I’ve never been a fan of the talent shows that have proliferated across television. American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance, Britain’s Got Talent, and its Yankee spinoff, America’s Got Talent have all brought home to viewers the process of identifying and testing those with the talent to succeed in the entertainment business. I watched a couple of episodes of Idol before tuning out in disgust. While I understood the aim of the contest, the process, I felt was inordinately cruel to those who presented themselves and failed. It was hard to watch people whose dream had not only crumbled, but then had to endure the harsh words of the judges, in particular a seemingly contemptuous Englishman named Simon Cowell.
(The following information comes largely from the Wikipedia article on Mr. Cowell [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simon_Cowell]. In deference to my previous posting on research papers, bear in mind that this is not a research paper, but merely a blog entry and the biographical information is offered as background only.)
Cowell was born into an entertainment family, his father a real estate developer and music industry executive with the legendary EMI, his mother a professional dancer. After leaving Dover College, he had a few menial jobs – including a runner on Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining – but had difficulty getting along with colleagues and bosses. His father got him a job in the EMI mailroom. Eventually, his father’s connections got him a position as an assistant to an A&R man, the person in a record company responsible for finding new talent. A year later, he went to work for an independent label, Fanfare Records. Here he achieved his first real success in the industry, becoming a partner and pushing Fanfare into a very successful indie label. But in 1989, Fanfare’s parent company began to struggle. Fanfare was folded into another music giant BMG. With his Fanfare success behind him, Cowell became an A&R consultant for BMG. In 2002, he was hired as a judge on a new show that would help to re-shape the landscape of American television: American Idol.
In his previous careers, he had stayed behind the scenes, largely unknown to audiences. But his appearance on Idol created an instant reaction. Of all the judges, he was by far the most blunt, harsh, and in the minds of Idol audiences, inordinately cruel. The Times of London journalist Minette Marrin classified him as representing the “heartless, thoughtless, and superficial – the flotsam and jetsam of the polluted seas of celebrity that is likely to sink without trace into toxic foam.” Cowell himself acknowleged his negative impact in an interview with a reporter from The Mirror. “There has to come a point when I will step down from being on camera and remain behind the scenes because you can’t keep doing this forever…I think by [the end of my contract] that the public will be sick to death of me anyway, and it will be time to go.”
Okay, enough background.
Compassion comes easy to me. I’ve always felt that people who had dreams should be encouraged in those dreams. Dreams is where success usually starts, and as long as those dreams were based in some sort of realistic appraisal of one’s talents, they should go forward. When those dreams crashed face-first into reality, I felt that they should be let down easily. Crushing someone’s dream harshly could only result in crushing that person’s spirit as well. Idol, and it’s clones, seemed to me to be a stage for destroying people. I turned away.
As time went on, I was amazed and a bit troubled by the extent that which audiences embraced the show. People developed identities with the contestants, perhaps living out their own secret dreams vicariously through the Idol stars. Central to that whole process was Simon Cowell, his cutting remarks and at times hostile attitude painting the lurid scenery of each episode.
But it wasn’t until the trials of Susan Boyle, the plain-faced Scotswoman with the marvelous voice, that I really began to understand Mr. Cowell.
The story of Ms. Boyle is well-known to anyone with a TV or a internet account, so I won’t belabor readers with the details here. But in considering the events surrounding her rise and collapse, I have to admit to an epiphany.
I’ve read enough about the music industry to understand what a difficult field it is. Those who work the business have the job of identifying those with the talent to succeed (read: sell CDs) with an audience that a Roman Emperor might have charitably described as “fickle.” Behind the glitz and glamour, it is pragmatically a business. Any time a label signs an artist, the company commits tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars (and pounds) to develop that talent and “sell” them to the public. If the artist fails to catch the ear and imagination of the public, a huge amount of money has been wasted. Therefore the criteria for assessing talent are, by requirement, harsh and unyielding. The people who do that judging have to tell the truth, even when the truth hurts.
And yet, it goes beyond just talent. The music business is one which inflicts enormous pressures on its artists. When we, the general public, think about the life of a pop star, we usually only think about the parts of that life we are allowed to see. Few humans are able to resist the allure of standing on a stage, receiving the unbridled love of thousands gathered, literally at one’s feet. We see the big houses, the fancy cars, the beautiful clothes, and the wealth, all the accoutrements of the life of a star. Compared to the comparatively mundane nature of our own lives, it seems like heaven on earth.
But we never seem to want to consider the down side. When performing, you can never have an “off” day. While you’re doing a 6-city tour, doing shows several times a week performing the same repertoire, your audience is only there for one night, and if you sell them short because you’re bored or tired, you will disappoint them.
And disappointed concert goers tend to demand their money back. So do the promoters who got you the gig in the first place.
And then there are the fans. Most fans are okay people. But every “star” has had to deal with the obsessed fans, the stalkers. Not only are they unpleasant, they can prove to be dangerous.
The pressure is unyielding. Your life is no longer your own. Even when you try to hide inside your home, or travel somewhere to get away and recharge your batteries, you are pursued by the papparazi, those whose sole means of living is to capture your image, usually in the most embarrassing moments, and publish them far and wide. The number of artists who have fallen victim to all those pressures are legendary. Marilyn Monroe, Britney Spears, Judy Garland, Lana Turner, Owen Wilson, to name a few. And when they collapse, rather than easing off, the media-generated pressure only gets worse.
Therefore, in order to be a successful pop star, you not only need to have the chops on stage, you have to be tough enough to survive the pressures offstage.
Watching Ms. Boyle’s tragic collapse, I finally understood why Simon Cowell does what he does, and says what he says. He has to defend the integrity of his industry. He has to deliver to the public talent that will sell CDs and concert tickets. The risks of failure are huge. He is tough on the talent, because the talent has to be tough. And knowing that the public will not buy the music of marginal talent, it is his job to weed out those who just don’t have it.
For the marginally talented, I now understand how important it is that they be brought face-to-face with the harsh truth of their limitations. It is better to abandon an unrealistic dream early, rather than waste one’s life in the pursuit of the unattainable. Those pitiable people who leave the Idol stage in tears, crushed by the judge’s decree, need to turn their lives to other pursuits; to discover inside themselves that special talent that everyone has buried deep within. In the short term, it seems cruel. But I think in the long run, such an experience helps to focus one’s goals.
I want to be clear. I’m not a fan of Simon Cowell. I’d never invite him to my home, and the possession of his picture or autograph is nowhere on my list of priorities. But at last, I see the reasons behind his seemingly casual cruelties and his harsh, abrasive nature. It is his unyielding commitment to the highest show business standards that ensures that when I plunk down cash for a CD or a concert, it’ll be money well spent.
I now understand. And understanding is the beginning of wisdom.