The Sad Quest for a Country-Singing 'American Idol' Judge

The long-running talent show badly needs a charismatic Nashville talent on its roster, but may have to settle for the blandest of the bunch: Keith Urban.

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Keith Urban and Brad Paisley. (Reuters)

American Idol no longer dominates the TV talent-show universe the way it once did. The viewership for the final episode of its most recent season was down 26 percent from last year's, and its winning artists are not succeeding as pop superstars. NBC's rival upstart singing competition The Voice meanwhile, has been pulling in solid ratings with hipper judges across a variety of musical genres, and a format that encourages mentorship and experimentation

Fox continues to hire new Idol judges—more famous judges, judges who are musicians themselves—and even this has not stanched the ratings loss. It's fascinating, though, to think through the rationale behind what does and doesn't make a suitable judge for each of these shows.

Last year, when Cowell was launching an American X Factor, he hired Britney Spears—who is a bit more famous and has more tabloid tentacles than The Voice's Christina Aguilera. But X Factor is still B-list, and you want someone with longevity, more fame, and more power for the august Idol—and so you hire J-Lo, and when J-Lo becomes dissatisfied, you spend weeks flirting with the press, laying out names, and finally settling on Mariah Carey, who has been singing for decades and still has a viable career.

Things get trickier where country music is involved. Idol needs a country judge. Its only relatively recent, genuine blockbuster, bigger-than-the-show superstar comes from country (Carrie Underwood). Most of its medium successes are country singers (Kellie Pickler, Scott McCreery). Even artists who started off as rock are now singing with Reba and moving to Nashville (Kelly Clarkson).

The Voice has had a country judge all along: the platinum-selling, Grammy-winning, Oklahoma native Blake Shelton. A few years ago, Shelton successfully retooled the aw-shucks image created in story songs like "Old Red" or "Austin" to embrace the aggro-redneck aesthetic that has become fashionable of late—making himself commercially appealing to a younger set.

Country upstarts were following his lead. (See Shelton in 2010 releasing a photo with a buck he shot and Jason Aldean releasing a similar image a year later). Shelton curses. He tells jokes that he shouldn't. His religious views are often ambiguous. He feels comfortable with the un-country-aspects of his fellow Voice judges: the Vegas-y pseudo-sleaze of Adam Levine and Cee Lo's voracious appetites for well, everything.

This week's news that Nicki Minaj may join the Idol judge's table reinforces the notion of Idol remaking itself in The Voice's image. Minaj checks the boxes of contemporary, "urban," and connected to both pop and hip-hop—and so does Cee-Lo. But she doesn't solve Idol's country problem. The show needs a country singer with a personality, who is as famous as Shelton, who has a substantive body of work, and is willing to work with Idol.

The list of singers who fit those criteria isn't that long. There's Reba McEntire, who has had 30 years in the business, but she thought she would be "too nice" and bowed out. There was discussion of hiring Toby Keith, who had the body of work, and could have functioned as the no-nonsense, low-bull ballast to the rest of the fairly friendly Idol cast, but he turned them down as well—though that might have been for the best, as he seems to be too much like Shelton, but with more political baggage.

For a while, it looked like Idol's producers could have gone in a completely opposite direction and hired Brad Paisley. His cornpone earnestness, rounded traditionalism, and experience with the tension between irony and sincerity—a tension that The Voice has rejected, and Idol has stumbled upon almost accidentally—could have offered a way for the show to separate itself from its competitors who are shouldering in.

But it appears that Idol will be opting for a purer, dumber earnestness, at least if you believe the reports that they are on the verge of hiring Keith Urban. The 44-year-old Aussie hunk singers shares Shelton's taste for sweeping ballads and emotional bloodletting, but the two men are fundamentally different public figures. Shelton has swagger; he moves his hips. Urban's talent and sexuality rest on a mushy seductive routine, where pleasure seems to be less about desire and more about a drowning in syrup. Shelton's view of pleasure, meanwhile, centers on more concrete, adult pursuits: sex, bourbon, and hunting.

Urban's a competent journeyman, with a one-dimensional public persona, who got lucky in Nashville. Part of that luck, it has to be said, has to do with his marriage to Nicole Kidman, a marriage that somehow—in contrast to other high-profile celebrity pairings—has only upped its members' blandness. Kidman's talents have caused at least one film critic to write an entire book about her, and she makes edgy and difficult choices. But rather than lending Urban that edge, she seems to have lost some by associating with him. Judging by the headlines over the past few weeks, Urban was the country-singer of last resort for Idol—as well he should have been. He offers nothing the other contenders brought to the table. You could argue that his lack of charisma works as an alternative to Shelton's excess, but Idol doesn't need less charisma. They just need a different kind of charisma: one that is patriotic, proudly unhip, that does not swagger—one that Paisley would have provided.

American Idol is a teenage show, a safe show. Occasionally it tries to be cooler, but its recent contestants—with the possible exception of Adam Lambert—are milquetoast. Think of the virginal Scott McCrery, or the folk revivalist Phillip Phillips, a Mumford and Sons clone who won't even cuss. Both of them are charming, sweet, and deeply unthreatening. Urban does not even manage this sweetness.

One of the ways that Idol might succeed, then, is to play up its safeness—to recognize itself as the inheritor of Ed Sullivan's tradition of filming Elvis from the waist up and not letting the Rolling Stones "spend the night together." Urban has the earnestness, but it's directionless and vague—a guilelessness generated by simply having no point of view. Paisley's earnestness has a direction, and that direction is pointed explicitly where Idol has gone and needs to go.