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- Through 16 seasons reality singing competition series “American Idol” has seen 14 different judges.
- “American Idol” judges are integral to the show’s success.
- The show’s original judge trio – Paula Abdul, Simon Cowell, and Randy Jackson – were well known for their on-screen banter.
- In 2018 Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan became the official judges of the competition.
- With season 17 of “Idol” premiering this March, INSIDER decided to rank all of the judges the show has seen through the years.
- Overall Simon Cowell was the best judge the singing competition has ever seen because of his blunt, yet necessary critique.
This Sunday marks the premiere of “American Idol’s” second season on ABC, and 17th season overall. The famous singing competition show is known for launching the careers of Grammy-award winners like Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson.
Like many of the previous seasons, the show will follow 20 hopefuls hand-picked from around the country vying for the record-deal first prize.
While the overall fate of the show’s contestants lies in the hands of voters, the judges get to pick at who even makes it to the competition in the first place. During the auditions phase of the series, thousands of aspiring singers from around the US will have to prove themselves to the panel they want the coveted golden ticket to participate.
Over “American Idol’s” 17 years (and 16 seasons) on the air, the judge’s table has welcomed a variety of celebrity faces. While some members have stayed longer than others, it’s clear each of them has brought a unique contribution to the Idol experience. From chart-topping musicians to seasoned record producers, each one of the celebrity judges has brought something totally unique to the table.
In honor of the upcoming premiere, INSIDER decided to look back on all the show’s 14 judges through the year and rank them based on how significant their contributions were to the “American Idol” experience. Read more below to see how your favorite “Idol” judge stacks up against the others from worst to best.
Mariah Carey — season 12.
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Although the Grammy-winning, multi-platinum selling diva’s proven career longevity as a singer should have made her the ideal judge, her inability to focus and be invested in contestants rendered her position on the series pretty inconsequential.
There were times where she was able to offer solid advice to singers, but ultimately, those moments were overshadowed by her opinions, rather than how she helped contestants succeed.
On top of that, her glaring and well-documented disagreements with fellow judge Nicki Minaj came to define her time on the show, which may explain why she left after only one season.
Carey wasn’t totally unaware of this fact, admitting fully the show was not the right fit for her and denouncing the possibility of ever returning for even a reunion episode.
Ellen Degeneres — season nine.
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Ellen is the best of the best in daytime television. And sure, she’s excellent at giving a platform to musicians who got their start on YouTube, like Charlie Puth. But she’s not the most knowledgeable of how to measure musical performances, and her personality was not the best choice for judging others – but it sure makes for an excellent host.The good news is even Ellen knew she wasn’t great at the judging gig and was humble enough to admit it wasn’t a good move on “The Howard Stern Show” back in 2015, according to Vulture.
Nicki Minaj — season 12.
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Minaj knows a lot about hard work and what it takes to rise to the top. However, her judging qualities on season 12 of the singing competition weren’t the best, with her critiques often lacking clarity or constructive feedback. Take her review of contestant Cortez Shaw, where she had little to say other than the performance was “a good song choice” and “sexy,” which prompted fellow judge Randy Jackson to followed up with, “I’m just gonna talk about your singing.”
One can commend Nicki for unapologetically being herself on the show at all times. She also had a relatable quality that made her ideal for connecting with the artists.
Kara DioGuardi — season eight and nine.
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Kara DioGuardi’s time on “American Idol” was so fleeting you may have missed it. Unfortunately what stands out more is the bad rather than the good.
Recall her performance where she felt compelled to upstage noted “bikini girl” contestant Katrina Darrell during her audition (and later her reprise performance of the song.) And while one could say Simon was just as mean, there Kara’s judgeship felt more like she was interested in making something of herself on the show, rather than helping others.
Steven Tyler — season 10 and 11.
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During an interview with Rolling Stone, the rock legend and Aerosmith frontman referred to “American Idol” as his “mistress,” which is to say it was more of a one-off side project he liked than something he was truly passionate about. Still, Tyler’s time on Idol was nothing short of memorable for viewers and contestants alike. His wild antics made the show entertaining to watch (maybe even a little uncomfortable at times) because of his rockstar presence, and his feedback was sometimes worthy of being heard.
Luke Bryan — season 16 to current.
The charming, country-singing sweetheart judge earns a higher rank because he’s likable and seems to be having fun with the show, without feeling compelled to do anything over the top. He also understands the importance of his role as a judge and is sensitive to the reality that the road to success is paved with lots of rejections.
But part of why Bryan isn’t ranked higher than the rest of the panel is that when compared to the others, Bryan doesn’t display the innate judicious quality that one needs to confidently critique performers.
