The Back-up Plan,” was in a holding pattern. It was a last grasp at relevance, even if it seemed a bit beneath a star who, at her peak, had been the biggest female star in the world. But as a not-particularly-gifted vocalist and more of a persona than an actress, Lopez had little to fall back on when her fans had tired of her.
But here’s the thing about having no one traditionally defined talent: It forces you to develop other, more ineffable gifts. Lopez is an expert at being charming and warm on-camera, and used “Idol” as an opportunity to be effusive in a way that hadn’t worked with previous judges Paula Abdul (too loopy) or Kara DioGuardi (too thirsty for attention). On her one-season break from the show in 2013, Lopez was lucky enough to be replaced by Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj, both of whom wasted an opportunity for brand extension by bickering with one another; they seemed venal and self-absorbed, rather than amiably humble.
During her year off, Lopez took time to pursue other interests. Unlike, say, Simon Cowell, whose attempts to move on post-”Idol” have been, well, other singing competitions, Lopez diversified, understanding that she could parlay her time in the public eye in various directions. Her single “On the Floor” was a global hit (though she still can’t sell albums). And she set up lucrative endorsement deals with brands including Kohl’s and Fiat, for whom she drove a car onstage during the opening number of the 2011 American Music Awards, a medley most notable for Lopez pretending to cry about her recent divorce, then grinning and stripping her clothes off. Lopez getting a berth on a major awards show to sing a medley of songs, promote her branded deals, and generate tabloid gossip? It all would’ve seemed unthinkable a mere year or two before. Indeed, at the 2009 American Music Awards, Lopez had fallen down while performing her single “Louboutins,” about her love for fancy shoes. The Schadenfreude of the incident, and failure of the single, was a lesson she learned and Carey never did; a star has to be at least a little relatable.
“American Idol” is still a valuable property, even in its diminished state; Lopez may not help its ratings, but she gets a boost from it simply because it gives her a reason to be in the news. Even when a project of hers doesn’t succeed, she just keeps on trucking — indeed, during the weeks she ought to be promoting her commercial failure of an album, “A.K.A.,” she’ll be at “Idol” auditions. And even those who don’t watch “American Idol” can get a general sense of Lopez as amiable, hardworking and stylishly dressed. “Idol” is more a brand that one can monetize well or poorly than it is a TV show; in Lopez, whose skills tend toward taking advantage of promotional opportunities, it found its perfect star.
Daniel D'Addario is a staff reporter for Salon's entertainment section. Follow him on Twitter @DPD_More Daniel D'Addario.