Saturday, April 15, 2006

Is Simon Cowell Off His Rocker?

Viewers of American Idol figured out early in the season five competition that, of all twenty-four semifinalists, Simon Cowell clearly prefers Chris Daughtry for his recording voice and Kellie Pickler for her other – ahem – talents. Cowell told Larry King on March 17, 2006 that Daughtry, Pickler and Taylor Hicks were the top three contestants to beat.

On April 14, 2006, Extra posted a summary of the interview Simon gave to their reporter Terri Seymour, also Cowell’s girlfriend. Surprisingly, Extra identified Paris Bennett as Simon’s favorite to win, despite a record of giving her mixed reviews.

So – is Simon Cowell off his rocker, Chris Daughtry, or just off his rocker?

Cowell is an extravagantly wealthy British music and TV mogul who will have shows this year on nearly every major American network. Reportedly he is the highest paid star in Fox TV history. He started as a teenager clerking in the mailroom for EMI and worked his way up to record producer within three years. He has lost a fortune in the music industry and remade it a hundredfold. An Artist and Repertoire (A&R) executive, Cowell serves as a talent scout for Sony BMG, the label that signs the winners of American Idol and other Cowell-affiliated programs.

"The only reason that I put myself through this pain is because my label gets the artist," he told Bill Carter of the New York Times about his gig as AI judge. "Which is why I actually do care if I hate somebody or I actually like somebody."

Simon is motivated by more than a big payoff. He relishes variety and challenge. "Making a lot of money usually means not putting your neck on the block anymore, but putting your neck on the block is part of the thrill. If I genuinely believe something is a good idea, then I'm willing to fail or succeed by giving it a go."

Two years ago, as he was preparing to launch new and risky projects, the coolly confident Cowell experienced an unfamiliar twinge of self-doubt. "I remember thinking: My gosh, I've sold a new talent show in Britain, and I'm taking 'Idol' off the air there. I'm launching a classical group called Il Divo. I'm changing the sound of the group Westlife, which had already sold 40 million records. And I was thinking: This could all come crashing down. This new show could fail. The classical group could fail. I could screw Westlife's career up. Why am I doing this, because it's going to be quite a high-profile bomb if that happens."

A lawsuit last year against Cowell by partner Simon Fuller was settled in time for him to return for season five of American Idol. He reluctantly surrendered the right to bring his beloved British show The X Factor to the U.S. in exchange for a three-year AI contract extension, including rights to record the winners, and a shipload o' shekels.

Days before the debut of this season’s top 24, Simon told Associated Press writer Derrik J. Lang that only three semifinalists "have got a chance in the music industry."

"To me, it was absolutely crystal clear at this stage last year that Carrie Underwood would win the competition," said Cowell. "So it all felt a bit obvious. Whereas this year, I could argue the case for seven or eight of the contestants. I genuinely don't know who's gonna win. I've got a feeling who are gonna make the finals. But once you're in the finals, I think you're gonna have the most open competition you've ever seen, which for us and the viewers at home, that's a good thing."

Interviewed by Don Kaplan of the New York Post, Simon assayed the top 24 as “a real chocolate box of talent – or lack thereof."

“You're not going to find 12 amazing singers this year,” he predicted. “But you're going to get 12 characters, I'm sure of that." Cowell described Idol as "a drama. When we first pitched the show to [British TV], we said: 'This is a soap opera with a music backdrop. It's much more about that thumbs-up or thumbs-down than the music.' "

"When we made the decisions about who was going to go through,” he explained, “we tried to mix it up as much as possible so that there would be people who the audience would be genuinely interested in."

Simon told Kaplan that personality more than talent contributed to the program’s enduring success, which he blamed nevertheless for the season one finale mismatch. "Unfortunately that year popularity, in the case of Justin [Guarini], won over talent,” he complained. “It should have been Tamyra [Gray]."

That Simon – always trying to have it both ways. He can say darn near anything he wants, contradicting himself with little consequence and insulting those who share his screen time at will. Every American Idol contestant yearns for his approval, but being his prized pet has its downside.

The backlash against Chris Daughtry began with his decision to cover Stevie Wonder’s Higher Ground in the style of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Even some Daughtry fans thought his choice was a cop-out.

The last undiluted praise Simon lavished on Chris was after his re-interpretation of Johnny Cash’s I Walk the Line during Fanilow week. “And actually I’ve got to tell you," he said, “I think you are the first artist we’ve ever had on this show who’s actually refused to compromise. And for that, a round of applause.”

Within hours, the internet was abuzz with the discovery that the version Cowell attributed to Daughtry as an uncompromising original should have been credited to the band Live, of whom Chris is an avowed fan. The backlash grew ferociously.

The next week Chris performed Creed’s What If with a hard edge reminiscent of Nickelback’s How You Remind Me, which sent Constantine Maroulis packing in season four. Much as he warned Constantine, Simon said, “Chris, for the first time I’m gonna be negative with you because again I thought that was indulgent. There is a line you don’t cross. Creed would not be seen dead on this show. This show is American Idol. You’ve got to start showing, in my opinion, a different side to you. I think you’ve gone too far with that song tonight. You can’t keep doing this week after week after week.”

