New judges play nicer with 'Idol' contestants

TV review

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Being the singer for a Hall of Fame hard rock band must be a lousy gig.

Robert Plant turned it down to run with a bunch of Appalachian folkies.

Steven Tyler shelved his own gig with Aerosmith and turned down the Led Zeppelin offer to fill the Plant job -- as if that made any sense -- to become a judge this season on fading flower "American Idol."

Fox could have used the departure of Simon Cowell to pull the plug before the ratings got any worse and the winners less successful, but decided instead to try to revive the franchise with a pair of rock star judges. They debuted this week on what seems to be a kinder, gentler and certainly much hairier version of "American Idol."

The easy task was popping Jennifer Lopez into the Paula Abdul/Diana DeGarmo coach/cheerleader slot. Not only is J-Lo more of a star than both of them combined, she is, as one contestant noted, one of the most beautiful women on the planet. In a black turtleneck and big hoop earrings, she was practically melting the camera. While she may not be a visionary artist, she certainly knows enough about singing to provide legitimate commentary.

Her initial reluctance to say "no" -- "Why did I sign up for this?" she said, dropping her head on the table -- was a sweet element to the first episode, and she did manage to toughen up as the show progressed. "It sounds like you're singing in a voice that's not your voice," she said, putting her finger on just one of the problems with the nerdy, "burping guy."

"Idol's" far more troubling task was replacing the face of the show, Mr. Cowell, who's been able to render withering criticism with a charming British accent that gives him that extra edge: Even when he doesn't know what he's talking about, it sounds like he does. His handsome, clean-cut and yet roguish image has long kept the show a hit for middle-aged women, whether they were the type to like Clay Aiken or Adam Lambert.

Replacing him with Aerosmith's 62-year-old androgynous hippie freak, with his tinkling charm bracelet, seemed like a recipe for disaster for everyone involved, and still might be, but the results are a pleasant surprise.

First of all, Steven's musical credentials run circles around Simon's. Tyler gave us "Sweet Emotion." Cowell gave us Il Divo. 'Nuff said.

Furthermore, the Aerosmith singer has always been quick on his feet (with the exception of that South Dakota gig two years ago when he fell off the stage and broke his shoulder). He's bringing those verbals gifts to the table, like asking the Snookie look-alike with the star-studded halter, "What's with the jujubees on your uu-uu-bees?"

His dig at the burping guy, "Did you eat a lot of paint chips as a child?" was vintage Cowell.

It's also cool how he throws himself into the music, whether pounding out a beat on the table or unleashing one of his high-pitched screams.

Surprisingly, he seems genuinely interested in nurturing the young talent -- finding a new Janis Joplin, as he stated his goal -- and he's displayed a soft, tender side. You had to love how he told one raw-but-promising teen, "I'm going to personally work that into something good."

Will it last though?

As the Jersey audition wore on, with one bad to mediocre singer after the next, he eyes started to glaze and his energy seemed to lag, leaving J-Lo to pick up the slack.

And that was just the first audition. Don't be surprised if the scores of "Idol" wannabes have him scrambling for Joe Perry and the boys sooner than later.

Scott Mervis: ; 412-263-2576 or @scottmervis_pg .


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