Big news last week: Randy Jackson, the last man standing from the original judges’ panel on American Idol, has finally tendered his resignation from the show, so with last night’s announcement that Candice Glover is the new American Idol and will (probably not) rule over us all from the top of the pop charts for eternity, Randy is no longer in it to win it, dawg.
It is a sign of American Idol‘s waning cultural moment that this is probably the first you’ve heard that Randy is leaving the show. Remember the first few years it was on? Remember when adults and heterosexuals watched it? Remember what a meal the media made of rumors that Paula Abdul might be leaving? It was bigger news than when Ted Kennedy died. Remember when Kelly Clarkson won? It was on the front page of the New York Times. If you wanted to read about last night’s finale, you’d have to go below the fold — in the Entertainment section — on Google News, and even then the stories are all about Mariah Carey and Jennifer Lopez, not bright-eyed Candice Glover. Maybe it’s because the show is old hat, maybe because it’s used up all the undiscovered young singers, maybe it’s just because people like The Voice better, but American Idol is in a severe tailspin — I think it may even have sacrificed its core audience of catty queens at the altar of 13-year-old girls.
The news of Randy’s departure, soon followed by word that Nicki Minaj was also quitting, came on the heels of rumors that Fox was going to make some drastic changes to the show, which, despite still earning numbers NBC would gladly make Jay Leno kill and eat a toddler for, drew its lowest ratings ever this year. Word is that they planned to fire Jackson, Minaj and the other judges — Mariah Carey and Keith Urban — and start season 13 with a whole new panel.
But even I could still be drawn in by compelling judges — by experienced, knowledgeable musicians who can articulate where a performer is falling short and how they might make it better. The kids (and by ‘kids’ I mean the contestants) learn, the audience learns, hopefully the kids improve, the competition tightens, the show gets more interesting, the ratings go back to Cheers finale territory, everybody wins.
Even in its early seasons, the show left a lot to be desired in this category. To be a good American Idol judge — that is, someone who dispenses singing advice on national television compellingly enough to get people to watch — you need a) something to say, b) the ability to say it, and c) the cred to make people listen. Admittedly, Simon Cowell had all three of these qualities: he had a strong opinion about every singer, he articulated it clearly, and his career as a producer of pop music (even though no one had ever heard of him), paired with his dyspeptic delivery, gave him the gravitas to make people listen.
But other than Simon, I can’t think of a single past judge that could check more than two of those boxes. Paula Abdul had a successful music career, but a very strange one based more on her dance background than on her thin, squeaky voice. She never had anything to say, and by the end of her run she was too zonked on painkillers to even say it. J.Lo had a very big career, and she looked amazing in HD, but she is a movie star who makes records on the side. Her voice isn’t much better than Paula Abdul’s. And, she seemed to be allergic to giving the kids anything other than positive feedback. Ellen Degeneres is capable of speaking, but obviously is not a musician and thus has no cred, no matter what she says; Steven Tyler has more cred than everyone else on the show put together, but didn’t have anything to say except increasingly creepy leers at the young female contestants; Mariah Carey has amazing pipes and a huge career but nothing to say; Randy Jackson had a big career as a producer but only seems to have five phrases in his vocabulary, which he cycles through like a doll with a pull-string.
This year Nicki Minaj, currently in charge of America’s dance floors with her blend of solid songwriting, pop chops, horrifyingly filthy lyrics, and (arguably) the best rap flow in the game joined the panel, and was by far the most interesting judge the show has had. But her drag-queen-from-Venus routine, which includes slipping in and out of totally affected accents, an arsenal of cartoonishly huge eye rolls and facial expressions, and a variety of multicolored wigs seems to have undermined the fact that she has been the first judge to combine the unvarnished criticism Simon used to provide with the interest and empathy for the kids that all the other judges provide — she announced the other day she also won’t be returning, ahead of word that she wouldn’t be invited back next season because middle America doesn’t like her. (I admit, Nicki is the very definition of the term “acquired taste,” but even I have come around on her to some extent.)
