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'American Idol' Picks New Judges And Makes A Surprising Grab For Relevance

Mariah Carey, Keith Urban, Ryan Seacrest, Nicki Minaj and Randy Jackson will work together on this season of <em>American Idol</em>.
Michael Becker
Mariah Carey, Keith Urban, Ryan Seacrest, Nicki Minaj and Randy Jackson will work together on this season of American Idol.

American Idolhas always been a show with two audiences: the real one and the imagined one. The real one has a median viewer age of about 50, while the imagined one has a median age of about 15. You don't see the real audience frantically waving signs during the live show, but the imagined one. Idolenjoys presenting itself as a phenomenon for excitement-hungry teenagers, but in fact, it's just as much a phenomenon for their parents.

The judges have always reflected the over-50 half of the viewing audience as much as the under-50 one. Paula Abdul, Steven Tyler, even Jennifer Lopez showed up in Selenain 1997, when current high school students were just babies. The musical sensibility of the show has always been adult contemporary, from its worship of the Celine/Mariah/Whitney trio to its attempts to induct its audience into the cult of ballad writer Diane Warren.

When Lopez and Steven Tyler left the judging panel this year, there was something inevitable about Mariah Carey stepping in, like it was the fulfillment of a very high-pitched prophecy of some sort. But the other two new judges announced this weekend are genuinely more surprising (conceptually, not as news, since both had been widely rumored): Nicki Minaj and Keith Urban.

Nicki Minaj is in her twenties. She's a rapper. In the popular imagination, she's a creature of the last five years — primarily the last three or so. She makes hit records, you know, currently. It's a very, very different direction from going for pure amiability (Ellen DeGeneres, for instance) or familiarity (Steven Tyler, for instance).

As for Keith Urban, his presence fills what's been an absurd void on the Idolpanel. For whatever reason, the show has never had a country expert, despite the fact that Idolhas had more success in country than in any other genre, particularly when it comes to people who didn't win — your Kellie Picklers and Josh Gracins and Bucky Covingtons. It's always been silly that they didn't have anyone from the massively money-making, star-making, Idol-friendly field of country pop, and this solves that problem as well as bringing in another person who still makes music people purchase.

It makes some sense that Idol might pick this moment to try to make an impact again; they lucked into a winner last season in Phillip Phillips who's actually close enough to what's going on in the shaggy-haired Mumford & Sons-ish part of pop music that his "Home" has both sold a lot of copies and had high-profile moments on stages as big as NBC's coverage of the Olympics.

Some of this is the result of the crowding of the market by NBC's The Voice, which has had big success with currently relevant artists as coaches — Blake Shelton, Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green, and Adam Levine. And now, there's also The X Factor, which kicked off last week to less than spectacular ratings despite bringing on Britney Spears and Demi Lovato to judge.

Those actually interested in whether the show is fun to watch won't have any idea whether this will make any difference until we see how Minaj and Urban judge. The biggest problem of the last couple of seasons wasn't that Lopez and Tyler were too old, after all — it was that they wouldn't judge, but insisted on merely declaring that everyone was equally wonderful.

If Minaj and Urban are equally upbeat on every performance by every performer, it will be as boring as it's been ever since Simon Cowell left, no matter how demographically intriguing it is to bring in a young rapper and a country star. (Urban has been working as a coach on the Australian The Voice, but coaching and judging are a little different.) There's also the problem of retaining Randy Jackson, who's been largely useless as a judge ever since he was cut adrift from Simon and Paula. The insistence on keeping him around is frankly baffling.

But as a maneuver to recognize Idol's strength in the country market and reach out to actual young music fans, it's an interesting effort.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.