“American Idol”: Judging the Judges

We’re finally past American Idol’s pre-taped auditions and selectively-edited Hollywood Week. The field this year is wide open, with no distinct Scotty McCreery-esque favorite. But at last we can see the newest crop of judges, Mariah Carey, Keith Urban and Nicki Minaj, handing out their critiques… live. That means we can now fairly compare them to their predecessors on the panel. Are they better? Are they worse? It’s time to get all judgey on the judges — and not just on the new guys, but all the previous panelists, too.

Without further adieu, my ranking of every American Idol judge from best to worst. Of course I totally nailed it, but feel free to disagree in the comments.

#1 Simon Cowell

Week after week and year after year, we were on pins to hear what the curmudgeonly Brit was going to say about contestants. And with good reason: he was usually spot on. Cowell was the prickly critic that the panel has been missing since his departure after Season 9.

The good: He famously told Carrie Underwood that she would sell more records that any other “Idol,” and she has — more than 14 million to date.

The bad: He once told Jennifer Hudson: “You’re out of your depth in this competition.” Hudson as we know went on to win a supporting-actress Oscar and other awards for Dreamgirls, and sang a memorable tribute to Whitney Houston after her death just before the Grammys last year. (Cowell later admitted he was wrong about her.)

The Memorable: Aside from a gross smooch-fest with Paula in a pre-taped bit they did during Season 5, his eye roll during Season 6 was mistakenly interpreted as a sarcastic reaction to sympathies expressed for the Virginia Tech massacre. (Turned out to be a case of bad camera timing.)

#2 Kara DioGuardi

Maligned by some as vapid and stilted, I always enjoyed Kara’s sassiness. She’s a prolific hitmaker and brought her keen sense of what it takes to be a successful artist and musician to the judging panel. MTV named her best judge in 2010. She’s a great singer in her own right, too.

The Good: In a behind-the-scenes revelation, she stuck up for Adam Lambert in her judging screen-test auditions before Season 8 had even begun, as noted in her book.

The Bad: Unfairly or not, DioGuardi was seen as the “polarizing” upstart who spoiled Paula Abdul’s standing as Idol’s lone female voice. Also, the finale song she penned for Kris Allen, “No Boundaries,” was terrible, even prompting Allen to drop the song from the live tour (DioGuardi recorded it herself later, and her version shows it was more suited to a female voice).

The Memorable: Her “Vision of Love” schooling of the tragic Bikini Girl was an epic piece of shade — and eerie premonition of current judge Mariah Carey.

#3 Paula Abdul

As the one-season awfulness of Hey, Paula proved, Abdul’s kookiness was not reserved only for the judging panel; she endured an avalanche of criticism for being a empty-headed pushover. Notorious for her erratic, perhaps painkiller-induced behavior, Paula was still entertaining for her signature ditzy, seal-clapping affect. Like her or not, she was the reliable, reassuring soft-voice alongside the Cowell Scowl. (And note she’s doing just fine on social media post-Idol, with nearly 2.5 million Twitter followers.)

The Good: She was correct when she called Kelly Clarkson a “triple threat,” because, well, Kelly totally is.

Bad & Memorable combined: In a confused haze, the Forever Your Girl offered a critique of a song that Jason Castro hadn’t yet sung. 

#4 Keith Urban

Cut from the same cloth as Kara DioGuardi, Keith is an established, current songmaker who shows the most promise at this year’s judging table. He connects with the contestants’ emotionality and vocal nuance, and would do us all a favor by being even more critical and hard to please.

The good: He’s managed to offer keen observations and survivor skills amidst cat-fight chaos. (He credits his “literal estrogen nest” at home with Nicole Kidman and daughters as preparation for fellow gal judges, Minaj and Carey.)

The Bad: He spilled a drink on Minaj and didn’t get an expletive-laced diatribe thrown at him (I’d have expected at least a slap).

The memorable: When in the weeds of the initial Mariah-Nicki judging kerfuffle, he banged his head on the judging table and said: “I feel like a scratching post.” The carpet on that post wore out long before the show ever went live.

#5 Randy Jackson

The “dudes,” the “dawgs” and the “good lookin’ outs” were, in earlier seasons, a foil for Cowell’s hard-to-please pout – and he does have experience as a Journey bandmate and producer. He could have sharpened his critic’s blade after Cowell’s departure and been the voice of reason, but alas, that didn’t happen.

The good: He’s been occasionally sharp this season, seeing talent where it is and calling bad singing where that is, too.

The Bad & (un)Memorable: Jackson’s prime opportunity to assume the veteran, Critiquer-in-Chief role after Cowell’s departure has never materialized, and because of that, the show has been lost without a critical rudder.

#6 Nicki Minaj

To say, “Nicki pulls focus” is the understatement of the past Idol decade. This season’s trash-talking bad girl has been wildly unpredictable, and not just for her daily changing hairstyles. She steps all over the judges and gives contestants nicknames like “ladybug,” “top hat,” and “frog killer.” Cue Mariah’s eyerolls.

