The biggest change going into American Idol 8 was the addition of a fourth judge. American Idol had spent seven seasons dominating ratings, content with the three-headed Randy/Paula/Simon monster which sat behind the judging table. Sensing an air of unrest among the Idol faithful, or perhaps predicting the approaching departure of another judge, the American Idol executives went out and hired Ms. Kara DioGuardi, a songwriter and performer, to become the fourth judge. Simon Cowell was not consulted about this move, nor were the other judges; one day, it was the three of them, the next day there was a fourth. There was no controversy, however, and the judges all appeared to get along with Kara swimmingly from the get-go. With no intra-judge strife, the onus moved to the audience: Would the four-judge experiment work? Was Kara the right fit? Did she bring anything to the table? How would it effect the other judges? These questions were debated speculatively prior to the American Idol season, in addition to many who saw DioGuardi's appointment as a clear sign that Ms. Paula Abdul had one foot out the door. However, now, after three weeks and seven audition episodes, judgments can be made on The Kara DioGuardi Experiment and, thankfully for Idol fans, the results have been almost universally positive.
Kara DioGuardi Herself
Kara DioGuardi knows her stuff. She is a smart girl (graduated from Duke with Poly Sci degree, no small feat), is an accomplished songwriter, and has been in the music business for over a decade. There is no question about her chops. As for her judging style, she is generally honest, though never in a Simon-like demeaning fashion. I got the vibe from Kara that she perhaps wanted to be sort of a less-blunt Simon, but didn't even have the heart for it. Kara is pretty fearless too, not backing down from Simon, and willing to spar with her fellow judges if she deems it necessary. If I have one complaint, it's that when she doles out praise, Kara can be vague, simply generating a stock “I like you,” instead of explaining exactly why she might like a specific singer (although, to be fair, this could be a result of the editing). The only other bothersome aspect of Kara's judging is that she has a tendency to give a singing example to some people. Kara, we know you have a good voice, but whenever a judge sings, it comes off as self-aggrandizing and is totally unnecessary. Overall, Kara has been quite good, especially as the new judge on a well-established show. She has been seamlessly integrated into the fold in a wholly non-disruptive manner.
Kara's Influence on the Other Judges
This is the most over-looked aspect of Kara's presence. The judges, albeit subtly, have changed since Kara's appointment, especially Paula and Simon. Paula undoubtedly felt threatened by Kara's hiring, and you can't blame her. All the historic criticism of Paula aside, she has been a main cog on the most watched series of the decade. Paula could have become bitter and angry, given Kara the cold shoulder, and incited awkwardness at the judges' table. However, and you have to give Paula a ton of credit for this, she took the exact opposite route, embraced Kara's presence, formed an all-girl alliance and stepped up her game in the process. Paula has never been more lucid as she has during this audition season, and I've found myself nodding in agreement with Paula on a number of occasions. This is something I am absolutely not used to. Paula has actually been insightful, which, if you've been following American Idol for years, is a delightful surprise.
As for Simon, Kara's presence has seemed to soften the old curmudgeon. This could have nothing to do with Kara, and everything to do with Simon getting older and more mature, but it's been a change nonetheless. Simon has given a “yes” to singers he would have raked over the coals in seasons' past. This could also be the result of a producers' mandate, Idol wanting a larger pool of talent in the Hollywood rounds, but I have to believe that Kara is part of the reason for Simon's new found kindness. Prior to this season, the Judges Spectrum of Kindness looked like this: Paula (nicest), Randy (in the middle), Simon (brutally honest). Now, Kara lies between Randy and Simon. With someone else willing to call bad singers out in an honest manner, Simon can tone down his comments with the knowledge that Kara will likely be on his side. It hasn't always worked out like this in practice, but the theory is there, and is something that Simon has appeared to buy into.
The audition episodes are a completely different monster than the upcoming live shows. Kara doesn't seem like a person who will fold under the bright lights of live television, but we won't know until she gets there. I have the feeling, however, that the best from Kara is yet to come, especially when we get down to the Top 36, where the critiques will inherently become more subtle and rely on shades of gray that don't exist in the generally black and white form of criticism found during the auditions. To the Idol producers' credit, Kara DioGuardi's hiring has been a major success so far, inasmuch that it wasn't a total disaster. The jury is still out, but the early returns are decidedly positive.
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