Be a star, then you can judge.
Years from now, Christina Aguilera will be remembered for her glamour, her scandalous take on femme-pop and her Brobdingnagian voice. But she should also be remembered as the person who almost single-handedly reshaped music-competition reality programming. Her legacy as a judge on “The Voice,” on NBC, may well turn out to be deeper and more profound than the one she’s forged in her music career.
Securing Ms. Aguilera in 2011 was a coup for a show that needed to differentiate itself from Fox’s “American Idol,” which had just signed Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez as judges. But for all their fame, Mr. Tyler and Ms. Lopez were past their fertile period as hitmakers. Ms. Aguilera, though not quite in her prime, had been in the Billboard Top 10 as recently as 2008. Of the four mentor-judges of “The Voice,” she was the one most obviously slumming it on this television gig, even though she was coming off a bumpy professional period: a flop album, “Bionic”; an awkward and sloppy rendition of the national anthem at the 2011 Super Bowl; and an arrest on a charge of public intoxication.
But Ms. Aguilera was an undeniable contemporary pop star, and her presence elevated those around her: Blake Shelton, a country star largely unknown outside that world; Adam Levine, the frontman of a popular but ineffectual band, Maroon 5; and Cee Lo Green, accidentally, and briefly, a pop star as part of Gnarls Barkley.
Broadly speaking, it’s because of Ms. Aguilera that on Sunday, after weeks of speculation, it was announced that Nicki Minaj and Keith Urban, contemporary hitmakers both, would become part of the “Idol” judge panel. (They effectively replace Mr. Tyler and Ms. Lopez.) They join Mariah Carey, who signed on in July and is now the panel’s unlikely éminence grise, and Randy Jackson, the lone holdover from “Idol” 1.0.
Ms. Aguilera’s shadow also extends over “The X Factor,” the Fox competition that last week gave its new judge-mentor panel its debut: the two older male executives, L. A. Reid and Simon Cowell, remain from Season 1, but the two women, Paula Abdul and Nicole Scherzinger, have been replaced by more current names: the former Disney star Demi Lovato and the former Aguilera nemesis Britney Spears. Ms. Spears had a No. 1 album last year, and Ms. Lovato has had two Top 20 singles in the last 14 months.
It is no longer a choice between music star and television star. In fact, to be modern, it’s best to be a little of both. Ms. Aguilera, Ms. Spears, Ms. Minaj and Ms. Lovato are all more or less current pop stars. On a smaller scale, the same goes for Mr. Urban, Mr. Shelton, Mr. Green and Mr. Levine. Ms. Carey, while older and more experienced, is certainly still an active pop threat.
As a group, they’re using these shows not as a platform for stalled-career kick-starting, but as part of a portfolio of activities that reflect current music business realities. Network television — even on its worst day — is an extremely dangerous and powerful delivery platform, and one that must look even more attractive as the music industry struggles to sustain its thinning revenue streams.
Originally, these shows were viewed with skepticism, which is perhaps why no current stars initially signed on as judges. The goal of the competitions was to build a star — the judges were central to that narrative, but weren’t meant to create waves of their own. Then Simon Cowell emerged as the great television villain of the Bush years, and the dynamic tilted.
“The Voice” was essentially a heavy bet on the Cowell model, which stipulated that the starmaking was nice, sure, but it could be complemented by judges with their own narratives of celebrity. “Idol,” the only one of these shows in which the judges and contestants have no mentoring relationship, also remains the only one with even a hint of noncelebrity on the panel.
And why wouldn’t current stars flock to these series? They are ratings kingpins, even if they get only half the audience of “American Idol” in its prime. The music industry is good at anointing stars but doesn’t always have the scale to sustain them, especially lately.
And to appear regularly in prime time is an almost certain career boon. For Ms. Spears and Ms. Lovato (and Ms. Aguilera before them), the job has also been cleansing, replacing occasionally unsteady public images with those of responsibility and authority.
And, at some point, they may have new music to promote. Ms. Lopez’s single “On the Floor” reached No. 3 on the pop chart with heavy promotion on “Idol,” and Mr. Tyler’s group, Aerosmith, is on the verge of releasing its first album in eight years. Mr. Levine’s group Maroon 5 has had a string of “Voice”-assisted hits, including “Moves Like Jagger” and “Payphone.”
Last week Ms. Aguilera announced a new album, “Lotus” (RCA), to be released in November. In an interview that appeared on Billboard’s Web site (and was then removed), she indicated that she might be preparing to leave her chair on “The Voice,” at least for a spell.
Beginning to face questions about whether committing to “The Voice” means turning your back on your music career, one of the executive producers, Mark Burnett, insisted to Billboard, “There will never be anyone getting replaced, ever.” Mentors may take seasons off, though, to recharge their batteries, release new music and renew their relevance.