The mean girls have taken over American Idol. It's true just not the way Fox wants us to believe. After Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj signed on, joining chest-tattooed country singer Keith Urban and Idol vet Randy Jackson at the judges' table, fans had been teased with hints of the Great Diva-Off, an expletive-fueled exchange from the North Carolina auditions that reportedly featured Minaj telling Carey, ''I'm gonna knock you out.'' Just in case you missed what roles they're playing here, Carey has literally resorted to quoting Mean Girls: ''I wanna lose three pounds!'' she sighed in the Jan. 16 episode. (Get this woman some Kälteen bars!) Unfortunately, when the queen-bee showdown aired on Jan. 23, it was mostly stripped of cursing and physical threats. What fun is that?
Maybe Fox tempered the blowup because Carey and Minaj are saving their nastiness for the contestants. Like evil prom queens, they snicker at any sign of awkwardness. (''Are y'all laughing at me?'' asks one pitch-deprived woman. ''Nooooo!'' insists Minaj, clearly losing it.) Minaj flirts with the hot guys, demanding to know if they have girlfriends, and addresses the nerds with backhanded nicknames: ''The Turbanator'' for the Indian guy, ''Mushroom'' for the guy with unfortunate hair. Carey even makes fun of one hopeful, waiting until the Berklee College of Music grad exits the stage before snapping, ''I ain't go to no school. I went to the school of f---ing life!'' It's enough to make you miss J. Lo and Steven Tyler, who'd been sliding down the charts for so long before judging Idol that they remembered how much rejection stings. Let this be a lesson, Team Idol: When you cast pop stars who are still popular, they will act like popular girls.
So it feels like a small coup that this season's best contestants are the misfits, especially after years of watching the CGWGs (#cuteguyswithguitars) dominate. It's hard not to root for chronic stutterer Lazaro Arbos or husky gospel singer Curtis Finch Jr., who could make it to the finals. Among the women, Candice Glover, who was rejected in Vegas last year, is a standout; Minaj admitted that she wasn't worthy of critiquing her. No matter who takes the title, these early rounds of Idol are win-win for everyone: Viewers get some good triumph-of-the-underdog stories; Carey and Minaj get to feel like they're back in high school; and the contestants get to dream of being showered with confetti in the finale and later achieving their best shot at a long-term career in this troubled music industry ending up right back on American Idol, as a judge. B-