Randy Jackson: Top Dawg

Despite all the big names being tossed around as "American Idol" replacement judges, the show's future might depend most upon the first – and last – man sitting.

Long before gaining fame as an "American Idol" judge, Randy Jackson earned his musical stripes as a top bass player. It's not generally the most glamorous or flashy role (Gene Simmons and a select few others aside) in pop. But without a strong musician on bass, the band falls apart, even if few listeners would be able to discern exactly why.

Jackson has played a similar role on "American Idol," holding the show together, largely without fanfare, especially through the last three years of major change.

Last week's dual departures of Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez, intensified chatter brimming with big-name possible replacement panelists – even Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin reportedly tossed her crown in the ring. But the future of the Fox program, coming off the lowest-rated finale in its 10-year history and facing a packed talent-show field it helped create, might depend most upon Jackson, the first – and last – man sitting.

That's no knock on host Ryan Seacrest, who has become the Dick Clark of his generation by keeping the action on the stage moving, inserting himself only as needed. Jackson, meanwhile, has provided continuity – and reliable common sense – from the judge's table, initially serving as a buffer between Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell, and more recently as the show’s all-purpose transition smoother.

So Jackson is not to be taken lightly or for granted, especially given that his contract, like Tyler and Lopez’, is up.

Tyler and Lopez gave “Idol” a boost after the failed Ellen DeGeneres and Kara DioGuardi experiments, and departure of an increasingly rancorous Cowell. Tyler played the eccentric uncle with a big heart and mouth to match (even if he usually treated contestants with kid gloves). Lopez came across as a nurturer and honest, if gentle, judge. Both infused the show with enthusiasm, tempered by Jackson, who cut down on a bit on his “dawg” patter and helped keep a semblance of the rhythm familiar to "Idol" fans.

Their trio’s first season proved a success – partly because of their chemistry, but mostly thanks to a relatively strong talent pool. This year’s outing stumbled somewhat primarily due to weaker batch of hopefuls. Perhaps the talent deficit is a reflection of a surplus of talent shows vying for contestants. But “Idol” producers, as they try to get TV’s top-rated show back on track for the upcoming 12th season, also face a surfeit of superstar judges.

When Tyler and Lopez signed on to “Idol” a couple years back, the duo became the first still-bankable major music acts to plunge into the TV talent judging game. That’s no longer a novelty, now that we have Christina Aguilera on “The Voice” and Britney Spears joining Cowell’s “The X Factor.” Howard Stern, who melded fame and infamy as a comedic radio host, is giving “America’s Got Talent” a so far successful whirl.

The prospect of Franklin of joining “Idol” is undeniably tantalizing, as is the thought of seeing the likes of Fergie or Mariah Carey rendering judgment on the latest crop of wannabe singers. But this near-annual summer silly season of floating names of potential replacement panelists, as we’ve noted, threatens to wear thin on even the show’s most dedicated fans. Perhaps more importantly, with every change, there’s less to distinguish “Idol” from the competition.

Us Weekly reports that Jackson might step back and become a contestant mentor on “Idol,” which, while leaving a huge hole on the panel, could help create better performances. He’s also Carey’s manager, which might help draw her to the show, and, as The Hollywood Report notes, put some more money in his pocket.

But the bottom line, at least as far as many fans are concerned, is that “American Idol” wouldn’t be “American Idol” without Randy Jackson, the bass player who quietly has emerged as the show’s top dawg.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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