Hey guess what – my favorite music competition is finally worth watching again!

After suffering through a truly terrible two-year period – let’s call it ‘The  Steven Tyler Era’ – American Idol has bounced back better than ever in the last few weeks. And it’s all to do with those brand new judges – Mariah Carey, Keith Urban and Nicki Minaj.

At the start of the year I speculated as to how the new Idol panel would fare, hoping for the best, but expecting the worst. At a time when Fox pays Britney Spears $15 million to speak with a strange British accent, act robotically and struggle to give even the vaguest semblance of a critical note – my expectations weren’t exactly high. But the new Idol judges are smart, thoughtful, critical and passionate. Phew!

Okay so we still have to contend with Randy Jackson, the Al Roker of reality TV, who each week acts more and more like the annoying drunk uncle at a family event everyone is forced to tolerate. And as usual, the Idol producers are pulling their usual manipulative production tricks – clearly pushing for a female winner this season, airing a sanitized version of the Mariah vs Nicki dustup when we all know what really went down, and pretending a contestant like Matheus Fernandes is a bright new star despite competing for several weeks on The Glee Project! Oh Idol…

But thankfully new blood Mariah, Nicki and Keith are more than pulling their weight this season. It’s enough to make you forget Ellen DeGeneres ever sat on the panel. Well almost…

Of the three, Mariah is the ‘weaker’ judge. She’s not bad – and I do love Mariah’s diva flourishes and shady looks when a contestant veers into shaky vocals – but I would also love a bit more critical commentary from Ms Carey. After all she’s pretty much one of the most vocally gifted stars in the world today (alongside Celine and Christina). But Carey hasn’t been bad – firing off some sharp observations here and there and proving herself a darn sight more likeable than I would have expected.

Next for me would be Keith Urban. I’ll admit I wasn’t too familiar with Urban before Idol but for me he’s been a terrific addition to the panel this season. Keith is warm, funny and sharply observant, making fresh observations we haven’t heard on the Idol panel in years. I love when he told a contestant she had a touch of Dolly Parton in her tone (she did) and chastised another for saying she’d ‘done the country thing’.  Not a smart thing to say to a guy who’s made his name in the country world!


But it’s Nicki Minaj who’s really been the star this season. I mean seriously – how great has Minaj been this year?

One of the things that made American Idol the success story it was – and still largely is – were the opinions of Simon Cowell in the show’s early years. Cowell said exactly what was on his mind and most of the time he was spot on. But in his last couple of seasons on the panel, you could tell Cowell had largely checked out. And to an extent he’s never really checked in on The X Factor, partly because he’s also the creator and Executive Producer of the show and thus has a hidden agenda to be effusive in his praise.

But Minaj has no such agenda – or filter – and that’s what’s making her so damn good. Plus she’s ten times smarter than I honestly ever expected her to be. I loved when Minaj chastised singer Paul Jolley for taking to the stage with a defeatist attitude and excuses – ‘just give us one minute of professionalism’. It was a lesson he needed to hear. Or when she told her previous favorite Papa Peachez that his creative flame had been all but snuffed out by the show. Or how about when Nicki went against the entire Idol ‘sob story ethos’ and critiqued the diminutive Matheus for constantly mentioning his height and wanting a ‘pity party’ from the judges. Bravo Nicki! That’s what we’ve been missing for the last few seasons. For the first time in ages I’m actually excited to hear what an Idol judge has to say.

The fact is American Idol is a COMPETITION – and one with one heck of a prize at stake. Forget The X Factor, The Voice and America’s Got Talent – Idol can truly make you a star. A global, platinum selling star at that. The stakes are high and the judges should be taking their work seriously. And now finally they are. Well three of them at least!

So bravo to the new Idol panel and keep up the good work. We’ve many, many weeks to go – but for now at least the show seems back in fine form. Just don’t go putting anymore daytime talk show hosts on the panel please. Or Britney!