Five Questions on American Idol: Is Nicki Minaj the Greatest Judge Since Simon?

Michael Becker/FOX Nicki Minaj and Mushroom

Whatever doesn’t deafen you makes you stronger: Grantland’s Jay Caspian Kang, Mark Lisanti, and Emily Yoshida have returned, bowed but not broken, to tackle another season of American Idol. Join them on their journey, they’ll need fresh meat when things go in a cannibal direction.


Is Nicki Minaj the best non-Simon judge the show’s ever had? As a reminder, the following other individuals have been full-time judges: Randy Jackson (12 seasons), Paula Abdul (8), Kara DioGuardi (2), Ellen DeGeneres (1), Jennifer “Jen-Lop” Lopez (2), a horny microphone stand draped in silk scarves (2), Mariah Carey (1), and Keith Urban (1).

Kang: My mother called last night to talk about how much she enjoyed this Nicki Manga character and all her wack-a-doo expressions, confectionary wigs, and spontaneous accents. She also praised Minaj’s “good heart,” and the backbone Nicki displayed when she walked off the stage because Randy and Mariah wouldn’t stop shooing that poor “soulful country” girl back to her trailer park because Lord knows it ain’t decent for a nice white girl from the South to sing about anything but her boyfriend’s truck, her father’s drinking problem, and the poor girl from across the tracks who later turned into a serial arsonist.

I agree: Minaj has been a revelation. All her antics fall into a logical order — the wigs, the Moneypenny accents, the kabuki theatrics. Somehow, the girl in the wig and the girdle who keeps speaking in different accents feels like the only person on the panel who isn’t puffing himself/herself up for more attention (I’m looking at you, Keith Urban’s partially concealed chest tattoo). I’m even enjoying her allegedly staged bouts with Mariah, mostly because Mariah reminds me so much of that really bitchy, really hot girl at your high school who would terrorize her classmates with a litany of bored, sarcastic “Oh really”s and “Is that what you were saying, because I couldn’t tell”s. And just as that girl’s lack of wit never really mattered because she was hot, the clumsiness of Mariah’s comebacks don’t matter much because 80 percent of the contestants still swoon when they realize they are in the presence of the great Mimi.

I just convinced myself to add a new category to the Diva Scale. SWOOOOON factor. Mariah’s got it. Nicki Minaj doesn’t. #REALTALK

Lisanti: Coming into the season, I think we all would have put our money on Mariah taking charge of the panel; she’s the Living Legend hire, and Nicki was obviously picked for the Insane Sideshow slot — so much so that by October, the producers were already leaking “news” of the “expletive-filled death threats” resulting from the dangerously unstable diva/antidiva reactions they were so carelessly fomenting. (From those early videos, it would have been a safe assumption that the peacemaking Keith Urban didn’t make it out of the third week of auditions alive, having been killed by Mariah’s Minaj-targeted side-eye lasers.) But here we are, some 400 hours into Season 12, and Nicki’s our breakout star. No one saw this happening. She’s somehow the Entertainer, the Voice of Reason, the Nurturer, and the Shit-Stirrer all in one. And she’s juggling all that with the most impressive wardrobe work televised singing competitions have ever seen. After each commercial break, you don’t know if you’re going to see the Magical Chauffeur, the Cotton-Candy-Headed Princess of the Peppermint Forest, the The-Fuck-You-Looking-At Spacebus Driver, or the Kaleidoscope Snapping-Turtle Lurking Underneath the Blanket Fort. But you do know you’re going to see something special. I hope her costume designer never kicks that peyote habit.

Is this coronation premature? Perhaps. Steven Tyler also burst out of the gate strong, a nonsense-spewing, pashmina-swaddled leathermummy firing jailbait-seeking missiles at every 16-year-old unlucky enough to make eye contact. That lasted what, two weeks? Eventually, apathy comes for them all. Let’s see if Nicki’s got any gas left in the tank by the time we get to Hollywood. (If she does, she can use it to incinerate the caged doves in Mariah’s dressing room and keep the tension hot.)

