Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey bust-up: just what American Idol needed | Stuart Heritage

American Idol has been coasting for years. A bout of fisticuffs is always good for ratings – but remember not to overdo it

TMZ's video of the American Idol bust-up between Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey has plenty to focus on. There's Minaj herself, dressed up as Grayson Perry's tipsy auntie, screaming "I told them, I'm not fucking putting up with Her Fucking Highness over there," at nobody in particular. There's Carey, countering with a series of ghostly "Whyyy?"s as she slashes her fingernails through the air. There's also Randy Jackson and Keith Urban, both wearing the exasperated expressions of tired dads at the end of a particularly sugar-heavy birthday party.

Harder to spot, though, is the figure of American Idol's executive producer Nigel Lythgoe. He weaves in and out of the foreground during the row, glasses perched imperiously on the end of his nose. It's hard to see exactly what he's doing in the video, but it wouldn't be too cynical to assume that he's gleefully rubbing his hands together. Because, in truth, this video is the best thing to happen to American Idol in years.

The series has been coasting for a number of seasons now. It was coasting before Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler were initiated as judges. It was coasting before Ellen DeGeneres turned up for her weird year in 2010. In fact, you can trace the beginnings of American Idol's rot right back to the moment where Simon Cowell stopped being the walking personification of evil in order to debut his new, ill-judged winking uncle persona. Since then, the show has become flabby, safe, content to rest on its laurels. But not any more, because get a load of this. The new judges – one of whom is actually a relevant pop star – actively hate each other.

Even if they no longer care for American Idol's stale formula, at least viewers will now get to tune in and study the chemistry between Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey for traces of lingering iciness. That'll be good for ratings. It always is. Because this is a trick as old as time.

Back before this year's series of US X Factor debuted, rumours were rife that new judge Britney Spears was being difficult – turning up late, annoying Simon Cowell, walking out of auditions, that sort of thing. It was the best publicity the show could have hoped for, especially when compared to last year's judge Nicole Scherzinger, a woman with all the charisma of damp towel. Maybe by watching X Factor, we'd all get to see Britney Spears – crazy Britney from the tabloids – flailing around with a looser grip on reality than ever. That didn't actually happen – in the first show of the series, Britney turned out to be a surprisingly witty young woman with a diverting array of bewildered facial expressions to her name – but the suggestion that it might was more than enough.

British X Factor is no slouch when it comes to exploiting the fractious relationships of its judges, either. Louis Walsh was sacked by Simon Cowell before the 2007 series, and then reinstated. Tabloids were quick to play up rivalries between Tulisa Contostavlos and Kelly Rowland last year. And Sharon Osbourne appeared to hate all of her co-judges without exception during her tenure on the show; throwing water on Walsh, quitting and returning between episodes and mocking Dannii Minogue's fondness for Botox on air. All of which were catnip for viewers, and a blessing for producers.

The song-and-dance talent show market is now more crowded than ever. Where once American Idol had the run of the place, it now has the likes of The Voice, X Factor, Dancing with the Stars and a myriad of cable-TV copycats to contend with. If this conveniently-timed leak of an argument between its stars helps to restore American Idol's supremacy, then so be it. So long as it doesn't overdo it, that is. Too many of these videos and the audience will get bored and drift away. And if that happens, nothing short of a full-on weave-ripping catfight to the death will ever get them back.


Stuart Heritage

The GuardianTramp

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