Simon who? It's all about Steven Tyler now.

No one expected an old weird-looking rock star to save American Idol

Simon who? It's all about Steven Tyler now.

Michael Becker/FOX; Getty Images; Photo Illustration by Taylor Shute

Where do aging rock stars go to redeem themselves? Not on tour—to American Idol. Steven Tyler, the 63-year-old Aerosmith rocker, is in his first season as an American Idol judge, and getting the kind of praise he hasn’t received since his records were selling. The New York Times called him an “unalloyed genius,” while Pop Eater‘s Rob Shuter wrote, “Steven has saved the show,” crediting him for the fact that Idol‘s ratings haven’t collapsed without Simon Cowell. Tyler also provided the signature moment of the first batch of new episodes, when he hugged, kissed and complimented a contestant’s wheelchair-bound fiancée. Richard Rushfield, author of the new book American Idol: The Untold Story, says that Tyler is everything the producers could have hoped for: they’ve “erased the question” of what they will do without Cowell, because Tyler is such a “singular figure” no one can focus on anything but him.

Most of the news about the post-Cowell Idol centred around the other new judge, Jennifer Lopez; despite his long career, Tyler was almost an afterthought. But Lopez has been fairly placid: “She seems sort of engaged and constructive,” Rushfield says, “but hasn’t really broken out yet and made a big impression.” It’s Tyler who’s been getting the attention, first with his weird hair, stretched skin, and scratchy voice, and then with the equally bizarre things he says. Unlike failed judges like Ellen DeGeneres and Kara DioGuardi, he occasionally says something interesting; his use of phrases like “slap that baby on the ass and call me Christmas!” gives him a style of dialogue almost as quirky as the girl in True Grit. Linda Stasi of the New York Post called him the “saviour” of the show because, like ex-judge Paula Abdul, “he’s always one second away from crashing, going nuts, saying something completely inappropriate and falling off the wagon.”

Tyler may also be helped by what seemed a drawback: his age. He’s the oldest regular judge, the exact opposite of Idol‘s attempt to court youth with the thirtysomething DioGuardi. But instead of driving away younger viewers, Tyler is the 18-49 demographic’s favourite cranky old man. His weary, weather-beaten look is reminiscent of the old showbiz troupers who were panellists on game shows like Hollywood Squares, and when he seems to flirt with contestants (“You have just the right amount of leg showing,” he told a teenage girl), he brings back memories of Richard Dawson kissing young women on Family Feud. Rushfield also sees a comparison to the old rock ‘n’ roller who helped create the reality TV craze in the first place: “This is a rock legend,” he explains, “and seeing him in this informal environment is the same thrill you got from The Osbournes and seeing Ozzy knocking around the house.”

Like game-show panellists and reality stars, Tyler’s experience has given him a talent for insults that he can use when he needs to. The Idol producers promised that with Cowell gone, the show would not ask any of its judges to play the “villain.” Sure enough, there hasn’t been anyone as brutally honest as Cowell usually was. But Tyler has taken up some of the slack, occasionally surprising the audience by showing that there are some bad performances he won’t tolerate. On one episode he castigated a bad singer for being “so far off the melody it was like you were on another planet,” causing the other two judges to profess shock. People eventually stopped being outraged when Cowell told someone he couldn’t sing; by being likeable most of the time, Tyler has made it possible for an Idol insult to get into the news again.

That leaves Lopez in a bit of an awkward spot; instead of filling Cowell’s role or Abdul’s, she’s sitting beside Tyler while he’s both the wit and the weirdo.That might be why there have already been reports that Lopez is resentful of Tyler’s success; a source told Shuter that Tyler ruined Lopez’s “big comeback” and that “she’s mystified at how this happened.” Just as Ellen DeGeneres was too nice to compete with Simon, even Lopez might be too normal to compete with a guy who says things like “you squeezed it so slow it sounded like Vanilla Fudge singing Eleanor Rigby.”

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