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'American Idol' Returns: Why You'll Be Watching Season 12

By Kelsea Stahler, Hollywood.com Staff

It's time to face facts: American Idol is never going to be the way it was when Paula, Randy, and Simon first hit the scene to discover Kelly Clarkson. Those days are gone, and every time the series tries to cling to them, it feels like a stiff reenactment of the actual events a la some History Channel documentary. That's why, as crazy as the new judging panel is, it actually works for the new Idol.

We caught a preview of tonight's Season 12 premiere, with footage from New York's auditions. It's clear that no matter how badly die-hards cry out for the return of the "old Idol" that that ship has sailed, and what's more, if we could get it to come back to port, we'd probably realize it's not what we want anymore.

The newer, spicier Idol returns Wednesday night at 8 PM ET with a (mostly) new panel of judges, a new lease on life, and enough of the old ways to prove that this... is (still) American Idol.

Meet the New Judges, Ryan Seacrest Style: We asked the Idol host to sum up each of the judges in a single word and while here's what he had to say:""Pizzazz"" (Nicki)

""Soothing"" (Mariah)

""Whiskery"" (Keith)

""Huggable"" (Randy)Sounds about right, doesn't it?

Judge Most Likely to Make Us Worry So Much Our Hair Starts to Fall Out: Nicki Minaj, obviously. The singer/rapper has been furrowing our brows since the first video of her bombastic spats with Mariah Carey were leaked on the web and on Monday night, she assured Jay Leno the fights were "definitely not fake." She also promised to be better in 2013, but from what we've seen, that may be a tall order.

Nicki, on Being the ""Kooky"" One: ""Never a dull moment with my judging style, that's for sure. I try to never plan what I'm going to say or how I'm going to feel. I just try to stay in the moment and allow some craziness to come into this room. It's the entertainment business. We're artists. So if we don't have some craziness and kookiness then it wouldn't really be real. We can't just sit there and be all stiff and say the same things. I try to get the contestants out of their comfort zones of hearing the same things over and over,"" she says.

According to Mariah, She's the Sugar (Does That Make Nicki The Spice?): ""I like to think of myself more like a fairy godmother,"" she says (because, of course she does). ""I don't know that I have a judging style. I really think it's more I try to speak as frankly as possible but as kindly as possible — not sugar-coating the whole thing, because that does nobody any good and I think it would be boring to watch. I feel like my experience as a recording artist and a producer and a writer has helped me get to the point where I can sit there and I can say, 'I'm not sure if you hit this part correctly because maybe the modulation took you by surprise or you weren't quite prepared to blend that harmony with this verse.' These are things that I've done for more than half my life,"" she adds.

Keith Urban: Best Human Guard Rail or Ace in the Hole: Keith Urban, as we saw in the leaked video (and as we'll see as the season continues), is often placed as the innocent, sweet Aussie between the panel's biggest personalities, forcing him to act as the physical barrier between warring divas. So far, it seems like the most exciting thing that will happen to Urban this season might just be the protrusion of a bump on his forehead from banging his poor little noggin on the table. But unlike his cohorts, he knows a thing or two about judging a reality show (he was on The Voice: Australia) and auditioning for a reality show. ""When I was 9 or 10 I did one of these shows in Australia and I was really, really crucified by one of the judges and it was devastating. So I sort of try to not absolutely destroy somebody in front of millions of people. But at the same time, if somebody's really not on — and everybody at home knows it, that's the difficult part. It's tricky when someone's just completely murdered a song and everyone at home knows it,"" he says. Now that's a skill (and not a proclivity for speaking louder than everyone else in the room) that could really prove useful.

What's All This About "Big Changes" This Year?: Besides the obvious addition of the serious sass factor, this is the new Idol and with that comes a host of changes. The one we'll be facing head-on as audition episodes roll out is the "surprise audition." The judges will find someone who couldn't make it to the audition for whatever reason, and "Surprise!" they'll invite them to Hollywood, according to the Huffington Post. (And they'd better give those folks golden tickets. Otherwise, it'd be pretty cruel to interrupt them at work or school, or whatever public space they might occupy.)

What's Never Going to Change: We'll always find so-so singers with incredible sob stories, testing our ability to value the human experience over the face-value of their talent. We will always get a triple dose of Ryan Seacrest's overt enthusiasm. One (or more) contestant's mother will always take the opportunity to confess her undying love to the host with the most. And auditions will always feel like the boot camp we endure to get to the shining glory of Hollywood week.

Why Idol Is Still the Best Ever (Hello, Are You Listening?): Because these audition episodes are going to make sure you remember that by reminding you of the 11-season legacy every chance they get.

How Prominent Is All This Fighting?: As Minaj said, it's certainly not fake fighting. but from what we've seen, it's not the main event. Idol is not going to pretend the uncomfortable bits didn't happen, but when it comes down to it, this show is about the contestants. They're the glue, the judges are the glitter.

Randy, The Wrangler or ""the Old G"" on his ""favorite panel"": Randy's holding down the fort as the resident voice of reason. After Simon and Paula left, Randy's been the one to keep the rowdy judges' panel in check. With Mariah and Nicki, he's needed now more than ever. And apparently, that's how he likes it. ""That's the whole thing. You've got four distinctly different individuals that are all passionate about music and talent and singing, so we often disagree. But it's kind of funny. We laugh at it. Of course we'd all disagree! Why would we all agree?"" says Jackson.

Alright, Alright. But What About the Talent?: It's still about the singers, and we will meet more than a few special someones as the season moves along, so have no fear. And as usual, the series is still fairly good at giving us clues through clever editing as to who's going to be most important and/or explosive down the line. But has anyone been a standout so far? Perhaps. ""It's going to be a guy or a girl this season,"" jokes Seacrest.

Idol premieres Wednesday night at 8 PM ET on Fox.

Follow Kelsea on Twitter @KelseaStahler

Additional Reporting by Jean Bentley

[Photo Credit: Fox]

More:

How to Ace 'American Idol' Auditions: Lessons From the Top 12 Alums

Nicki Minaj on Her Feud With Mariah Carey: 'We're Both Crazy' - VIDEO

Randy Jackson, 'American Idol' Is Nothing Like Picasso

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