New York

Simon Cowell Owns the Universe

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Famous celebrity Status Ain’t Hood and professional singer Riff Raff practice their duet

Here’s something Riff Raff said one time (parroting Sasha Frere-Jones) that stuck in my head: “The big deal for us is Late Registration, right? And that’s sold, what, two million? That’s like the same number of people that download an episode of Lost from iTunes.” The year-end feeding frenzy surrounding “Since U Been Gone” proves plenty of things, one of which is that it’s impossible to talk about pop music in 2005/6 without, on some level, acknowledging Simon Cowell. Kelly Clarkson’s album was one of the top-five best-selling albums of the past year, but even that isn’t anywhere near an accurate measure of Cowell’s success. American Idol is the most-watched show on TV in this country, which means that it’s bigger than music. Music is chaotic and subjective and populated entirely by people with weirdly intense and personal preferences and byzantine networks of loyalties and very, very strong feelings. And it’s easy to lose track of this, but music is not mass culture. Most people could not give a fuck about it. So here’s what’s so impressive about what Cowell’s done: he’s turned music into mass culture, obsession into product, splenetic passion into money. Even if you think that’s a bad thing (and I don’t, particularly), you have to respect the man’s grind.

I’ll have more to say about American Idol after it premiers next week, especially since there’s not shit else to talk about in January, but today’s big news is this: the Hollywood Reporter had a story yesterday that Cowell had sold Fox another series. In this one, celebrities who aren’t singers will sing duets with actual professional singers. It’ll basically follow the American Idol format: they’ll all sing something based on the same theme, and viewers will vote off one celebrity each week. We’ve seen the celebrities-paired-with-professionals thing done before, on Dancing with the Stars and that one show where they try to figure-skate. And we’ve seen nonsinging celebrities try to sing on VH-1’s But Can They Sing? But the main thing that kept any of those shows from advancing beyond car-crash-appeal status was the quality of celebrities. Does the guy who played J. Peterman on Seinfeld even count as a celebrity? And is there really any cultural punch in seeing that fucking obnoxious hair-gelled Gotti kid face off against someone from One Tree Hill? VH-1’s show, of course, was completely overwhelmed by the general smarminess of tone they bring to everything, but even the other two shows, both ostensibly “serious,” seemed planned out almost as jokes.

But I’m completely expecting Cowell’s new show to succeed where those other shows have failed. For one thing, Cowell has made enough money for Fox that the network might actually throw a budget behind this show, something that might lure a few honest-to-God celebrities instead of the usual lineup of comeback-desperate ex-sitcom actors and barely-recognizable who-the-fucks and, worst of all, people who were on other reality TV shows. For another, Cowell or his underlings have an innate sense of tension-building pace. American Idol is a pretty good idea with an utterly flawless execution, and it’s the execution that makes the show work. If he can bring the same the same sensibility to this new show, he can make it good TV.

Now, the music on American Idol is mostly appalling, and this new show almost certainly won’t be any different. But music is secondary. TV is more powerful. And Simon Cowell is a powerful man. I’ll watch this shit even if I don’t want to. So will you.

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