Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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TV OD: Pondering the Significance of Kara DioGuardi

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on March 8, 2009


I was extremely surprised when I heard that American Idol was going to be adding a fourth judge at the beginning of the season. Even more so, though, I was surprised that everyone else wasn’t more surprised. This seemed like earth-shaking pop culture news to me–regardless of what you thought of their skills as analysts of talent and arbiters of final judgement, there’s no question that over the course of seven seasons, Randy, Paula and Simon had achieved a singular, finely honed dynamic, in which all participants clearly knew their part and had learned to play it to relative perfection. To just throw hit songwriter/producer Kara DioGuardi into the mix and potentially disrupt that balance seemed like a much bigger risk than anyone was giving America’s Most Popular TV Show credit for–sure, American Idol seems like its success is almost untouchable at this point, but the Detroit Pistons probably thought the same thing before they added Allen Iverson earlier this season, and look what happened to them. At the very least, they now had an even number of judges, making for some potentially ugly tie situations. Who’s to say where it would go from there?

After watching much of the first third or so of the season, it’s clear that Kara probably isn’t going to destroy American Idol. She’s competent at a minimum, seems to know what she’s talking about (and has the hit single cred to back it up), and has decent rapport with the other judges. That said, she doesn’t add very much to the show, necessarily–her insight, while occasionally inspired, is far from revelatory, and her personality, while nice enough, is never quite so sparkling as to draw new viewers to the show, or help them retain those that they lost last season. So why roll the dice on a potentially disastrous new addition to the show when the potential upside was never anything particularly brilliant? I think I’ve figured it out, and it can be summarized in one word: Insurance.

It’s hard to remember at this point–especially because my viewing of the show has never really been more than spotty–whether or not Paula was always crazy. I seem to remember being able to look at her during season four, the one of which I’d watched the most, and being able to remember that this was in fact Paula Abdul, the same woman behind “Straight Up” and “Rush, Rush” and all those pretty good late-80s/early-90s pop hits, and not some perpetually unhinged and possibly inebriated mess of a human being. But clearly, as the incidents had started to pile up season after season–rumors of affairs with contestants, on-set drinking, critiquing performances before they occured, even hitting a guy with her car at one point–the people at FOX understandably came to the conclusion that this was not a person who you would want to potentially have control over the fate of your flagship program.

Enter DioGuardi. In many ways, the role she currently plays in the show is closest in nature to the one that Paula had before she showed up. First and foremost, of course, she’s female–a quality that would logically need to be possessed by at least one of the show’s judges, given the relatively equal gender split of the show’s contestants (if not necessarily its viewership). Secondly, she’s probably the closest besides Paula to being the “nice” judge–not quite as fawning or moony as Paula gets when she gets lost in a contestant’s eyes or feels she needs to stand up to Simon, but still fairly likely to at least preface her uncomplimentary comments with a “Listen, sweetie…” Basically, she’s a coherent Paula, a concept borne out by the fact that when called on to give their comments, hers usually precede Paula’s, and consequently make whatever she has to say afterwards seem redundant and loopy. For example, let’s say Bobby Brown enthusiast Anoop Desai has just performed a stirring, awkwardly hip-thrusting performance of Billy Idol’s “Cradle of Love,” and the two are called on to offer their opinions. They might look like this, respectively:


“Anoop,  sweetie–I’m not sure if that was necessarily the best song choice for you–you had a little trouble with the low notes, and you should maybe cut down some on the gyrating. But at the very least, you continued to really show America who you are tonight, and I think you’ve got a lot of fans out there, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see you back next week.”


“WOW, Anoop…Wow. Look, honey…the vocals might’ve been just a little bit…[squints, makes “little bit” motion with her fingers]…and the hip stuff…I dunno. But you know what you are? You’re you. You’re YOU, Anoop. And YOU is all that YOU are, and YOU is all that YOU can be. And YOU know what? I love it. AMERICA loves it. And I think you’ll be being you…right here next week!”

[Fans roar, Simon rolls his eyes so hard he loses a contact]

Now, that’s not to say that Paula’s stream-of-consciousness stylings are unappreciated or easily done without on Idol–they’re absolutely part of the show’s appeal, especially in the way that it needles Simon and brings out the best in him. But along with the appeal of her partial insanity comes the fact that there’s never any telling when she’s going to go completely off the reservation, and it certainly behooves FOX to have a backup in waiting just in case she should ever make her position on the show completely untenable. And that seems to me to be the only reason to have Kara in there–to bring her along slowly and allow her to get her reps in case the fateful day should ever come in which she is called on to step into that third judge role.

I do hope, though, that she goes back to being a backup if Paula can hold herself sufficiently together for the rest of the season. Even numbers of judges just piss me off.


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