Cruelty was not an aside or a by-product in Simon Cowell’s genre of television — from which he has now retired, exiting his new show Walk the Line. It was the whole point of it. It was all predicted by the great film about television, Network (1976), in which a mentally ill man is offered up as both prophet and sacrifice on the nightly news. This man — Howard Beale — was subject to ratings — to whim — and a more general emotional desensitisation and de-intellectualisation, as the viewer, beset by the anxiety of Seventies America, seeks an outlet for its powerlessness and rage.
The newsman prophet begged viewers to turn off the TV and save their souls. Thrilled by their cruelty and new agency — Beale was their broken toy — they didn’t, and Beale was murdered live on air. There could be no other ending. Network’s writer, Paddy Chayefsky, knew where we were heading. He didn’t live long enough to see the X-Factor, Pop Idol and Britain’s Got Talent but he would have recognised them.
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Cowell didn’t sell music. He sold souls. Serious musicians, who hated his work, knowing that it deprived them of attention, autonomy and the space to develop, said so. “You wouldn’t find a Joni Mitchell on X Factor,” said Annie Lennox. “It’s a factory, you know, and it’s owned and stitched-up by puppet masters”.
He collected the vulnerable and the credulous — those longing for an affirmation previously denied them — and subjected them to a public audition process he called authentic, but which was nothing of the kind. For those who tempted him, he invented the thrilling and awful concept of the personal journey, to be consumed week by week by his audience: drama, but with real people, and higher emotional stakes.
Cowell called himself honest, as much a victim as anyone of the swelling genre, but he denied his own agency in this: his own skill. I think he was devoured by greed. I met him in his pomp, and he was charming. It was business. If people would buy it, he sold it. I wondered if he was a kind man trying to escape his own creation of himself; he does a lot for charity. There are rumours, too, that he inspired a sub-genre of porn in which middle-aged men shout at people while nude, which I believe. For those seeking more “family-friendly” entertainment he offered a dog called Pudsey that walked on two legs.
There were multiple acts and softer judges than Cowell — usually doll-women, scenery that could flirt — but he was the big event, a demon in high-waisted trousers. He was the one seeking the vulnerable to raise up and cast aside according to his whim, though the audience was allowed the fantasy of control. He was his greatest product and his greatest success; his personal journey was the most successful in the entire genre and watching the promise of fame afflict his contestants was, entirely, the game. What would they hand over for our attention? Their dignity? Their privacy? Their sanity? Could Susan Boyle hack it? That was the question.
I have been to a Reality TV open audition. It does not attract the healthy and the emotionally whole. Reality TV producers seek conflict and misery, and, 20 years on, they have both the corpses to prove it, and their own mirrored reality in cinema, which tells more stories about Reality TV, though not as well as Chayefsky. But satire can’t touch Cowell. He is surrounded by mirrors.
He and his acolytes — he employed Piers Morgan on America’s Got Talent where he insinuated to child acts that their parents didn’t love them, for instance — abused contestants while preening. “That was just everything I hated”, Cowell would say; or “it’s just rubbish”; or “just get out, just leave”.
If he was disgusted by people who sought fame, as he did — and Morgan is the same — he used this self-knowledge cynically, for harm. He talked as people do on Twitter before Twitter. If that website has an authorial voice — a voice of god — it is his.
He does have a legacy, even as the public has lost interest in his particular form of sadism, for on social media it is even more immediate and thrilling. I credit Cowell with the consuming fashion for public cruelty, the erosion of privacy with our own consent, and the invention of the personal journey as popular entertainment. That is his legacy, in our narcissistic language and the way we demand a bogus personal narrative from everyone we can name, which feels like — and amounts to — theft.
So much public rhetoric is a collection of personal journeys, all vying to transmit. They are meaningless because they are confected for television, squeezed down to three minutes: a show-reel, not a life. Alongside this hunger for personal narrative runs a desensitisation to the very emotions we are being asked to observe.
TV emotion is fake, because it demands nothing of you; you are imagining kinship with a mirage, or a ghost, and where that leaves your real relationships, I cannot say. Cowell’s genre was the opening act of an awful trend that has bloomed everywhere: for the charismatic; the know-nothing; the tinny sentimentalist; the preening; the cruel.
It is fitting that he leaves now, with his half a billion pounds of profit, because he is more successful than he could have imagined when he brought us Teletubbies Say Eh-Oh! He founded an entire culture. Seek his monument and it is all around you, on Twitter and Facebook and Tiktok and Instagram; in every one of the millions of pieces of dehumanisation we sink to daily. He is, in the end, a very important man, just not to music. I posit the hash tag #WeAreAllSimonCowellNow. He has earned it.