How does this stuff happen? Unknown guy comes to America. No discernible talent, a British accent, white-bread fashion sense, tongue as sharp as an X-acto. He's mean, famously so, borderline cruel. He launches a little show that becomes a very big show. In time, a calculator is needed to determine his wealth. Even then, the zeros go on and on. His power to launch careers seems so great as to be almost Oprahesque. We quote him, admire him, love him, loathe him.
How does this stuff happen?
Here are some thoughts about what made Simon so . . . SIMON.
Regardless of that guy who tried to run you off the LIE last Friday, we are fundamentally a polite society, given to saying "please" and "thank you," while eschewing sharp verbal assaults on those who may, nevertheless, richly deserve them. By dispensing with the niceties, Cowell created something inherently fascinating and inherently foreign - the mean TV personality. Unscripted TV is awash in nice; even when Jeff Probst is happily explaining the details of a challenge that may end up dismembering a contestant he is nice. Cowell's persona let him stand out from the crowd.
Television is often all about hype - selling us stuff we may not want, or telling us something is wonderful that we suspect is not. "Idol" is often all about hype, too. The studio, the orchestra, stage direction and many other elements are all primed to coax nice sounds out of (often) average talents and to get the audience actually excited about those sounds. After a performance, audience members jump to their feet and cheer. Viewers prepare to reach for their phones with trembling fingers to vote. First one judge, then another, avers that the performance was "brilliant" or "inspiring." The contestant bows his head in reverence and seemingly sincere gratitude.
And then Simon speaks: "I didn't think it was an incredible performance. It was OK." The audience boos. He turns: "Can I finish?" And he does. Mr. Buzzkill pulls the runaway balloon back to Earth. Reality sets in. Yeah, maybe that wasn't so great after all. In fact, it wasn't.
The early circus rounds excepted, there's often just the barest element of compassion in Cowell's critiques. Fans have long detected a higher purpose in his criticism. These weren't mere put-downs, but constructive put-downs - words of advice as opposed to spitballs.
In his autobiography, "I Don't Mean to Be Rude, But . . . ," Cowell writes that Mariah Carey cut a song to record with an artist he was working with. Cowell didn't like the performance, he says, and later told a shocked Carey he would not release it. Carey, Cowell said, was shocked, because she had surrounded herself with lap dogs and "it was clear that she had no one around her to tell her the truth." Such self-absorption would ultimately damage her career, he said.
People need to hear the truth, he insists. The truth will set them free - or at least make them realize they shouldn't waste their lives pursuing a career they were never cut out for. Implicit in Cowell's criticism was always this message: To become a success in the music industry, you've got to navigate past brutal, borderline sadists in the executive suite and fickle audience tastes and ferocious market competition. Even then, success is a long shot. Better get used to some tough love right now, or you're dead. (Remember: This guy is trying to groom someone who will sell records for him.)
What is "beauty"? What is "truth"? Can we get John Keats in here to help us settle this argument? Music is not easily or always productively defined in terms of "truth." It's a big subjective world out there, and what may have been sublime to Paula Abdul made Cowell's ears bleed.
Fundamentals do still apply. Pitch and tone are measurable. A C-sharp is meant to be sung as a C-sharp, and not as a D-sharp. All "Idol" wannabes cover the songs of artists and should - presumably - sing those songs the way they ought to be sung. Sure, "make the song your own" - as the judges say - but don't butcher it in the process. Cowell has always seemed to have the surest grasp of this "Idol" dictum.
Did he get judgments wrong? More often than we have room to recall. But he was mostly right.
In his "Idol" heyday - when there were just three judges and we knew them better than our neighbors - Cowell had a unique role on the panel: "parent" / "wise elder" / "Solomon Himself." Randy Jackson was the good guy - smart, kind, obedient. Abdul was the goofy one - all id and pep, whose blithe judgments were forged the exact moment she felt them, without consideration or balance.
Then came the Straw That Stirred the Drink. He was the adult to their adolescent and because he was the last to speak, his opinions seemed to have greater heft and wisdom. It was all stagecraft, of course, because Jackson was right as often as Cowell.
But wait until he's gone. The single biggest challenge for Fox circa 2010-11: Find another straw.
Is 'X' man Simon irreplaceable?
Simon Cowell won't be totally leaving American TV - his next stop will be a U.S. version of his British hit "The X Factor," debuting in the fall of 2011 on Fox.
But the larger question remains: Who will - or who can - replace Cowell on "American Idol?"
A dozen names have floated onto and out of the pages of the press, as well as (name a website). But if you listen to Fox, no one has yet been anointed, and the network will take the summer to figure this out.
There's been a widespread assumption, probably accurate, that some guest mentors this season have effectively been auditioning for the gig; Jamie Foxx, considered a front-runner for months, was here just a couple of weeks ago. (Adam Lambert? Harry Connick Jr.? Them, too.)
TV Guide published the most extensive list in April, with names like Madonna manager Guy Oseary, Interscope chief Jimmy Iovine, Quincy Jones and Foxx. Even Paula Abdul and Ryan Seacrest were mentioned as possibilities.
After the appointment, only one little question will remain: Is Cowell replaceable or is he Mr. Irreplaceable?
Simon says . . . some mean things
Here are some of Simon Cowell's most memorable put-downs over the years:
To an auditioner who sang "Unchained Melody":
"I think you just killed my favorite song."
To season 7 finalist Kristy Lee Cook after she sang "Eight Days a Week":
"You sounded like Dolly Parton on helium."
To season 7 runner-up David Archuleta after he sang Chris Brown's "With You":
"Your performance was a little bit like a Chihuahua trying to be a tiger."
To numerous auditioners:
"That was absolutely dreadful."
To season 7 finalist Jason Castro after he sang "Mr. Tambourine Man":
"I'd pack your suitcase."
To season 7 finalist David Hernandez after he sang "I Saw Her Standing There":
"I thought it was corny verging on desperate."
To various contestants:
"It was corny verging on atrocious."
To season 9 finalist Michael Lynche after he sang "Miss You":
"The dancing was kind of corny, verging at times on a tiny bit desperate."
To an auditioner:
"There are only so many words I can drag out of my vocabulary to say how awful that is."