Back when Paula Abdul signed on to be a judge on the first season of "American Idol," some saw it as a last-ditch effort by a faded pop star to kick-start a stalled career. And though the long-promised comeback album from Abdul never materialized and her spin-off dancing show, this year's "Live to Dance," was canceled after one season, it's beginning to look like Paula was on to something.
For a while, pop stars expanded their "brand" by launching clothing lines, vanity record labels and hawking shoes. Now that the stigma of reality TV has clearly lifted, though, is joining the panel of a singing competition the new celebrity perfume?
Wednesday night's hit finale of "Idol," in which Scotty McCreery was crowned champ and judges Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler got as much screen time as some of the season's contestants, was definitive proof that reality shows can be a career resuscitator.
It used to be unusual to see a contemporary star — or even a legendary name whose career was still somewhat viable — sign on for one of these shows. In 2007, former pop chart staple Jewel became the host of "Nashville Star" at a time when her music career was at a low ebb. And way back in 1998, late TLC member Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes was the exception to the rule when she hosted the MTV talent series "The Cut" when TLC was still one of the biggest bands on the planet.
But ever since Tyler and Lopez joined the cast of "Idol" this year and saw an immediate boost to their bottom line in the form of major iTunes sales for Aerosmith's back catalog and the biggest hit in years for J.Lo, the floodgates have opened.
"Never in a million years did I think Steven would do something like this," said Jeff Rabhan, the chairman of the Recorded Music Department at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts and longtime artist manager for artists ranging from Kelly Clarkson and Snoop Dogg to Lopez and Linkin Park.
Rabhan said the addition of Cee Lo Green, Maroon 5's Adam Levine and Christina Aguilera to NBC's hit singing competition "The Voice" is further proof that the stigma is gone and artists and their managers are realizing the potential boost from appearing in prime-time every week on a major network.
"The Cee Lo quotient is a wild card," Rabhan said just a few weeks ago of the "Forget You" singer, whose profane hit has gained ubiquity and put up strong single sales, while his album, The Lady Killer, has put up modest numbers. "I do think for a lot of people it's the 'mom quotient.' A lot of people still don't know who he is and for Cee Lo, I get it. For some of the others, though, I can't help but feel like it's a plateau move."
That was then, but now, with "The Voice" a ratings hit and all of America charmed by Green's infectious smile and musical chops, clearly the gamble has paid off.
"Celebrities are flocking to singing reality shows," said Shirley Halperin, music editor of The Hollywood Reporter. "Everybody wants to be on one. I don't think it's the merit of the show — it's the merit of the numbers. People want the 20 million viewers and there's no other way to do it on a mass level than on television. Television is the great platform for music."
Considering the huge amount of screen time Interscope boss Jimmy Iovine got on "Idol" this season and early word that "X Factor" judge and former Island/ Def Jam chairman Antonio "L.A." Reid's harsh judgments have made Simon Cowell look like a pussycat, Halperin said there may also be a gold in them hills for music execs as well. "Jimmy ... could have a really nice act three or act two being a mentor and TV personality," she said. "These music business guys, they know their business and they're not messing around. I have a feeling there might be a demand for executives who are willing to really tell it like it is."
Although it raised eyebrows at first, Rabhan said the "Idol" gig made sense for Tyler, who is in the twilight of his rock career. "In a lot of ways, he's protected. If the show dies, Tyler can say it was dying already without him. If it does great, it's a win for him." Of course, we now know that ratings were up, Tyler became America's favorite potty-mouthed wacky uncle and he found a huge platform to hawk his debut solo single and memoir and it's likely he'll be back for another go next year.
For Aguilera, Rabhan said the calculus was probably a bit different. "She's always been a bit untouchable and the public never got to know her," he said of the notoriously private singer, who has hit a rough patch lately. "And she was able to sustain some of the speed bumps in her career up until now. But I'm sure [her handlers saw] this is an opportunity to rebuild her tarnished public image."
That rebuilding appears to have already begun, with a toned-down Aguilera coming off as the sexy, flirty chanteuse who's always rooting for the underdog on the show and coming off as much more approachable.
Like Rabhan, Stuart Levine, assistant managing editor for features at Variety, said that for an artist like Cee Lo, "The Voice" offers mainstream exposure to a demo that may not be familiar with his music. "For someone like Christina, after all her latest antics, I'm sure she sees the success of 'Idol' and what it did for people like Randy, Paula and Simon Cowell, and the praise that J.Lo and Tyler are getting and she doesn't see much of a downside," he said. "A lot of the stink of bad reality shows is not around anymore. And whether they're good or bad, it hasn't hurt anyone when they did one of these on a broadcast network."
The trend is catching on all over, from "CMT's Next Superstar," which counts guest judges such as Trace Adkins and Colbie Caillat, to the about-to-launch on Bravo "Platinum Hit," a songwriter-search show starring Jewel and former "Idol" judge Kara DioGuardi. The Bravo series will also feature guest-judging from Leona Lewis, Taio Cruz, Jermaine Dupri, Natasha Bedingfield and Ryan Tedder.
While superstars often try to avoid looking like regular people by showing off their lavish lifestyles, when they stumble, Rabhan said the first instinct is to try and look human and what better way to do that than to appear on a prime-time show and offer advice to potential future stars?
All of which begs the question of why the ultimate steward of reality-show singing competitions, Cowell, seemed to have missed the writing on the wall while putting together his "X Factor" panel. Recycling Abdul, adding the respected, but not well-known by the public Reid and British girl group star Cheryl Cole seemed like an odd move in light of the emerging trend.
The dice roll already appears to be not paying off. As "Idol" was commanding all the media space oxygen on Wednesday night, word leaked that Cole was being replaced on the panel by former Pussycat Dolls singer Nicole Scherzinger, who was originally tapped to be the "Factor" co-host. The move reportedly came because Cole did not mesh well with the rest of the panel (or, according to some reports, because her British accent was too strong) and it seemed like a correction inspired in part, at least, by the writing on the wall.
Considering the months of headlines surrounding Cowell's departure from "Idol," as well as the applause for Tyler and Lopez on the show, Levine said, publicity-wise, it's hard to say no to the opportunity if you want to get you name (back) out there.
"If networks want the shows to be hits, they need big names, so you can't just throw someone out there with a so-so career," he said of the move to tap marquee names for shows like "The Voice." "Whether the networks accept it or not, people tune in to these shows to hear the judges. If you want big ratings, you need big names."