Nicki Minaj Challenges 'Idol's' Inflexible Formula

As Fox's American Idol moves through its 12th season, it's hard to remember this show was once so popular it clobbered any new series scheduled against it. With ratings down almost 50 percent from its height, the brightest star is new judge Nicki Minaj — because she might understand the show better than anyone. TV critic Eric Deggans explains.

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"American Idol" needs a jolt. Its ratings are just about as low as they've ever been. This is the part in the season when the competitions will be broadcast live. That'll provide something of a jolt. And it starts tonight when 10 finalists sing their hearts out, and another ten will do so tomorrow night.

TV critic Eric Deggans says, when it comes to making the show more exciting, "Idol" already has a star who can help it regain its popularity - maybe.

ERIC DEGGANS: On "American Idol's" star-studded judging panel, there's one big name who seems bent on reinventing the show all by herself...

(SOUNDBITE OF "AMERICAN IDOL")

NICKI MINAJ: It's a yes for me.

DEGGANS: ...hip hop diva Nicki Minaj. And she can't help flirting with the cute guys whenever they audition.

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MINAJ: I see you licking your lips, playboy. What's really good?

DEGGANS: She flaunts hot pink wigs, leopard skin tights and a taste for outrageous behavior. Minaj seems more like the comic relief.

(SOUNDBITE OF "AMERICAN IDOL")

MINAJ: Is that a hole in your pants?

DEGGANS: And she can look like the odd judge out, sitting next to R&B diva Mariah Carey, country star Keith Urban and old hand Randy Jackson. She slips into a British accent for no reason and has a habit of feuding with Carey.

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MINAJ: But now when you do the Hollywood...

MARIAH CAREY: This is what I'm dealing with.

MINAJ: When you do the Hollywood...

CAREY: This is what I deal with when I come in to my job.

MINAJ: Oh, no...

DEGGANS: But just when you're wondering how this crazy train left the station, she says something sharp and perceptive. Consider this moment. A contestant made the mistake of telling Urban she wasn't sure about sticking with country music, and Minaj defended her.

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MINAJ: 'Cause for a minute I thought it was like a country music debate. Like, I mean...

KIETH URBAN: You were like, where am I in the court of country.

MINAJ: ...why are we - why are we like picking her a part? Like, because, you know, of a country comment. I mean...

DEGGANS: As the other judges insisted this vocalist stop mixing country music and soul, Minaj fought back.

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MINAJ: What we're almost actually doing is like scaring her into lying. Like, she said what she said. She has every right to say that and feel that. You have a great voice...

DEGGANS: Forget past headlines about clashing diva egos; this was the show's biggest onscreen argument between Minaj and Carey. The hip hop diva eventually stormed off the stage, feeling disrespected. It's where she butts heads with her fellow judges most often; while the other three warn singers to stay in one lane, Minaj encourages them to go where creativity takes them.

Small wonder: Minaj has built a soaring career on an explosive mix of contrasting cultures.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUPER BASS")

MINAJ: (Singing) Boom, badoom, boom. Boom, badoom, boom. Yeah-yeah, he got that super bass ...

DEGGANS: Like her biggest hit "Super Bass," she wins by never staying in one lane. Born in Trinidad but raised in Queens, she merges pop tunes with dance beats and in-your-face raps; listeners have no idea what's coming next.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUPER BASS")

MINAJ: (Rapping) But I think I like him better when he dolo. And I think I like him better with the fitted cap on He ain't even got to...

DEGGANS: And that's clearly the vibe she brings to "Idol." They've crowned an unassuming, cute white guy with a guitar as its winner five times running. It's happened so often, fans this year began guessing which guy would win it all in the first audition episodes.

Turns out, there's a method to this diva's madness. And it's rooted in the way reality TV works. At age 30, she's the only "American Idol" judge who's grown up in the era of reality TV. Minaj was a teenager when "Idol" debuted in 2002, still young enough to be one of those fans who voted Kelly Clarkson to victory in the very first season.

She lives the mix of conflict, charm and unpredictability which ignite the most successful reality shows. I can't wait to watch Minaj challenge every moment of "American Idol's" inflexible formula in real time. And let's be honest. If Nicki Minaj can't shake "Idol" out of its predictable funk, who can?

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the Tampa Bay Times.

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