AMERICAN IDOL: L-R: Steven Tyler, Ryan Seacrest, Jennifer Lopez and Randy Jackson. CR: Michael becker / FOX.

"American Idol's" new age of niceness

As the media lashes out at angry rhetoric, the Fox juggernaut gets a friendly overhaul. Does it work?


Mary Elizabeth Williams
January 20, 2011 9:19PM (UTC)

Let the healing begin. After years of spats and petty insults, America has had enough, and the rhetoric of invective will not stand any longer. Or to put it another way, are we ready for an "American Idol" without Simon and his acid tongue?

Anticipation has been running high for months for the 10th season of Fox's star-making institution, and the biggest question this time around hasn't been who the breakout ballad belter will be, but how the show will fare without its most reliably frank dream crusher. Last year, his brash M.O. was supposed to be tempered by newcomer Ellen DeGeneres' sunny encouragement. The chemistry never clicked, and with the additional loss of Paula Abdul's loose cannon energy, the show lacked luster. More significantly for the franchise, it's been years since "Idol" produced a genuine, chart-crushing star of Kelly Clarkson and Jennifer Hudson variety, a singer who can truly live up to the appellation of "idol." So when Simon, Ellen and Kara DioGuardi all departed at the end of last season, the gutting of the judging panel became an opportunity to tweak the format.

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"Idol" could easily have found another straight-shooting blowhard to ask a legion of off-key crooners, as Simon once expressed, "Did you really believe you could become the American Idol? Well, then, you're deaf." But does television really need another Gordon Ramsay/Jillian Michaels/Suze Orman/Dr. Drew/Donald Trump, doling out the tough love in cringe-worthy style? Does every competition have to have a resident love-to-hate guy? The America of 2011 surely doesn't lack for big-mouthed jerks. But it's a markedly different place than what it was when "Idol" ended its season last spring. October's Rally to Restore Sanity showed that there are legions of people out there who don't believe tirades are the most effective way of conveying one's opinion. And the horrific shooting in Arizona earlier this month raised our collective consciousness about the power of aggressive speech, and whether taking the overall tone of conversation down a notch might not be such a bad idea. Even when it comes to telling people they can't sing.

So this time around, "Idol" promised a kinder, gentler format, one that focuses less on the derision of the weaker links and more on grooming the contenders with the greatest potential. Interscope Geffen A&M chairman Jimmy Iovine will be around to work as " in-house mentor," and big-name producers like Timbaland will be coaching them every week, shifting the focus of the show's season-long narrative from withering quips to the drama of aspiration. And then there are the judges.

Randy now assumes the position of resident bad cop, but his brand of criticism is a thousand degrees less intense than what Cowell would dole out. On Wednesday's season debut he greeted one man's insistence that "People would tell me if I sucked" with a droll "Really?" and backed down on his negative reaction when an energetic Liza Minnelli wannabe got down on her knees and cried. A panel that doesn't want to make people cry? That is a change. The role of Paula, meanwhile, has now been split between Jennifer Lopez, as the hair-tossing dispenser of sweetness and hugs, and Steven Tyler, as the nutball who says seriously nonsensical things. Typical assessment: "Well hellfire, save matches, [bleep] a duck and let's see what hatches!" And "What's with the jujubes on your oo-oo-bes?" I have no idea what any of that means, but I'm not a professional musician. He did, however, deliver what might have been the evening's cruelest blow, asking at one point, "Did you eat a lot of paint chips as a child?"

Will the oddball wisdom of Tyler and the Mr. Miyagi-like "let's get down to business" tutelage of some music industry heavyweights make for a more watchable season -- and a few real hit makers? Yesterday I asked my friend Nadia Turner, who was a contender during Carrie Underwood's star-making Season 4, if had felt the old "Idol" process had been too harsh to be helpful. "It's a talent show and an entertainment show, and some aspects of it are there for entertainment," she said, "but I don't feel anyone was ever mean to me. Not even Simon." But she did add that she was encouraged by the show's new focus on truly cultivating the talent. "I think many of us wanted more of that," she said, "and if that's what they're bringing, I'm glad to hear it."

Whether audiences really want a show that's about good singing and serious competition or one that's about showcasing delusional people getting their hopes shattered by a nasty British man remains to be seen. It's still early days, but based on Wednesday's premiere, there may be some real talent in the pool, and the show may actually draw it out this season. And as long as Tyler's around, there's still plenty of entertaining crazy to go around. In his own eminently incoherent words, let's put water on the flower, cause I think it's gonna grow.

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Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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