Paula Abdul Got Shafted

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 5 2009 7:30 PM

Paula Abdul Got Shafted

When Paula Abdul typed the tweet heard around the world, we asked Slate 's resident Idol -ologist, Kathy Meizel, to send us her thoughts: 

My jaw, and my stomach, dropped when I read about Paula Abdul's departure from American Idol . I'm much more upset over it than I would have imagined. (I've just had to go back and change all the verbs here to past tense, because the first time I couldn't bear to think it was really over.)

I've been a judge for several college talent competitions. All of them were styled after Idol , and every time I was asked to "be Paula." I don't know if it's because I'm a nurturer, or because I sing about as well as she does, or because my students think I'm nuttier than a chipmunk's outhouse, but having inhabited her persona even briefly, I'd like to think I understand something about her decision to leave American Idol : It is hard work to do what she did, and maybe she does deserve an obscene amount of money instead of just an outlandish amount. 

Whether swiveling in her chair to chastise Simon, vaulting to her feet and applauding in that peculiar grown-up-cheerleader way she had, or dancing like there's no tomorrow to promote her own single, Paula was the only really kinetic presence at the judges' table. And she was emotionally present, when all her colleagues had to offer was eye-rolling and casual " cooliosis ." She quivered and stammered with love for the finalists (it was almost definitely love and not the painkillers) and cried more than eight seasons' worth of rejected contestants. Don't go impugning her intelligence, either—a video clip in the Season 8 finale pointed out her extensive vocabulary, her "musicality" and  "balladeer" far more varied than Randy's "dawg's" and Simon's "ghastlys."

But most importantly, Paula was America's conscience. When the boys were snickering behind their notepads and snidely questioning the gender identities of contestants in Dallas, they acted out our most juvenile instincts, but Paula's kindness reminded us that we are supposed to react to cruelty with outrage. (Also, it's Paula's compassion that makes me feel bad for that comment about painkillers. And I am a better person for the shame.) It's an effort to be the conscience, and a thankless job. Paula was also forever our girl in the midst of a good old boys' club. If she's leaving the show because producers would not pay her a salary comparable to her male co-stars', then good on her for gently saying "I'm sorry, it's a no" to the glass ceiling of talent show judging.

I want to be bitter that she's left us and resentful that she did it with a tweet. Don't fans of the show that she "helped from day1 become an international phenomenon" deserve a breakup in more than 137 characters? An extra emoticon, even? But in the end, when it comes time for Kreischer Hall Idol this spring, I'll still want to be Paula. And when next season is lost to Kara DioGuardi's coolly professional "sweeties" and melisma fights in bikinis, I'll be thinking of her. I believe with every fiber of my being, Paula ... you're a star, and this is not the end of the road for you. Just remember that the moth who finds the cornflake always finds the melon .

Michael Agger is an editor at The New Yorker. Follow him on Twitter.

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