Why not hire a music critic as an ‘American Idol’ judge? Ten contestants for the job


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With three ‘American Idol’ judges potentially in play, Pop & Hiss would like to make a humble suggestion: that one of the new judges be a bona fide music critic or journalist. There are a number of reasons why this makes sense, not the least of which is that by their very nature, music critics are judges, and their job day in and day out is to wade through mountains of mediocrity to find that shining, unknown gem. There’s the added bonus that the public loves to hate a critic, and with Simon Cowell departing, an opinionated, potentially loathsome voice will be an essential ingredient to the show’s future success. Below, 10 suggestions, in no particular order.

1. Robert Christgau, ‘Dean of American Rock Critics.’ An unapologetic critic unafraid to offer his opinions, Christgau over the years has learned the fine art of honesty. What he loves, he loves, and he loves a great pop song as much as he loves West African afropop, and can draw on 40 years of analysis when faced with having to judge the merits of, say, Bo Bice.


In fact, here’s what Christgau wrote about Kelly Clarkson in 2004: ‘Unlike young Hilary Duff, 23-year-old Clarkson feels the responsibilities of stardom, which demand melodramatic overkill. The doctors give her stronger pills than, say, Clay Aiken -- the prefab kissoff of ‘Walk Away,’ the new wave heartbreak of ‘Since U Been Gone,’ ‘Because of You’ may just describe an occurrence, here’s the verb ‘implode,’ and ‘There’s no light at the end of the tunnel /Just a bridge that I gotta burn’ could hold up its end of a bargain.’ Plus, we know he’s available because he just retired his long-running ‘Consumer Guide’ column.

2. Jann Wenner, co-founder and publisher of Rolling Stone, Us Weekly and Men’s Journal. At least we’ll ensure that the judges’ desks will be tidy at all times. The notoriously fastidious Wenner, who founded Rolling Stone magazine, answers to no one, and because Boz Scaggs is disqualified from going on the show because he’s too old, Wenner couldn’t be accused of favoritism.

3. Greil Marcus, author, music critic, cultural critic. No one would more infuriate the lowbrow element of the ‘Idol’ viewership than the professorial Marcus, whose analytic work in books such as ‘Mystery Train,’ ‘Dead Elvis’ and ‘Lipstick Traces’ is as dense as it is enlightening. Take this thought, from his early masterpiece, ‘Mystery Train,’ about Randy Newman: ‘Newman works against the limits of privacy, domesticity, and solipsism with his fantasies and the role playing of his songs, and yet he lacks the obsessive pop ambition to do more than that. Against the ideal community of music he feels the emotional and imaginative poverty of an America where men and women live estranged.’ Imagine what Marcus would have to say about Sanjaya Malakar!

4. Ann Powers, L.A. Times pop music critic. No one contemplates the world of ‘American Idol’ with the depth and passion of Ann Powers. But of course we’d say that -- she’s our pop critic. That said, Powers’ insight about and passion for the show are unequaled among critics, and her ability to treat pop music seriously, with analysis equal to that of a classical music critic contemplating Mahler, makes her a great fit for the job. Her writing on Adam Lambert’s rise was unparalleled: ‘I’ve hoped Lambert might become a fresh new force on the pop side of the rock scene, taking a genre that’s grown increasingly conservative back to its liberating, fun, often confrontational, bohemian roots. At very least, he might give Fall Out Boy a run for their money. But what do I really want from a Lambert ‘Idol’ win? Perhaps I’m longing for an integration that can never really happen -- or one that did happen, briefly, in the late 1960s and ‘70s, but is utterly irretrievable in contemporary pop.’

5. Christopher Weingarten, freelance writer, Twittering blabbermouth responsible for 1000TimesYes. Writer Weingarten is engaging and opinionated, has a beard and seemingly won’t shut up, even when people want him to. His oft-repeated argument that criticism is dead will make the masses who hate criticism love him, even while he’s offering loads of criticism. He’d actually be a fantastic choice, because, like Cowell, he’s seemingly unafraid of backlash.

