The importance of being Simon
- Scott R. Garceau () - September 19, 2004 - 12:00am
I Don’t Mean To Be Rude, But…

The Truth About Fame, Fortune, and My Life in Music

By Simon Cowell

Those expecting a classy, stately memoir about the British music executive whom American Idol fans love to hate will quickly be set straight by the cover: it’s cheap and cheesy, the kind of smirking celebrity bio cover that one would find at supermarket checkout lines. (The back cover – showing Cowell chomping on a fat cigar – is even worse.)

But, hey, this isn’t Princess Di we’re talking about. This is a commercially successful A&R (artist and repertoire) man, a talent scout who brags that he’s sold 90 million records worldwide, and racked up 34 number-one hit pop songs for his clients. So what if most of that music is disposable crap? Simon Cowell looks at life through pop-colored glasses.

He’s known for his acerbic wit and his mastery of the putdown. Those unlucky enough to pass before his judging seat on American Idol and Britain’s Pop Idol (which spawned the stateside version) know all about the "Cowell scowl." He’s famous for his merciless honesty, and perhaps for sending hundreds of thousands of Idol wannabes scampering home with their tails between their legs. The words "hideous," "ghastly," "horrendous" and "horrible" are his pet adjectives. His co-hosts on American Idol, Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul, probably dread what he’ll say next. But like it or not, his brand of in-your-face confrontation makes for good television.

The strange thing about Cowell is that he’s both a product of his times and one of its strongest catalysts. He started life as a bratty estate agent’s son in Elstree, about 20 miles north of London. Naturally, dad would have liked Simon to become an estate agent, handling properties for the movie celebrities that found Elstree a prime shooting location – people like Stanley Kubrick, who bought the Cowells’ old home. But Simon always had other things on his mind. Music is what caught his fancy, and (despite what most TV viewers suspect from Cowell’s finicky nature) girls. (In the book, Simon goes to great lengths to establish that he’s had many relationships of a heterosexual nature.) He next tried breaking into EMI records, but couldn’t get out of the mailroom. His dad hooked him up with tons of legitimate "day job" leads, but Simon felt music was his future.

Specifically, pop music. After several years of only modest success, Cowell was hired on as an A&R consultant for BMG Music, an international recording company. His job was to cultivate talent, and hook up good songs with promising new singers. He admits his early "hits" were kind of on the bottom-feeder end of the pop industry. He set up deals for popular TV puppets Zig & Zag, did a Power Rangers record, and another CD that featured professional wrestlers warbling music. Sounds dreadful, but these were actually hits: the albums sold millions, and Simon was on his way.

He next hooked up with a man named Simon Fuller who wanted to do a UK version of an Australian show called Popstars. On it, aspiring band members form competing bands, then are judged on the final show. It seemed like a template for success, and the two Simons shamelessly borrowed it, modified it (making it competing singers judged by a panel) and sold it to British viewers as Pop Idol. Cowell was one of the show’s original judges, and notes he wasn’t nearly as nasty as his colleagues. But once the judges realized that brutal honesty made for better television, the gloves came off.

The show was picked up by the Fox network in the US, and Cowell soon joined record producer Randy Jackson and pop star Paula Abdul on the judge’s panel.

The funniest parts of the book are about his rocky relations with co-judge Abdul, particularly during first auditions for American Idol. Randy had just given an aspiring contestant the usual non-judging judgment. ("Yeah, that was a little bit pitchy, but you were good, dog… I kind of liked it.") Paula had been equally wishy-washy ("I don’t know if it’s quite the voice we’re looking for, but I really like you.") Simon just couldn’t hold back.

"I think that we have to tell the truth here, which is that this singer is just awful. Not only do you look terrible, but you sound terrible. You’re never going to be a pop star in a million years." There was an eerie silence in the room.

After the contestant skulked off, Paula turned to face me. "What did you just say?"

"I just told him what I thought."

"You can’t talk to people like that," she said.

"Yes, I can," I said. "In fact, I just did."

"But this is America."

"Yes. And?"

"And he’s just a kid."

"A kid who happens to sing terribly."

And so on. Initially, the petite singer/dancer was so horrified by Simon’s lethal comments that she would have daily crying jags in her dressing room. Cowell did little to comfort her; he just said they had to be perfectly honest or not do the show at all. Eventually, Abdul tried to struggle back, hiring writers to give her verbal ammunition against Cowell. "Did your father breast-feed you as a child?" was one memorable scripted line, according to Simon. Then one day, he noticed Abdul seemed to be quite a bit taller behind the judge’s panel. He noticed a stack of pillows on Paula’s seat; so during the break, Randy and Simon got their own stacks, and once again towered over the singer.

So the time now comes to judge the judge. Is Cowell qualified to make such nasty comments? Well, remembering that the show is American Idol and not American Indie Underground, I suppose he is. He’s no musical adventurer; he thought punk music was a waste of time, and his favorite musical era was ‘70s disco. So if he digs the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, this is obviously reflected in his tastes.

Cowell is like a certain breed of music listener who possesses commercially savvy ears, but makes no distinction between "good" and "bad" music. If it sells a lot, Cowell reasons, then it’s good. His hottest find as an A&R man was Westlife, an Irish boy band that he maintains was one of the "biggest things on the planet." Sure, they sold tons of records and made Cowell very rich. But will anybody remember them in the same breath as the Beatles? Will anyone ever remember them in five years, period? Pop is meant to be disposable and of the moment, Simon would surely point out.

What Cowell does possess is an instinct for the active synergy between TV, movie and pop music. He knows that, if someone’s hot on camera, or in a hit TV show, that exposure alone is enough to guarantee their pop single sells at least a million. It’s a crossover strategy that goes back to Elvis Presley, but it’s all the rage again. In the most practical part of the book, Cowell gives survival tips to would-be stars, noting that Janet Jackson, J. Lo, Britney Spears and Christine Aguilera all started on TV shows. Thus, his advice: "If you have the opportunity to get a part on a television show, no matter how small it seems, take it."

Whether you think this is brilliant or one of the worst possible trends for pop music is debatable. Personally, I’m sick of seeing manufactured pop stars, people who got noticed on a TV show then – voila! – reveal to the indifference of millions that what they really want to be are pop singers (Yeah, I’m talking about you, Jennifer Love-Hewitt). Cowell himself acknowledges that these are oversaturated times, that we’re living in a kind of "fame epidemic." And after a few years of watching youngsters audition on Pop Idol and American Idol, he say he’s had enough of the current mad rush to get famous. "Today, kids are lazier than ever and think they’re entitled to something," he gripes. He laughs about contestants who, at age 17, tell him "I’ve been struggling for this my whole life." He sees a great deal of brattiness out there among the pop multitudes. But ironically, it was Cowell himself who played a part in making the pop music scene what it is today. And strangely enough, one suspects that Cowell himself was just like those brats when he was younger.

  • Latest
Are you sure you want to log out?
Login is one of the most vibrant, opinionated, discerning communities of readers on cyberspace. With your meaningful insights, help shape the stories that can shape the country. Sign up now!

or sign in with