Nicki Minaj surprises: an American Idol judge who gets it

The three new American Idol judges faced TV critics this morning along with the one old judge, and Nicki Minaj stood out, surprising me and other critics with her on-point, even smart comments about judging a reality competition. Really.

For example: “I don’t feel the need to send a person through just because of a great story or because there’s something going on that may make people cry,” Nicki said. “I feel like even the great singers have stories that may make us cry, but that shouldn’t change our decision because it’s kind of unfair to the ones who really are great.”

Hallelujah. If that perspective carries over to the show along with the dynamic that was on display today, it might actually bring me back to American Idol, even though Randy Jackson and Ryan Seacrest are still peddling the same tired shtick. Mariah Carey and Keith Urban were what you’d expect (sedate and reasonable, respectively).

Stunt casting often fails–just see Britney Spears on The X Factor for a prime example. Hiring her as a judge was a complete waste of money, even despite the headlines she generated during auditions that suggested she’d be a disaster. (To be fair: Fox’s president Kevin Reilly told TV critics later that he thought X Factor was “a better show this year” and said Britney “did a really good job.”)

I assumed the same would be true with Nicki Minaj, and while I’ve yet to see an episode of the show–and of course, the live episodes won’t begin for a couple months, and that’s a very different thing than edited episodes, which are very different than a press conference–there’s a tremendous amount of promise here.

When their feud came up for a second time, Mariah said, apparently referring to the reporting about it, “It was sort of a one sided.” Nicki immediately said, “No, it wasn’t.” There was some back and forth, and Nicki said, on point again, “This is what America wants. They want drama.”

Exactly. Engaging personalities engaging one another about things they care about is part of the DNA of good reality television. Of course, we don’t want drama that’s inauthentic, but that didn’t appear to be the case here. During much of the session, Nicki Minaj was visibly annoyed, all but rolling her eyes as Mariah and sometimes even Randy Jackson talked, giving Ryan Seacrest periodic looks that seemed to me to say, Can you believe this shit?

Mariah, meanwhile, didn’t seem to get it, calling drama “a distraction” after referring to it as “a stupid, trumped-up feud.”

Fox’s reality TV executive, Mike Darnell, insisted that the fighting wasn’t just faked for TV–and that it involves everyone. “It’s authentic. There is passion on this crew, and they disagree about a lot of the talent and about the way to approach the talent, and, what the talent should be doing,” he said. “It’s not just the girls. It’s everybody.”

Amazingly, Nicki was literally silent for a while until she and Mariah were asked to say nice things about one another. Nicki’s answer:

“That actually is easy. I say nice things about Mariah all the time, and I even tell her all the time how much of a fan I am of her. She’s one of my favorite artists of all times, and I think she’s really shaped a generation of singers, and to be on a panel with her, it’s kind of crazy because all these singers that come in, they aspire to be a Mariah Carey in terms of their talent, and in terms of their career length, and so I feel excited to see them see someone who they look up to so much and to be given a chance to sing in front of her and hear her critique.”

Following that incredibly gracious comment was an obvious challenge, and Mariah fumbled, big time, first talking about her sinus infection, and then finally saying:

“That was obviously a very sweet thing to say. … Nicki and I worked together very early on in her career and did a song that was from an album that I had done called ‘Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel,’ and it’s called ‘Up Out My Face,’ ironically, and it actually, it was one of my favorite videos and songs, and I did know and I did feel that she was going to go very far, and still have that feeling, and I’m grateful for anything nice that she or anyone were to say about me.”

So, yes, Mariah’s compliment for Nicki was that she once worked with Mariah and says nice things about Mariah. Wow.

Nicki later joked, repeatedly, that they settled their differences when “I put on my sex tape.” Yes.

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