I’ve decided to write more about popular culture, so I might as well say something about the new American Idol. Watching the old show was once a guilty pleasure of mine. By last year, although I thought the contestants were better than usual (I was a fan of Big Mike in particular), it was starting to feel like a tiresome chore. Had the personnel not changed this year, I’d probably have stopped watching entirely.
I tuned in this week, like everyone else, to see what difference the subtraction of Simon Cowell from the judges’ panel and the addition of Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler would make. And, I must say, it made all the difference in the world. J-Lo, predictably ravishing and unexpectedly likeable, gave the show a sheen that it hadn’t had for years. When he wasn’t reprising his Aerosmith scream, Tyler was consistently entertaining too, not only for what he said, but because you always had to wonder whether the plastic surgery would give out before he finished saying it.
The best thing they both had going for them, however, was their guileless appreciation of the contestants’ musicality. The old panelists tried to put on a poker face for every performance, failing only when it was spectacularly bad. J-Lo and Tyler’s eyes would bug out noticeably at the first indication of genuine talent. They swayed unself-consciously to the rhythms of every worthy audition. They reacted just as you'd expect a musician to react, above all, as a music fan.
People have been wondering whether Idol can survive without Simon’s acerbic presence. After watching this week’s shows, I’m inclined to think that the show couldn’t have survived much longer with it. Granted, Simon had always been the only clear-headed voice on the judges’ panel. For all he obviously knows about music, Randy was, and is, reliably unintelligible. Paula usually treated the contestants’ performances as the sound track to a coming-of-age melodrama. Kara and Ellen never found a distinctive voice. Simon’s commentary, with its mixture of ruthless honesty and mild sadism, always drove the show.
Yet, for my money, it was he who was driving it into the ground because he never viewed the singing as anything but an article of commerce. Simon's comments weren’t about music; they were predictions about the marketability of sounds. The “wow factor” he was always talking about is that ineffable thing that makes a cash register (and, given the old ownership structure of the show, his cash register) ring. The fact that the contestants were singing didn’t matter much to Simon. Hearing him was getting to be about as interesting as hearing someone like Jim Cramer talk about the stock market.