American Idol: The Sheer Brilliance of Mariah and Minaj

It may well be that “American Idol” has finally become a respectable work of art.

The more popular art becomes, the more it strikes the eyes as tired, derivative and empty. And nothing has been more popular over the last decade than “Idol.”

As the show reached its popular peaks, it produced winners whose standard was beneath that of the horseburger or the national anthem performed by a bamboo stick.

One wondered just who voted for these Southerners who turned up in Hollywood and attempted to copy people they’d seen on “Access Hollywood.”

The whole show became a macabre, stilted exercise in faux-drama, faux-wit and for-what-am-I -watching-this?

Yet now that “Idol”‘s ratings are falling, something deeply moving may have taken over: Entertainment of the highest artistic order.

Oh, I’m not talking about the singers, who sail in with their stories of hardship and hope and depart with their dignity often sprinkled across a sea of pithy indifference.

I’m talking about the patently brilliant choice of judges this year.

Watching Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj be a remarkable approximation to what one suspects is their true selves makes for genuine and beautiful theater of an exalted level.

The more thoughtless might believe that their antics, which involve a sophisticated game of scratch-your-eyes-out coupled with an I’m-sexier-and-funnier-than-your-large-posterior attitude, are pre-ordained.

This cannot be.

Their performances are too brilliant, too spontaneous and too full of sharpness to be anything other than the result of two women who like each other and therefore know what parts of each other to prick.

Hate is often blind. It’s affection that breeds the ability to mock with accuracy, splendor and wit.


To watch these two compete to prove that theirs is a better English/Australian (it’s all the same to Americans) accent is beyond charm.

To write down the exchanges doesn’t allow, however, for the brilliant inflections of meaning they contain. For example, when Minaj told a contestant that she couldn’t vote for her because they had the same pink eyeshadow, this is what occurred:

MARIAH: This is what I deal with, this is what I deal with when I come into my job.

MINAJ: Oh no, because you ain’t got nothing like me.

Written down, it seems like mere feline sniping. But if you’d seen how Minaj was wagging her finger and not even looking at Carey, you’d begin to understand that this is the same sort of banter you’d see in a football locker room.

This is the point.

In all the previous years of “Idol” the women have been the butt of men’s humor. No, that wasn’t a lower-level Jennifer Lopez joke.

It’s simply that Simon Cowell would use the likes of Paula Abdul and Kara DioGuardi as objects of derision, as if they were mere Stepford Wives who served as mirrors for his all-encompassing greatness.

When Lopez filled a judges’ seat, she was so desperate to say nothing of consequence that it appeared she thought nothing of consequence. This allowed Steven Tyler and Randy Jackson to treat her with a bland emptiness. Which made for bad television, as these two are bland and empty too.

Here, though, we have Keith Urban providing a little wit and a very thin fence in a Minaj-a-Trois.

(I exclude Randy Jackson, as he just sits there playing Randy Jackson, dude.)

While Lopez would try and say as little as possible and perform the role of stage mama, Minaj and Carey prove that two highly talented, highly intelligent women can also be highly egotistical, highly dramatic and highly funny.

The people who watch “Idol” are mainly called women. The people who call and text, at Ryan Seacrest’s behest, in order to vote for their favorite white boy with a guitar are called 6-year-old girls in little pink nightdresses.

For 12 years, they’ve had to watch an endless stream of women judges who, sadly, were desperately trying to assert some level of credibility while having to tolerate Cowells and Tylers.

Suddenly, the six-year-old girls can look at Carey and Minaj and wonder whether there’s more to life than boys.

Yes, this is only the beginning. But to watch Minaj very casually stare at a pretty (and pretty vacuous) male auditioner and ask with filthy overtone: “You gotta girlfriend?” is plainly liberating.

To listen to Carey declare that “Mariah” is now the 62nd most popular girl’s name in the US — and to feel the beautiful subtext that it’s all down to her — is to watch something that tends toward the magical.

You can show me singers with only one leg, a stammer or a history of anorexia, but I have a feeling I know who will be the winner of this year’s “American Idol.”

It’s a duet. Or, rather, a duette.


Image Credit: Fox/YouTube. Screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk