Get us in your inbox

American Idol judges
Photograph: Shutterstock

All 11 'American Idol' judges, ranked

Joel Meares

America's onetime favorite show, American Idol, will finish forever tomorrow night, after the finalists belt-off on Wednesday and the public casts its vote one last time ("dim the lights"). Who will be the 15th American Idol? Who will not? And who will really care?

Not us.

For us, as for most people, Idol has always been about the judges—the feuds, the insults, the tears, the “goosies.” And so, as we watch the former ratings behemoth stagger into the horizon to shrink from sight until Fox inevitably revives the thing, we look back with affection—and cruel, Cowellian judgment—on the best and worst of those who sat behind the Idol desk. 

11. Ellen DeGeneres (season 9)

Ellen DeGeneres can do anything, right? Host a phenomenally successful daytime talkshow. Headline a phenomenally successful ’90s sitcom. Make even your totally-not-cool-with-gays gran say things like, “Bill, you know what, those lesbians folks aren’t all that bad? I mean, I like Ellen DeGeneres.” Well, Ellen can do almost anything. The thing she can’t do very well at all is be a judge on American Idol, which requires even the most softly-softly of arbiters to actually arbitrate. Ellen sat through an entire season saying…well, nothing. If there had been participation ribbons, Ellen would have been handing them out. Even in the face of some of the most excruciatingly bad performances to have ever bled all over the Idol studio (this was the season in which Lee DeWyze won the thing), Ellen smiled and made jokes—anything to avoid having to call out a bum note. When she left the show after just one season, she told Howard Stern joining Idol “was one of the worst decisions I’ve made…I thought, ‘I’m going to represent those people at home that have opinions, that like somebody or don’t.’ But then I just thought, ‘I can’t break this person’s heart. Let somebody else do that.’”

Trademark: Smiles and deflecting jokes. 

10. Nicki Minaj (season 12)

One half of Idol’s biggest bit of judge stunt-casting, Queens-born rapper Nicki Minaj proved to be a more nurturing judge than you would imagine, and her famed way with words never failed her—she described one contestant as her “ladybug” and her “marshmallow.” She was so fond of contestant Curtis Finch, Jr she said she’d go home if he went home (he did, she didn’t). She was not fond, of course, of fellow judge Mariah Carey: before season 12 debuted, video leaked of Minaj unloading on Carey during North Carolina auditions, saying, “I told them I’m not fucking putting up with her fucking highness over there.” The two continued to spar—including in one hilarious argument over who knew the movie Mean Girls better (Mariah knew the blonde one was Regina)—throughout the season, sucking attention from contestants and turning off viewers. 

Trademark: Tongue-bite. 

9. Mariah Carey (season 12)

We had to give Carey the edge over Minaj here, by sheer force of how ridiculously over-the-top entertaining “her fucking highness” could be during the show-derailing feud: when a contestant said that ‘All I Want For Christmas’ was the best modern Christmas song and Nicki agreed “it sure was,” Carey stepped in with a quick, “Still is, dahling. No. 1 last year. Seventeen years later, it’s still No. 1.” As for how Mariah was with the contestants? “Contestants, dahling? I didn’t even notice them.” 

Trademark: Eye-roll. 

8. Harry Connick, Jr (seasons 13-15)

Yes, Harry Connick, Jr knows his shit: Witness the bored stares of those suspiciously well-placed ‘hot girls’ standing behind the judges whenever he starts talking scales and keys and pitch and instrumentation. And he can be occasionally charming, particularly when spar-flirting with J-Lo. And when he told season 14 contestant Quentin Alexander, who called the comp “wack,” that he “can always go home,” we’ll admit we cheered a little. But Connick can get so technical that he forgets the true point of the competition: to sell Coca-Cola. We mean: to deliver inspiring but-not-always-technically-perfect performances. When you’re in your living room with those tears streaming down your face because that performance of “I Have Nothing” just spoke to something deep inside you that you didn’t even know was there, you can always rely on Harry to deflate the moment with a so-so verdict and some crap about sticking to the melody.

Trademark: Detailed musical criticism nobody asked for.  

