American Idol has very little to lose. At the same time, it has everything to lose: It's back after a two-year hiatus, and it's up against shows with far meatier premises. The Voice has judges working directly with the vocalists, while The Four has pre-chosen finalists struggling to remain relevant amid new talent. (Woof.) Prepping to return, the show put its eggs in one glittery, controversial basket — Katy Perry. With a salary of $20 million and, Perry didn't seem like the best person to save American Idol from ratings oblivion. She is, though. On Sunday's premiere episode, Perry — every glittered inch of her — is working for her $20 million paycheck.
Part of the American Idol return is the promise that it will be different this time around. Perry and her fellow judges Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan have assured us that the show will be "less mean" than it was before, although Perry has confessed that she's not afraid to be honest with contestants. Ryan Seacrest promises a "big happy family" in the opening frames of the premiere, and the show makes sure we know this is a show — the boom mic is visible, the camera wanders over to video village, and the show's makeup artist is frequently in frame, prodding at the judges' faces. The show is inviting us backstage! Look, it's Katy Perry, but pre-show! How honest, how frank, how candid.
Authentic or not, these reveals make Perry's judging efforts — which are obnoxious, by the way — seem warranted. She's producing a show. So, when she gets up and starts dancing with a 16-year-old high school student with a vocal resonance of Frank Sinatra, you're okay letting her do it. This isn't showboating; this is work.
Perry's silly, but also stern. When she rejects a contestant, she does so gently.
"What do people tell you when they hear you sing?" Perry asks one particularly shrill contestant.
"They say, 'Oh my gosh, have you ever tried out for American Idol?'" she replies.
Perry replies, "I think that people are not telling you the truth. The truth is that this is not how we listen to music. You don't listen to music like that, do you?" It's not mean, it's truthful.
It's also truthful when, later, Perry asks to see a girl's dream board just so she can write, "Going to Hollywood" on it. "We'll just scratch out the 'maybe,'" she says, poring over the board.
She dances with contestants, she cracks awkward jokes, and she's always the first to speak up when a contestant needs to hear something brutal. She's a hybrid of Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, and Randy Jackson, minus Cowell's callousness. Which isn't to say that Bryan and Richie aren't working overtime in their roles; in fact, they are perfect complements. She does the obnoxious stuff — Richie didn't kiss anyone last night! — while they do support work. Perry kisses Benjamin Glaze, a bashful cashier, and Bryan grabs his phone to record the encounter while Richie provides commentary.
Perry is not without her questionable moments, like when she employs the word "wig" to celebrate Noah Davis, a contestant from Arkansas who loves alpacas. (The word 'wig,' according to Perry, who explained the term on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, should be used when someone sings so well that 'the wig flies off.') And in general, the word "yas" shouldn't be as present as it was in this episode. But Perry's performance feels genuine, awkwardness and all, something the show is promoting this time around. This isn't "cool" American Idol, this is dweeby Idol, where 18-year-old nursing students admit to wanting alpacas!
Perhaps that's what's best about Perry's work. She's sparkly, she's spontaneous, but she doesn't take over for the contestants. And the contestants are why we're really watching the show. The proof: Watch 17-year-old Catie Turner's audition below.
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