News of Katy Perry's staggering $25 million salary for American Idol made eyeballs pop when it was announced last fall, not only because that was reportedly more than half ABC's budget for talent but also nobody knows if Idol 2.0 will retain the 10.3 million people who watched the premiere. Whether ABC's gamble on the mother of all singing competitions proves to be a ratings hit or not, one thing is for certain: Katy Perry gives the reboot both the dazzle factor and gravitas it needed to work.
Katy Perry's animated, exaggerated pop persona make it natural to assume she'd bring her cheeky, squeaky fun to show and she does. But she also brings the realest critiques, and often leading the show's conversation rather than her male counterparts (which was par for course when Simon Cowell judged the og version). Could this be a chicken/egg situation, in which her male co-stars Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan knowingly accept that they're salary inferiors and get in line? Perhaps. But now that the show has aired, Katy is showing why she's worth the top earning slot: she's not only the most relevant pop culture figure on the panel in 2018, she's also the best judge.
She's frequently the first to express a solid, sensible critique. Take for example how, in the premiere, she led the team in a constructive critique of Ron, the singer who emigrated from the Congo and blinded everyone with their own tears after telling his story of escaping paternal abuse and wanting to be a better father for his own kid. It was Katy who was first to put her feelings away and cut to the chase.
"I don't think you know who you are yet," she said after he finished his performance. She'd had her head down prior to saying that, while Luke grinned awkwardly and Lionel stammered. She'd already made the decision, it seemed, but was figuring out how to let go of an almost-good-enough guy everyone was rooting for with compassion. "I think you know how to imitate," she said, issuing a brutal truth nobody else would, and explained that sending him into the thick of the competition too soon could backfire. She was right; he sounded wobbly and unsure. Lionel agreed with Katy and then, in a reversal, brought him back. But Katy was swift and deliberate from the start — hardly the "fun" notes and vibe Luke Bryan said he thought she'd bring in the opening segment.
In most instances, judging a woman's workplace success on whether or not she is likable sets her — and everyone else, frankly — up to fail because it reinforces ugly stereotypes about how women are "supposed" to behave and leaves room for stupid mind games that get in the way of good work. In Idol's case though, likability must be a metric by which Katy is judged; it's fair to expect some level of affinity for the people families invite into their dens rooms every week. This is not easy. Judges have to balance honesty while not sounding cruel — not to mention setting aside their own prejudices, feelings and hang ups in order to give every contestant a fair shot. The good news is that Katy hits that exact sweet spot in her turn on the infamous judging panel: She's really, really likable on Idol. People well-versed in Katyologoy may have been slightly turned off in recent years; her feud with Taylor Swift, flop of an album and court battles with nuns (nuns!) over a property in LA scratches some of her smooth, shiny veneer. But on Idol, she's quirky in just the right dosage, appears to supportive to other women and receptive to the stream of misfits and sob stories Idol reliably trots out, even respectful because she refuses to sell them false hope.
In ABC's retooling, the Mickey Mouse network pumps Idol with more of whatever hormone Disney created to make people get doe-eyed over fairy tales — Idol's fairy tale is achieving the American Dream — and Katy stays on message. She reminds people all the time that she was once just like them, she sees the magic in their eyes and their wishes coming true, yadda yadda yadda. Katy was kind and supportive with self-admitted geeky girl Katie, the awesome songwriter who opened the premiere; with Noah, the plus-sized country boy from a farm in Arkansas, she quickly bonded over his weird vocal tic ("Wig!") and, after he stunned everyone with his remarkable voice, she told him he'd snatched her wig and flung it somewhere in Arkansas. Idol's more memorable judge personas have been stern (Simon Cowell, urban (Randy Jackson), diva (Mariah Carey, obviously), and even naïf, as Ellen DeGeneres' short lived-stint went. Katy is like some sort of sisterly nymph, a fairy godmother that comes in the form of gif dreams, scratch and sniff stickers and light-woke guidance.
Whether Idol can keep viewers interested past these first few nostalgic weeks and maintain momentum after the novelty of the return fades remains to be seen. But in terms of selecting a thoroughly modern singer able to lead, endear and entertain, Katy feels like the smart bet and certainly earns every penny she got.
American Idol airs Mondays and Tuesdays at 8/7c on ABC.