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.