Six Thumbs Up!

Idol's hear-no-evil panel is a hit, but the world still needs judges

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Tony Duran / FOX

A remarkable thing has happened in the past year, America: you've gotten 10 times more talented! You sound fantastic, you look confident, and I can tell you're having fun! That new haircut looks great too — and have you lost weight?

When I say "you," I mean your proxies on American Idol. For nine seasons, as presided over by grand inquisitor Simon Cowell, Idol was a musical gauntlet of criticisms from which one winner would emerge, scarred but worthy. This year, with Cowell gone to start talent show The X Factor, Idol hired two pros, Jennifer Lopez and Aerosmith's Steven Tyler, who relentlessly accentuate the positive. (Randy Jackson, who once followed Cowell in criticizing, now echoes J. Lo and Tyler in applause.) Performers whom Cowell would have written off as "boring" or "karaoke" get lavish, vague praise: "You are in it to win it!" (Jackson), "You did it!" (Lopez) or "You're so [bleep]!" (Tyler).

TV executives, critics and ad buyers guessed that the revamped Idol would continue its ongoing ratings drop. Instead, the numbers have risen for the first time in years (if only slightly) as the judges' thumbs have turned up — way up.

Even at its mid-'00s ratings peak, there was something, well, un-American about Idol. This is a country of self-esteem, of positivity, of the Lake Wobegonian conviction that we all have a gift. Cowell, as a headmasterly Brit, had a dispensation to tell us otherwise, to be our sneering tiger dad who delighted in coming up with novel ways of saying that we had failed to meet his impossibly high standards. ("You sounded like Cher after she's been to the dentist.") He could be gratuitously mean, but he had a gift for zeroing in on the specific, hard-to-verbalize flaw in a singer.

As Idol's ratings declined, it began tinkering with its tone. Cowell cut back on his insults, and the show hired judge Ellen DeGeneres, who delivered criticism as regretfully as if she were telling a child his puppy had died. Now, with the new panel, Idol is nearly all nice, all the time.

And America likes it. For a while, Idol entertained us with the bracing novelty of brutal truth telling (directed at others). Idol and like-minded reality shows of the '00s were of a piece with online culture, in which anyone could go on a blog or Amazon review page and say what he or she really thought. In the words of ur — reality show The Real World, the Web allowed us to "stop being polite and start getting real" — sometimes obnoxiously so.

Idol began turning sweeter a couple of seasons ago, about the time the feel-good Susan Boyle story broke on Cowell's U.K. show Britain's Got Talent and Facebook — with its ubiquitous like button — began turning the Web into a massive hothouse of approbation. Like this! Share that! You will search in vain for a Facebook hate button, which makes the network more attractive for promoting businesses.

Of course, Idol too is producing a product — a recording star — which it has an interest in building up. A more positive Idol might produce a better-liked winner, branded by human like buttons Steven, Jennifer and Randy. But the most successful winners Idol has produced, Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, emerged from its tough-love era. Give out too many gold stars and the value of gold drops; what's more, singers not pushed by the fear of a Simon smackdown may not improve in a way that makes viewers want to buy their eventual albums.

The problem with liking everything is that it becomes meaningless to like anything. Deciphering Idol judges' comments now requires kremlinology: you listen for the shadings that distinguish "That was great!" (I truly loved your performance) from "You know you're great" (I like you too much to specify why your performance was bad).

Idol's singers, like anyone else, need the ugly truth. Encouragement helps us reach for the stars; realism prevents us from pursuing a midlife career change as an astronaut. But we may not get that reality check from Idol or its followers. (NBC's knockoff, The Voice, stresses that it has "coaches," not "judges.") Truth is, America, you're no more talented than you were yesterday. Except on Idol, where the judges have stopped getting real and started being polite.