Look up “show business survivor” on the Google machine, and you’re likely to find a picture of Randy Jackson staring back at you.
That’s a curious thought, as news breaks that Jackson is leaving Fox’s American Idol singing competition after 13 years as a judge and mentor — the second-to-last person from the show’s inaugural season left on the show, besides host Ryan Seacrest.
But the fact is, Jackson was officially gone from Idol once before and rumored to be headed out the door many times as the show descended from its peak as TV’s most popular program. Still, somehow a 58-year-old guy who dresses like a Hot Topic explosion and talks like an extra from a mid-’90s rap video outlasted Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, Steven Tyler, Ellen DeGeneres and many more.
That’s why it’s so painful to admit that, as Jackson leaves Idol after an undistinguished tenure as a mentor last season, he embodies everything that is wrong with the show right now — starting with what it did to his music career.
Many people who know Jackson as Idol‘s “dawg”-spouting hipster in thick glasses don’t realize that he was once one of music’s most successful session bassists, working as a studio hired hand for top artists. Beginning with jazz fusion pioneers Jean-Luc Ponty and Billy Cobham, Jackson eventually built a resume that included Tracy Chapman, Aretha Franklin, the Divinyls, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, Herbie Hancock and the Charlie Daniels Band.
Yes, he also joined Journey in the ’80s when that band had the amazingly bad idea to replace its drummer and bassist with studio players. (The drummer had hair plugs and Jackson wore parachute pants. Deadly.) And he’s also a producer who never hesitates to mention his work with Mariah Carey or the Grammy he’s won (for a 2001 Gladys Knight record, he usually doesn’t add).
I’ve often identified with Jackson, and not just because people occasionally mistake me for him at industry functions. I’m a music fan, and I’d seen his name on countless albums in the ’80s and ’90s, so I was excited when American Idol first announced his inclusion on the show’s inaugural judging panel, along with Cowell and Abdul. “Here’s a player; a musician who gets it,” I thought. “This is a guy who will bring a musician’s sensibility to this glitzy TV show.”
Unfortunately, the opposite happened. Ready to reach for the multimillion-dollar opportunities wrapped up in being a major TV star, Jackson wasn’t a very articulate ambassador for a musician’s point of view, and he didn’t seem particularly interested in separating the truly talented performers from the eye candy stuck in the competition to add drama. (Watch Pharrell on NBC’s The Voice or Harry Connick Jr. on Idol for examples of musicians turning their experience into valuable advice.)
The show has often overlooked more distinctive talents for competitors with a better TV story; the post-Idol careers of nonwinners like Jennifer Hudson, Chris Daughtry, Katharine McPhee and Adam Lambert seem strong evidence of that. Musicians like Jackson should have been a corrective for that dynamic, but he never had that kind of impact.
American Idol has always been a variety show masquerading as a talent competition, with the emphasis on creating compelling television. Jackson seemed to embody that twisted sense of priorities, burying his abilities as a player and producer under a blizzard of glad-handing catchphrases that turned him into a media star with his own line of watches and eyewear.
He leaves a show mired in its own decline, unable to field contestants audiences find remotely compelling or memorable. Rival The Voice has sharper competitors, a respectful audition process that doesn’t let freaky misanthropes get any airtime, charismatic judges who are great at appearing to like each other, and a structure that encourages more activity from the judges than self-serving speeches at the end of a performance.
It makes a certain kind of sense that Jackson would be leaving Idol just as it has completed its transformation from groundbreaking television format to pop culture cliche.
That’s a journey he seems to have made himself. The only question left now is whether there’s a road back to relevance for either the man or the show that made him a star.