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This is my entry this week for therealljidol. I invite you to read and vote for the many fine entries. This week's topic is "in your wheelhouse."

This skinny teen in the sparkling cocktail dress opens her mouth and is transformed into a demi-diva. Her heartfelt vocals well up from her deepest inner soul. Her body becomes an instrument: digging deep on the low notes, sailing sky-high for the big money notes. Applause swells like an ocean at high tide, and she shrinks back to her natural self. She turns questioning eyes towards the judges' table.

As the other two judges check their notes, the Third Judge speaks up: "Dawg, that was hot." The Third Judge, a former rock bassist and record executive, has been with the show since the beginning. He knows it's important to keep things moving.

The contestant smiles broadly. She recognizes his tribute as high praise. Being called "dawg" means you're an honorary member of "the Dawg Pound," the Third Judge's imaginary dream team of excellent singers.

By now, the 11th season of the reality competition singing show, everybody knows the Third Judge's lingo. When you sing off-key, you are "pitchy." When you sing a type of song that you do particularly well -- such as a country singer singing a country song -- the Third Judge gushes that you're "in your wheelhouse." If the Third Judge calls your performance "da bomb," it means you sang well, not that you bombed.

Every so often he tries to coin a new phrase. For example, this season, when someone did really well, he declared "She's got to have it" or "He's got to have it." Though everyone knew he meant the contestants wanted to win, the vaguely sexual allusion made the audience squirm. Critics begged him to let that catchphrase die.

As the only original judge, the Third Judge feels out-of-sorts. The original panel boasted a British judge who was king of acerbic comments, always putting his finger on exactly what was wrong with any performance. Many contestants went home crying because he'd compared them to a karaoke performer or a cruise ship singer.

The original Second Judge was a good fairy, bestowing good thoughts on everybody. She always found something nice to say, even if it just meant complimenting a singer's outfit. In those days, you knew the singer had tanked if the Second Judge restricted her praise to the contestant's appearance.

With both the nice and mean comments covered, the Third Judge could freestyle in the middle, throwing catchphrases like confetti, timing them for maximum impact. When he picked the right one, the audience exploded in applause behind him.

But now the mix is wrong, and the Third Judge knows it. The new judges -- a pop star/actress and an old-school rocker -- veer wildly between insights steeped in music industry jargon and lavish praise, full of superlatives. Nearly always, the newest judges agree with each other, leaving the Third Judge to wonder how he fits in.

He tried for a while to be the mean one, labeling performances "rough" or "weak," but he felt awkward doing it. Before, his strongest criticism had been saying a performance was "just all right for me." The role of mean judge was a bad fit, like trying to squeeze into one of his big-lapelled jackets from the '80s.

He shrugged off mean judge and jumped on the nice guy bandwagon, but critics hated that, as well. Fans knocked the judges for their perceived refusal to judge. So he abandoned the nice judge mantle and was left again, floundering.

In his daily life now, he finds himself speaking in catchphrases. "Yo, you're my dawg," he tells his longtime barber. He hits his wailing alarm and informs it that it's "pitchy." He almost caused an international incident by declaring loudly to an airport barista that his coffee was "da bomb."

He knows he's got to find some balance. He feels like that book he used to read to his children, the one about the grouchy ladybug, who flew around, saying to everybody, "Hey, you, want to fight?" When they reluctantly put up their dukes, he told them all, "You're not big enough." He had never been sure what the lesson was supposed to be: Don't pick fights? Share your aphids? He just remembers thinking, "That bug has a weak catchphrase."

But now the Third Judge feels just as clueless, buzzing around, getting in America's face every week, not sure whether to be nice or pick fights.

The next performer is almost finished, and he realizes with a shudder that he hasn't even been thinking about what to say. Will America forgive him for daydreaming? The singer ends his performance, the applause dies down, and attention turns to the judges' table. As the Third Judge hesitates, one of his fellow judges speaks up. But soon it will be his turn, so he wracks his brain for what to say. One time, a long time ago, it used to come easy. He longs for those days, when he knew exactly where he belonged.

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( 45 comments — Leave a comment )
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Apr. 22nd, 2012 07:32 pm (UTC)
I think judging people in public must be a very difficult job. I had never really thought too hard about it though until I read your entry.

Thank you for making me think. Now I know it's not a job I would ever want to have. No matter what you say, you anger some people. Which is true of anyone's life but these judges are really in the public eye so they can potentially anger so many more than I can.
Apr. 22nd, 2012 08:15 pm (UTC)
It's surely not a job that I would want! As they're judging the contestants, everyone in America is judging them.

Thanks for reading and commenting.
Apr. 22nd, 2012 08:02 pm (UTC)
I stay way the heck away from shows like AI, as they've always offended me pretty deeply as a musician if nothing else. But I thought this was great regardless. I love the idea of his on-show identity slipping into his IRL persona.

Ultimately, the "goal" of these shows-- just as with so much reality TV clogging up cable bandwidth-- is to give people something to point and laugh at that isn't themselves.

Simon made his whole television career on a solid understanding of this premise. His critiques are/were actually rarely "spot on," or even remotely valid-- at least given what he's been tasked with judging, lukewarm performances of songs that have already been established as standards by professionals in the past. He's just looking for something, anything mean to say, wrapped in wording his audience will find clever, 95% of the time. The other judges during his tenure were foils for his consistent contestant-bashing.

You need them *both* to make a show like this work, if you're going to make the judging thought process visible somehow. You can't have too much negativity, but you also definitely do not want the opposite. That's not going to make for must-see TV.

