Looking For Someone To Blame For Donald Trump? Try Simon Cowell, The Original TV Putdown Artist
American Idol is easing itself into retirement this season, its fifteenth since becoming a cultural sensation on North American televisions. To remind viewers of its origins, Idol has brought out Kelly Clarkson, the first winner. Clarkson, now a mother expecting another child, reminds just how long it’s been since she won in 2002 and launched a pop radio career.
And about how far-reaching has been the show’s cultural impact. Idol fans and industry wonks will tell you that stars like Clarkson, Daughtrey, Fantasia Barrino, Ruben Studdard, Jordin Sparks and Clay Aiken are the enduring legacy of the program. (Most music experts would concede that they are fine performers— if you like that sort of thing. That thing being power voices and interpretation over nuance.)
But American Idol’s real significance lies in its porn. Not glimpses of flesh and lingerie sported by the young (often very young) performers. Idol’s producers recognized that you can get boobs and pecs all over the conventional channels these days. HBO’s displays of graphic sex have even been spoofed in this uTube routine (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EUBiOOx0Pxw).
No, American Idol’s genius was in recognizing that criticism is the porn of the millenials. For a generation that has experienced nary a peep of ostracization on in its silky ascent through development, the thought of… oh, God… rejection is forbidden fruit. A most guilty pleasure. Like Donald Trump running for president. In fact, the criticism germ spawned by Idol may just land Trump in the White House. (We’ll get to that in a moment.)
Before Idol, game shows were anodyne programs groomed for endless syndication in the limbo of Nickelodeon. The site of mascara cascading down the cheeks of a callow, star-struck fame seeker had been as rare as unicorns. Then Idol emerged: fifteen years of broken dreams and crushed entitlement hopes laid bare for the cameras.
The most vitriolic spleen was vented by original judge Simon Cowell, a metrosexual martinet with a corrosive honesty. While fellow panelists Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul couched their criticism in the guise of career advice or good humour, Cowell savaged his victims in his clipped Brit accent, comparing their lame efforts to bad wedding singing or forgettable karaoke. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n9oxSo82esQ)
The bruising putdowns were greeted with gasps and disbelief by the snowflakes in the live audience. But the orgy of reality bites gave Idol its identity in the crowded media landscape. Instead of turning away performers, Cowell’s drive-by derision only attracted more hopefuls, eager for a rare compliment from Cowell.
And Idol’s No. 1 overall rating for FOX left no doubt about the popularity of judgment porn. Faster than you could say portable people meter, the airwaves were flooded with shows featuring celebrities delivering summary judgment on wannabes.
Another Brit, Gordon Ramsay, became a one-man culinary curmudgeon on Hell’s Kitchen in 2005, delivering his blistering, profane putdowns of wannabe chefs. Ramsay’s skyrocketing ratings spawned other cooking shows featuring kids to celebrities trying their hand at cupcakes, salads, kishkas andbisques.
Dancing programs proliferated with everyone from aging athletes to aspiring hoofers offering themselves to judges for putdown. The need for approval leapt off the screen as characters like Paul McCartney’s ex Heather Mills or former Dallas Cowboy star Emmitt Smith or Sharon Osbourne danced, souffléd or gamed their way to a showdown with the judges. Then there was the Survivor genre that enshrined the expression, “You’ve been voted off the island” into everyday speech.
But the master of Cowell’s putdown porn may wind up in the Oval office of the White House. Perhaps no one took Cowell’s model more to heart— and vaulted to stardom faster— than mogul Donald Trump. His 2004 series The Apprentice was at once the most brutal and compelling of the judge-and-jury formats.
With a terse, “You’re fired”, Trump dispatched contestants famous and not-so-famous from his reality show. Placating Trump—portrayed as the all-wise, all-knowing boss— gave him an authority and a back story that he’s used to hijack the Republican Party in the 2016 primary season. Rude and charming, brash and inspiring— Trump arrived in the primaries with a readymade resumé for politics. The man who tells it like it is.
His core followers seem disinterested in policy or debate. Hooked on his Apprentice one-liners, they worship him for deflating politicians the way he deflated celebrities. He is their avenger made whole in the belly of Washington D.C. So far, he's made the blood run in the hallways of government power.
If he topples Hillary Clinton in November he should remember to include an Inaugural Ballinvitation to Simon Cowell and the Idol producers. Their putdowns paved the way.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy
Bruce's career is unmatched in Canada for its diversity and breadth of experience with successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author of seven books. He was a featured columnist for the Calgary Herald (1998-2009) and the Globe & Mail (2009-2013).