Does X Factor USA REALLY need big-name judges? I don't think so.

Divas of X FactorMy partner in blogging crime Melissa wrote yesterday about the chances of Katy Perry becoming a judge on the second season of The X Factor. And as you know, Madonna’s already addressed rumours that she might be joining the panel. Mariah Carey, someone who’s benefitted hugely from talent shows singing her old hits, will probably continue to be speculated about until the next season goes live.

The thing is, I don’t think The X Factor needs big name judges. This desire seems to stem from Simon Cowell’s insatiable need to do everything bigger, better and more sensational. But it hasn’t worked out in his favour, as former Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger got torn to shreds by a hyper-critical public for her abysmal performance as a judge on the show. She was overwrought, came out with the most irrelevant, new-age comments and the depth and beauty of contestants’ souls and there were plenty of complaints about her managing of her acts. In the end, some pop stars should just stick to singing.

What does X Factor gain from big-name judges/mentors? Let’s take a look at what the benefits are:

  1. Endless speculation and publicity for the show. Seriously. Literally anyone with a pulse will be named in connection with the judging job on X Factor. As you can already see, Katy Perry, Madonna and Mariah are already in the frame. Undoubtedly Cheryl Cole’s name will be thrown into the hat at some point. The thing is, this is the sort of story a lazy tabloid journalist can just endlessly invent. Who’s in the news today? Nicki Minaj? Tomorrow’s headline: “Nicki Minaj to become X Factor judge?” Cowell benefits and tabloid journalists get an easy and sensational story.
  2. The Ego Trip: You take a bunch of massive egos, divide the contestants among them and watch the judges slug it out in an attempt to make their contestant win. It’s Simon’s show, so he desperately wants to win, while all the other judges want to knock their boss off his pedestal. The competition’s fierce, leading to tactical voting, snarky bickering and shock eliminations. It’s all incredibly newsworthy and dramatic.
  3. The Fan Base: Mr Cowell is a master of cross-promotion. Book a big star like Scherzinger to appear as a judge and you bring her legions of adoring fans, her social media presence and a lot more attention for your show. See my earlier point about Cowell’s insatiable need for everything to be bigger. Certainly, bringing a hugely popular popstar like Minaj or Perry on board will mean that the show gets talked about more in pop culture.
  4. Industry experience: I list this as a benefit, yet it’s very dubious. Scherzinger was known for surrounding Josh Krajcik in artsy dancers (although I believe this is a drawback of having a ‘creative director’), while LA Reid made some abysmal song choices for his contestants in the early stages of last year’s show. Industry experience doesn’t count for much when you’ve got creatives trying to shoehorn the contestants into styles that don’t work anymore. Either way, you could claim that these judges can caution their singers on the perils and pitfalls of fame and what works and doesn’t work on stage.

Apart from the massive potential for cross-promotion, none of this really works though. Let’s face it, audiences are tired of the scripted tension between judges. We’ve had it for ten years. We enjoy the bickering on The Voice because it’s light-hearted and playful, and the American Idol judges practically dote on each other so much they’re like a very weird old married threesome. Cowell has taken sensationalism so far at this point that his audience assumes everything is synthetic, even when it’s not.

Let’s have a look at some of the reasons big name judges don’t work:

  1. It can ruin a popstar’s reputation: Scherzinger’s reputation has taken a hit from this gig. Aside from the death threats, Nicole was doing so well as a popstar in her own right, but she came across as overemotional and dithering on X Factor. Being constantly demeaned by Simon Cowell probably didn’t help either. See also: Tulisa Contostavlos on the UK X Factor where she was styled within an inch of her life, forever losing the street cred she’d worked for years to build up.
  2. Idol didn’t start off with superstars. Neither did the British version of X Factor. Simon Cowell was completely unknown when he joined Idol. Sharon Osbourne, wife of Ozzy wasn’t particularly well known outside of the rock fraternity, and Louis Walsh was vaguely known as the guy behind Boyzone and Westlife. Likewise Paula Abdul was a faded popstar and for the first three seasons of Idol, most people still thought Randy Jackson was one of the Jackson Five. None of these people had a fanbase, and they had to prove to the audience that they knew what they were talking about.
  3. The celebrity overshadows the acts: Let’s face it, X Factor and American Idol are essentially karaoke shows, and with karaoke we’re always on the lookout for crash and burn performances. Even worse when your mentor is Nicole Scherzinger who’s got an amazing voice, can dance and looks stunning. Or master choreographer Paula Abdul. Or an electric personality like Katy Perry or Nicki Minaj. Imagine Melanie Amaro being mentored by Mariah Carey – every weakness in her voice would be accentuated by comparison to the diva’s diva.
  4. When popstars become liars: It’s one thing for Simon Cowell to lie and say his act sang well when even your dog ran yelping for the safety of the kitchen after that last performance. But can you imagine Mariah Carey lying to her act and saying he/she gave a stunning performance when they patently didn’t? The dilemma for the mentor is that if you tell the truth, the public will see that as a withdrawal of support for your act – you no longer believe in them. And they’ll most likely stop voting. However, if you pretend their wretched screeching was like an angelic aria, the public will see through the lie and you’ve lost your integrity. Lather, rinse and repeat for an entire series, and let’s see how you fare. UK readers see: Gary Barlow

While there’s a part of me that understands the need for a well-known face on the judging panel, I think it’s a poor precedent that the X Factor has established. Look at Dancing With The Stars – Len Goodman, Bruno Tonioli and Carrie Ann Inaba were hardly known to the public, and it’s fair to say that The Biggest Loser made the careers of Jillian Michaels and Bob Harper rather than vice versa. We don’t need celebrities to judge, we just need good judges.

The Voice may be the wildcard: NBC’s The Voice has proven to be something completely different. It has an all celebrity panel of mentors, but they largely seem to enjoy each other’s company and many of them have collaborated musically since joining the show. Moves Like Jagger, anyone? But these celebrities seem to be incredibly grounded, there are no theatrics, the vibe between them is excellent and the competitive jostling is fun to watch rather than achingly obviously scripted.

So it can be done. But can it be done by Simon Cowell?

by Gerard McGarry on February 9th, 2012

Gerard is the founder and editor of Unreality TV. He writes about TV dramas as well as reality TV talent shows and is obsessed by sci-fi and Doctor Who. Follow him on Twitter @gerrybot or Google+

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One thought on “Does X Factor USA REALLY need big-name judges? I don't think so.

  1. Melissa says:

    I love this. And agree 100%.. The X Factor can make stars of their judges AND Simon should realize you can’t just come in at the top.. you have to earn your ground. Shows aren’t successes overnight, that just doesn’t happen. Even The Voice took one year to really get where it is today.

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