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'American Idol' will live or die with Nicki Minaj

Imeh Akpanudosen / Getty Images

Nicki Minaj could be just what "American Idol" needs -- or not.

Opinion: Change is in the air for “American Idol's” 12th season: Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj and Keith Urban are joining Randy Jackson on the judging panel; there will be fewer audition episodes and more emphasis on going away from the big cities to find talent; the field of finalists will be limited to 10; the product placements will be less obvious. (OK, that last part isn’t true, but a fan can dream.)

All this should make the show a bit more interesting, especially the audition tweaks. But the season will live or die with Minaj, the addition to the panel who has the greatest potential to revitalize the show -- and the biggest risk of going down in flames. 

Bringing the "Starships" singer to "Idol" is clearly designed to spice up a panel that offered far more buzz than excitement in the J.Lo/Steven Tyler era, and return some of the edge that went away when the judges joined the contestants in trying to be loved. It’s also a chance to appeal to younger viewers by adding an artist who actually has songs on the radio. (Heavily sanitized in order to pass muster, but on the radio nonetheless.)

Unlike Britney Spears and Demi Lovato on the last season of "X Factor," Minaj doesn’t have to worry about being sweet and likable. Hip-hop and rap artists rarely seek out a warm and fuzzy image, and many of her fans who tune in will judge her on the opposite: Does she back down from a confrontation, or does she stand up for herself regardless of how much overtime she makes the poor Fox censors work?

Few are going to buy a Nicki Minaj record simply because they like her. Even if they try, most would be put off by the “explicit” tag that accompanies many of her downloads on iTunes. "Idol" isn’t a show that attracts contestants in Minaj’s category, so she doesn’t have to worry about the competition, or about seeing a bunch of people trying to cover one of her singles and failing miserably.

What this means is that she has little to lose from speaking her mind. She’s got incentive to rock the boat. Controversy would only help her.

Let’s have some disagreement!
Frankly, it would give the show a boost.

“Idol” hasn’t been appointment television in recent years as much as it has been comfort food. It’s been a nice show where nice people sing and get voted off while the judges cry and moan about how sad it is that not everyone can win.

Throughout “Idol’s” history – and certainly since Simon Cowell left – the drama between the judges has been so forced that it’s been painful to watch. Over the past two seasons, it was a rare event that saw dissent even during the audition process. “Idol” works better when the judges don’t move in lockstep, since it gives viewers both allies and adversaries to talk about. If everyone is great and everyone deserves stardom, who cares who wins?

While the only data we have to work with so far are the promotional activities Minaj has done for the show, the reported tension between her and Carey on set is only going to make the show more entertaining. Viewers wouldn’t expect them to agree, since the two occupy very different positions in the musical landscape, and watching them bicker over a hopeful would provide a much-needed jolt of electricity.

Minaj talks a good game about not caring about the contestants' back stories as much as she does the talent. She says she won’t back down from an argument.

That just might get the show the excitement it been missing.

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