Steven Tyler, the Savior of 'American Idol'

With his enthusiasm, bizarre non sequiturs and rock-star insanity, Tyler has revived the nation's favorite show

Tony Duran / FOX
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Oh, Steven Tyler, how could we all have doubted you? As soon as the news broke that the notoriously motormouthed Aerosmith stud was taking over the judges' panel on American Idol, everyone smelled a disaster. His loose-cannon lips and zigzag brain on live TV? Unthinkable. Nobody had ever seen Tyler sit down before, much less try to concentrate on the same thing for three hours. He seemed destined to go down faster than he did the night he fell offstage in the middle of "Love in an Elevator." Add Jennifer Lopez to the mix, years past her heyday, and Idol looked like a flop-sweat storm cloud ready to rain failure down upon us all.

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But Idol is America's favorite show again, and Tyler can claim the lion's share of the credit. He's the straw that stirs the drink. When he's not talking, he nods, fidgets and twirls his hair, waiting for his chance to dazzle the contestants with bons mots like, "That's the goop that great stuff is made from" (that means the performance was good) or "You define a cool dude in a loose mood" (that means it sucked the barn door off) or "I love it when you break into your ethnic what-it-is-ness" (that means somebody's going home for singing a Taylor Dayne song in Spanish). He's got the goop, all right.

This article appears in the April 14, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available now on newsstands and in the online archive.

This new American Idol is an example of a certain train wreck that didn't happen. Somehow, Tyler has inspired his fellow judges to turn on the charm. Lopez has lost her diva sneer. Randy Jackson, who looked burned out for the past few seasons, has reawakened. They've picked a cast of contestants whom (for the most part) you don't want to punch. And they've learned from Glee: They keep hitting those bullet points — singing, kids, dreams — over and over.

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Nobody's filling the Simon Cowell role, but then, it was a role that only Simon could fill. It would have been disastrous to have anyone else try to get away with his bitchy quips, not to mention his disturbingly low-cut V-neck T-shirts. He was irreplaceable, and the franchise seemed doomed without his frown. But instead, this new Idol has been a plethora of passion. (Wait — according to Tyler, it was contestant Casey Abrams' hideous version of the Beatles' "With a Little Help From My Friends" that was a "plethora of passion." But I guess there's enough passion here to go around.)

The original brain trust — Simon, Randy, Paula Abdul — was a case of perfect chemistry, one that could never be repeated. All the other attempted judges have been fiascoes: Ellen DeGeneres was too damn tasteful to let it rip on live TV, and Kara DioGuardi was flailing so wildly to keep her job she never got around to doing it.

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The big difference with the new judges is that they've decided not to try so hard. They don't bother with real criticisms. Even when the contestants are sucking worse with every note. Tyler makes Paula sound like Simon — he tells every woman on the stage what a star she is. No doubt this strategy has served him well with groupies over the years.

The contestants, as always, are a mixed bag. The boys have more rough edges and goofball energy, while the girls, frighteningly, seem more like pageant princesses than ­wanna-be pop stars. The boys are more fun — the screechy James Durbin, the trembly Jacob Lusk, even the bearded Casey Abrams, who did the first Nirvana song ever on Idol. (Lopez's priceless reaction: "Kurt Cobain, that's some big shoes to fill.")

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But it's Tyler who sets the tone. He's flamboyantly glad to be here, which is at least 90 percent of what constitutes a successful Idol presence. Seeing Lopez reclaim her hotness is the kind of heartwarming redemption story that Idol has always loved. As a movie star, J.Lo could have been the next Rita Hayworth — or at the very least, the next Victoria Principal. But alas, she squandered it all to be a noticeably terrible disco singer. So it's remarkable to see her get her star power back. The contestants all suck up to her, sensing that she is the Idol judge most likely to respond to flattery — they're constantly telling her she's either their inspiration or their boner Idol. All these kids gazing up at her with longing and desire has made her bloom, and she's regained the J.Lo glow not seen since the turn of the century.

Give Tyler credit for loosening her up, as well as increasing the positivity level all around. There's a lot to root for on Idol now, but the real contestant is Idol itself — it wants our love and is willing to beg for it. And in this case, that's the goop that great stuff is made from.

From The Archives Issue 1128: April 14, 2011