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Simon Says

How the erstwhile producer of a Spice Girls knockoff revived American criticism.

Kevin Winter/ImageDirect/Getty Images

Highbrows widely regard the singing competition American Idol—and the contest’s mascot, its tart English judge, Simon Cowell—as an omen of impending cultural apocalypse. To list the specifics of this grim forecast: Performing more-or-less karaoke, complete with shooting flames and ocean waves projected on a massive video screen behind them, contestants pay homage to the most irksome trifles in the history of pop. (Tonight, we fête the genius of Gloria Estefan; next week, Barry Manilow!) Despite the unspeakable lameness of these acts, their perpetrators have occasionally received vote totals comparable to presidential candidates. And, if you momentarily allow the escapist pleasures of this spectacle to sweep you away, your enjoyment will inevitably be interrupted by the ubiquitous product placements, reminding you of Idol’s crassness. (Damn, Coca-Cola red room!) Above all, there’s the smug, cynical Cowell in his too-tight Armani t-shirts. His unceasing stream of aperçus—“If you were the only person who entered this competition, you still wouldn’t win”—are presented as evidence of a sadistic penchant for humiliating unworldly teens and the carny masses of Idol wannabes. 

Leveling this critique at Idol, however, requires a certain myopia. It mistakes the trappings of the show—the endless renditions of Phil Collins, the shrieking, sign-waving girls in the audience—for Idol’s true contribution to culture. That contribution comes in the form of Cowell, who, along with his fellow judges of lesser intellect, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson, issues critiques of each singer’s performance. Every week, he finds new pejorative descriptions for the lame music he encounters. “I think you’re possibly the worst singer in the world,” he has quipped. Or, “You take singing lessons? Do you have a lawyer? Get a lawyer and sue your singing teacher.” But, far from precipitating cultural decline, these vicious performances have restored authority to the one figure that can salvage us from doom: the critic.

Critics don’t just exist as arbiters of taste and explicators of art. They exist to bemoan their own inability to influence the world. In an essay on book reviewing, George Orwell once portrayed the critic as “a man in a moth-eaten dressing gown ... [a] down-trodden, nerve-racked creature.” This self-pitying streak often makes critics sound like militant Muslim enthusiasts for the lost caliphate of Al Andalus—always pining, with somewhat selective memory, for the moment when they exerted genuine authority over Western civilization. Countless books (The Last Intellectuals, What Happened to Art Criticism?, every homage to Edmund Wilson ever written) wax nostalgic for the time when the public paid attention to the likes of Trilling, Leavis, and Greenberg—a renaissance that ended with the cultural reformation of the 1960s. By contrast, we now live in what The Believer’s Heidi Julavits has called the “Teflon age of criticism,” where reviews don’t stick to either artists or consumers of art. 

American Idol, however, puts the lie to this nostalgic story line. Whatever influence Edmund Wilson may have achieved in his prime, it hardly compares with the power of Cowell. It is true that Cowell wasn’t nurtured by the alcoves of City College or hardened by the rough-and-tumble of Partisan Review. He comes to criticism by way of the far less intellectually rigorous record industry, where he made a career of producing acts like the Spice Girls knockoff Girl Thing and songs like “So Macho,” as well as churning out Power Rangers albums. This populist sensibility accounts for his preternatural gift for identifying the ineffable qualities of pop stardom. Call him the Robert Parker of Top 40. Unlike schooled critics, who can distinguish a major from a minor chord, Cowell understands how looks, persona, and “showmanship” can compensate for a competent but otherwise bland performance. And his career producing schlock has given him a superb eye for identifying it. 

On the program, Idol judges render assessments but don’t actually vote for contestants. Their power rests entirely in their ability to sway the public—in other words, with the power of their criticism. Although Cowell’s harsh pronouncements frequently make him the subject of jeers during the live broadcasts, his opinions routinely lead millions to pick up their phones and vote for his favored candidates. For the past three seasons, he has championed the contest’s eventual winner at an early stage in the competition, celebrating singers without obvious prospects of triumphing. Last year, he (alone among the judges) declared country singer Carrie Underwood the inevitable winner of the competition two months before the season finale, thus sealing her fate. (Remind me again: How many readers did Wilson win for the French symbolists?) 

