Making sense of Simon Cowell requires negotiating a maze of banalities – a host of things which are, like judges’ verdicts on a reality show, obvious and lacking insight, but nonetheless true. For instance, saying “Simon Cowell cares about money more than music” is a lazy criticism, but it’s also surely right. Saying “Whoever wins, Cowell is the real winner” is a similar no-shit-Sherlock conclusion, and equally hard to deny.
If we turn over these obvious stones, is there anything wriggling underneath? Maybe there is. Take Simon Cowell’s taste in music. It’s not that he doesn’t like music – he has a set of preferences. It’s more that once he became a reality impresario, the exact contours of his taste became a source of competitive advantage. Some of the reality TV judge’s power is unpredictability – anything that compromises the unpredictability, like a known aesthetic, is a weakness.
But of course there are things Cowell likes, and we know roughly what they are. He doesn’t strike me as enough of an iconoclast to lie on Desert Island Discs, for instance, so his selection there from 2003 is a good start. “Mack The Knife”. Sinatra. “She”. Sammy Davis Jr. Herb Alpert. And Daniel Bedingfield, either as a sop to the present or a proposal that the tradition he’s outlining isn’t quite dead.
By rock standards, this is a square’s list, defiantly so. It’s the list of someone who believes, perhaps, that pop’s appointed role is a beloved wing of an entertainment multiplex, and that rock’s breakaway move towards emphasis on self-expression, experiment, volume and so on was a descent from these populist heights. Or to put it more kindly, since several of Cowell’s choices are excellent records, perhaps he’s a man who appreciates performance, and believes that specialist singers and specialist songwriters are best kept to their own devices.
Or it could mean neither of these things. But just those summaries are enough to suggest where Cowell might be coming from, and also to suggest that he was in tune with strong currents in pop – not just the golden-goose blandness of Westlife but the separation of producer and performer that was driving R&B forward. Whatever else he was, Simon Cowell was not out of touch. In fact, the only thing that makes me doubt the Desert Island list is that it’s a little too neat a manifesto for what the “Simon” TV persona might appreciate.
“Unchained Melody”, the song we’re supposedly discussing, was on Cowell’s castaway list too. An old song – by 60s standards – when the Righteous Brothers got hold of it, it fits his milieu of tracks with wide, adult appeal and big emotions. If “Anything Is Possible” was written as a generic victory ballad for a neophyte, “Unchained Melody” was written knowing it might end up with a heavyweight.
The hunger and need in “Unchained Melody” is explicitly geological – a longing carved over time in the heart like a river slowly cuts its path through earth and rock. It’s a stoical kind of a need, born from the original film’s prison setting, but also the product of an early 50s song culture where the heroic epitome was still the patient soldier. It’s a very different ache from the rutting, urgent desire of rock and roll – which is what makes the Righteous Brothers’ version so remarkable, as they bridge that difference, give teenage need the weight of landscape. And it’s different again from the hunger of Gareth Gates, which is more like the eager mewling of a newly hatched chick.
Gates’ version isn’t as bad as that sounds. He can’t ruin the song, so he’s instantly better than the singing squaddies. But what he brings to it – the bright-eyed, clean-voiced optimism of a boy given a lifetime’s chance – he would bring to any song. Will Young did his best with a mediocre song. Gareth Gates smooths out an excellent one. Three weeks on top of the charts plays four. I’m not sure who wins.
Aside, of course, from Simon. That was my other truism – the judge is the winner in reality TV pop. Not the only one (least of all here, where investment in the contestants was widespread and real) but the constant one. As JLucas very helpfully pointed out in the comments on the last post, what really distinguishes this series of Pop Idol was the astounding number of its contestants who managed to score hits afterwards. In a tight competition, success for the runner-up was assured. But Pop Idol meant Top Ten singles for singers who’d come nowhere near to victory.
The Simon who stood to gain most from that bonanza was Fuller, who began the series as behind-the-scenes senior partner and format developer. By the end, Cowell was ascendant, the man who realised the power of the reality show host. Which is not to determine who wins or loses, but to set the boundaries of the game, and to name the real stakes.
A reality show mogul dwells in the delta between popularity and outrage, living off the arbitrage. Cowell was cagey about the music he actually liked, but never about the contestants he favoured or disliked. By an imperial nod towards Gareth, not Will, Cowell ensured that the crowd would play their part and vote to spite him. It didn’t matter – he had shown that the drama of reality TV didn’t lie in “who will win?” so much as “will the judge get their way?”. Either outcome made the show more about him. Within the bubble of spectacle, Cowell ruled.