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American Idol: Judging the New Judges

The wait is over. American Idol kicked off its 12th season in typically dramatic fashion. There was laughter, there were tears, there was singing ... and all that was just at the judges' table.

Liz Raftery

The wait is over. American Idol kicked off its 12th season in typically dramatic fashion. There was laughter, there were tears, there was singing ... and all that was just at the judges' table.

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Despite producer Nigel Lythgoe's repeated overtures that the reality singing competition is still "all about the contestants," the two-hour premiere (and previews Fox released from Thursday's episode)  made that claim seem dubious at best. With three new faces — feuding divas Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey, and caught-in-the-middle country star Keith Urban — joining veteran Randy Jackson on the panel, the most noteworthy moments of the first episode came courtesy of the celebrities, not the budding stars.

First, let's address the elephant in the room: the Nicki-Mariah feud. In a conference call last week, Lythgoe described their public dirty-laundry-airing as unwelcome publicity and dismissed claims that it was drummed up by the show in order to generate attention for the new season. The premiere seemed to fall in line with that. During the Chicago and New York tryouts, Minaj and Carey sniped and eye-rolled back and forth so much (sometimes at the expense of auditioners, who could do nothing but look on awkwardly) that an exasperated Urban at one point protested that he was starting to "feel like a scratching post" between the two. Our thoughts? Let's keep the trainwreck factor confined to the less-talented contestants. Nobody likes a diva — and this is going to get old fast.

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But enough about the collective dynamic. How do the new judges rate individually? Here's our take:

Mariah Carey: "The definition of diva," as the show's intro described Carey, skillfully treads the line between being friendly and respectful to the contestants, while at the same time offering them constructive feedback about their talents or lack thereof. And the best part? She seems to not only be taking the role seriously, but also shows genuine interest — or does a great job of faking it — when indulging hopefuls that are also die-hard fans, like Tina Torres, the sweet alumni of Camp Mariah who showed the singer a picture of herself when she first sang for Carey at age 13. (Cue the first Minaj eyeroll.) Grade: A-

Nicki Minaj: If the season premiere is any indication, Minaj will spend most of her critiquing time, if not taking digs at Carey, either flirting with the contestants (enough to warrant a montage) or judging them on their entire stage presence, rather than just their singing. Hey, Nicki — this isn't The X Factor. Minaj also has an uncanny knack for making several of the auditions about her. Remember the girl the pop star accused of starting a "rivalry" with her because they were wearing the same color eyeshadow? And what's with the fake British accent? She's not Madonna! As for her feedback, the only hopeful a perked-up Minaj truly fought for to send to Hollywood performed "Super Bass" as one of her songs. Grade: C

Keith Urban: Poor Keith. When Urban offers feedback, it's thoughtful, well-considered, and effective. But Mr. Nicole Kidman's primary role, it would seem, is to be the voice of reason in this circus, to act as a buffer between Carey and Minaj, whose outsize personalities and attempts to one-up each other overshadow the soft-spoken country singer. Still, Urban's the only judge who meshes with the "white boy with guitar" aesthetic the show has exhibited in recent years, so maybe he'll step up his game once the live shows begin. And we think we heard him crack a few choice jokes in there. Grade: B-

Do you agree? What were your first impressions of the new American Idol panel? Sound off below!