Mariah Carey signing on to judge the upcoming, twelfth season of American Idol completes an epic trifecta of stunt casting: She joins Britney Spears, set to debut on this fall’s second season of The X Factor, and Christina Aguilera, who will be serving her third year as a judge on The Voice. Her 2010 holiday album aside, Carey hasn’t released a new record since the lackluster Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel, but pop-cultural relevance isn’t really a criterion for these jobs. Instead, Carey’s primary qualification is that she is prone to public embarrassments (that wacky TRL incident, everything about the Glitter era) in the same way that Aguilera (an arrest for public intoxication, Burlesque) and Spears (the year 2007) are. The lavish compensation all three women are receiving—a reported $10 million–plus for Aguilera, $15 million for Spears, and $18 million for Carey—amounts to hazard pay. The singers are hoping the shows help keep them in the public eye; the producers who hired them are betting that they will hew to form and do something nutty on-camera.
The reason we will tune in to find out whether that wager pays off is that all three women practice a brand of celebrity that predates the calculated transparency employed by their contemporaries. Juxtapose the highly guarded, cagey personae of Carey, Spears, and Aguilera against three very different divas now populating the Hot 100. On Twitter, Lady Gaga drolly notes that she woke up hung-over with “chicken and waffles in the bed,” then baits apple-cheeked Carly Rae Jepsen with “dont get comfortable im coming for you.” Katy Perry’s twee messages about cats, naps, and Beanie Babies reinforce the sense, suggested by her recent Day-Glo 3-D movie, that she’s the musical equivalent of a Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper brimming with drippy overdisclosures. Rihanna alternates between retweeting her horoscope (she’s a Pisces) and linking to topless photos of herself on Instagram. The disclosures provide a kind of scandalproofing. After a while, all the exposed humanity gets a little boring.
By contrast, Carey, Spears, and Aguilera might all put on electrifying shows, but the smooth veneer of professionalism only breaks when it’s for a humiliating gaffe; their social-media feeds are blankly impersonal and self-promoting and—with a few earnest exceptions—presumably farmed out to contractors. That distance helps keep them so stubbornly interesting. Aguilera might be the dourest pop star ever, scowling and sniping at her co-judge Adam Levine with malice thinly veiled as good-natured ribbing. Spears is a stammering robot with a dwindling battery. Her X Factor boss Simon Cowell’s efforts to paint her as sharp-tongued and ballsy in the show’s trailer don’t align with her recent promotional appearances, her cuticles gnarled, her affect fidgety, on the perpetual cusp of a breakdown.
Carey is most compelling of all, since her eccentricity is the stuff of legend, and Idol should serve to deliver to a broader viewership the delirious ramblings that have established her appearances on the Home Shopping Network as must-see TV. Even to the tune of a collective $43 million, casting such huge, peculiar personalities is a savvy business decision. The promise of knowing these iconic performers any better through their weekly appearances is just a tease. It’s the chance to watch a hot mess that should really goose ratings.