The good: Pulling focus is not such a bad thing – just ask Simon Cowell. As much as I can’t stand the girl, she’s got critical promise. There’s a level of unpredictability in what she’ll say that’s both entertaining and sometimes on the mark.

The bad: Minaj doesn’t hide her lusty side, outwardly hitting on many male contestants like the very sexy Johnny Keyser. But the “you look sexy tonight” stuff is just gross and a tad creepy from someone who is tasked with giving guidance and feedback. Speaking of gross…

The memorable: …Minaj said “I want to skin you and wear you” to Top 10 finalist Candice Glover, which is a bit too Hannibal Lecter for my taste. (Honorable mention: following JDA’s gender-fabulous sashaying Adele cover, Minaj swooned. “Miss lady let me say something, hold on. Work it, girl.”

#7 Steven Tyler

“You knocked it out of the park” was the exhausted refrain from the Aerosmith frontman, and he rarely offered contestants substantive critiques. Colorful and caring, to be sure, but he was way too easy to please and too much of an open skirt chaser.

The Good: His special live performance at the Season 9 finale was phenomenal. Dude can still sing.

Bad & Memorable: Stripping right in front of JLo and then jumping in the Vegas pool. Seeing him in any state of undress is not my idea of a strip show. Channing Tatum he is not.

#8 Jennifer Lopez

Save for Carey, Jenny from the Block’s addition to the panel was probably my biggest irritant. She was simply there to sell records and perform, with no real contribution. Her good-singer radar was frequently off, elevating lesser singers because of sentimentality and criticizing others for little or no reason. Her outfits were only a touch more dignified than Carey’s – and that’s saying a lot.

The Good: Crying over Jeremy Rosado’s performance of “I know You Won’t” during Season 11 and her genuine joy at picking him as her wild-card finalist.

The Bad: Her uncharacteristically harsh treatment of 3rd place Season 10 finisher Haley Reinhart, as well as telling Season 11’s Erika Van Pelt that she didn’t move enough during “New York State of Mind,” a note that some say caused her to be sent home.

The Memorable: The kiss she got from Season 10 contestant/lawn gnome Casey Abrams during his performance of “Harder to Breathe.”

#9 Ellen DeGeneres

I had high hopes for Ellen, but the experiment of slotting in a Funny Fan Girl on the panel didn’t produce the results producers had hoped for. With occasional constructive feedback, Ellen lasted only one season and it doesn’t surprise me one bit.

The good: Frat boy hottie Tim Urban, whom Ellen has hosted on her own show since he was excused from the competition, sang a deplorable cover of Anita Baker’s “Sweet Love”; with creepy movement during the song, it caused Ellen to say it looked like he was “sneaking into a bedroom.”

Bad & Memorable: After Urban sang “Hallelujah,” Ellen walked on stage and hugged him in a very awkward moment, although one blogger read it more positively: “Ellen’s hug in TV land is equivalent to being knighted by the Queen of England. Bully for Tim.”

#10 Mariah Carey

Singing chops? Check. Songwriter cred? Check. Scanty outfits? Check check. Comfort on the panel? We’re still waiting for her to “Make it Happen,” because throughout this season’s auditions she’s been weird and awkward in her sparse attire. We get it Mariah, the kiddies can come out to play, but on the panel she gestures like someone who dashed out of the manicurist without drying and contributes surprisingly little to discourse.

The good: She brings songwriter cred to the panel and, at times, will notice and honor that in performances.

The bad: If I hear the fake British accent one more time I will go outside on the street and slap the first person I see.

The memorable: During the Charlotte auditions, she needled Minaj to the point where Minaj told her to “shut the fuck up” and stormed off the set. Mariah later recounted to Barbara Walters that Minaj made a pointed threat: “if I had a gun I would shoot the bitch.” Classy.

As someone who’s covered this show in the past and watched from Day One, I prefer to have contestants leap over a high judging bar. We’ve got some great singers this year – Candace Glover, Angie Miller and Brunell Taylor come to mind – so hopefully we’ll be treated to some great performances. But I’ll always miss Simon’s cutting-sourpuss antics. When he issued a compliment, it meant that singer was almost certain to be a star.

So guys, that’s my list and I’m sticking to it. But how would YOU rank the Idol judges? Let us know in the comments.

*You can find author Will Pollock on Twitter @wildcatatl


Will Pollock is an Atlanta-based freelance travel, culture and entertainment writer and photographer. He is founder and director of <a href="http://www.artvisionatl.org/"><b>ARTvision Atlanta</b></a> and is the author of <a href="http://www.pizzaforgood.net"><b>Pizza for Good</b></a> and a number of other forthcoming books and projects. He writes about politics, pop-culture and other nonsense on his blog <a href="http://www.willpollock.com/"><b>willpollock.com</b></a> and you can follow him on Twitter <a href="https://twitter.com/bywillpollock">@bywillpollock</a>.