On Monday (July 23), Mariah Carey was officially announced as a judge on the 12th season of "American Idol," joining her husband, "America's Got Talent" host Nick Cannon, on the small screen, albeit on a rival network. "As a singer, songwriter and producer, it's going to be fun and rewarding to help find new talent and give back with 'American Idol,'" Carey said in a press statement, before incidentally remembering that her new single, "Triumphant," comes out early next month.
Three days before Carey was part of the Fox team, Jennifer Lopez, whom Carey effectively replaced on "Idol," performed her first U.S. date on a co-headlining tour with Enrique Iglesias at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. It was highly orchestrated and impressively theatrical: there was a boxing ring set up specifically for her chest-thumping new single "Goin' In," a medley of her (relatively) gritty singles like "Ain't It Funny" and "I'm Real (Remix)," an encore in which she declared "I still believe in love…" on a giant video screen, and an appropriately timed confetti explosion. Unlike Iglesias, whose set included an impromptu conversation with a fan that lasted 20 (!) minutes and large patches of songs where the Latin star simply clapped along without singing, Lopez made sure no aspect of her performance smacked of laziness.
Four songs into her set, Lopez took a break to hurriedly catch her breath and deliver her own manicured statement about the TV juggernaut to the crowd.
"It was an amazing experience for me," Lopez said of "Idol," "and I'm going to miss it very, very much. But at the end of the day, this is what I do. This is where I belong -- right here, with all of you."
Lopez was referring to her live performances, but she also could have been speaking about her relevancy in mainstream culture. Where did J. Lo belong in the pop landscape before joining "American Idol" in the summer of 2010? No one was quite sure. It had been three years since the release of an album, "Brave," that didn't have a hit (its first single, "Do It Well," peaked at No. 31 on the Hot 100) and has only sold 168,000 copies in total, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Her last Top 10 single had come four years earlier, with 2006's "Control Myself," and as the new generation of female pop artists like Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Rihanna continued sprinkling hits into the mainstream consciousness like they were pieces of glitter at their sold-out arena shows, Lopez's ability to capture a wide audience with new material had waned. Do you remember "Louboutins"? Neither do we.
And then "American Idol" happened, and Jennifer Lopez concocted the most impressive reality-TV-based rejuvenation of a music career ever, scoring a massive hit and making people care about her new album and tour. "On The Floor" became one of her biggest hits to date, peaking at No. 3 on the Hot 100 last year, and while her "Love?" album didn't achieve Gaga-level sales -- it's sold 334,000 copies to date, according to Nielsen SoundScan -- the disc is her most wholly consistent full-length since 2001's "J. Lo," and most importantly, casual pop fans cared about it. In the past week alone, Lopez released a greatest-hits album, "Dance Again… The Hits," that added two more of those hits to her catalogue, and issued an altogether absurd music video for "Goin' In," a song that has the potential to sneak up Latin, Dance and Top 40 charts, with a video that's collected 110,000 YouTube views in two days.
Other artists, like Maroon 5's Adam Levine, have used weekly stints to sustain already successful full-time gigs, and we'll soon see if Christina Aguilera can use her "Voice" juice to resuscitate a career that was losing steam before a "Moves Like Jagger" verse offered a trip back to the top. But as of now, Lopez has done the best job at turning a reality showcase into a defibrillator for a recording career.
So how did J. Lo do it? After all, a seat at the "Idol" judges table doesn't guarantee a revitalized solo career (we see you, Paula Abdul). Even Lopez's partner in crime, Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler, hasn't passed the same grade as his co-star -- his solo single, "(It) Feels So Good," flamed out after receiving a proper Fox debut last year, and Aerosmith's new single, "Legendary Child," isn't faring much better, selling only 18,000 downloads so far, according to SoundScan. But Lopez rejiggered her career using five key mantras, mission statements that incorporated "Idol" and helped her get back on course:
1. Stay likable -- Whereas Tyler was the slightly creepy patriarch and Randy Jackson the platitude-spouting cheerleader on the judges table, J. Lo controlled her onscreen persona like a brilliant marionette. She remained encouraging and eased off on criticism, while shedding tears whenever she damn well pleased. Would a bitchier judge have made for better television? Of course! But it would have damaged the brand of Jennifer Lopez, who is now strolling out of the Fox gates with an almost motherly vibe.
2. Perform on "Idol" as often as possible
Lopez's blend of choreography and upbeat tunes makes her a compelling performer for the "Idol" crowd, unlike Tyler, whose rock tracks doubtlessly came off as antiquated to the cool kids. Getting to perform (as well as release teaser clips and music videos) on a top-rated show alongside artists like Pitbull and Lil Wayne is certainly a good way of nudging people about your fresh tracks. Speaking of which...
3. Select white-hot collaborators -- Nothing cures a drought of popular singles like calling up Mr. 305 himself, Pitbull, as well as RedOne, the producer behind Gaga's "Just Dance" and "Poker Face," to help engineer the lead single to your comeback album. "On The Floor" performed incredibly well compared to Lopez's preceding singles, moving 3.6 million downloads (the aforementioned "Do It Well," by comparison, has sold 532,000 downloads). And that was just the start, with the next single, "I'm Into You," co-starring Lil Wayne, and her two "Dance Again… The Hits" singles, "Dance Again" and "Goin' In," tapping Pitbull again and Flo Rida, respectively. With collaborators like those, even Brian Dunkleman would crack the Top 20.
4. Drive a Fiat
J. Lo's sponsorship with the car company led to a slew of national TV ads as well as a Fiat cameo in her "Papi" music video. Hell, she even drove a Fiat onstage during her American Music Awards performance last November. And you know what? The deal worked for both parties: Fiat gained some flashy product placement while Lopez became even more ubiquitous on the small screen. Plus, Lopez made bank, combined with the millions she made from "Idol" and movie roles like "What To Expect When You're Expecting" -- there's a reason that she's No. 1 on Forbes' latest Celebrity 100 list.
5. Bow out at the right time -- Look at that quote from Lopez's concert last week: "I'm going to miss it very, very much. But at the end of the day, this is what I do. This is where I belong -- right here, with all of you." By timing her "Idol" exit to the kick-off of a continental tour as well as a greatest-hits album, Lopez declared that she was leaving on her own terms, and with the fans in mind. Now, the contract negotiations for her return are a distant memory, and J. Lo can bask in leaving the reality TV world completely unscathed.
And so it goes: as one pop diva exits "American Idol" and another takes her place with bubbly enthusiasm and a new single to casually mention. But before we hear Mariah Carey's new single and analyze her interplay with Ryan Seacrest, let's take a moment to appreciate Jennifer Lopez's phoenix-like rise from the ashes of dwindling returns and toast her continued success as she looks to Dance Again.