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‘American Idol’ Season 12 Cheat Sheet: Catfights Welcome, Rappers Aren’t

American Idol Season 12 Preview Guide

American Idol‘s two-night Season 12 premiere begins tonight (January 16) at 8 p.m. EST on FOX. Here’s what you need to know.

Ratings: The show’s ratings still lead other TV singing competitions (via TV Guide), but viewership has been on the decline. Last season’s finale was the lowest rated in Idol history with a total count of roughly 21.5 million viewers and a 32 percent decrease in the key 18 to 49 demographic from the Season 10 finale, according to the Hollywood ReporterSeason 11 also got off to a rough start, with a premiere that finished as the show’s lowest since the very first season all the way back in 2002 (21.9 million viewers, and a 27 percent dropoff also via THR).

Rules: They’re shaking things up. Idolator notes that an Idol bus tour will hit flyover states, giving people far from major cities an opportunity to audition. Also, guy and girl contestants will be separated into two groups during Hollywood Week and Vegas Week, and the final Top 10 will consist of five dudes and five chicks. In addition, the Top 10 will actually be a hard 10, with no Wild Card selection. “I’ve never liked a Top 11 or a Top 12 or a Top 13,” executive producer Nigel Lythgoe said at a recent press conference. “It was always created in order to fill the transmission times Fox wanted.” 

Also, shy contestants won’t be able to hide any longer, either. Several jittery hopefuls were nominated by family and friends for a private audition with Randy Jackson, who reportedly surprised them with an on-the-spot tryout and a hidden camera.

“Worst” No More: This year will see the final run of the independent Idol-trolling campaign “Vote for the Worst,” by which haters can cast ballots for the objects of their ire. Why? Because “American Idol is really no longer relevant,” write the folks behind the movement.American Idol has become a shell of its former self. It used to produce stars … Now, you can count on a bunch of bland finalists singing the same 10 songs over and over … We helped kill American Idol, but even more so, American Idol helped kill itself by refusing to stay relevant.”

Nicki vs. Mariah: As previously reported, new judges Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey have been beefing behind the scenes for some time now. President Obama has even weighed in, and reports have emerged of Carey beefing up her personal security. Don’t expect the drama to blow over any time soon. The pair tried their best to cover up the tension during the Winter Television Critics Association tour, but they couldn’t keep it together. 

“We are professionals. Haven’t you ever been in a fight with someone you work with?” Minaj said before quipping that the two resolved the fight by watching her sex tape. Carey wasn’t stoked: “There it is. The whole thing is convoluted. It’s a distraction from the show and a distraction from the contestants. It’s unfair to them. It shouldn’t be about any of us, it should be about them.”

The two also clash in terms of judging style. Minaj is ruthless: “When I watch these shows and someone says ‘yes’ to someone who clearly doesn’t deserve it … I want to jump through the TV … I don’t feel the need to send someone through just because of a great story.” Carey is sympathetic: “I had a tough time saying ‘no’ because as a kid, you got turned down a lot. It’s tough to get that rejection.”

What About Keith? Country star and fellow first-time judge Keith Urban has joked that he plays the role of “the UN” when it comes to the feud, but EP Lythgoe described him as “the scratching post.” Rolling Stone has described him as quiet but noted that when he does open his mouth, he’s “the most artistically astute judge on the panel, giving intelligent, music-based critiques without resorting to Randy-Jackson-esque name-dropping.” Idolator did report, though, that Urban has scrapped it with all of the judges at some point, and pointed to a particularly heated exchange with Minaj.

Oh, Right, Contestants: Idolator also claims that this year’s tryouts include a lot of guys with guitars (they call it the “Phillip Phillips effect”) and strong female vocalists. The last five Idol winners were, in fact, all male, but Jackson told E! that could change this year: “To me the girls are the strongest.” (He says that every year.) But despite his sharing a table with rap’s leading lady, don’t expect any MCs. “I definitely don’t think a rapper should be in this competition,” Minaj told TV Guide. “The hip-hop community wants you to be credible. They want to know that you really went through a certain thing in your life. This is different.”

RS notes that viewers should be on the lookout for “17-year-old Sarah Restuccio, the rapping country girl; 20-year-old Ashlee Feliceano, the foster-family caregiver with a gorgeous voice and a real Tamyra Gray vibe; 21-year-old Lazaro Arbos, the Cuban immigrant with an extreme speech impediment and totally unimpeded singing voice; and 22-year-old Griffin Peterson, Nicki’s crush, who may very well be this season’s token vote-dominating cute boy.” (Also keep an eye out for the rejected Jamie Lono, a semi-finalist on NBC’s The Voice who refused to affirm that Idol was the superior show.)

Rewards: This year’s hopefuls have just cause to be optimistic. Since winning last season, Phillip Phillips’ debut album The World From the Side of the Moon went gold (via the Hollywood Reporter), and its lead single “Home” has topped six different Billboard charts, peaking at No. 6 in the Hot 100. “Home” has also nearly 3.5 million copies, making it the fourth best-selling song by an Idol alum behind Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger,” Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats,” and Jordin Sparks’ “No Air.” Ratings or no, the machine is still working. According to All Access, Phillips will play “a prominent musical role in the opening.”

Bonus: Carey will most likely promote her upcoming 14th studio album at some point in the season, according to Idolator. The new LP may drop about the same time the show is slated to have its Top 10 set, when live voting begins, so expect to see Miss Mariah take the stage at some point. Hopefully they’ll keep a camera trained on Minaj during the spectacle.