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Brand Mariah vs. Brand Nicki: Which Diva Judge Will Rule 'American Idol'?

Feud May Lift 'Idol' for Fox But Has Risks for Carey and Minaj

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"American Idol" will begin its 12th season Jan. 16 heavy with hopes that tension between new judges Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj will reverse, or at least arrest, the show's eroding ratings for Fox.

Nicki Minaj on New Year's Eve
Nicki Minaj on New Year's Eve Credit: My Pink Friday

The entertainment press has done its part to set up some drama, reporting that Ms. Carey hung up on producers when told she'd be co-judging with the more theatrical Ms. Minaj and posting video of the two in a screaming match. Even if the purported duel draws viewers for the network, however, what will it do to the divas' own businesses and brands? Here are four things each performer ought to keep in mind:

  • Not all publicity is good. If there can be only one cautionary tale in post-millennial pop culture, thy name must be Britney Spears. The years since her well-publicized 2007 meltdown have found her healthy-ish but visibly anxious and uncomfortable whenever cameras are around. On the new platform of Fox's other signing competition, "The X Factor," pre-taped audition episodes portrayed a surprisingly thoughtful and critical Spears, but that looked liked creative editing once when the live portion of the season began. She had almost nothing to say, and producers reversed one of her first live eliminations (13-year-old standout Diamond White) without explanation the following week. Her one opportunity to promote a new music video turned into a punch line after she cringed her way through host Mario Lopez's introduction. Her reported $15 million paycheck seemed increasingly preposterous considering her failure to deliver a ratings bump, and already rumors are rampant that she's been dumped from the show. All in all, a new dent in the Britney Spears brand.
  • Taste tests have losers. It was hard not to compare Ms. Spears' shortcomings with the comparatively present, likable Demi Lovato, the other pop-star judge on "X Factor" this season, who's had her own struggles but still managed to look and behave like a seasoned TV pro. She quickly established a charming on-air persona, aided by a feisty rapport with fellow judge Simon Cowell, and endeared herself to an older generation of viewers who originally tuned in for Ms. Spears. She performed live during the show's finale -- just another unflattering comparison with Ms. Spears, who hasn't eked out a live note since approximately 2004.
  • Not every stage is right. Ms. Minaj has established herself in just a few years as go-to collaborator for other artists (including Ms. Carey) and followed her first solo hit in 2011, "Super Bass," with last summer's inescapable "Starships." She blends pop and hip-hop with a funky abrasiveness, and her aggressively flamboyant style is arguably the opposite of the hyper-glamorous Ms. Carey -- and potentially not a great fit for the broad, friendly "Idol" vibe. Ms. Minaj managed to keep her lucrative contract with Pepsi despite Coke's clutches on "Idol," and she has an album rumored for release in the first half on 2013. So if she plays nice, offers entertaining but constructive critiques of contestants and doesn't lose her temper, she could earn a more widely palatable reputation to carry her into bona-fide superstardom. Our guess? She'll end up unpopular and overexposed.
  • Legacy brands can always (potentially) come back. Ms. Carey is one of the most-successful solo artists ever, a fact reflected in her reported $18 million salary to judge "Idol" this year. She's made some wacky live appearances on HLN in the past couple of years promoting her jewelry and fragrances, suggesting some memorable "Idol" moments ahead, and she served as a spokesperson for Jenny Craig after giving birth to twins in 2011. She is reportedly also working on an album for early this year, but she hasn't had a major pop hit since 2008. If she can cut a single in time to perform it on-air, and stick to the script as the poised R&B veteran that she is -- rather than a "Real Housewife" type or zoned-out Paula Abdul 2.0 -- this could be a boost. Our money's on Mimi for the win.

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