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Critic's Notebook: Rearranging 'American Idol' -- and losing Kara DioGuardi's songwriting know-how

August 1, 2010 |  3:55 pm

Kara In recent days, “American Idol” came to resemble one of those 1970s disaster movies in which half the horror — and, let’s face it, most of the fun — came from betting on which star would be picked off next. The newest singing talent from television’s No. 1 Towering Inferno had already been pushed onto a flaming balcony last month, when Live Nation announced the cancellation of seven American Idols Live tour stops.

Then the furnace exploded under the judges’ table. Ellen DeGeneres confirmed her departure, claiming her incurable niceness made the job too tough. Kara DioGuardi reportedly found herself to be a typical American worker, shocked at her own expendability when her contract was not renewed. Rumors that even the durable dawg Randy Jackson, a music biz survivor if there ever was one, had almost felt the burn caused some to wonder if cancellation might be the best way out of this wreck.

But this is television, a medium that tends to support unlikely survival; to belabor a metaphor, successful programs jump sharks instead of quickly expiring within their bloody maws. A new “Idol” is emerging from this weekend’s debris, with seasoned performers Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez poised to claim the spots vacated by DeGeneres and DioGuardi.

This shift in focus strikes me as more shrewd than desperate; a tacit acknowledgment that the pretense upon which “Idol” was founded has faded to nothingness now that Simon Cowell is gone. Under the savvy Brit’s leadership, the program reconstructed the classic showbiz myth of the unwashed hopeful, discovered and molded into star material by supportive talent scouts. The judges were not stars themselves — Paula Abdul, let’s remember, was a has-been when she found her “Idol” niche — but insiders able to help raw kids like Kelly Clarkson and Fantasia navigate the tricky music industry. Viewers, identifying with the judges, enjoyed the frisson of helping shape the future of pop.

During "Idol’s" reign, however, something huge happened: The music industry fell apart. Kingpins like Cowell may still make stars, but just as often now they seem to emerge of their own volition. Think of Justin Bieber, the prince of YouTube, or Lady Gaga in her homemade Bowie outfits, or Taylor Swift, holding her own in a songwriters’ circle before she could go to prom. These real-life idols all reached their current superstardom with major help from managers and record label heads, but their official stories make them seem fairly self-made.

Within this changing world, the “Idol” microcosm also shifted. Sometime around Season 7, when Carly Smithson emerged as a contender who’d previously been signed (and apparently mishandled) by a major label, it became clear that “Idol’s” kids were not unscrubbed at all — most had some form of serious show business experience, whether it came via “Star Search,” Christian contemporary music, or Bieber-style viral videos. At first, the corruption of the show’s amateur ideal bothered viewers. But by now, few care — partly because technological advances have made us into a nation of pop semi-pros, all busy recording ditties in our bedrooms or restructuring our lives as potential reality shows.

Call it celebritocracy; fame, not free speech or the lost art of privacy, now seems like our inalienable right. That the post-Cowell “Idol” would shift toward performers advising other performers makes sense within this context. Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez couldn’t be more suitable. Tyler’s a classic-rock road dog who adapted to pop by singing crossover ballads; he appeals to both conservative viewers craving authenticity and those who care more about humor and flash. And Lopez was one of this era’s first multi-platform stars, a singer-actress-dancer-fashionista pretty good at many things while not specializing in any of them, adept at the crucial 21st century art of personal branding, which every “Idol” hopeful must learn.

These likely new judges could save “Idol,” if they really focus on helping the contestants improve what remains the center of the show, despite everything: the musical performances. “Idol’s” talent pool may have pop experience, but it’s often not the kind that makes for compelling television. These strivers often don’t know how to fire up a big audience, or court the camera, or create a confident, appealing persona in a live setting. If Lopez, Tyler and Jackson offered meaningful tips on actual stagecraft — and selected contestants with the potential to follow them — “Idol” might find another Kelly Clarkson, or Carrie Underwood, and live on.

What’s lost in this equation? Nothing DeGeneres offered; even she now says her “Idol” time was a mistake. DioGuardi, however, brought real skills to the judges’ table. As a top songwriter, she represented an exciting force in contemporary music: Women songwriters like Keri Hilson, Katy Perry and the one born Stefani Germanotta are first succeeding behind the scenes and then emerging as the decade’s most compelling voices. DioGuardi’s comments on “Idol” read well on paper; they were full of insight and useful historical context. Her biggest problem was that she came off as awkward, either too forceful or too flip. As a judge, she just couldn’t sell herself. And selling yourself is what matters on “Idol” these days, whether you’re also selling advice from the floor or up there sweating, selling a song.

-- Ann Powers

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Top photo: Kara DioGuardi at the Do Something Awards in July. Credit: Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times. At left:Jennifer Lopez at an AIDS benefit at the Cannes Film Festival in May. Credit: Joel Ryan / Associated Press

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