He even told People magazine that turning people down has been challenging for him, though he understands it’s part of the job.
But he makes the top 10 because it’s obvious he wants to be a good judge, but he also wants to be there for the contestants. This Sunday marks the beginning of his second season on the series, so there’s plenty of room for him to grow.
Harry Connick Jr. — season 13 to 15.
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His impressive knowledge of music allowed him to provide meticulous critiques of singers technical abilities. Some people found this to be a bit pretentious at times, but in reality, Connick probably saw his most biting critiques as teachable moments.
He truly wanted to see performers get better, and knew the best way to do that was by actually telling them what they needed to fix. As E! News writer Kristin Dos Santos put it, he was like “Simon, but with more heart.”
Katy Perry — season 16 to current.
Katy Perry’s sweet, yet sometimes overexcited demeanor can come off a bit too theatrical at times, but in the post-Vine, Instagram stories era, this actually works pretty well. Of course, her undeniable singing talent and track record of success as a pop artist means she also has the credentials to speak on what it takes to be a singer. And from what we’ve seen of her time as a guest judge in season nine and full-time judge in season 16 she’s perfectly OK with letting performers know when they aren’t ready for the journey.
The Hollywood Reporter described Perry’s judging abilities as one of the best judges on the show, because of her confidence and willingness to make the show fun to watch.
Keith Urban — season 12 to 15.
The Grammy-winning New Zealand/Australian country music superstar was thoughtful, kind, and ultimately, had the contestants’ best interests at heart.
Urban was highly skilled at delivering his criticism in a very encouraging style, often guiding singers to understand their shortcomings rather than calling them out directly.
Randy Jackson — season one to 12.
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The judge with the longest tenure on the show, record-executive, Grammy-winning musician, and producer Randy Jackson embodied all that “The American Idol” brand was. He was warm, yet willing to dish out some truth if he didn’t feel a performance hit the mark it needed, even if he did fall back on his signature catchphrase “pitchy” too much.
This made him the perfect buffer for several panels, providing level-headed insight for contestants among very diverging opinions. Jackson also knew how to gauge nervousness and pointed out what contestants needed to focus on in order to succeed as a performer beyond the competition.
He even told Rolling Stone back in 2015 that he believed in the mission of the show, and that’s part of why he remained committed to it. But he also may have stayed a little too long. When paired with the OG trio, he was at his best, but during later seasons, it seemed like he was placed on the panel to remind old viewers that “Idol” was still the same series after all this time.
Lionel Richie — season 16 to current.
Lionel Richie’s authenticity and candor have made him a remarkable presence on the newest “American Idol” panel. Having been a part of the iconic funk band The Commodore’s back in the ’70s and an independent artist, producer, and songwriter for many years after that, Richie knows all about being a vocal performer. As a judge, the Grammy-winning soul legend is frank but polite, offering realistic and responsible advice, likely from his decades of experience in the business. It’s a refreshing contrast to Perry and Bryan, who might be more popular among younger audiences, but who still haven’t experienced the challenges of sustaining a career through multiple generations. In other words, Lionel Richie has some serious knowledge to share.As Katy Perry told the New York Times in 2018, “When he speaks, the whole room listens.”
Jennifer Lopez — season 10, 11, 13, and 15.
No doubt, J.Lo had a lot of wisdom to share during her time as a judge after singing, dancing, and acting her way to success for more than two decades.
But the triple threat A-lister was a fan-favorite judge on the show mainly because of her personable demeanor that was grounded in authenticity. She was perceptive of not only how contestants sang, but their performance skills, which allowed her to provide legitimately helpful advice during both of her runs on the show.
Paula Abdul — season one to eight.
The kind-hearted, ’80s pop-dance music star had a soothing presence on the show for more than eight seasons. Anytime a critique came that sounded a bit too harsh, Paula was there to serve the contestant a compliment sandwich – always starting and closing with positive feedback.
Simon Cowell — seasons one to nine.
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Unsurprisingly, the Brit with the biting critiques is in the first place. Throughout his eight-year run as a judge, Simon’s feedback remained unapologetically straightforward, and maybe even a little cruel at times, but he was a necessary presence on the show that revolutionized talent competition shows forever.
But the bottom line is Simon wasn’t going to let you in on the promise of potential. If you had it, you had it. If you didn’t, you could at least be thankful for him bringing you back to reality. He delivered the truth even when it hurt, but that ultimately drove the best contestants to be even better. This has made him the undisputed favorite across the board. Back in 2013, a Hollywood Reporter poll revealed 75% of “American Idol” viewers wished Cowell would come back to the show, which says a lot to his impact on the series.