After Chris sang Keith Urban’s Memories of Us on country night, Simon said, “Chris, listen, it was great to see a different side to you. Having said that, I think that, for two weeks now, you as contestants have chosen really boring, uninteresting songs. And I think the audience at home deserve better than that. I really do. They’re not good songs.”

For this week’s Queen theme, Daughtry selected the obscure Innuendo. “Chris, they don’t perform that song live because it’s not a very good song,” said Simon. “Look, I will grant you the best vocal tonight, the best believable vocal tonight. I’m just disappointed, Chris. I just think it’s a shame that you didn’t decide to entertain the audience at home with one of the great Queen songs, because you could have had a moment tonight. And it was to me, once again, the song was too indulgent.”

By indulgent, Simon meant uncompromising, which this time was not a compliment. In contrast, Queen guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor were mightily impressed by Daughtry.

Later in the show Simon declared that Katharine McPhee “almost had the moment” on Who Wants to Live Forever.

After Elliott Yamin sang Somebody to Love, Simon said, “You know, Elliott, as the guys [Brian and Roger of Queen] said, you chose the tough one. You know, I agree with Randy. It was a kind of in and out performance. Overall, I think you probably pulled it off.” Simon looked a bit sickly and would not meet Elliott’s eye.

Cowell reacted as though he handed Chris a royal platter only to have the ingrate spit on it. Maybe Queen night was intended to be Daughtry’s majestic showcase, but Chris focused on remaining true to his own vision. I suspect Elliott came closest to the moment Simon thought Chris needed to nail to win the competition.

Chris Daughtry has been as consistent in his performances as Simon has been inconsistent in his criticism and rhetoric. Conviction, authenticity and independence are important components of Daughtry’s persona, which I find admirable. Regardless of how long he stays in the contest, I am optimistic that he can have the kind of music career he wants on his terms.

Taylor Hicks is phenomenally popular like Clay Aiken, but Taylor’s fan base might actually be larger because he appeals to so many men as well as women - with one snarky, cranky, non-Yankee exception. The prospect of Hicks as the winning artist Cowell must record and sell to the masses is unlikely to improve his disposition in coming weeks.

The best in Taylor brings out the worst in Simon. After his spirited rendition of Living for the City, Cowell compared Hicks to a "drunken father singing at a wedding." When Taylor delivered the single most entertaining performance in American Idol history this week on Crazy Little Thing Called Love, Simon asked simply, “Are you drunk?” To Terri Seymour of Extra, he added, "It's ungainly, all over the place. It's funny. I'm not disputing the guy can sing, but it's all a bit stupid."

TMZ reported that Taylor was offended by Simon’s saucy remark.

Newly ousted contestant Bucky Covington shared his blunt assessment of Cowell with the Associated Press.

“It seems like he used to give advice,” Bucky observed, “but now he doesn't give advice as he does try to put you down. He told Paris: 'Weird.' What is that supposed to mean? You did not help her any with that comment. You should have just kept your mouth shut. For him to like someone like me or Taylor is out of the question. No matter what we do, he's not going to like us. We're just not his thing."

Back to the question posed by the title of this piece. Is Simon Cowell off his rocker?

I think Simon is bored with American Idol and would rather be judging the American version of The X Factor, which cannot happen until AI goes off the air permanently. I doubt that he would try to sabotage Idol overtly, but he is obviously detached from it and often apathetic. His comments have gotten lazy and careless.

I think Simon found Chris Daughtry and his alt-rock-meets-top-40 genre a refreshing change from past Idol wannabes and an interesting potential challenge for his music label. However, Chris has not displayed the killer instinct of a competitor required to shake up the voting trends that are moving Taylor’s way.

Of course, Simon would never expect Chris to record 30-year-old or older hits from the songbooks of Barry Manilow, Kenny Rogers, Rod Stewart or even Queen. As Simon noted above, American Idol is more about soap opera than opera. Theme nights beget good television. Good television begets higher ratings. Higher ratings beget more voters. Unfortunately for Daughtry, monotonous performances on theme nights do not beget more voters. Fortunately for Hicks, his happy feet beget terrific Taylor-vision.

Simon’s inexplicable endorsement of Paris Bennett, if true, could be a devious ploy. Maybe he thinks his favoritism has cost Chris votes, so he will pretend to support Paris instead. Maybe he has truly forsaken Chris and thinks Paris is his best hope to beat Taylor. Or maybe he finally appreciates the sweet little girl with the big voice, but he didn’t offer any such indication after her powerful vocal on The Show Must Go On, which he called "weird."

Bucky was right about Simon’s inappropriate comment to Paris. He made inappropriate comments to Taylor and Kellie, too. He only seems to be having fun when annoying Paula Abdul or Ryan Seacrest, who – scripted or ad-libbing – has turned scolding Simon into farce. The good-natured teasing of the past among host and judges has been replaced by poisoned darts lobbed between adversaries. Seacrest appears to be the official spokesman for the American Idol team with Cowell an outcast. During Wednesday’s elimination show, Ryan told Simon, “Each week you look more and more agitated to be here. You’re the grumpiest millionaire I’ve ever met.”

Simon Cowell has behaved all season like a spoiled sourpuss. He may be off the Chris Daughtry bandwagon – or not. But he is about as crazy as Taylor Hicks.