Cowell doesn’t just influence the outcome of the competition; he affects its substance. In response to Cowell’s advice, raw-sounding rockers have experimented with unfamiliar genres to expose their “sensitive side”; torch singers have dropped their crutch reliance on ballads. Of course, Cowell isn’t shy about claiming credit for these small victories. (“Well, I have to take a certain amount of credit for that performance,” he boasted several weeks ago.) When spreading the good news about his favored singers, Cowell avoids the fate of many contemporary critics, especially movie reviewers. After watching so much dreck, movie reviewers get so excited when they encounter a solidly constructed film that they lose control of their faculties, slathering Million Dollar Baby and Crash with superlatives formerly reserved for Fellini and Scorsese. Cowell, on the other hand, will frequently begin his most effusive comments with a deprecating remark about the contestant’s hair style or past performances. And, even in his most enthusiastic moments, he’ll rarely say more than “very good” or “it worked.” But, in his restraint, he has achieved the ultimate critical fantasy—to actually shape the objects of criticism, to play the role of co-creator.

When Cowell issues his judgments, he likes to begin by denying the obvious. “I don’t mean to be rude,” he apologizes. Then he will go on to say something like, “You have about as much Latin flair as a polar bear. It was horrendous.” And, to be fair, he isn’t truly rude. His comments more precisely fall within a subgenre of criticism known as “snark,” to borrow a phrase from Julavits’s widely discussed essay on the state of criticism. Snark, by her definition, is when “reviews are just an opportunity for a critic to strive for humor, and to appear funny and smart and a little bit bitchy, without attempting to espouse any higher ideals.” For Julavits, snark, which she denounces as both self-serving and nihilistic, has played an essential role in creating modern-day critics’ impotence. 

This definition of snark superficially captures Cowell. But it also gets Cowell profoundly wrong. His meanness is the source of his authority. When he keelhauls contestants, his favored terms of abuse are “karaoke,” “cabaret,” “cruise ship,” and “wedding singer.” These cut-downs capture the essence of Idol. Contestants are singing well-known pop songs. Successful singers are those who transcend the artificiality of the format and become more than “some ghastly Xerox machine.” And, while Cowell may be harsh, he is rarely strident. He has retracted criticisms that don’t hold up on his second watching of the show. “We were wrong,” he told contestant Katharine McPhee a few weeks ago after deciding that her rendition of Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing” had something after all. Because he never fails to point out crap—and because he has the honesty to admit failure—viewers actually trust his opinions. 

Cowell, if we’re honest, also owes his authority to his company at the judges’ table. His judgments usually follow comments by former Los Angeles Lakers cheerleader Paula Abdul and former Journey bassist Randy Jackson. Both embody the characteristics praised by Julavits. They refrain from gratuitous bitchiness and self-consciously follow every critique with constructive criticism. “It was just alright for me, dude,” is Jackson’s euphemism for wretched. If Abdul can’t find anything praiseworthy in a performance, she will applaud a contestant for choosing good shoes. “We love you!” she will add. The tandem has styled itself the anti-Cowell. They seem to take great pleasure in waxing indignant about Cowell’s pistol-whippings, with Abdul and Jackson frequently leading choruses of boos directed at the Brit. This avoidance of snark may make Abdul and Jackson better human beings, but it makes them irrelevant, mealy-mouthed critics. Unlike Cowell, they have never exerted clear influence on the course of the competition, never anointed a winner or sunk a loser. And, in the end, their niceness doesn’t expose their moral superiority—just their lack of conviction and confidence in their own taste. 

Unfortunately, Cowell has used his Idol success as a springboard for expanding his empire of schlock. He generated a string of not very edifying reality TV shows, such as Cupid (wherein Americans voted on potential husbands for a single woman) and American Inventor (which brought us such life-changing products as the Flushpure toilet seat lid), as well as the requisite celebrity-at-the-height-of-fame memoir, I Don’t Mean to Be Rude, But... His latest confection, a boy band composed of opera singers, Il Divo, has, shockingly, ascended to the top of the charts. And premiering in June is Cowell’s ultimate Waiting for Guffman-like TV production: the hopefully ironically named America’s Got Talent, which will expand the Idol format to include dancers, comedians, and even animal acts. What makes this so tragic isn’t that his projects will inject so much more garbage into the culture; it’s that Cowell might be ignoring his true calling. Last I checked, the Partisan Review franchise is still available.