Yoshida: Yes, Nicki Minaj is the best American Idol judge since Simon Cowell at his peak, and I would go so far as to say that she is better than present-day Cowell. I had a thought as I drifted off to sleep last night (this show gets real estate in my brain like few other shows do) that Nicki may very well be conducting a secret grassroots image-stabilization campaign through hundreds of close-range interactions with the young people of Middle America, many of whom might be outside her core audience. Think about it; you’re a show-choir geek from North Carolina with a Facebook page that proudly declares you like “pretty much everything, except rap and country.” You walk into your Idol audition shaking from nerves, the lights hit your eyes, and before you realize what’s happening, the Devil Herself Nicki Minaj greets you with a wide, Day-Glo grin and a bat of the fake eyelashes, disarmingly weird and warm at the same time. And promptly christens you “Doorknob.” You have a connection now. And you can bet that the second thing you do after Instagramming the golden ticket she so generously bestowed upon you is Liking Nicki Minaj on Facebook and spending the subsequent weeks evangelizing to all your non-Barbz chorus mates.


Who was your favorite contestant this week?

Kang: Candice! Candice! Candice! She won’t win. She might not even make the Final 12. And once she’s bounced out and the tears are flowing down the cheeks of all the 12-year-olds still left in the competition, I’ll ask myself, “Is the R&B landscape so craven and depraved that talented soul singers have to resort to trying out for American Idol?”

Don’t want to answer that question.

Yoshida: Charlie Askew! I don’t even know if I want him to win, or on the minuscule chance that he does, what, if anything, his career would look like, but his audition was one of the few times this week when I suddenly found myself unable to look away from the television, and had to rewind and watch it again. It’s sort of exciting to see someone with perfect pitch on this show, and I had goosebumps by the end of “Nature Boy.” Keith’s Bowie comparison, while not the first thing that came to mind, suddenly made me really excited to see this androgynous waif yelp out “Heroes” in between everyone else’s Carrie Underwood covers. The only thing dampening my enthusiasm in this post-Te’o world is the small yet sneaking suspicion that the blatantly made-up sounding “Charlie Askew Syndrome” is in fact made up, a brilliantly acted ruse perfected by weekly sessions with private awkwardness consultant Wes Anderson, and that he spent a year prior to his audition in a lightless cave in an effort to achieve that perfect Manic Pixie Dream Boy pallor.

Lisanti: Ashley Smith. I’m already depressed about how this show is going to slowly strangle the personality out of her, trying to force her into this or that lane.
Honorable mention to Taisha Bethea, because if you’re a woman trying to do rock on American Idol, may God have mercy upon your soul.


What is it about the phrase “I did the country thing” that made Keith Urban, the gentlest lover to ever lay his queen down upon a bed of baby pandas, uncharacteristically get his dander up?

Kang: I think the producers forced him to get angry. Like, “Hey, Keith, if we wanted a feathered haircut on a stick to lob out softballs while mixing in one or two very orchestrated but ultimately meaningless moments of #realtalk, we would have just hired Katie Couric.”

Yoshida: I think Keith was afraid that after a second week in Nicki Minaj’s shadow of awesomeness, everyone had forgotten that he was a country singer and had albums and awards and stuff, and this was his way of reasserting his cred. Keith does not speak Diva, and I think he still thinks that Nicki is “winning” Idol by being “crazy and temperamental,” so he thought he’d try to gin up some of that magic himself by getting huffy about genre, not realizing that in fact Nicki is winning Idol by being the most rational person at the table. Obviously, the status quo is maintained.

Lisanti: Here’s the thing with Keith Urban. He is very, very pretty. He is essentially an Australian David Beckham with a guitar and a gift certificate to Johnny Rzeznik’s salon — he’s got that same softness in his voice and general demeanor. I bet his tattoos were applied with a Q-tip because the artist couldn’t concentrate through all the whispery giggling, and that each night he lightly buffs Nicole Kidman’s porcelain face with a swatch of Shar-Pei fur. I don’t know how, but I went from pretty to gentle again.

