May 23, 2006

"I gave him a personality. He was the equivalent of nonvintage wine, cheap plonk, and now, as a result of being around me, he's become full-bodied."

Said Simon Cowell about Ryan Seacrest -- in this big NYT article about Seacrest. (I like Seacrest. He's the glue that holds "American Idol" together. He does a lot more than you may notice.)

Speaking of Simon Cowell, you may have missed the piece in The New Republic about him. (Subscription-only link.) Franklin Foer says critics of "American Idol" are missing its "true contribution to culture":
That contribution comes in the form of Cowell.... 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....

"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....

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....

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.
Foer's piece comes closer than anything else I've ever read to explaining my fascination with "American Idol" to me. I don't like the music very much. I like the criticism in action and the chance to hear an honest slam -- startlingly delivered right to the face of an optimistic, ambitious young person.

(Hey, the big finale is on tonight!)

18 comments:

Dave said...

"I like the criticism in action and the chance to hear an honest slam -- startlingly delivered right to the face of an optimistic, ambitious young person."

Me too, but having seen Cowell do it twice, I no longer have any interest in seeing naive people destroyed.

I hate naivete and naive people; why get angry that there are so many such people in the world?

Ann Althouse said...

Dave: They aren't destroyed. And they aren't especially naive. They know what they are getting into, but they are deluded into believing they are good. It's important for them and us to see that they're not. Plenty of niceness is doled out by Randy and Paula and Ryan. No one is seriously injured. These kids who go on the show are gluttons for attention, and they get their fill.

tiggeril said...

Simon is the best part of the show, bar none. Forget the singing.

SippicanCottage said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dave said...

"they are deluded into believing they are good"

What's not naive about that?

Perhaps I'm missing something, but to me that sounds like naivete.

Ann Althouse said...

Dave: "Naive" connotes a childlike simplicity based on a lack of experience in the world. If you went to a grade school and invited kids to sing, it would be mean to insult them. If you let 20 year olds wait in long lines to audition for a familiar show so they can go on TV and perform for millions, some stark critique is in order. But if you're scandalized by Simon's meanness, you're buying into the show's own formula. They want you to think Simon's mean. It's more entertaining if you think he's being bad. And kinda naive.

SteveR said...

Drama aside, this is why I like the earlier period of each season more than the final weeks. The criticisms taper off as they are turning towards creating a positive image of who might win.

Dave said...

""Naive" connotes a childlike simplicity based on a lack of experience in the world."

Well, don't you think that describes untalented singers who nonetheless are shocked when Cowell tells them like it is?

Ann Althouse said...

Not in any kind of a way that makes me dislike the show. The issue isn't the meaning of the word, but whether your distaste for the criticism is warranted.

paulfrommpls said...

Ann -

I believe you like the music at its best, which is admittedly rare, but part of the attraction of the show: the small chance that we actually will find a new major vocalist, or see one develop before us. (That is, I believe you are like me in this regard. Am I projecting?)

Ann Althouse said...

Yes, you're projecting. I've never bought any recording made by the show's artists and never intend to. I don't vote either. I do want some people to be good and can appreciate it, but I wouldn't watch the show for that. I didn't watch "Star Search."

paulfrommpls said...

"I don't believe you." (a la Bob D.)

Seriously, though: Fantasia's 'Summertime' - to pick the most obvious example - didn't give you some glimmer of hope that we'd be hearing this voice for years?

I've never bought any of the CD's, either. My wife bought Fantasia's first - I wash my hands of the decision - and it wasn't much.

chuck b. said...

Ambitious old people deserve slamming too! But in an uppity, youth-oriented culture, it's sl. more fun to see the young get slammed. Also, celebrity-seekers should always be mercilessly dissected because we all have to live with them until their time passes.

Confirmation word: funhk

knoxgirl said...

It's all about Simon. If he wasn't on the show, I'd stop watching, no question. I caught Terri Gross interviewing him on Fresh Air in the car several years ago, and it was so fascinating, I started watching Idol (when I'd previously turned up my nose at it).

I do admit getting caught up in rooting for the contestants probably more than I should. I really was pulling for George Huff and then Fantasia in season three, and was more than a little disappointed when Elliot got voted off recently.

However, Idol albums are produced entirely too cheesily enough for me to listen after the show. Otherwise, I'd surely be rocking out to some Clay Aiken right about now. Just kidding.

katiebakes said...

In the NYT article about Simon (it may have been in the magazine, but I'm not sure because I read it online) there was a good part about his motivations for the show.

Essentially he was looking for new talent for his recording label; the smashing success of the show came as something of a surprise. (Sorry for that, and this, sentence, lispers.)

I appreciate his "mean streak" because it seems most realistic to me. It's how a recording label producer should be. None of these contestants would ever get Paula's lovey-dovey treatment if they tried to get a contract the "normal" way!

jult52 said...

One of the other benefits of the show is educating a wide swathe of the American public concerning singing. It's educated me and I'm a serious amateur musician. I now am very aware of how bad certain singers are (Jim Morrison, Dan Fogerty, that schnook from Wilco) and how incredibly talented others are (Elton John, Julie Andrews).

Concentrating on musicianship is valuable and edifying. And it's something American Pop music has needed direly.

paulfrommpls said...

jult - I don't know who Dan Fogerty is, but if you now beleive that John Fogerty is in any important sense a "bad singer," you've learned a strange lesson. If you mean Dan Fogelberg, I offer no opinion whatsoever.

jult52 said...

Sorry, I did mean John Fogerty and I stand by what I said, not that he's as bad as the two others I named.