Earlier this month, Katy Perry was announced as the newest American Idol judge — which, for some, was surprising news. The series, tentatively scheduled to relaunch with its 16th season in March 2018, is in the midst of a serious overhaul, with even mainstay Simon Cowell having jumped ship. So why would a major A-list star like Katy Perry step in? It doesn’t make sense.
Except that it does. Especially if you were paying attention to Perry’s official statement.
“I am honored and thrilled to be the first judge bringing back the American Idol tradition of making dreams come true for incredible talents with authentic personalities and real stories,” she said. “I’m always listening to new music, and love discovering diamonds in the rough — from mentoring young artists on my label, or highlighting new artists on my tours, I want to bring it back to the music.”
Which is exactly what Perry seems to be doing in terms of her own career. Her fourth album, Witness, is scheduled to drop on June 9, and we’ve seen the way she’s reinvented herself in the lead-up to its release. She’s cut off her hair (in a sharp contrast to a long legacy of wigs), and used the Grammys to make a political statement with her debut performance of "Chained to the Rhythm. “Swish Swish,” her newest single, serves as a “not today, Satan!”–type of anthem, but she's refused to take the bait and make it about any specific pop star rival. Ultimately, Perry’s cutting down any and all bullshit, as she explained in an interview earlier this month.
“I built up Katy Perry and she was so fun,” she told EW. “And I still am Katy Perry and I love her so much but, at the core, I’m Katheryn Hudson and I think that’s being revealed as I embrace who I really am.”
That approach parallels her approach to American Idol — a series Perry has told us she intends to return to its roots. Remember that since its 2002 debut, Idol morphed from a show that nurtured young talent to one almost entirely defined by its celebrity affiliations. By the end of its run, the judges’ antics all but eclipsed the offerings of its contestants, and, unlike The Voice, even the winners failed to make as much as a dent musically. (At least The Voice focuses on contestants’ singing as much as it does on Gwen Stefani and Blake Shelton’s relationship.) So, by rebranding Idol, Perry has a real chance to demonstrate how well she understands the music industry, plus show her respect for burgeoning talent. Because let’s be real: In its waning years, that show really couldn’t have seemed to care less about who it pretended to care about.
Katy can fix that. By peeling back her own layers and acknowledging the separation between her real-life identity and her public persona, she’s offering fans a peek behind the Top 40 curtain and giving us a glimpse into how quickly the industry can embrace, dismantle, and reprogram an artist. And her power move has been to expose it all.
Which makes her a brilliant choice for American Idol's big name. By the time the series re-premieres, we'll have had nine months to live with Witness — plus Perry’s new creative direction and zest for sincerity. She will have shown us that she understands how to rebrand an entity (be it a pop star or a TV show) without it seeming forced or sensational. She’ll have proved that you can make something better by returning to basics.
American Idol is trusting Perry to help transform it into something more musically credible and relevant. Which speaks not just to the power of pop, but to the power that she in particular wields.
Because Katy Perry doesn’t need to be a judge on American Idol. If the series wraps after Season 16, her career will not be made or broken. But if it is a success — if she uses her own rebrand as the template to reshape the series — it will demonstrate that she's one of the savviest artists in pop. It will remind us that she gets how it works. And more excitingly, it will suggest that if all artists reclaimed their power and narratives the way Perry recently has, we could all benefit.