Rubber-Raft Lips, Velociraptor Voices and Sweet Emotion: Why the 'Idol' Revamp Is Working

Steven Tyler's Like a Sober Paula Abdul

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Judann Pollack
Judann Pollack
"American Idol" may not want me any more. But that doesn't mean I don't want "Idol."

My interest is both personal and professional. We are students of brand turnarounds at Ad Age, and it's not often you get to witness a brand worth billions of dollars attempt a nearly complete overhaul. And thanks to the miracle of live TV, we're able to watch the process unfold firsthand.

So, yes, professional curiosity drives me to track whether "Idol" will stage a comeback like the Big Easy after Hurricane Katrina or end up like Tropicana after Hurricane Arnell.

In the professional world, unfortunately, a failure makes a better story and case history. Everybody loves a what-went-wrong cautionary tale. But personally, I'm rooting for a turnaround. That's because I'm an "Idol" fan, albeit over 40 and out of the golden-ticket demographic the show so desperately wants to attract with its remake. It's through the prism of ODD (Once Demographically Desirable) fan that I'm watching the "Idol" evolution -- and will occasionally chronicle it in this space.

So far, of course, the only change has been in the judges, though that's a huge one, given that pretty much the whole world, me included, was sure the franchise would come crashing down without Simon Cowell.

Simon who?

Score one for the producers there.

Bad news for Randy
When I first heard "Idol" had hired Steven Tyler, I told friends I was going to tune in only to see if his face would actually crack when he smiled. So imagine my shock when Mr. Aerosmith won me over with 11 words: "Did you eat a lot of paint chips as a child?"

'American Idol'
'American Idol' Credit: Fox
Some of his other bon mots: "What we have here is a failure to communicate," "Where is your pitchfork, you little devil?" and the ever-popular "A little hat is good for a little head."

He's kind of like a combination of Simon -- honest and sometimes acerbic -- and Paula -- encouraging and loopy. I'd never thought I'd say this about Steven Tyler, but he's a bit like a sober Paula Abdul.

I'm even getting over the rubber-raft lips, though, Steve, you gotta lose the "Dream On" howl every three minutes.

The problem is that he pairs with sweet and motherly J. Lo to form a perfect "Beauty and the Beast" team -- leaving Randy in the dawghouse. This season more than ever, it's clear he's simply superfluous.

Liza Minelli, Velociraptors, pasties
Also back are the usual entertaining parade of over-the-top contestants, like the woman who sounded like a Velociraptor, the dude who insisted on flashing his abs to J. Lo, the young woman who believes "pop needs a little Liza Minelli" and the woman with big cardboard stars glued to her bikini top like giant pasties.

But what's best about "Idol" so far is what hasn't changed: its lush production values, deft editing and rich storytelling that sucks you in no matter how hard you try to fight. The unadulterated thrill of the kids who get through, the intensity of their need, the naked emotion and, yes, those stupid sob stories are the stuff that ratings are made of. Try as I might, even this cynical journalist couldn't help but be touched by the girl who was a Kosovo refugee or the boy who triumphed over his wheelchair.

Even better, though, are the more relatable stories: 16-year-old Brett Lowenstern, who described himself as a "red apple in a pile of green apples," ostracized by his peers. Now, thanks to his standout voice, he is making his way to Hollywood. Holding his golden ticket, he looks at the camera with dead-on sincerity and remarks "this is a representation of believing in yourself."

Schmaltzy? Hell yes. Effective? Hell yes.

Maybe you just had to be there. But I will be there next week.

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