Is there a Simon Cowell backlash brewing?

I’ve got an interesting story for you about Simon Cowell. A former Universal director called Hans Ebert had written a scathing piece about Simon on his WordPress-hosted blog. Suddenly, and without warning, Ebert’s blog was taken offline. Someone had shut him down, citing a breach of their Terms Of Service.

Ebert talks about being shut down by an Indian SEO firm who, when he dug into matters, have links to a company in London. The subtext here is that Cowell, or Cowell’s representatives have engaged people for online reputation management who actively try to bury stories that speak negatively about the reality TV kingpin. Naturally, Cowell’s people deny these suggestions:

Cowell’s spokeswoman Thompson says she’s never heard of Ebert and calls our story “complete and utter rubbish.” Adds Thompson: “If something appeared on the Internet and Simon had any objection to it, I would have have heard of it.”

The thing is, it’s not the first time we’ve seen evidence of Simon Cowell’s desperate attempts to manage public perception of him. In 2008, the Daily Mail got their hands on an X Factor contestants’ contract and discovered a clause forbidding the contestants from speaking negatively about Simon. And think about it, with the notable exception of Steve Brookstein, when was the last time you heard an X Factor alumni publicly bashing Simon Cowell?

Steve Brookstein – for the record – was the first ever X Factor winner, and he parted company with Cowell’s label on extremely bad terms. I’ve personally spoken to Brookstein, and some of the acts of media manipulation he was asked to be involved in made it clear to me that he was right to stand his ground. Perhaps someday Steve will be remembered as a guy who had a modicum of integrity rather than an X Factor flop. There’s a bit more to his story than failing to sell records, so look twice at that guy.

A savvy media manipulator

The bulk of Ebert’s articles accuse Cowell of being vastly overrated – a reality TV ‘svengali’ who’s warped and distorted the format so that the contestants barely matter anymore. His original post focused on how American Idol would be stronger without Cowell, describing him as an albatross.

Mr.Cowell is an extremely shrewd man- a manipulator of the truth, shall we say. If one were to read his quotes, you’d be fooled into thinking he actually created the Teletubbies just as I’ve had to correct so many regarding the fact that he never “created” the “Idol” franchise. Nothing of the kind.

He was “hired help” that went on to own that mansion on the hill and eventually became bigger than the show for which he was hired. Ryan Seacrest has been no less important to the success of “American Idol” than Mr. Cowell. He just doesn’t make a song-and-dance about it. He gets on with his career and is slowly building up his empire, than you very much.

There’s much to agree with. Ebert talks about how Cowell has built an impressive brand that has managed to become bigger than the show which launched him. But he sees Simon as more concerned with the dollars than about establishing great new music acts. Ebert’s right, of course. Paul Potts was the ‘inspirational star of Britain’s Got Talent’ until Susan Boyle came along two years later and it was inconvenient to have two winners with the same story.

The point is, your shelf life under Simon Cowell is perilously short. For the millions of wannabes who sign up to those contracts, it seems like a good idea at the time. But wait until the shine wears off that ‘new sensation’ image – you’ll be dumped on your ass in as unceremonious a way as you can think off. And don’t think your old pal Simon will come and give the news to you personally. It’ll be a far cry from him stiffly patting you on the back on the night you win one of his shows.

The destroyer of TV talent competitions

None of the media manipulation stuff would bother me per se, except for the fact that Cowell has no concept of quality control. He’ll happily bankroll the careers of Susan Boyle and Alexandra Burke and others until they outlive their usefulness. Simon Cowell will never make the same mistake that Simon Fuller made – allowing one of his proteges to become bigger than his brand. No chance.

In order to achieve this, we get a heady diet of awful singers and clearly staged moments for television. It might be Sharon Osbourne slinging water around a fellow judge, or allowing the twin talent-vacuum that is Jedward through to the live shows of X Factor to create a talking point. It’ll certainly be all the backstage(d) bickering between the judges and the faked-up reports of salary rows and judges getting fired. Etc, etc.

There’ll be a greater focus on scoring a performance from Lady Gaga than there will on the actual contestants. But then you’ll have Louis Walsh doing his utmost to eliminate the best singers from the competition to accommodate whatever lame acts he’s left himself with this year. All of this falls back on Simon Cowell as the owner of the format. What’s he playing at? Why isn’t he trying to make the show better and create long-lasting stars?

The thing is…I used to be a big fan of Simon Cowell. And I used to be a big fan of reality TV singing competitions. The thrill is wearing off as time has proven that they can’t create long-lasting stars. The losers are more likely to be successful than the winners – witness JLS and Diana Vickers who are giving Alexandra Burke a run for her money.

I just don’t believe that Simon is a safe bet anymore. He should be using his status as starmaker to launch fantastic musicians. Instead, he’s focused on the short-term gains: sign a fame-hungry wannabe up for a couple of years, milk their fame but replace them with a newer version from next year’s X Factor. Carbon copy the format and broadcast local versions all over the world, and you’ve got the market sewn up for years.

Perhaps the tide is already turning. Enough people bought into a protest campaign to stop this year’s X Factor winner, Joe McElderry, from getting the Christmas #1. Rage Against The Machine got the top spot instead, based on a grassroots Facebook campaign. So clearly there are people out there fed up with the type of artist who graduates from the X Factor school of schmaltz.

What do you think folks, has Simon Cowell outlived his usefulness? I’d love to hear your opinions on this one. And don’t forget to give Hans Ebert’s blog a second look. He might become a very important voice in reality TV in the next year or so.

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  1. RandomEnigma

    Fantastic article, Gerard! I completely agree with everything you and Hans Ebert said.

