Nicki Minaj Will Be the Judge To Beat on the Next Season of American IdolS

Last night, Fox screened about an hour's worth of footage of the first two episodes of the upcoming season of American Idol (premiering Wednesday) to fans and contest winners in movie theaters around the country. It was as weird as it sounds, but thoroughly entertaining. Immediately, it was clear that pitting classic diva (Mariah Carey) against nu-diva (Nicki Minaj) is every bit the genius casting that it seemed to be when it was announced last year. And what's more, Nicki Minaj has emerged as the favorite in this now-legendary, inevitable feud. Minaj wins in the category of what matters most: entertainment value. She is by far the most magnetic persona on the judging panel.

The reason is immediately evident: Nicki Minaj has a devil-may-care spontaneity that lends itself well to the unscripted format. While Carey has a self-conscious poise that she tries to laugh off by going over the top and talking about being a diva and referring to people as "dahhhling," it's not hard to see that she ultimately believes she is very much a grand dame. If Minaj takes herself too seriously, she is savvy enough to know that the way to win people over is to pretend like she's not. And while she had moments of very clear insincerity ("I'm so inspired by you," Minaj croaked to an adequate auditioning singer), she exudes an overall looseness, a willingness to engage, hug, flirt and joke around with the common people singing for her that a 23-year-strong superstar of Carey's caliber clearly is uncomfortable with. Minaj feels like a natural leader, whereas Carey looks mostly uncomfortable, going along for the ride, exposure and rumored $18 million paycheck.

But just because the eye travels most frequently to Minaj doesn't mean that Carey is overshadowed, per se – the tension, which seems to have plagued them from very early on (plenty of footage of them bickering was included in the screening), has rendered the show riveting. Of course it did — this is reality TV we're talking about. I mean, this is the 12th round of these strangers-off-the-street auditions and not a second failed to entertain. We are being treated to an epic battle experience versus youthful exuberance, veteran wisdom versus newbie intuition, restraint versus explosiveness, unintentional humor (Mariah is camp, no matter how much she likes to think she's in on the joke) versus a jokester. I haven't watched American Idol in years, and I was dreading having to because the panel has made something that my job and personal interest won't allow me to miss. Now I can't wait to consume every episode.

(Oh, and also Keith Urban and Randy Jackson are also there.)

I didn't realize it till last night, but with this season of American Idol, stan wars will go mainstream. Sitting in the theater, there were very palpable #TeamMariah and #TeamNicki factions, devotees who screamed when their respective heroes said anything onscreen. In numbers, too, it seems as though Minaj is winning the war — the audience I sat in was overwhelmingly pro-Minaj, probably because they were mostly young people.

After the show footage was screened, the judges reunited onstage for about 40 minutes of Q&A that was simulcast from L.A. The divide (and Minaj support) was even more pronounced, with a representative from each team screaming out an interjection of support for his queen during the other's opening coments. (The Twitter feed that scrolled alongside of them was a ping pong game of compliments on both divas' appearance.) Both were momentarily rattled when this happened (see it in the video to the left). Two superstars being kept on their toes and being vividly confronted with their celebrity is an uncommon and fascinating sight. Carey and Minaj's dynamic tension is bound to be the most riveting thing about the show – the actual contestants don't have a chance.

Nicki Minaj Will Be the Judge To Beat on the Next Season of American Idol