"American Idol" Judge DioGuardi Rates Ellen DeGeneres' Debut

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American Idol judge Kara DioGuardi says she was "very pleased" with Ellen DeGeneres' debut on the panel during last night's Hollywood Week episode. "Ellen had a good handle on whether a contestant had star quality and knew if something was off in the vocals," DioGuardi told reporters during a conference call this morning. "She was funny, but she was also critical and had heart."

DioGuardi also touched on talk that Howard Stern is in the running to replace Simon Cowell next season ("As of now that's a rumor. I don't think that he has a music background, and if you're going to replace Simon you need that" ) and ran through her wish list for this season's mentors (Harry Connick, Jr. for a standards week and Meat Loaf for rock).

Now in her second year on the show, DioGuardi says her own style of critiquing has changed: in addition to being more comfortable on TV, DioGuardi told Rolling Stone she kept her expectations for Hollywood Week more open due to the rotating cast of guest judges — from Neil Patrick Harris to Mary J. Blige — that joined during the audition episodes. She also credits Paula Abdul's absence with inspiring her to take a more supportive approach during the auditions. "Paula was very nurturing," DioGuardi says. "During the audition rounds, I tried to give kids the benefit of the doubt when they had some modicum of talent."

Though the big standout from last night's episode was Andrew Garcia's stripped-down version of Abdul's "Straight Up" ("Genius, just genius," DioGuardi says), DioGuardi acknowledges the success of women in mainstream music seems to be rubbing off on Idol wannabes. "This year, especially with what's going on with music currently, is the women's movement. You've got Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Ke$ha, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga — very unique women at the forefront of the music industry that all have their own voices and their own styles," she says.

DioGuardi was quick to emphasize the Hollywood Week shows focus on Idol's emerging talent pool, so the judges' face time — and developing dynamic now that DeGeneres has taken over the fourth judges' chair full-time — took a backseat: "I spent five days with Ellen for many many hours. What you're seeing is an edited down version of what happened. I think that dynamic will develop over the season — I think that's what's going to make it a very exciting season."