American Idol’s 13th season premieres tonight with a new(-ish) cast of judges including the irascible Dolphin Tale star Harry Connick Jr., budding U-Turn actress Jennifer Lopez, and grown-up Peppermint Patty Keith Urban. Maybe they’ll do a good job! I don’t know! But I’ll be there watching because American Idol is still, despite sinking (but relatively phenomenal) ratings, the greatest singing cotillion on TV. Here are five reasons why.
5. The Hollywood rounds give you the best highs and most hilarious lows.
Twelve seasons in, the Hollywood rounds of American Idol remain the most underrated part of the show and maybe the entire reality-competition genre. The bustling energy of the second tryout, where attention-starved contestants who’ve passed the city auditions jump to Hollywood and attempt group numbers in a Fanny Brice-on-roller-skates way, is often the best indicator of how truly talented and likable the auditioning contestants are. Nothing isolates a deluded narcissist like having to perform “Hit ’Em Up Style (Oops!)” with full choreography and sassy collaborators. And sometimes — and I do mean some of the time — you get astounding numbers that X Factor and The Voice have no chance of competing with, like the dazzling situation above with Jessica Sanchez, DeAndre Brackensick, and Candice Glover.
4. It keeps old song standards alive.
People have complained that American Idol is too old-fashioned, but let me remind you why that shouldn’t be a knock against it: Um, there is a show on TV that highlights the works of Burt Bacharach, Carole King, Leiber and Stoller, and The Beatles. Your 14-year-old niece would not hear “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” otherwise. Or “I Feel the Earth Move.” Or hell, “Eleanor Rigby.” Now, if the show could also highlight the careers of Olivia Newton-John, Til Tuesday, and Joni Mitchell, I’d hyperventilate with pride and awe, but for now I’ll settle with praising the fact that a gigantic juggernaut television series celebrates music that hasn’t been Top 40 for half a century.
3. It makes new songs better.
Now, all right: Adele is a righteous talent on her own. Yes. But I’m telling you the first time I realized she was a bankable talent was when I heard Haley Reinhart wail “Rolling in the Deep” and revitalize her entire season 11 arc. When a contestant can find urgency and a sense of self within a new pop song, it proves he/she isn’t merely a trained pageant singer with a recycled repertoire; it proves we’re witnessing (forgive me) the potential for true artistry. And Idol itself has a way of proving that current music isn’t always the brainless fodder you’ve trained yourself to believe it is, like when Phillip Phillips and Elise Testone nailed their duet of “Somebody That I Used to Know” or Angie Miller’s salable takes on the songs of Jessie J.
2. Ryan Seacrest is still the best host of any music-centric reality series.
Why is there any confusion about this? Ryan Seacrest’s hosting skills make American Idol both classic and suspenseful, as his radio chops lend a tone of old-timey bravado and stakes to the talent show. His humor is sometimes snide, but his pacing never slacks. As much as I truly like Carson Daly and think he knows a lot about music, Ryan Seacrest’s internal, Merv Griffin-y “showbiz” sense has always made this series what it is. Only Cat Deeley bests him as a reality emcee, but she’s all about establishing a comfortable, fraternal air on So You Think You Can Dance. Seacrest’s hosting heightens the competitive edge, which is still more pronounced on American Idol than anywhere else in the reality genre.
1. Though talent always wins, there’s always an underdog to root for.
Candice Glover ruled. Adam Lambert ruled. Carrie Underwood ruled. But the best thing about American Idol is its diverse cast of singers who don’t always have operatically perfect voices (or perfectly marketable personas) but still have plenty of reason to be belting on a national stage. Allison Iraheta had almost no shot of winning Idol against the well-adored Kris Allen and Glambert, but her feisty underdog angst enlivened her performances (“Cry Baby,” anyone?) and vaulted her to a Top 4 finish. Amber Holcomb’s sly, saucy edge on jams like “Love on Top” helped her to finish high in a season dominated by Candice Glover and Kree Harrison. Skylar Laine powered through “Gunpowder and Lead” while Phillip Phillips owned season 11. The inherent drama of top dog vs. underdog has always been at the core of Idol, and I’m psyched as hell to see that tension play out again among true talents.
Bonus: Randy Jackson is off the judging panel.