Idol Insider

Nicki Minaj's hilarious feud propels American Idol to a new age: A sneak peek reveals plenty

Nicki Minaj's hilarious feud propels American Idol to a new age: A sneak peek reveals plenty

In 2002, Michael Jackson was dangling babies off of balconies. I was memorizing all the words to Nelly’s “Hot in Herre.” No one hated the Dixie Chicks. And a 20-year-old cocktail waitress from Burleson, Texas, won a little televised talent show called American Idol.

That the cocktail waitress is now a platinum recording artist set to perform at President Obama’s inauguration is impressive. That the show that launched her is, nearly 11 years later, still as relevant as its biggest star is a television anomaly. Against the odds, American Idol has withstood shifting generations, rotating casts and a rapidly changing music industry.

If the goal of Idol’s competitors is to create stars — and according to Adam Levine, it is — Idol is the professional in a room full of amateurs.

But in pop culture, relevance can be lost in a Nicki Minaj z snap, all the more apparent in an era where singing competitions are a dime a dozen. This year, Idol is faced with a tricky mission — cutting through the noise of the show’s hipper, louder and increasingly popular competitors.

No one understands this more than producers Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick, who kicked off the Season 12 premiere event last night, recorded at UCLA’s Royce Hall and distributed via live feed to 11 theaters across the United States. I attended the Houston showing at the AMC Studio 30 on Dunvale, which didn’t have nearly the tingling energy of a Toyota Center Idols Live concert.

Instead, the modest crowd of about 100 arrived quietly, loyalty to the show’s history and cautious excitement for the new season in tow.

The producers delivered: Colorful, laugh-out-loud funny and focused all at once, the sneak peek of the two-hour premiere proved the Idol machine is, to quote the insufferable, in it to win it.  

Step one? Touting Idol’s resume. The episode smartly begins with a string of numbers: 250 million iTunes downloads, 370 No. 1 Billboard hits, 88 gold records, 19 platinum albums, nine Grammy Awards, 13 CMA Awards and one Oscar. Early winners Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood may be the torchbearers, but Idol’s success isn’t bottom heavy: Season 11 winner Phillip Phillips just went triple platinum with his debut single, “Home.”

If the goal of Idol’s competitors is to create stars — and according to Adam Levine, at least, it is — Idol is the professional in a room full of amateurs.

But the biggest story of Season 12 is its new blood: Minaj, Mariah Carey, and Keith Urban join Randy Jackson on the judging panel this year, replacing oddball pair Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler. The seeds of Carey and Minaj’s much talked-about feud are visible in the premiere, but, thankfully, that’s all it amounts to — an eye roll here, a hilarious Minaj stank face there, a few aggressive jabs sprinkled in between.

“Your range is better than Mariah’s,” Minaj tells one contestant without blinking.

For all the added flash, the new judges at least pump some identity into the panel, a welcome change from seasons past. Minaj straddles the line between grating and refreshing at any given moment, but her artistic vision is undeniable. Carey looks tame compared to Minaj, but her approach is nonetheless strong and consistent. And caught between the two is Urban, a steady, graceful force who shows the sharpest appreciation for the blend of technical and innate skills that make up the best artists.

“Your range is better than Mariah’s,” Minaj tells one contestant without blinking.

Time will tell if personalities can mesh for an entire season — “I feel like we gel well. Is that weird?” Minaj asks the panel in the premiere — but Idol has never been the sum of its judges. Unlike The Voice or The X Factor, when voting rolls around come March, the judges will be rendered irrelevant, and talent will drive the quality of the season. (I’m holding you to this, Lythgoe.)

So what of the talent?

The sneak peek featured one compelling audition and a few solid auditions from New York City and Chicago. Ashlee Feliceano, whose family adopts medically challenged foster children, sings “Put Your Records On” with spirit and a lovely tone. Sarah Restuccio’s take on Underwood’ “Mama’s Song” is serviceable, but when asked to sing a second song, the cowboy boots-sporting 17-year-old blazes through the rap portion of “Super Bass” with a much clearer personality.

Minaj eats it up. Urban looks confused.

Twenty three-year-old Griffin Peterson is the first WGWG of Season 12 (is it too early to call a winner?), but no discredit to him — his brief spin on Needtobreathe’s “Washed by the Water” is intriguing, though overshadowed by Minaj’s embarrassing fawning. “The single life,” Carey quips under her breath.

And finally, we meet Lazaro Arbos, a 21-year-old Cuban native who moved to Florida with his parents a decade ago. Back stories haven’t kicked me in the gut since Danny Gokey ruined them for me, but this one does.

Inhibited by a heavy stutter, Arbos has trouble even getting out the name of his song to the judges. The moment he starts singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” however, all traces of stutter disappear. His voice is a cross between David Archuleta’s purity and Clay Aiken’s tone, but its mark is open-faced vulnerability. Urban’s expression is priceless as he watches, as if to say, “Ah, this is why I’m here.”  

To that extent, the loss of Lopez’s sincerity isn’t noticeable just yet. Carey, Minaj and Urban may not be as nurturing as Lopez, but they each appear genuinely interested in contestants in their own way — be it via caustic honesty or emotional connection. If they can marry that to a critical eye in later rounds, you can’t ask for much more from a judging panel.

 A live Q&A session with the judges, hosted by Ryan Seacrest, followed the sneak peek of the premiere. The most telling aspect was the judges’ interaction (for Minaj and Carey, hardly any), but a few interesting bits surfaced:

  • Minaj’s final push to join the Idol team came from an unlikely source: Lil Wayne. Say what?
  • Minaj believes if you attach your dream to something bigger than yourself (for her, getting her family out of a bad situation), it’s impossible to quit the dream — the smartest cheesy advice I’ve heard in a while.
  • On achieving longevity: Urban says make art that’s relevant; Minaj says make choices you can live with; Jackson gives shockingly astute advice: “You have to be compared against yourself,” he says, noting previous true-to-self winners.
  • On finding an entertainer vs. a vocalist: Minaj thinks we’re in an era of entertainers; Jackson asks why can’t we have it all, and I agree with him for the second time . . . ever?
  • On the possibility of the judges performing together: Urban’s immediately in; the rest are suspiciously quiet.
  • On what it’s all about: It’s the moment when the television stops you in your tracks, and you ask yourself, “What is that voice doing to me?” Urban says. “The rest is just a crazy circus.” . . . “A good circus,” he’s quick to add.

You can catch the two-hour premiere of American Idol Season 12 on Wednesday at 7 p.m.  Chime in with your thoughts, and check back for more Idol coverage throughout the season.

Get more of Tara Seetharam's pop culture musings on her website and follow her on Twitter @TaraAshley.

American Idol, Season 12, judges, January 2013
American Idol judges during the Season 12 premiere Q&A American Idol/Facebook