7. Kara DioGuardi (seasons 8-9)

DioGuardi gave us one of Idol’s cringe-iest moments when she got into a sing-off with the girl who auditioned for season 8 in a bikini. Then she out-cringed herself by performing with Bikini Girl at the finale and showing off her own bikini body in what’s been dubbed Idol’s saddest moment. (But also: rock on girl for putting it all out there and not giving a fuck!). And she didn’t exactly ooze charm or charisma or many of the other things that land other people behind the Idol desk with their microphones and mega cups of Coca-Cola. But the songwriter was clear, articulate, constructive and knew her shit. Also, she wrote Kelly Clarkson’s “Walk Away," so: bonus points.

Trademark: Audience-unnerving insecurity. 

6. Keith Urban (seasons 12-15)

Keith Urban turned out to be Idol’s cockroach judge: when the Nicki-Mariah mushroom cloud cleared, the Aussie country boy was somehow still standing. How? Why? Because he’s good at smiling and saying nice things and not getting between divas and wearing bad T-shirts that show his bad tattoos, and sometimes that’s all you want from an Idol judge. He’s also encouraging with contestants backstage, something which shines through whenever he’s dueted with them on the show (he’s happy to act as support). Bonus: Sometimes Nicole comes to the finales, which raises the gown game on the night big-time.

Trademark: Grinning/looking a little lost. 

5. Steven Tyler (seasons 10-11)

Nicki Minaj was an odd choice for Idol that didn’t work; Tyler was an odd choice that did. Not that he should have—he’d never seen the show before showing up for the first round of auditions; he had a background making music that was pretty un-Idol (that Armageddon song excepted); and he proceeded to hit on every good-looking teenage contestant who stood before the panel (“Oh,” he exclaimed, eyeing one young girl’s dress: “Just the right amount showing.”) But he was refreshingly unpredictable, genuinely caring and—when he eventually worked out what he’d gotten himself into—enthused about the whole thing. Also, he once said, “Well hellfire, save matches, fuck a duck and see what hatches.”

Trademark: That terrible feather thing in his hair. 

4. Randy Jackson (seasons 1-13)

Did you know that Randy Jackson had worked with Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston? If not, you certainly did by the time he left the show after 13 seasons. The chief “dawg” dropped his resume almost as often as Tyler dropped bleeped-out F-bombs. But there was a reason Jackson was the longest-lasting judge: He held no punches, but was rarely cruel; he brought real credibility to the show from day one; and, in later seasons, he had valuable institutional knowledge (no contestant dare touch a song once covered by Kelly Clarkson or Fantasia without Jackson making a direct—and rarely flattering—comparison). Plus, those bug-eyes spoke a thousand words.

Trademark: “Yo dawg…that was pitchy.”

3. Jennifer Lopez (seasons 10-11, 13-15)

The main takeaway from J-Lo’s surprisingly lengthy stay at the judging panel is that she might actually still genuinely be Jenny from the Block. Don’t be fooled by the her crazily tight-fitting outfits—the highlight of some of the later, drabber seasons of the show—Lopez was the most caring, affectionate and easily (and genuinely) moved Idol judge there ever was. Plus, over the years, Lopez gave non-famous, non-J-Lo backup-dancer young men hope that one day they might land a fierce triple threat like herself, shamelessly flirting with any guy with nice eyes and dimples.

Trademark: “Goosies.”

2. Paula Abdul (seasons 1-8)

The softest side of the original judge triangle, Abdul brought serious heart and chemistry to American Idol. Oh, and serious wackedness. She cried, she babbled (often about colors coming out of people’s mouths), she flirted and she drank (okay, legally have to say we don’t know whether she really drank, but my god did we want whatever was in her Coke cup most nights). While “did she (drink) or didn’t she (drink)?” was the question on a lot of people’s minds, others were wondering, “are they or aren’t they?”—they being Simon and Paula, and the thing they were questionably doing being backstage canoodling.

Trademark: The not-tipsy-at-all palm-on-palm handclap. 

1. Simon Cowell (seasons 1-9)

“I thought it was horrendous actually.”

“It started off okay, and then you played the harmonica.”

“My advice would be, if you want to pursue a career in the music business: don’t.”

Blunt Mr. Cowell was the reason many tuned into Idol—what would he say next?—and, when he left, the reason many stopped watching. His eye for talent was spot-on (even if it took him a while to catch on to Kelly Clarkson’s chops) and his insults forced you to reach into that black part of yourself where you secretly agreed with him. And when he got too cruel—as when, in season five, he asked if the production had a bigger stage this year to accommodate contestant Mandisa—he ponied up and apologized. Awkwardly and probably disingenuously, true, but he tried.

Trademark: Smug face; snug-fitting T-shirts.

Latest news