    Ever since Simon Cowell dropped Leon Jackson from Syco after his first proper single failed to get to #1, I knew that Simon Cowell was a shrewd operator. The man clearly doesn’t give a damn about music and continues to build his empire from simply using the judging formula for X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, which continues to be hugely marketable across the World.

    A while back I discovered that X-Factor contestants meet with the producers before the audition stage and sing for them. The really bad auditionees are sent so they can provide “television gold” by humiliating themselves on TV while the good auditionees pretend to be all nervous and tense about not getting through to boot camp.

    I am totally done with these music reality TV shows. I have nothing against the contestants who come out of these shows provided their music’s good (Kelly Clarkson, Will Young, Leona Lewis) but its clear that the show does nothing but exploit. I’m sick of the sob stories, the drawn out predictable actions and verdicts of the judges, the scattiness. I know TV shows have to be entertaining but how about letting the talent speak for itself. Goddamnit, I’m going to draw up a list of clichés The X-Factor uses when I get the chance.

    The sad thing is, these shows continue to pull in big ratings! One thing is, I’m glad I’m not signed to ruthless Simon’s Syco label.

  2. Gerard McGarry

    Thanks Random, I’m glad you chimed in on this one – as one of Shout’s resident pop gurus, what comes out of these reality shows usually ends up getting critiqued by you.

    I’m getting more and more concerned about the cut-throat cycle that reality TV talent shows introduce. You’ve got two years of relevancy at most (and Leona Lewis is the exception to that rule so far). After that, you’ve got competition from the winners and runners-up from more recent versions of the show, and the pop charts can only support so many X Factor alumni before we get tired of them.

    You can’t have proper artist development if you’re giving these people a shelf life of a couple of years. And therefore, X Factor or American Idol is never going to give us a Madonna, Michael Jackson or (to keep it contemporary) a Rihanna or a Lady Gaga. Having watched these shows for a long time now, I can say I’m getting tired of the production line of pure shite that rolls off them.

    Unless things change – and change drastically – I’ll be happy to dance on the grave of X Factor.

  3. Dara Hickey

    The things is, Simon Cowell sees money, not an artists. He sees all his puppets as a way of earning himself extra money rather than actual people with integrity and occasionally, the odd bit of musical talent. Thankfully, the two that DO have musical talent have left him, with polarized success – on one hand there’s Steve Brookstein, and on the other there’s Will Young.

    Where is Michelle MacManus? Shayne Ward? Craig David? Leon Jackson? They’re all gone because they flopped outside the his reality TV shows: Simon Cowell struck gold with the Excrement Factor, but in it’s first three years (which undoubtedly were the most watchable), it failed to produce the star he wanted… but in Season 4, along came pretty little Leona, and he marketed her as much as he could and made her into a label puppet.

    The man has killed her, she has no chance of ever freeing herself from the “she can only sing ballads” handle; he’s comparing everyone on the show to his precious little money-maker. But mark my words, no matter how successful or talented Leona may be, when she stops making money that’s the end of her, some other Mariah Carey wannabe will fill her place.

    He’s also killing the music industry, not giving any sense the twat knows anything about what a REAL popstar is either. To him, a popstar is someone who has lots of #1 and has lots of money. Whereas the world’s (or at least the educated world’s) view of a REAL popstar is someone who’s fought for their right to be themselves and to make the records they want – to put out music that personifes them and was written by the artists themselves, not drafting in some random producer to make someone sound loike every other puppet in the business.

    Everyone sounds the same now – there’s no real talent in the charts – almost every song in chart could’ve been sung for four or five different artists. People like Taio Cruz, Diana Vickers, JLS, Ne-Yo, Travie McCoy, Jedward, Miley Cyrus, Iyaz, Justin Bieber, Usher, Flo Rida, Pixie Lott, Jason Derulo..the list goes on, and they’re all manufactured trash – Simon made talentless a big thing – so other label (with the exception of Cherrytree Records) have done the same – made a good looking nobody who can hold a light tune, auto-tuned them to fuck, and sold them as the next best thing. It’s now made it impossible for anyone who doesn’t sounds like these people to shine through, being cast off as ‘unmarketable’, so now record labels just take the ones willing to bend, and mould them into a sellable nobody.

    Look at his new spawn – Olly Murs, he may only have a joint contract with him but he most certainly isn’t taking any chances – Simon is marketing him as someone else. Someone who has alrerady made it big, without for once thinking that maybe Olly Murs can sell records by being Olly Murs (however big a knob-end he is). Olly is a poor excuse for a Will Young, and will never reach the stratospheric heights of fame Will has, nor will he have the longevity. It enrages me – look at Olly’s Excrement factor performances – where is the newly acquired, strategically placed straw hat with accompanying feather? What about the buttoned up shirt with the buttoned down collar? Where is the falsetto?

    It’s nowhere to be seen because, at the end of the day, that’s not Olly, it’s Will. but on Olly’s new records, all those image/sound qualities are there, it’s an insult to Will Young if you ask me – probably because Will’s had more success outside of Syco.

    Here’s something really funny I dug up, when (arguably the most unique male solo act around) Mika went to Simon for a record contract, Simon had this to say:

    “I can’t market that, or your songs – you don’t fit into the typical popstar image or sound. You should try more to be like Craig David: sing like him, dress and sound like him. I can get you some top quality producers and we’ll work on the whole package as long as you give up the falsetto and the skinny jeans”.

    If I were Mika I’d have punched him. More fool Simon anyway – Mika scored his first ever #1 with the song that was inspired by that conversation – ‘Grace Kelly’.

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