'American Idol': Calm Before the Storm? - Rolling Stone
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‘American Idol’: Calm Before the Storm?

Things have been going bizarrely right for the show, so it’s probably time to panic.

American Idol

Everything seems to be going so smoothly for American Idol. Which immediately raises the question: Is it time to start panicking about American Idol?

After all, we’ve gotten used to awaiting each new season with the tingle of impending disaster. It’s coming back tomorrow night for its 11th season, yet it feels weird that this season, for the first time in years, there’s no major cast upheaval or creative chaos. There’s no Kara at the table. No Ellen debacle on deck. All the judges – even the ones we expected to go down in flames this time last January – are old hands by now. It’s all going bizarrely right.

So naturally, given the way Idol has warped our brains and trained us to expect the dreaded, all this calm has to make any fan worry: Is Idol on the brink of catastrophe? Is this just the moment of tranquility that enfolds a ship sailing upon peaceful seas, right before the monster wave hits? Isn’t it always dawniest before the dark, or something?

After all, there are so many more singing competitions now. There’s The X Factor, where you try to win five million bucks from Simon Cowell and make Nicole Scherzinger cry hard enough to shut up. There’s The Voice, where you try to win a record deal and make Adam Levine raise an eyebrow saucily. And there’s Saturday Night Live, where you stumble out of the audience in a white gown and push your hair out of your face while you sleepwalk through that Ambien dream where you’re playing Nico in a nursing-home remake of The Chelsea Girls. (Wait, that was the musical guest? Are you sure?)

What set Idol apart last season was its positivity – the new judges were determined to gush love at everyone, which turned out to be the winning move. The X Factor, a great idea and occasionally a great show, couldn’t help but illustrate how much Idol was doing right. (Oh yeah – so that’s why you don’t put little kids on live TV and give them crushing news! Thanks for the reminder!) But how much patience can these Idol judges muster the second time around? They’ve even hinted at going negative this season. “You need a little bit of tough love sometimes,” Jennifer Lopez said. “Maybe we’re a little tougher on the tough-love part this year.” Is that a sophomore jinx talking?

Of course, it could all work out. The team could pull together and grind out another six months’ worth of stoic “another Adele song, how nice” smiles. They could present another likeable cast of Caseys, Scotties and Laurens. But we can dream. So here are the loose cannons we’ll have our eyes on as this season begins. 

How long can this rock god keep behaving? Last year, when he shocked everyone by holding his sweet sassyfrassy together on live TV, he had so much to prove. But how long before he decides that yes, he’s got this job, and yes, America loves him more than ever, and so yes, it’s time to start messing around with all his what-it-is-ness? Will his lips start doing the Tyler Shuffle, and zig when they should have zagged? Or will some contestant pick the wrong moment to taunt him about that awful solo single?

She needed the gig even more than Tyler did, and she pulled off an even more astonishing career turn-around. America loved seeing her vulnerable again – it reminded us all of the Jennifer Lopez we fell in love with, back in the era of Out of Sight, U-Turn and Biggie’s “Been Around The World” video. The girl was so hungry for adoration back then. But what if she stops needing it and turns off the charm? Will she switch back into Wedding Planner/“I’m Real” mode? After all, it hasn’t even been two years since her 2010 musical flameout on SNL, which was widely perceived as one of the show’s all-time career-killers. (YouTubed it lately? Let’s just say it offers perspective on recent events.)  Remember how she got dropped by her label that same week? But look at her now. The power of Idol was even stronger than people realized – and apparently, so was Lopez’s adoration-hunger.

You know the well-behaved child in a dysfunctional family, the one who sees his prodigal siblings get massive amounts of attention for going through the failure/redemption cycle, while he dutifully plods along, getting taken for granted, doing right by the rules, getting no extra credit for not screwing up, bottling up resentments until one day he totally snaps and shares his negative energy and goes off like a fire hydrant popping open? It happens, dawg.

Nobody knows if he’ll be back for another season, or whether this is his final go-round. But more and more, it seems like he’s the irreplaceable one on the Idol team, right? It’s always been easy to overlook his importance, but clearly, that’s where Simon really went wrong with The X Factor – what was missing on that show was a Seacrest. You know, a guy who looks down on Simon because he’s richer than Simon. (Obviously, I have no idea if Ryan’s really richer, but it didn’t matter as long as he acted like it.) You look around all the other singing contests, and you keep seeing examples of what only Seacrest knows how to do, and he can even do it with a semi-straight face. He makes it an event, without seeming like he’s trying too hard. Without that introductory “This!” of his, this would be a very different show.

But as the 11th season begins, American Idol is moving forward without any crisis on the horizon. Which can only mean one thing: brace yourself for a crisis.


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