Nicki Minaj at the 'Idol' Season 12 premiere [photo: Jonathan Leibson/WireImage]"American Idol" Season 12 doesn't officially begin until January 16, and it remains to be seen if this upcoming season will uncover/discover a new singing superstar of Clarkson- or Underwood-esque proportions. But judging from a 45-minute "Idol" preview that screened in 11 locations across the nation on Wednesday, January 9--a full week before the Fox network's premiere--Season 12 may already have a breakout star: the one and only Her Minajesty, Nicki Minaj.
Nicki was in fact so watchable, and so unexpectedly likable, that I almost wondered if the whole reason behind that much-hyped Nicki Minaj/Mariah Carey "Idol" feud was Mariah's, well, jealousy. You see, Mariah may've claimed that Nicki once threatened to shoot her, but maybe Mariah really felt threatened by Nicki's massive, scene-stealing, scenery-chewing presence. Because honestly, when Nicki was on the screen this Wednesday, I barely noticed that Mariah, or anyone else, was even sitting at the judges' table. It was totally "The Nicki Minaj Show" up in there. And you know what? "The Nicki Minaj Show" was darn good TV.
No one was more shocked by this development than me--not long ago, I'd questioned Fox's controversial decision to cast a rapper, whose first album came out barely two years ago, as a judge of a singing show that'd been on the air for a decade. I'd additionally criticized Nicki's utter lack of likability on her short-lived E! reality show, "My Truth." But apparently very few of the 1,800 or so spectators who attended Wednesday's Los Angeles-area screening at UCLA's Royce Hall had ever shared my doubts about Nicki. From the moment the lights dimmed and Nicki appeared onscreen in what was the first of many B-52's-worthy wigs, her superfans, aka the "Barbz," were howling. And by the time that Nicki and her fellow judges emerged onstage to participate in a livestreamed Q&A moderated by host Ryan Seacrest, they were going as crazy as Nicki in her "Stupid Stupid" music video. And by then, I was starting to understand her appeal. No, I didn't quite bumrush the Royce Hall auditorium's microphone to scream for all the Interweb to hear that "NICKI MINAJ IS F***ING AWESOME!" (as one overzealous Barb did), but I did get a little more excited for "Idol" Season 12 than I had been before.
Nicki had energy. She had enthusiasm. She positively critiqued one auditioner with an amusing "In Living Color"/"Men On Film" reference, shouting out, "Z-formation snap! Werk, werk!" She flirted with hunky opposite-sex contestants with a lip-licking, leering shamelessness that would make even former pervy judge Steven Tyler blanch. She provided lulz-y entertainment just by flashing one screwy, Keystone-Cop facial expression (oh my, the GIF possibilities will be endless this season) or by adopting a British accent (this was her "Martha Zolanski" alter ego, but it sort of sounded like a bad Simon Cowell impersonation). And yes, she occasionally squeezed in a little barb (no pun intended) at her supposed nemesis, like when she told one hopeful, "Your range is better than Mariah's." (Oh no she didn't!)
But really, for someone recently accused of threatening a co-star with gun violence and warranting the need for beefed-up on-set security, Nicki surprisingly came across as the nice judge on the panel during the preview's relatively feud-free 45 minutes. It was Nicki who comforted a sad, untalented 15-year-old boy whose dream of becoming The Next Justin Bieber had just been crushed, offering him a hug and posing with him for a saucy cheek-kissing photo that he probably giddily posted on Instagram the instant Ryan Seacrest ushered him out of the audition room. It was Nicki who told one young woman, who helps her parents take care of special-needs foster children: "I think so many girls will be inspired by you." It was Nicki who jumped to the defense of a rapping country singer (or country-singing rapper?) when her fellow judges were about to deliver three big no's. (Of course, the fact that this contestant--who did eventually get a golden ticket--rapped "Superbass" probably had something to do with that.) And it was Nicki whose giant anime eyes misted over as she witnessed the audition of a severe stutterer with an astoundingly excellent singing voice. So you see, at least one of Nicki's alter egos is a big softy!
But what about the other judges? Honestly, it was hard to notice them most of the time with Nicki dominating the proceedings, but lone old-schooler Randy Jackson was...well, he was just Randy. (Some things never change, dawg.) Keith Urban was The Quiet Judge, not speaking much--though, in his defense, how could he get a word in edgewise sitting between Nicki and Mariah and serving as their "scratching post"? (At one point, as those alpha-females cat-fought across the table, Keith actually banged his tow-haired head on that table in mock-frustration. Or maybe real frustration. Fox, this poor guy deserves a raise already.) However, when he did speak, Keith was the most artistically astute judge on the panel, giving intelligent, music-based critiques without resorting to Randy-Jackson-esque name-dropping, so I believe he'll provide the perfect counterbalance for the louder and zanier, but probably much less musically knowledgeable, Nicki.
BUT WHAT ABOUT MARIAH? That is the $18 million question. If Keith brings the credibility, Nicki brings the comedy, and Randy brings the nostalgia/branding/continuity that comes from his 11 seasons of faithful service...what does Mariah bring, besides her massive marquee name? You know, I am not quite sure yet. During Wednesday's preview, she was a bit low-energy, blank, and bland (when she pretended to remember a contestant who once attended her Camp Mariah program 13 years ago, her acting skills made Glitter look like an Oscar-winning tour de force), and she didn't dole out the vocal advice that a diva like her, with her famous five-octave range, could potentially offer. Mariah is basically the singer that a decade's worth of female "American Idol" contestants have tried in vain to emulate, so I was genuinely surprised that she didn't quite deliver the star power of Nicki or musical insight of Keith. I was actually surprised that this was not "The Mariah Carey Show."
But then again, this was only a 45-minute teaser, and of course, the true test of all three new judges will be the live episodes, which kick off March 5. Remember, back in Season 10, I thought Steven Tyler was a comic genius whose every word was pure TV gold...until his words were no longer pre-taped and cleverly edited, and his shtick got old. So it's very possible that the same fatigue will set in with Nicki, once her animated-GIF possibilities and wardrobe of candy-colored wigs are exhausted. And it's possible that then, Mariah or Keith will emerge as the show's star--or better yet, that Season 12's REAL star will actually be one of the contestants.
As for those contestants, a few to keep an eye/ear out for during the Newark and Chicago auditions, which air on Fox next week, include 17-year-old Sarah Restuccio, the rapping country girl; 20-year-old Ashlee Feliceano, the foster-family caregiver with a gorgeous voice and a real Tamyra Gray vibe; 21-year-old Lazaro Arbos, the Cuban immigrant with an extreme speech impediment and totally unimpeded singing voice; and 22-year-old Griffin Peterson, Nicki's crush, who may very well be this season's token vote-dominating cute boy. And have the pause button on your remote at the ready to freeze-frame a glimpse of a very fierce drag queen (Z-formation snap, indeed) who received a golden ticket to Hollywood, and red-spectacled "Voice" semifinalist Jamie Lono, who sadly did not (possibly because he refused to diss "The Voice" on camera).
But for now, based on this preview, it does seem like Season 12 will be "The Nicki Minaj Show," which means there will be a whole lot of Pink Wednesdays and Thursdays in "Idol's" near future. Is that a good or bad thing in the long-term? Of that, I am still unsure, but I do know I'll be watching. Get ready, Barbz.