6. Jim DeRogatis & Greg Kot. This choice would be a home run: The two Chicago critics are wonderfully combative on their weekly podcast, ‘Sound Opinions.’ DeRogatis is easy to dislike -- both because he’s an opinionated loudmouth who’s made many enemies among pop stars over the years and because, well, more often than not he’s right. Kot is the measured, smart analyst who knows what he does and doesn’t like and delivers his opinions in such a way as to bend the reader’s thought processes gradually and, seemingly, effortlessly.

Combined, the arguments they would have on the relative merits of Lee DeWyze would be priceless. Bonus: In 2008, DeRogatis was asked what song he would sing if he were on ‘American Idol.’ His response: ‘I’ve never seen ‘American Idol.’ I don’t have an option of not going on at all?’ If ‘Idol’ producers want to reimagine the show, why not hire a judge who despises the very notion of the show?

7. Chuck Klosterman, author of ‘Fargo Rock City,’ ‘Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs’ and others: This is a no-brainer. What ‘American Idol’ needs are some laughs! Ellen, though she’s a comedian, was tragically unfunny on ‘Idol.’ Klosterman is smart and funny, and, bonus, he has hair like Justin Bieber, which should boost the ratings.

Here’s what he had to say about Guns N’ Roses’ ‘Chinese Democracy’: ‘Reviewing Chinese Democracy is not like reviewing music. It’s more like reviewing a unicorn. Should I primarily be blown away that it exists at all? Am I supposed to compare it to conventional horses? To a rhinoceros? Does its pre-existing mythology impact its actual value, or must it be examined inside a cultural vacuum, as if this creature is no more (or less) special than the remainder of the animal kingdom?’

8. Rob Sheffield, Rolling Stone columnist, author of new book ‘Talking to Girls About Duran Duran’ and the bestselling ‘Love Is a Mix Tape.’ The upside of choosing Sheffield is that he seems to love appealing to the hearts of girls, at least based on his two memoirs, both of which are nostalgic, heart-on-his-sleeve looks at his passion for music and the way it interacts with him on a daily basis. Plus, he really thinks hard about ‘Idol’ and its place in the American consciousness.

And he has strong opinions on the personalities behind the desk: ‘The judges were always part of the razzle-dazzle spectacle because they had cartoonishly oversize personalities -- Paula loved everybody, Simon despised everything, Randy opposed pitchiness. But now that Paula’s gone, all that extra judging is just dead air. Neither Kara nor Ellen can take over Paula’s role of wildly overpraising everyone, because neither one seems dumb enough to believe it.’

9. Sasha Frere-Jones, New Yorker music critic. Want a sure-fire way to find a judge to hate? Hire the one from the most intellectual East Coast magazine on the stands. Middle America would hate Sasha Frere-Jones -- and for good reason. His notorious essay ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ was as polarizing as it was wrong, but he did raise a few good points, including this one: ‘Pop music is no longer made of just a few musical traditions; it’s a profusion of strands, most of which don’t intersect, except, perhaps, when listeners click ‘shuffle’ on their iPods. Last month, in the Times, the white folk rocker Devendra Banhart declared his admiration for R. Kelly’s new R. & B. album ‘Double Up.’ Thirty years ago, Banhart might have attempted to imitate R. Kelly’s perverse and feather-light soul. Now he’s just a fan.’

10. Whitney Pastorek, Entertainment Weekly. Pastorek is a contributor to the eminently readable Popwatch blog, and her no-nonsense analysis of all things ‘Idol,’ while a bit more play-by-play than Ann Powers’ work, nonetheless captures the excitement of the show. Pastorek has followed the proceedings forever and understands the show’s history.

Take this excerpt from her writing on Season 9: ‘It was generally agreed upon by those of us in the Idoldome that tonight’s Tribute To The Bulletproof Nature Of The Lennon-McCartney Catalog was the most consistent evening of non-offensive music yet to emerge from Your. Top. 9. Thank goodness -- because pretty much everything else about the night was coconuts. Bagpipes and didgeridoos! Kara DioGuardi cutting to commercials only she could see! Rogue audience members shouting themselves onto the stage! Plus: ‘Cougars for Kelly,’ Kara’s cousins, Cory self-promoting, Ellen taking a dive, and your Aunt Whittlz missing out on some dreaded TV time by a matter of inches, twice. THIS was American Idol.’

Granted, all of these suggestions are for naught, because inevitably we’ll end up with celebrities, not critics -- which is a shame.

-- Randall Roberts