This week, American Idol came to Hollywood, which means the competition officially begins, which means there’s a lot less drama between the judges and hardly any all-too-real moments enabled by Nicki Minaj’s mix of boredom and frustration with this entire stinking show she signed up for and maybe now regrets. All the male contestants went up against one another on Wednesday and Thursday (the female contestants compete next week), cut down from 40 in a typically confusing and half-assed series of competitions that found them lumped into groups, and then those who got through that stage performed solo on Thursday night. The effect was everybody blurred into one foursome or another, and no one got to shine.
Most of these singers are still very anonymous, and the show’s desire to shove them into character-actor categories (sad-sack victim of a tragedy, eccentric-ethnic dude) does them no favors. Jokes about The Hunger Games were made a few times, and the show’s categorization and quasi-fascist, decadent Donald Trump set design help sell that creepy idea. So did clueless details like listing Cuban singer Lazaro Arbos’ occupation as “Ice Cream Scooper” or continuing to push Sikh contestant Gurpreet Singh Sarin as “the Turbanator.”
Nicki, of course, continues to just have a lot of fun with the show. On Wednesday, she did that sort of evil slow build-up thing where you talk to every contestant like they’re totally going to get eliminated and then, oh, wait a minute, you’re actually going to get through! Also, for a lot of the show, Nicki wore her hood up. Typically, Mariah Carey was not entertained by any of this because that’s how she rolls, but also because Nicki seemed to kind of be “playing” Mariah on this episode: The cruel and affected meanie lording over everybody else on the show. And given the drama the producers want to push (two divas go at it!), versus the actual drama (Nicki thinks the judges lack basic empathy and will call them on their shit), it was a very sly piece of Nicki performance art.
But then, on Thursday, Nicki, despite wearing dismissive, giant-ass Gena Rowlands sunglasses — furthering my film-dork fantasy of a Nicki starring in a remake of John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence — totally stepped up in a way that Randy Jackson, Mariah, and Keith Urban refuse to do, and acted like a genuine judge. Heartbroken teen Charlie Askew, who looks sort of like Tadzio in Death in Venice, totally destroyed “Somebody That I Used to Know” by Gotye. “I am obsessed with you,” Nicki declared. It was a genuine moment. There’s no doubt that I might as well be watching a different show than a lot of Idol viewers, weeding through each episode for Nicki “Come on a Cone”-style subversion and hip-pop culture jamming (and dope outfits!), but the producers seem intent on keeping these kids anonymous. Charlie broke through.
Providing advice and straight-up telling some of the singers that they dropped the ball, Nicki might as well have been the only judge to speak for the entire episode. It certainly felt that way. Given last week’s fake-ass controversy about Nicki being late S Randy Jackson’s ongoing “I’ve been doing this for 20 years, gurrrllll” condescension (plus, the implicit sense that she is just some rapper so what does she know?), it was fun to see her expose the “real” judges’ apathy. Not to mention, she broke American Idol “kayfabe,” as it were, telling Matheus Fernandes, a big-voiced, tiny-bodied contestant that he didn’t have to “milk” his short height for emotional effect. “Sometimes things can go from being inspiring to becoming you wanting a pity party,” she said. Producers of the show piling maudlin music over every contestant with some horrible backstory should heed her advice, as well.