There are many reasons to love American Idol, only one of which is that it annoys stodgy media naysayers who think that all television should be fine and uplifting, like PBS. But let’s get that out of the way first. I remember Brian Lowry, then of the Los Angeles Times, wrote that the show was “barely watchable to anyone over 18″ when it premiered in the summer of 2002. I suppose Lowry had a point, if by “barely watchable” he meant “avidly watched by millions of people.”
Nothing ticks the media elite off like seeing the masses insist on enjoying lowbrow entertainment, despite repeated instructions to do something else instead.
But the basic reason I love American Idol, which returned for its third season Jan. 19 on Fox, is that it has become such a bracing slap in the face to the prevailing notion that everyone is talented in his own way and deserves encouragement. That the free market, in other words, should conduct itself like a support group.
“I saw a kid the other day and he says, ‘Well, you know, to me I’m the best singer out there,’” Idol judge Randy Jackson said at the Fox pre-season news conference. “I said, ‘It doesn’t matter what you think.’”
And Jackson, along of course with Paula Abdul, are the nice judges. Star judge Simon Cowell, the mean British one, put it more bluntly. “When you hold a public audition, 95 percent of the people who turn up are useless,” he said. “Of course every one of the 80,000 [who try out] think they’re fantastic.”
Not all governessy Brits are able to slap America around like this for long. Remember Anne Robinson of The Weakest Link? By the end of the first episode, her much-hyped intimidating persona was overshadowed by the truly frightening spectacle of contestants who all insisted after being voted out that they were actually far better than the remaining players and should have been allowed to stay in.
This appalling crowd of sore losers deserved Robinson’s put-downs as much as deluded Idol contestants do Cowell’s, and for a while Anne Robinson was just as hot. (Like Fox’s Idol, NBC’s Weakest Link originated in the U.K.) But she was just too nastily anti-egalitarian, too essentially un-American, to last over here. I enjoy a good Lord of the Flies wallow as much as the next gal, but The Weakest Link went from zero to Piggy’s-head-on-a-stick so fast I got dizzy from the accelerated bile.
Once the novelty wears off, some media meanies just play better across the pond. Americans generally prefer insult mavens with a salt-of-the-earth, jest-tellin’-it-like-it-is manner rather than insufferable superiority. That’s why Joan Rivers, known as “queen of the pre-show” at E! during awards season, has such staying power. Somehow her bitchiness goes down easy, perhaps because of the way she sugarcoats it with that goofy I’m-a-survivor schtick.
“I’ve known so many of you for years and watched you knock me in print,” she once remarked cozily to assembled reporters at an E! news conference. “So what are you going to do? I’m dead anyhow, give or take another six years. It’s a nice place to be in a way. I’ve been up, I’ve been down, you like me, you don’t like me, thank God I’m still here. But anyhow, what was the question?”
But unlike Anne Robinson, Simon Cowell’s bossy Brit schtick has staying power over here. Sometimes with the show’s more dreadful contestants he seems like a hammy Captain Hook (“O man unfathomable,” as J. M. Barrie wrote of his villain) making the Lost Boys walk the plank out of fantasyland. But he’s not heartless, and is quick to defend those that do have talent. “You are not fit to judge this girl!” he erupted at the Canadian judge’s dismissal of Kelly Clarkson during last month’s World Idol.
And the Idol brand, as they say in media circles, has now expanded beyond the show itself. There’s a new scent called Idol Spirit (no, it doesn’t smell like flop sweat mixed with proleish dreams–just like the cheap stuff at a J.C. Penney’s perfume counter, which is in fact where you can find it.) Ryan Seacrest hosts a new syndicated show on Fox stations weekday afternoons, much to his friend Cowell’s hammy displeasure. (“Oh, God,” Simon muttered, rolling his eyes when Seacrest was asked about his new project at the Fox news conference. “Overexposed.”) And Simon’s fellow judge Randy Jackson has a practical little book on how to make it in the music business called What’s Up, Dawg? just hitting stores now.
But the star of the show, of course, remains Cowell. He got a $2 million advance for I Don’t Mean to Be Rude, But… a combination autobiography of his record-producing career and American Idol behind-the-scenes tell-all that was published just in time for Christmas. It will make you hate him even more, if that’s your bent–or appreciate him even more, if (like me) you find him a needed antidote to the contemporary miasma of irrational entitlement.
The book naturally contains plenty of Cowell’s notoriously firm opinions. “He had the charisma of a goldfish–a very understated goldfish,” he writes of one failed contestant. But now we learn just how early Simon began his vocation. Even as a kindergartener he recognized “what a complete and utter racket” the music teacher was leading his classmates to create and raised his hand to demand an explanation: “Miss, this is absolutely dreadful. Why are you making us do it?”
Cowell has never limited himself to insulting contestants. Some of the best moments on Idol involve his battles with fellow judges, the much kindlier Jackson and of course Paula Abdul, the nicest judge of all. It’s hard to tell how much of this was an act. I once asked about his ungentlemanly comments regarding Abdul–he’d suggested to the press that she saw the show as a way to get a date or husband. But Paula always maintained in public that she and Simon were good friends, even when his harsh comments were read back to her.
So was she simply extraordinarily gracious, or was the whole act simply a schtick, like that between ersatz enemies Jack Benny and Fred Allen?
“Working with Paula’s been a total delight,” responded Simon, his eyes glittering ironically. But Abdul got the last word. “I just want to tell you, it’s working,” she said of her supposed husband-hunting plan. “Seventy men have called me, and only 23 have called Simon.”
Plus, he’ll kiss and tell even if he wasn’t exactly there–yes, he’s that unchivalrous–writing that contestant Corey Clark “apparently had a threesome” with two of the second season’s female contestants, “according to speculation…Kimberly Caldwell and Trenyce.” And forget about supporting our troops: Josh Gracin, the young marine, challenged middle-aged Simon to a push-up contest and lost, at least according to Simon: “They didn’t show it all on television.” Hoo-ah!
In other words, Simon Cowell on the page is every bit as insufferable as Simon Cowell on TV. But really, would we have it any other way?
–Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog “Cathy’s World.”