The early- to mid-2000s were a simpler time in music. Rock music was actually thing on popular radio. Production on hit singles was often stripped down nearly to its core rather than with bombastic synths and beats. People still (kind of) bought albums, at least early on in the decade. And American Idol was more about the singers than it was the judges.

But in 2010, a slight shift could be noticed in the priorities of the Idol producers. Ellen DeGeneres was brought on as a judge, despite her noticeable lack of relevance within the music industry but definite sway in terms of a broader entertainment demographic. The next two seasons, Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez joined the judges’ table with mainstay Randy Jackson. Though their inclusion on the show didn’t leave folks scratching their heads in the way DeGeneres did, it was nonetheless evident that Idol was looking to boost ratings with this new crop of judges, though said judges never really outshone the singing talent.

Then came 2013.

After the departure of Tyler and Lopez, Idol enlisted country star Keith Urban, pop icon Mariah Carey and hip-hop superstar Nicki Minaj as the new guard of the show, joining the cockroach of Idol‘s judges table, Jackson.

What has followed is a strange, strange season of the flailing singing competition, during which many are only just now getting a handle on some of the contestants at all — and they’re already down to a mere eight. During certain audition episodes, there were barely even any major moments or even many auditions at all, put on the backburner in favor of the judges’ crazy sayings, disagreements and even arguments that were played up for a live TV audience. Chief among these were Minaj and Carey’s Charlotte spat that made headlines for months after the two disagreed on something as miniscule as contestant Summer Cunningham’s diction.

Even with the new judges and the allure of the Minaj-Carey fight, it hasn’t been a spectacular year in terms of ratings for the former Nielsen juggernaut. The show premiered with a mere 17.8 million viewers, down a few million from the 21.9 million viewers who tuned in for 2012’s premiere. This season’s sole bright spot has been the aforementioned Charlotte audition show (i.e. Minaj and Carey’s beef hour), grabbing the top ratings spot that night with 16.07 million viewers after loads of pre-promotion for the episode. Still, that was still a drop from the premiere, signifying that viewers were, indeed, already getting bored of the experiment. That said, its premiere still topped that of The Voice, which debuted to 13.64 million viewers this past Monday (March 25).

But The Voice is in the same boat to an extent, featuring two new judges in 2013: Shakira and Usher. While its premiere may have paled in comparison to Idol‘s, it will likely beat its Fox competitor overall this season. Idol brought in a mere 12.94 million viewers during last week’s top nine performance show, with 11.65 million tuning in for the results — the lowest of the season. But hey — at least it’s not the U.S. version of Simon Cowell’s The X Factor, which premiered last September to 8.73 million viewers and only topped 10 million once all season.

With just seven weeks left and the focus finally shifted toward the contestants instead of the drama, it’s as good a time as any to take a closer look at the Idol judges in relation to what they’re actually there to do: judge. Report card time!

2012 Winter TCA Tour - Day 5

Judges’ Grades: Randy Jackson
Truthfulness: B+
Entertainment Factor: B
Overall: B+

Let’s start off with the veteran. Since the show’s inception, he’s been there, spouting advice to contestants and, generally, being fairly real when you’re good or not-so-good. But in recent years, Jackson has become a caricature of himself. He’s played up the “Yo!” factor, even wearing a pin with the saying on his shirt during the show, because that’s what normal people do. He’s also coined his own horrible catchphrase, “In it to win it!” This phrase apparently only describes a contestant who’s had a great performance and has shown (to him) they really want the distinction of American Idol. Those other contestants? Not in it to win it. Bad song choice or just rough night? Nah. Not in it to win it. In it to… I don’t know, sing a Beatles song on national TV for the hell of it?

But that said, Jackson has remained one of the show’s most honest critics of talent (or lack thereof), even during the show’s “nice phase” with Tyler and Lopez. He’ll still let you know when it was boring, or when it just plain sucked. He’ll be one of the first to give a knockout performance a standing ovation (before proclaiming they’re in it to win it, of course). Though he may be grating at times, he’s still a solid judge that won’t give even the frontrunners a free pass. And sometimes, he’s the voice of reason in a season where the important part — the contestants — often get shunted to the side.

(Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

Judges’ Grades: Keith Urban
Truthfulness: C+
Entertainment Factor: B
Overall: B-

The same can’t be said precisely for Keith Urban. Early on in the season, the country singer was noted for having a humor-filled personality that helped clear the air from numerous heated debates.

Now he’s… well, there?

