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We are all Simon Cowell now The talent show supremo made voyeurs of us all

Credit: Stuart C. Wilson/Getty

Credit: Stuart C. Wilson/Getty


November 3, 2021   4 mins

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.

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.


Tanya Gold is a freelance journalist.

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Terry Needham
Terry Needham
2 years ago

“The talent show supremo made voyeurs of us all”
Not all of us. We are not compelled to watch. And so I don’t.

Last edited 2 years ago by Terry Needham
J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

Wow. I have nothing to say about Cowell but Tanya Gold is a seriously good (and scathing) reviewer. If she turned to the dark side she’d be a heck of a judge on X Factor.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I agree, except to say I cannot stand the man.

Jonathan Weil
Jonathan Weil
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Did you see her latest restaurant review for the spectator (The Whitcomb)? A masterclass.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

Cowell is just one of the many products the real monsters pump out into society to make us less moral, less mentally healthy, less educated, less family oriented, worse citizens, Nihilist, stupid consumers. The writer is merely blaming the messenger.

The real monsters being the Entertainment Industry. I have tried my free Netflix and Prime – they are just evil Cra*. Degenerate, depraved, sadistic, twisted, sickos. Some good stuff – but not much in those huge catalogues of unhealthy, soulless, corruption.

John Williams
John Williams
2 years ago

This is one of the best articles I’ve read in a long time, well done Tanya. Brilliant, spot on, brave and totally compelling. I just hope you don’t bump into SC on a dark night somewhere!

Andrew Lale
Andrew Lale
2 years ago

I have never watched a second of any program with Cowell in it. Not one second.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Lale

So you can’t have any insight about him then? Enjoy the cave, or rock.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

X-factor probably attracted elderly viewers in their 
. millions (in GB) who liked to see “stage singing performances”, a form of variety entertainment and broadcast live. The camera lingered, on X-factor. This was certainly not the way with Eurovision post-Millennium where each performance on that annual TV extravaganza is like watching a rap video: flashing multiple shots from all angles. The sense of Eurovision having become a young persons’ exclusive house party probably shunted fed-up elderly pensioners to steer towards X-factor as the musical highlight of the year on TV. And they could talk about it with their grandchildren. (Though moving it into Sunday also probably taxed their patience). Even songs prior to the 1970s were sung. Was X-factor (and Pop Idol) the last big communal TV event, involving the viewership of both the very young and the elderly? I think so. It’s now ten years since it last caught the public’s imagination. Perhaps attention may be a better word, though.
Would today’s TV audiences have the patience to watch X-factor? Probably not.
What would have happened had Pop Idol and X-Factor not ever materialised on TV? Well, the fact of its existence I believe had a hand in encouraging people to sing for the first time in their lives when they went to a karaoke bar or party, having been inspired by X-factor. Before TV, before radio, the working-classes, correct me if I’m wrong, sang together occasionally in each other’s homes, perhaps round a piano. And if not there, then at church. Not for a jolly knees-up there, mind you. And I believe that only the live performance of popular song can give people belief in a good and cheerful future. So I don’t want everything to be an ephemera on TV. But now even in churches, singing is sometimes verboten.

Al M
Al M
2 years ago

“ There are rumours, too, that he inspired a sub-genre of porn in which middle-aged men shout at people while nude “

Should I ever participate in my own car crash TV guilty pleasure of Come Dine With Me, I have my pre-dessert entertainment nailed then.

Chris Bradshaw
Chris Bradshaw
2 years ago

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.

I feel the same way about Zoom calls.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago

No, a misinterpretation of the chicken and egg scenario – the public wanted this type of ‘entertainment’ so it was inevitably going to happen. He was just very good at making it.

Roger Inkpen
Roger Inkpen
2 years ago

Cowell may have tampered with the pop music business, but the record industry has a long track record of abusing performers. Whether it was through churning out pop acts that were flavour of the month – how many one hit wonders thought at the time they’d made it big? Or the songwriters like George Michael who were ripped off for royalties? George could afford to sue, but how many thousands of others lost out?
And let’s not get started on the film business and its abuse of ‘stars’ – or was Weinstein a one off?

Sharon Overy
Sharon Overy
2 years ago

Speak for yourself. I’ve never been that vacuous.

Eddie Johnson
Eddie Johnson
2 years ago

“The talent show supremo made voyeurs of us all”
Au conbleedin’traire. Never have, never will.
Don’t try to socialise your own “guilty pleasures”.
The rest of us have something called “lives” to lead.

Last edited 2 years ago by Eddie Johnson
Howard Gleave
Howard Gleave
2 years ago

Cowell has not made voyeurs of us all. I never watch rubbish like this. I did not bother to progress beyond this fatuous headline.