Competition TV series come and go, and one reality series, American Idol, took that phrase rather literally. While it's lasted over a decade, it literally came and went... and came back when ABC revived it after cancellation. In its early seasons, it gave the world some of the biggest musicians known today: Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, and Jennifer Hudson, to name just a few. But a big part of that success are the judges behind American Idol's crop of singers. The new(est) American Idol judges, Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan, are billed as the kinder, gentler answer to judges of seasons past. But when we compare them to their predecessors, how much has the vibe actually changed? Let's take a look.
For starters, the judges seem to get along better than say, Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey when they were co-judges. Bryan is the most chill, least “mean” one, while Ritchie is pretty earnest. Perry has admitted in the past that she might be construed as a “bitch” by fans of the show.
In an interview with Glamour last February, she said, “Simon [Cowell] could be mean, because he’s an executive and a man. But you reverse the role, and all of a sudden you're a bitch… So I’m cautious. People also come in with their stories. And before they even sing one note, they’ll say something like, 'I’m homeless,' and that will impact the way you perceive them. But if they really can’t sing, the personal story has to come second. I hope that I don’t get turned into 'the bitch' because of that, but I also know that the music industry does not need just another singer." She makes some excellent points, and that’s why she might be the judge with the best (and sometimes shrewdest) calls.
A great example was last season — their first as judges and as a “revived” American Idol panel — during the audition period. A singer named Koby came in and belted out a few big notes, to which the judges all had pretty evident, and negative, reactions.
Perry gave the most blunt answer when she told the singer that people are probably not being truthful when they tell her she should go on American Idol. Ritchie was also pretty firm, but had a gentler delivery, and Bryan was even nicer. But while Perry was the toughest of the group, she made it clear to the AP in 2018 that she and her fellow judges are not Simon Cowell all over again, largely because they aim to teach contestants without the harsh, quippy soundbites. And as the clip above demonstrates, the group does truly want to offer constructive feedback — even if it hurts.
And the rest of their season went pretty much like that, so all signs point to 2019's new season looking pretty similar.
Of course, it's hard not to compare new judges to the original judges — Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson, and Simon Cowell — who made American Idol what it is today. They set the tone for competition show personalities and if you watched them together in the first eight seasons, you know why. They had good chemistry, but they were also snarky, to each other and the contestants — although most of the bite came from Simon, who was known for saying things like "If your lifeguard duties were as good as your singing, a lot of people would be drowning." Randy became known for his gentler delivery, which has since become a meme ("It's gonna be a no from me, dawg," for the unfamiliar.) Paula was often the relief, the one who would lift the contestants up when Simon and Randy got them down. That said, the reality is that, as a group, they did actually give great advice to potential contestants. Simon was always known as the harsh one, but he was hardly ever wrong. That honesty is what made them trustworthy, so even though they weren’t the nicest, their commentary had a point.
On the flip side, there was one set of judges that were actually too nice. Yep, you heard that right. This was one of the biggest criticisms for judges in season 10: Jennifer Lopez, Steven Tyler, and Randy Jackson didn't have enough teeth as judges. As a People article pointed out, there was a great crop of singers that season, but judges are there for a reason and that reason is supposed to be to offer actual honest critiques. This kind group didn't exactly do that — though Lopez was full of inspirational soundbites and "goosies" moments and Tyler was often confusing, but ultimately extremely kind. So while season 10 was full of good feelings, fans and critics alike felt the judges weren't exactly, well, judging.
Then there was the Minaj and Carey season (Idol's 12th), which got messy. But while the two superstars weren't always very kind to each other, they weren't exactly mean to contestants (unless you count Minaj's occasional reactionary facial expressions). While Carey was lovey with everyone, Minaj often spoke to her favorites with mushy phrases like "You've been my ladybug, my marshmallow, my superstar country girl."
Luckily, this season’s group of judges don’t have to figure things out this time around; with one year under their belt, they have the hang of things. They seem to have a good vibe as a group and as long as they keep it up with the good, constructive advice (and Perry sticks to her guns), season 17 is going to be a good one.