September 10, 2009

MUSIC: Ellen DeGeneres, American Idol judge?

Y'know, when I heard the news about Ellen DeGeneres joining the judges last night, my first response was this:

"What are these people smoking?"

But, I thought, that was just a gut reaction, and maybe I should take a few hours before rushing to say anything. So I slept on it, let it soak in, mulled it over, ruminated on the prospect of Ellen DeGeneres as an American Idol judge. And having done so, I am now prepared to offer a more considered and fully thought out response to the news:

"No, seriously, what the hell are these people smoking?"

It's an awful idea. The one thing Paula brought to the show that none of the other judges could bring was that she'd actually been there. She had been a star; she had sold out concert halls and arenas, and known the pressure of having to go on night after night after night to entertain an audience that has come specifically to hear you sing.

And as loopy and incoherent as she could sometimes be, that perspective was invaluable to the show; it's a huge part, I think, of why she became the "nice" judge. Simon, Randy, Kara -- they're evaluating the contestants from a business perspective. Can we sell your record? Can we market you to a financially viable niche? But Paula understood that the contestants were trying to be musicians first, that they were (usually) thinking about expressing themselves before worrying about the cold, hard business considerations.

The show desperately needs that perspective, and to replace it with someone with no musical performance background at all is a ghastly mistake. (Yes, Ellen has ample performance experience, but the pressure faced by a stand up comic, even a successful one, is of a different type and of much lower magnitude than that faced by a pop star.) I can see Ellen going two ways as a judge, and neither will be pretty.

The first possibility is that she'll see Idol as a chance to demonstrate that she's smarter than her slightly ditzy persona (and I've absolutely no doubt that she is; you don't survive the kind of career storms she's survived without being a very bright, very tough woman). She'll try to show us how insightful and knowledgeable she can be, and she'll do it using her sharpest tool -- her humor. She'll try to out-Simon Simon.

I think that's relatively unlikely, if only because it would mean running the risk of someone not liking her. More likely is that she'll simply transfer her talk-show persona to Idol; she'll be sweet and breezy and innocuously funny and blandly inoffensive. In short, she'll be a waste of time. And with Randy and Kara mouthing their standard cliches and becoming increasingly irrelevant with every passing week, the last thing Idol needs is another waste of time on the judging panel.

(A side note: One thing that will be interesting is whether the presence of America's favorite lesbian on the judges' panel will do anything to stop, or at least tone down, the homophobic "banter" of Simon and Ryan.)

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