So far on ABC’s revived American Idol, Katy Perry has held a golden ticket to Hollywood between her toes and asked a male contestant to grab it. Then, she kissed another male contestant on the lips, sparking a brief scandal: the singer had been saving his first kiss, he later said, for someone “special.” She has used the gay-Twitter slang “wig” on national TV, referred to herself as “a 32-year-old cougar” while admiring a teen contestant, slyly hinted at her ongoing war with Taylor Swift and fallen to the floor while dancing. The show’s been on the air for two weeks.
Katy Perry, who sits at the center of the show’s three judges, takes up just about all of American Idol‘s psychic energy. It’s no small feat—her fellow panelists are Luke Bryan, one of country’s reigning superstars, and Lionel Richie, a legend with five Grammys on the shelf. But on American Idol, they sing back-up to Katy Perry. She seems to be earning her reported $25 million salary in at least one sense: Her brassy humor inflects every moment. She’s the one who plays along with aspiring singers even before they ask, performing a hoedown when one contestant yodels a country song, or turning another contestant’s muttered “Wig” (a slang term indicating one is blown away by one’s surroundings) into a goofily exuberant nod at the fancifulness of web culture. “It’s not your language,” she told Bryan and Richie. “It’s just for us.”
In American Idol‘s early going, it’s seemed as though someone isn’t fluent in reality TV: Perhaps it’s Katy Perry, who is less the designated wacky judge than a relentless blast of gleeful artifice. Or maybe it’s her two fellow judges, who have ceded the spotlight to her entirely. A show that began 16 years ago refracting every singer through the lens of Simon Cowell’s dry British wit and drill-sergeant pursuit of excellence is now spinning them through Perry’s anything-for-a-joke sensibility and sincere commitment to insincerity. (When I interviewed her before American Idol relaunched, Katy Perry told me her judging sensibility was “a really nice balance [between] reality and fantasyland.”) Bryan and Richie provide gentle guidance, but it’s through Perry’s eyes we see the auditioning singers. The women tend to come in for bountiful, nurturing support with just a dash of salt, as when Perry encouraged an aspirant to challenge herself: “Sing ‘Firework,’ because I can barely sing ‘Firework.'” (Perry sang it at the Super Bowl in 2015.) And the men get objectified in a tame, schoolyard way, with Perry playing a Mae West-ish caricature.
Her placement on American Idol, and the ease with which she’s taken it over, is at once completely logical and a bit surprising. Of the three judges, Perry has the most recent and mainstream successes; any potential Idol viewer, of any age, has likely heard several of her songs. And yet among her near-peers at the top of pop—Beyoncé, Swift, Rihanna, Drake, Ed Sheeran—Perry has by far the least in the way of persona. Taylor Swift could never be an Idol judge both because her career is built in part on an ultimate unknowability—her meeting her public for weeks on end couldn’t work—and because her fans have enough information to imagine how she’d respond to anything. Perry is far more down-to-earth; last summer, she invited fans to watch her in a strangely compelling 96-hour livestream in which she underwent therapy, yoga lessons and the intrusion of cameras. And yet some fundamental self-protection clicked in even then, keeping her from explaining what, precisely, she was going through. Years into a major pop career, all we really know about Perry is that she voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and that she likes to have a laugh.
Which means both that she can reboot anytime she likes. In her music career, she pivoted from generalized uplift like “Firework” to generalized political engagement with her last album, 2017’s Witness; the public seemed less interested in her coming into consciousness than they’d been in her looser, loucher pop. In 2018, as a means of preserving her world-conquering status, she’s swerving deeper into a comic persona that can’t help but dominate its surroundings: Her fellow judges, with less at stake, aren’t really there to play, and contestants have everything to gain by just playing along.
They might do well to pay attention to her, too. Perry’s routine is without recent precedent in reality-judging history, a medium that tends toward either flavorless earnestness or complete self-absorption: She takes American Idol lightly enough to make it largely about herself, but seriously enough to go to the effort to come up with a topspin on every comment. Any competitor who wants to learn something about stardom in 2018—about how to move forward from disappointment and how to triumph in an entertainment economy where meme-ability is the coin of the realm—could do well to look at Perry. She’s teaching a lesson in precisely what it takes to keep the focus on you, and more than any contestant we’ve so far seen, she is playing to win.