I just don’t like to see Keith upset, OK? Whatever producer told him to compromise his intrinsic sweetness in the name of transparent shit-stirring should be tortured. We have to protect our Keith, he’s too good for this world.


Reader question: Why do you hate this show/yourselves so much?

Kang: None of us hates American Idol. I actually look forward to Wednesday and Thursday nights because there’s always the chance, however faint, that I’ll get to watch the next Fantasia or Bowersox or Jacob Lusk or Joshua Ledet. But that joyous experience has become so sandwiched with shit in recent years that we all feel the need to register our protest. We only criticize Idol because we love it.

As for the hating-myself part, who knows why my only goal in life these days seems to be to get my Subaru Outback over the 200,000-mile mark? Calcium deficiency?

Yoshida: No no no no no. I do not hate this show. This show was my sports before I started watching football this year (which I’ve really been enjoying because it is such a rational, fair, and logical game by comparison, and I never know who’s going to win anything!). I think if you like the Olympics and pop music you kind of have to like American Idol, right? There’s a particularly strong parallel to Olympic gymnastics, where the thrill of watching children perform amazing feats on television is somewhat darkened by the knowledge that it will probably mess them up physically and/or mentally for life. That’s pretty compelling. Oh, also, despite its steadily falling ratings, Idol is still the biggest show on TV, and it’s always fun to beat up a winner because ultimately it doesn’t matter what we think. At least with Idol we don’t have that nagging feeling that we’re spending six hours a week watching and writing about a show that nobody cares about.

I decline to answer Part 2 of this question, because asking three Idol recappers why they hate themselves is like asking a magician for all the secrets of their act.

Lisanti: When I look back at all the joy Idol has given me over the years, I mist up a little. I don’t deserve it. None of us do. And what does it ask in return? The occasional text-message vote, between three and 15 hours per week of engaged viewership, and four months of combative midnight e-mails from Jay Kang’s cat, who appears to have a serious bath salts problem and access to an iPad. Seems like a tiny price to pay.

I definitely hate myself, though. You’re right about that, Mom. Thanks for writing in. It makes me feel good when you engage with my work like this.


Have we found this year’s Scotty McCreery or Phillip Phillips, e.g., the non-threatening cute white guy who will win the hearts of thousands of voting tweens?

Kang: It’s not Johnny Keyser, who returned to Idol after being ousted last season in a completely shocking (and mostly undocumented) elimination. Yes, Johnny’s a fine-looking guy, but he’s a little bit too serial-killery. He could play the murdering boyfriend in Cruel Intentions 5, but I don’t know if he can make the tweens believe that he’s going to listen to their poem about Sylvia Plath’s oven.

It’s also not Charlie Askew, who, despite Yoshida’s ravings, seems to be headed right down the John Stevens Highway, meaning he’s a nice kid with a shaky yet kinda pretty voice who will be swallowed alive by the eight-headed power-ballad monster that chews up and spits out every contestant who can’t hit the big note in Heart’s “Alone” without sharting themselves.

So I’m going to go ahead and say no. We haven’t met that guy.

Yoshida: I’m not sure how Kang forgot that we met a country-singing fireman this week, but we definitely met a country-singing fireman this week. It’s possible Dustin has too many muscles to really be considered “non-threatening,” but all it takes is one well-timed baby kitten stuck in a well-placed palm tree during Hollywood Week to turn that around.

Lisanti: Three words: Gabe Motherfucking Brown.

“Heavy metal teddy bear” is the new “non-threatening white boyfriend with guitar.”

Jay Caspian Kang loves this show.
Emily Yoshida has heard of sports.
Mark Lisanti just called his mom.

Filed Under: American Idol, Idol, Keith Urban, Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj, Randy Jackson, Reality TV