So that adds a fourth requirement: it has to be someone America can, if not relate to, not be afraid of. Fortunately, this is not exactly the hardest problem to solve. I solved the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I can solve this. So here it is: They don’t need four judges. They don’t even need three. One man can stop American Idol’s slide into cultural irrelevance, and that man is Elton John.
Every aspect of American Idol should be torn down and rebuilt around that commercial. Elton should sit alone on a giant throne, in a puffy King suit, waving a bejeweled scepter with a golden cock on the end of it, passing super-bitchy judgment on everything in his domain.
Cred? Sir Elton has cred to burn, the most successful singer-songwriter of the ’70s, with about 500 hits that he wrote and sang himself. He’s a great singer, a great piano player, a great songwriter, and such a good performer he figured out a way to turn sitting at a piano into a stadium-worthy spectacle. Does he have something to say? DOES HE HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY? If there’s ever been a celebrity not afraid to talk shit about other celebrities, or politicians, or the Oscars, or anything at all that comes across his field of vision, that celebrity is Elton John. (His rivalry with Madonna is my favorite, but by no means the only example.)
There have been rumors that Idol’s producers have approached Elton before, and that he turned them down. That’s just because they didn’t offer him enough money to sit at a table with a couple of other has-beens, thus amplifying his own has-been status. But if you make him the only judge, sitting alone on his giant bejeweled throne petting a well-oiled Scandinavian ectomorph while another feeds him caviar off of a platinum coke spoon and a third constantly offers him a selection of $10,000 sunglasses to switch to, you solve both problems at once: by clearing the on-camera payroll they would be able to pay him enough to consider the job, and getting rid of the three-judge system would give him the status he’d need to take it.
An Elton John-led American Idol would have everything: musical insight, empathy with the (talented) kids, and most importantly, cutting, bitchy remarks from the King of Catty Queens. He would make Simon Cowell look like Paula Abdul. The interplay between Elton and Ryan Seacrest alone would be enough to make me tune in.
ELTON: I was asleep before the end of the first verse. I hate this song to begin with, Diane Warren is a hack, but her dog could sing it better than you just did. And what are those shoes? You oughtn’t wear an open toe, darling. I can see your hooves.
SEACREST: We’ll be back right after this!
ELTON: I wasn’t finished.
SEACREST: We’re out of time, Sir Elton. I don’t make the rules.
ELTON: Of course you don’t. I do. I tell you when it’s time for a commercial break. Fucking unbelievable! Go back to shaving your chest, you talentless little twink. I had three like you for lunch today, and it’s getting close to dinnertime. I’d say go fuck yourself but I’m not sure you’ve got the equipment. Do they sell that suit in men’s sizes?
SEACREST: Back with more right after this!
ELTON: Call my agent, I’m quitting the show. This is a disaster.
…followed by a 40-minute commercial break while producers try to coax Elton back out of his limo. (His limo has a camera in it, of course, so Elton’s 40-minute discourse to his assistant about everything wrong with Seacrest, the show, craft services, the 405, his other assistant, and America itself will be part of the broadcast.)
I know 13-year-old girls are this show’s bread and butter, but there’s only so much babysitting money to go around — this thing needs to hit the 18-to-49s and hit ’em hard. An Elton John American Idol (or even and Elton John presents American Idol with Elton John) would do exactly that by delivering 100% of the catty queens in America, plus all the people who understand that watching catty queens watch other catty queens on television is just about the most fun you can have with the TV on. Take the ratings boost Howard Stern gave America’s Got Talent and quadruple it, that’s what an Elton John American Idol would deliver.President Lyndon Johnson once said, “if we’ve lost Walter Cronkite, we’ve lost the country.” This is the exact same situation, except instead of a Vietnam war policy it’s a televised singing competition, and instead of losing Walter Cronkite, you’ve lost the catty queens. Get them back on board and the rest of the country will follow! Make Elton John the majority stockholder in the Fox Broadcasting Corporation if you have to, but get him on board!
And if he won’t do it, make the exact same offer to George Michael. If he says no, call Cher.