Really, Urban is probably the show’s least visible judge this season, which was to be expected. But man, unless it’s a country-voiced contestant, he rarely has much to say (think Blake Shelton on The Voice). He’s also too nice most of the time, saying very little that’s particularly scathing. When he doesn’t like a performance, you know it, but he’s not going to be incredibly upfront about it either, giving the kind of criticism that performer probably deserves. He does most certainly have an ear for the country kids (and he stuck with Janelle Arthur even when it seemed like she was a lost cause), but Idol only has two of those, and it’s likely only one (Kree Harrison) has a real shot of making it to the finals. When it’s any of the other contestants? Go to Nicki Minaj for a better critique.

(Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Judges’ Grades: Nicki Minaj
Mentoring: A-
Truthfulness: A
Entertainment Factor: B+
Overall: A-

That last sentence is funny to say not because it’s weird now, but because it would’ve been considered strange by many to think of Minaj as a better judge than, well, anyone else on the show prior to the season’s start. Although she’s had a few hits that feature her singing, Minaj is mostly known for her rapping and not her discerning eye into the pop landscape of America.

But Nicki Minaj has emerged as the best judge on American Idol… most of the time. Sure, there are instances in which Minaj is a little too dramatic (see: threatening to walk off if Curtis Finch Jr. was the lowest vote-getter [spoiler: he was]) and decides to go with some fairly off-the-wall sayings (did you know Kree Harrison is Minaj’s wife? It’s true — she said so!). But most of the time, she’s also the show’s most accurate and to-the-point when it comes to critiques. Like Cowell before her, Minaj has no issue with getting after slacking contestants. Claims of being too tough on the singers? Isn’t that what you’d wantas an up-and-comer, not sugarcoating everything?

Minaj has been a breath of fresh air because of her no-nonsense (OK, maybe a little nonsense, but not as much as the others) approach and no-holds-barred comments. I’ve rarely disagreed with her all season, something I can’t say for the other judges. Even Randy is sometimes too nice in comparison. The show needed a judge along the lines of Simon, someone who you could count on laying it down like it is without any spin. While not perfect, Minaj is the closest the show currently has to that.

And then there’s her polar opposite…

TeenNick HALO Awards - Arrivals

Judges’ Grades: Mariah Carey
Truthfulness: C-
Entertainment Factor: C+
Overall: C+

Early on in Idol‘s history, Paula Abdul was known for being the “nice” one, the judge who played a foil to Cowell’s scathing critiques. Bad performance? Abdul was there to tell you that you still did good, that it took a lot of courage being up there, and that your last performance was good so there’s nothing to feel bad about. A decent presence on the show, though not that great in the judging category.

Mariah Carey takes that archetype and tones down the judging even more. Getting Carey to actually make a bold critique against a contestant that isn’t veiled in some sort of I’m-skirting-the-issue compliment is like getting that last space you need to win $75 at cover-all bingo. It’s just not going to happen, no matter how many times you come close to it.

Carey is often the last judge to make a comment on a performance, which is strange. Instead of getting the most meaningful critique last, they often get Carey, who’ll compliment a fashion choice or recall a great past performance (see: Angie Miller). It’s funny because you can usually tell it in her body language if she didn’t like something, but the diva will stuff it down in favor of a compliment on some level. You’d think she’d have a lot more to say in terms of song choice, the technical side of singing and the like, but no — at least, not yet.

And all four are guilty of the past performance thing, not just Carey. After a contestant performs a song of which they’re not a fan, all four tend to move into, “Hey, remember this song you did? Now THAT was good,” actually saying very little about that night’s showing at all. Sure, that means it’s a sign that the contestant wasn’t very good that evening, but why not just say it?

What the Idol judges need as a whole is more truth, more straight-up criticism. Now that the spotlight is a little less on them than it was at the beginning, there’s a need for all four to show why they’re there in the first place. Frankly, Urban and Carey often get lost in the din not because of Minaj’s big personality, but because they’re not really saying too much, especially Carey.

This is actually a panel that could work well together (OK, maybe without Mariah…) if it finds a better way to explain to the singers what they’re doing wrong. Though this is a season with quite honestly some very talented contestants that could go places (Glover, Taylor, Harrison, Miller), not everyone hits the right note every week. If Lazaro Arbos isn’t cutting it, don’t be afraid to tell him. If Candice Glover wasn’t as spectacular as she usually is, don’t be afraid to tell her.

There are seven weeks left in the season before a new Idol is crowned. Let’s see if the judges, not just the contestants, can show America and, above all, their eager-for-ratings network why they belong at the table.

– Kevin Rutherford,

(all photos Getty)

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