Between the eye-rolls, the unsubtle sighs of frustration, the overlapping arguments, and the war of words in the press, the initial stages of American Idol’s latest judging panel have been dominated by The Epic Mariah Carey/Nicki Minaj Catfight of 2013. But now that the competition has moved in front of a live studio audience — namely, the 1,500 fans packed into Cirque du Soleil’s Beatles LOVE stage at the Mirage in Las Vegas — the judges have rather miraculously started to behave themselves. BuzzFeed had an exclusive seat for the taping of Thursday night’s “Sudden Death” round, which whittled 10 male contestants down to five, and much like Wednesday night’s ladies-only night, it was downright delightful to watch Mariah and Nicki join fellow judges Keith Urban and Randy Jackson in providing genuine, thoughtful, constructive criticism — even when they still strongly disagreed with one another. After all the early drama, could this be Idol’s best panel ever?
Backstage after the show, Keith and Randy looked especially relieved to have made it through their first taste of a live Idol audience together in one piece. I spoke with them both about weathering the Mariah/Nicki media storm, judging in front of a live audience, and the very first fight on the very first day of Idol’s very first season.
Adam B. Vary: Keith, what has it been like for you to be judging in front of a live audience for the first time? Actually, not the first time — you did The Voice in Australia.
Keith Urban: “That other show.” (laughs) I love it because I love watching a performer in that environment. Because at the end of the day, hopefully that’s what they’re going to be doing. They’re not going to be singing in an empty room full of crew. It’s going to be an audience that reacts to that. I like to see how they handle that. What I mean by that is that sometimes they’ll hit a really great note, and when the audience gets on their feet, I like to see if they get pulled out of their zone by that moment. Or if they stay in it and don’t let that get to them, and stay focused.
ABV: And for you, Randy, this is brand-new, because you’ve never done this stage of the competition in front of a live audience before.
Randy Jackson: It’s weird that we call this “sudden death.” (laughs) But it kind of is, because 10 kids sing and five go home at night — it’s not waiting days, weeks, months to see what your fate is [as it was in previous seasons at this stage]. Yeah, it’s definitely very different. And I think also having this big of a live audience in this round is very different too. I mean, what Keith said, I love to see those nerves and how they come alive in front of what will be their real final judgment in front of the people.
ABV: I have to say, having watched every season of Idol since the beginning, the four of you as a panel disagree more articulately with each other than any other panel that I’ve seen.
KU: Ah, the wonders of editing.
ABV: Actually, I mean just tonight watching from the audience!
RJ: Well, I must say, we all are so passionate. Ryan and I have been here since the beginning, but Keith, Mariah, and Nicki are all amazing performers that come from different walks of life but are passionate. So I love the fact that we can all disagree articulately and have different varying opinions. And by the way, the audience at home, that’s what they’re doing too!
KU: Exactly. Everybody’s judging everybody.
ABV: On the flip side, what has it been like for both of you to be witnesses to the Nicki/Mariah kerfluffles that the show itself has played up in several episodes?
KU: The thing is for me, there’s a learning curve in everything. There was a learning curve in our “dance troupe.” We got thrown on a dance floor, and with no choreography, and they just said, “Dance together! And don’t step on toes!” It’s, like, insane! That’s the best way I can put it. That shit really happened. We had to figure stuff out. We had to do it on the job. We did it. We worked through it. The girls are pros. Here we are.
RJ: And little do people know, little do they realize, every panel has had its adjustment period. I think Paula and Simon fought the whole time. There were icy [periods]; they weren’t speaking for weeks. (laughs) Simon and I had…
KU: [To Randy] Did you ever have that with Simon?
RJ: We had in the first couple episodes of the shows, yeah. I won’t forget the very first show of all of this — this is funny — we were sitting there at the Hollywood Athletic Club when it was still the Athletic Club, and Simon started judging. Paula and I were sitting there with him. It was just the three of us. The first show. And he tore into this kid, and Paula was like, “What in the hell is that?! You can’t do that!” We took a break after the first sequence! And that went on all day. “How dare you!” Because we’d never heard this [before]. It all takes a little adjusting. With Kara [DioGuardi]. With Ellen [DeGeneres]. With Steven [Tyler] and Jennifer [Lopez]. It’s just the way it is.
ABV: Who do you think could go all the way this season?
KU: Nicki. She’s got so much potential.
RJ: Yeah, Keith Urban. He’s going to go all the way, I’m convinced.
KU: I think there’s a few. I mean certainly Angela Miller. Kree [Harrison] I think is fantastic. Out of the guys, we saw some tonight that I think were a bit surprising, actually.
RJ: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I think the girls have the edge this year. I think [it’s] easily probably the best season that we’ve had for a girl to win. I think it’s a girl’s season to lose.
KU: We’ve got 10 more girls to see yet, and 10 more guys.
ABV: [To Keith] Are you looking forward to when you don’t have to be the one to make the decision anymore?
KU: [big smile] Yes.