When you look at American Idol’s Simon Cowell, his buff plumpness packed into his fancy T-shirts, you might find another figure coming strangely to mind—William Shatner. More specifically, you might be reminded of the original Star Trek Shatner, who, even in early middle age, had to be girdled into his Enterprise stretch-wear. Both Shatner and Cowell are known for their histrionics: Shatner as Kirk looking into the alien heavens and tossing his head from side to side in B-movie despair; Cowell massaging his temples or rubbing his eyes in a hammy semblance of aesthetic displeasure. It took Shatner maybe 15 years before he began trading on his kitsch legacy by giving Kirkified poetry readings in cafes and punk clubs. So, with allowances for our tightening cycle of nostalgia and self-reference, we might give Cowell half a decade or so before he gets in on the joke that he is.
Like Anne Robinson of The Weakest Link before him, Cowell has benefited from the weird TV conceit that, perhaps out of some sense of our own cultural inferiority, Americans should enjoy seeing other Americans derided by sarcastic Brits. And yet an indispensable part of the American Idol experience is watching the imperious Simon flounder in his own show. In the competition’s early rounds, the bizarre comedy of the flamboyantly “bad” singers sails far over his head. He’s like a figure-skating judge bitchily scribbling down low scores without looking up to realize he’s at Wrestlemania. But more interesting are the later rounds, in which Simon tries to impose his own rigid ideal of Idolness—a dull combination of capable singing and synthetic sexiness—on the voting audience. And the audience, animated by its own far-from-elevated biases, rejects it.
One vivid sign of Cowell’s floundering: His famous putdowns, which—despite the stagy malice of the intent behind them—are toothless, indeed witless, in their execution. They are, in fact, more consistently cringe-worthy than the singing that provokes them. Cowell, who comes third in the line of judges, has even more time to hone the gist and syntax of his insults and these are what he comes up with:
“It was like The Exorcist.”
“If your lifeguard duties were as good as your singing, a lot of people would be drowning.”
“You had about as much passion as a kitten mewing.”
“You sang like someone who sings on a cruise ship. Halfway through I imagined the ship sinking.”
“I think you’re amazing … amazingly dreadful.”
“That was extraordinary. Unfortunately, it was extraordinarily bad.”
It’s one thing, and a fairly benign thing at that, to venture a croaking imitation of Luther Vandross or Celine Dion. It’s another thing to present yourself as the next great wit-misanthrope, a combination of Oscar Wilde and H.L. Mencken, when your verbal dexterity is more akin to that of Regis Philbin.
Simon’s odd belief that he’s a wit isn’t the only fascinating bit of cognitive dissonance on display on American Idol. Another is that, on a show in which three judges purport to be tastemakers, nobody—neither singers nor judges—has any taste. It’s not just that the judges are playing at being profit-conscious record execs, suppressing their own quirky predilections for the sake of the bottom line. Neither Randy nor Paula nor Simon even seems capable of a real aesthetic misgiving. Just once I’d like to hear a judge say, “You know, your singing was pretty good there, but that song, ‘I Believe I Can Fly,’ I hate thatsong. Points off for choosing an insipid song.” When the biggest hits from the last year were OutKast’s “Hey Ya” and Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love,” it’s bizarre to pretend that pop success has everything to do with competent singing and nothing to do with the quality of the songs. On Idol, the fixation on singing is itself so reductive it verges on, if not mechanics, then athletics. The judges occasionally feign an interest in style, but when it comes down to it, they want belters—contestants adept at loud, clear, identifiably melodic yelling, with vibrato if possible.
Simon also clearly has Spice Girls on the brain. That is to say, none of the judges is what you would call not shallow, but Simon is the one most likely to size up a contestant who has just performed in satisfactory compliance with American Idol vocal standards and say, “You just don’t look like the American Idol.” Simon has forgotten, apparently, that last year’s American Idol finalists, Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard, didn’t look much like the American Idol, either. Or, anyway, he’s unwilling to accept that this was no accident.
That’s because, no matter how reductive his, and the other judges’, pop aesthetic is, it isn’t reductive enough. The voting audience is animated by something even more elemental, more reptilian-brained. Watching the later rounds of American Idol instills in the viewer a subtle but potent type of fear—empathy-fear, stage-fright-by-proxy. You can’t help identifying with contestants you’ve seen over several weeks, whose life stories you keep hearing in ever-greater detail, whose stunned parents and disoriented younger siblings you’ve seen sitting in the waiting room and absorbing the judges’ criticisms with visible winces. And, when the contestants hoist the mic to their faces and begin squawking the opening lines of their song (even the good ones start off badly), you can’t help identifying with them even more—especially the ones you already kind of identify with.
That’s why, despite Simon’s preference for contestants who “look like the American Idol,” the audience continues to impose its preference for contestants who look like America. At the end of one semifinal round, all three judges lathered heavy, insistent praise on La Toya London, an attractive-by-numbers belter from Oakland, and Leah LaBelle, a pretty redhead with an able voice and a model’s body who defected to the United States from Bulgaria with her musician parents when she was a child. “You are a star,” Simon cooed to Leah.
The voting audience went along with the judges on La Toya, but they shoved the lithe, stage-named Leah aside in favor of Amy Adams, a plain, wan, country-voiced beautician from Bakersfield who, as Simon had pointedly observed, does not look like the American Idol. The thing is, Amy Adams may not look like the American Idol, but she does look like a demographically meaningful slice of America (or at least, with her beautician’s dye job, like someone who does her hair). And, leaving aside Leah LaBelle’s other alienating features, like the émigré stage parents and the porn-star name, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a more resonant analogue for “foreigner,” for the telephone-voting American public, than “Bulgarian.”
In the end, the smart money might still be on Diana DeGarmo, even though she was a candidate for elimination last week. (I’m guessing this was because she sang first on a marathon show, and since voters can’t dial in until the show is over, they had forgotten her.) She’s an irrepressible combination of Shakira and Shirley Temple from the town with the Dr. Seussian name—Snellville, Ga. With her Anglo-Latin ethnic vagueness, her perky Georgia drawl, and her megaphonic vocal style, she has all the bases covered. But don’t be surprised if, advancing far into the competition with her, is John Stevens. Stevens is a redheaded kid who, with the innocent squinch of his pale face and his preference for Sinatra, appears to have time-traveled to his Idol audition from 1954. He’s inspired a passionate following despite the fact that he can’t, actually … what’s the word I’m looking for? … sing. Indeed, his thin crooning relies on his retro appearance and his swingin’ moves to maintain the pretense that he’s singing and not just talking funny.
After a semifinal round a few weeks ago, when it was Simon’s turn to guess the audience’s three finalist selections, he offered his two favorites (La Toya London and Leah LaBelle) and then, after a bitter pause, added John Stevens to his list. His spite was audible, but he guessed right. A week later, to the astonishment and outrage of Randy, he actually complimented Stevens after a comically undersung version of “Lately.” “This guy,” Simon said, “is Middle America.” These were moments of insight, however grudging, into the real cues that guide Idol voting. It’ll probably take a little longer—maybe a half decade or so—before Simon has an equally unpleasant moment of insight about his own hambone persona.