The latest news about the revamp of the American Idol judging panel is that over-demanding J.Lo is out as a replacement for Ellen DeGeneres. Now's the time to ask: Why do we even bother having judges in the first place?
This summer, the recalibration of who is going to give their opinions on American's favorite show and biggest karaoke competition has been huge news. Simon Cowell is leaving to start his own American Idol knock-off The X-Factor, Ellen DeGeneres begged out of her contract because it wasn't the right fit, and Kara DioGuardi is as good as fired for being boring and superfluous. No one knows what's up with Randy Jackson and Steven Tyler, the big-lipped lead singer of Aerosmith, who is the inexplicable front runner to get hired for a spot on the show.
But why does this even matter?
The beauty about democratic competitions like Idol—and their brethren So You Think You Can Dance, Dancing with the Stars, America's Got Talent, and the rest—is that the viewers get to pick who wins the show by calling in and sending text messages. This is a fundamentally American formula, where the winner isn't the one who is the "best," but the one who most people think is deserving of the win. It's not a meritocracy, it's a popularity contest decided by the body politic (in this case tween girls, gays, and reality show junkies). Why are there even judges in the first place?
All they are there to do is to tell us who is good and who is bad. Guess what? We already know who is good and who is bad all on our own! The only requirements to tell whether or not a performance on this show is any good is a set of ears and the smallest smidgen of taste. Just about everyone who is in front of a TV watching this already has both. Well, they definitely have the ears.
The fallacy is that we somehow need the judges for something other than padding out the hour with their pre-scripted remarks. These shows are about us expressing our own opinions with votes, and we don't need someone to tell us those opinions are right or wrong (another fundamentally American point of view). It's even worse because we know exactly what each judge is going to say before it comes out of their mouth. Randy says it's "pitchy" and then says "dog" a bunch of times, Simon hates it in a mean way (and then everyone boos, no matter if what he says is the truth), Kara tries to sound smart but ends up looking like a fool, and Ellen says something funny tries not to hurt anyone's feelings.
And just as every detail of the judges' hiring process has taken over the news about the show's 10th season, their personalities long ago took over the show. Their commentary became more about one-upping each other and working out their grudges rather than giving a fair assessment of the contestants. After all, they all have their own side gigs and endorsement deals to think about, and getting their weekly dose of airtime plays a big part in keeping their personal brand humming. Their antics have long since hijacked the show from the real stars: the singers. And remember, the judges are all completely powerless as to the outcome of the competition.
This summer the judges on So You Think You Can (who do have a modicum of power, even though they don't determine the winner) have been particularly insufferable. All they do is give these hyperbolic, sentimental French kisses to every dancer and the choreographers who compose their numbers. Without the (somewhat annoying) overstated antics of Mary Murphy, the three bland panelists are just there to drool. The best way to watch the show is to check out the actual dancing and then just fast forward through their slobber while assessing each performer yourself (warning: DVR not included). It's more fun to talk about the merits or travesties of each routine with a friend than to hear the saccharine plaudits these glorified gushers spout.
And more and more people are doing this, discussing the action immediately with their peers who are either sitting in the room or following their every word on Twitter or Facebook. You can accurately judge who is going to fare well in the competition based on the instant reaction of fans watching the show. The votes will ultimately tell the world who did better or worse with each week, at least in the eyes of the public, which are the only eyes that count in this game. If you really want to replace the judges, screw stupid Steven Tyler and J.Lo (no one wants to watch them anyway) and just tap into those Twitter feeds and Facebook comments and quote some of them on show. Sure, there will be lots of "RT @BieberFreak I LUV DAVID ARCHULETTA 4EVA !!1!!!!!," but you'll get people who leave substantive comments as well.
There are a few shows that use judges well. On shows like Top Chef and America's Next Top Model, where the
judges decide who gets the ax, they are essential. On Dancing with the Stars, both the judges and the public get a say in who stays or who goes. This works because the judges are more familiar with the technical intricacies of ballroom dance than the viewers, but it allows the public to "save" their favorites without creating a pack of popular people with two left feet. However, with its unadulterated democracy, Idol has never been about rewarding artistic merit. So why isn't it time to vote every single judge off the island?
How about this as a format? We can have Ryan Seacrest's highlights and Crest White Strips smile introduce the singers and their segments with a mentor or whatever other inspirational video we have that week, and just let the kids sing. On the results show, we get to see all the rankings based on our votes, not just the bottom three. Pepper that in with some comments from viewers on what is working and what isn't for each performer. There you have it—a judge-free Idol. Doesn't sound like such a bad idea to us. Idol is a show that's made for the people. Well, it's about time that the people take the show back.