As "American Idol" kicked off its 10th season Wednesday (January 19), all eyes were on new judges Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler. Would they play nice with contestants or get snippy? Would they be nurturing and helpful or dismissive and cold? And how would they get along with the panel's only holdover from previous seasons, Randy Jackson?
Both offered glimpses of their goals as judges in interviews that aired prior to the auditions: Lopez said she was leaning toward compassion, saying, "I'm not in the business of crushing spirits," while Tyler said he wanted to encourage contestants to give it their all. "Sing like you do when no one is looking," he said.
As the auditions began, Tyler proved the more unpredictable of the two newbies, prone to bursting into song mid-sentence or lightening the room's mood with a joke ("I know why you're here; we're all here 'cause we're not all there," he said to one contestant). He showed himself to be a thoughtful, attentive judge, locking in on singers with focus in his eyes and even offering to oversee one contestant's "Idol" run himself ("I'm gonna personally work that into something good!" he told 25-year-old Ashley Sullivan).
J.Lo was clearly cut from the Paula Abdul cloth and was much more comfortable dishing out praise than rejection. She came off as an eagle-eyed "Idol" viewer when she recognized a little-seen contestant from season six, calling out specifics from her auditions, and didn't hesitate to disagree with Tyler when standing up for a contestant she believed in. But when it came time to tell singers "no," she winced and cringed before finally letting out a regretful "sorry." "Why did I sign up for this?" she lamented. "I wanna go home. It's tough! I don't like saying 'no.' "
She got more comfortable as time went on, though, overall, this set of judges seems like a kinder, gentler bunch than the Simon-led panels of the past. Even as Jackson fell into his old habits of laughing off contestants during clearly bad auditions, Tyler and Lopez for the most part avoided such pat dismissals, instead offering advice or accentuating the positives in even the most hapless auditions.
But if it's a kinder panel, it's also an easier panel, as they handed out an unusually high 51 golden tickets to Hollywood during the New Jersey auditions. The judges seemed easily swayed by teary backstories and particularly forgiving of contestants in whom they saw "potential." Tyler also seemed somewhat unsure of their convictions: After he first told 15-year-old Kenzie Palmer he wasn't "feeling" her performance, he buckled and gave her a thumbs-up after Lopez and Jackson approved of her talents.
The panel is also very democratic, almost to a fault; where Cowell was always the clear leader in the past, one person has yet to emerge as the head of this new trio of personalities. Also, they need to work on their nonverbal communication: When Tyler went to give Jackson a high five, Jackson responded with a fist bump, resulting in an awkward five-bump. But they'll get there eventually.
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