What Idol taught me is that people are very willing to believe in "experts," especially when they're on TV. Such self-described / industry-promoted "experts" often have absolutely no clue what they're talking about, and are just making stuff up to suit their own interests / image half the time. I strongly suspect that Cowell knows absolutely no more about music than his audience (and/or contestants), and I'd be willing to bet that he offered televised comment without paying the slightest bit of actual attention to the performance on numerous occasions.
Apr. 22nd, 2012 08:14 pm (UTC)
Glad you liked the piece, despite disliking "American Idol." I've been watching is since Season 3 and never expected to get hooked on it, to be honest.

I would agree with you that the audition weeks are definitely packaged as "let's laugh at those poor shlubs," though the rest of the season is geared more towards "let's package the next recording star."

Honestly, a lot of the people I knew who liked the show left when Simon left, and those who stuck around are displeased with the current judges. It's not that people necessarily want any of them to pretend to be Simon, but the balance on the panel has definitely been shifted.

Watching "X Factor" made me agree with you about Simon's expertise: when he was guiding his contestants, he sometimes gave them song choices or had them wear wardrobe selections I found highly questionable. Then again, maybe he just wanted to get people talking.
Apr. 22nd, 2012 09:06 pm (UTC)
This was an interesting take on the prompt. I never really considered the American Idol judges' inner thoughts before. similiesslip is right; judging people in public must be difficult to get right.
Apr. 22nd, 2012 09:50 pm (UTC)
Thanks! It was the first thing that came to me, because of the frequent use of this phrase on that program.
Apr. 22nd, 2012 09:47 pm (UTC)
I have been an AI Fan forever. I got to see the tour last year. I like this season's particular threesome of judges the best of any of the mixes so far.
This was a really interesting take on the topic and I enjoyed reading it.
Apr. 22nd, 2012 09:51 pm (UTC)
Thank you! I tried to write it in such a way that even people who weren't "American Idol" fans could appreciate it, but I thought that those who are would especially find it interesting.
(no subject) - myrna_bird - Apr. 22nd, 2012 10:06 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - alycewilson - Apr. 22nd, 2012 10:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 23rd, 2012 03:56 am (UTC)
Nicely done. I could see it happening.
Apr. 23rd, 2012 01:25 pm (UTC)
Thank you!
Apr. 23rd, 2012 12:30 pm (UTC)
This was great! It made me miss watching AI.
Apr. 23rd, 2012 01:09 pm (UTC)
I wondered about that, since I haven't seen any comments from you this season. Why did you stop watching?
(no subject) - imafarmgirl - Apr. 24th, 2012 11:36 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - alycewilson - Apr. 24th, 2012 12:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - imafarmgirl - Apr. 24th, 2012 02:06 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
Apr. 23rd, 2012 07:57 pm (UTC)
Glad you liked it! I was trying to write something that could appeal to readers who don't watch "American Idol," but I figured it would especially interest those who do.
Apr. 24th, 2012 03:01 am (UTC)
I watched a season of AI... So I caught on instantly. Plus my mom watches a lot. Interesting take on the topic, that's for sure. I know exactly who you are talking about!
Apr. 24th, 2012 03:25 am (UTC)
This piece sort of wrote itself, honestly. I tried to make it accessible both to people who watch the show and to people who never have. Glad that you were able to catch on!
Apr. 24th, 2012 03:41 am (UTC)
I've only done public speaking very few times... but I *KNOW* how hard it can be to hold the attention of a finicky audience.

So the Third Judge has my *COMPLETE* sympathy.

Thanks for sharing this.

Apr. 24th, 2012 04:06 am (UTC)
Thanks for reading and commenting! Few people consider the fact that the judges get judged by the public, as well. It's not a job I'd want!
Apr. 24th, 2012 12:59 pm (UTC)
See, if this was the sort of thing that happened on American Idol (the slow descent into a catchphrase-filled life), I think I would be far more inclined to watch it.

Even without watching American Idol, though, this is just a fascinating thought. Thanks for sharing it.
Apr. 24th, 2012 01:09 pm (UTC)
*grin* Who knows what goes on inside Randy's mind?

Of course, as I see it, this is kind of my wheelhouse: to wax poetic about pop culture and/or human experience.
Apr. 24th, 2012 01:19 pm (UTC)
Dare I admit I do not watch the show?
However, I do see people in RL getting confused between a public persona and the private one on a regular basis...
Apr. 25th, 2012 01:18 am (UTC)
That's OK; I forgive you. :)

For the judges, it's particularly fun, I'd imagine, because people everywhere ask them to judge any live performances they see.
Apr. 24th, 2012 02:35 pm (UTC)
Aw, poor guy. I'm pretty sure I know which show you mean even though I've only seen a couple episodes in the first season. Time for Third Judge to move on!

I really enjoyed this. :)
Apr. 25th, 2012 01:18 am (UTC)
Thanks! I'm glad. I tried to make it open to anyone.
Apr. 24th, 2012 02:48 pm (UTC)
A.I. isn't the same at all. I catch it and read your updates when I can. But it just has run its course I think.
Apr. 25th, 2012 01:47 am (UTC)
I've been thinking that since last season. The talent this year is much better, though, I believe.
Apr. 24th, 2012 05:48 pm (UTC)
This angle is really neat, and so cool that it makes sense whether you know the show or not! I like how this feels compassionate but also points out the fake-ness, too.
Apr. 25th, 2012 01:48 am (UTC)
Thanks! You identified exactly what I was going for with this piece. I'm pleased that it came across.
Apr. 24th, 2012 05:58 pm (UTC)
Great description of this show!
Apr. 25th, 2012 01:48 am (UTC)
Thank you! I'm quite the "AI" geek. :)
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