Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Simon Says, "Worship American Idol"

"Criticism is a study at which men grow important and formidable at a very small expense." - Samuel Johnson

(Simon Cowell, left,
Edmund Wilson, right)

The New Republic inadvertently launches another salvo at the crumbling wall that may still stand between art and commercialized popular culture.

In a perceptive piece this week, Franklin Foer writes about the ascendance of Simon Cowell and the juggernaut of American Idol. The interesting tactic of the Foer piece is his brush-off of the usual highbrow complaints about the show. Instead the focus here is on the empowerment Cowell's evaluations could give to the fading idea of the critic.

We have all read endless articles about the shallowness and depravity of watching public emabarssment on live television. But, Foer says,...

"Leveling this critique at "Idol," however, requires a certain myopia. It mistakes the trappings of the show--the endless renditions of Phil Collins, the shrieking, sign-waving girls in the audience--for "Idol"'s true contribution to culture. That contribution comes in the form of Cowell, who, along with his
fellow judges of lesser intellect, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson, issues critiques of each singer's performance. Every week, he finds new pejorative descriptions for the lame music he encounters. 'I think you're possibly the worst singer in the world,' he has quipped. Or, 'You take singing lessons? Do
you have a lawyer? Get a lawyer and sue your singing teacher.' But, far from precipitating cultural decline, these vicious performances have restored authority to the one figure that can salvage us from doom: the critic."

Foer's real attack is not on the popular culture machine, his real target is the highbrow cottage industry that is fueled by the idea that serious criticism died with Edmund Wilson. His argument is quite easy to follow:

"On the program, 'Idol' judges render assessments but don't actually vote for contestants. Their power rests entirely in their ability to sway the public--in other words, with the power of their criticism. Although Cowell's harsh pronouncements frequently make him the subject of jeers during the live broadcasts, his opinions routinely lead millions to pick up their phones and
vote for his favored candidates...Last year, he (alone among the judges) declared country singer Carrie Underwood the inevitable winner of the competition two months before the season finale, thus sealing her fate. (Remind me again: How many readers did Wilson win for the French symbolists?) "

But what are we really talking about here? Foer, in the article, praises Cowell for his ability to cut through the heart of American Idol:

"When he keelhauls contestants, his favored terms of abuse are 'karaoke,' 'cabaret,' 'cruise ship,' and 'wedding singer.' These cut-downs capture the essence of 'Idol.' Contestants are singing well-known pop songs. Successful singers are those who transcend the artificiality of the format and become more
than 'some ghastly Xerox machine.'"

The real question though, (using a reversal of Foer's clever line,) is: Remind me again, how many viewers did Simon Cowell win for transcendental singers? If anything, Idol seems to propel the Music Industry into the stratosphere, not artists. Kelly Clarkson didn't exactly go on to transcend anything.

Also, Foer gives far more praise than is deserved to what he perceives as Cowell's wit and style. WBUR Critic Bill Marx often writes of the authority of the critic lying not with his or her opinion, (after all, we all have those,) but instead with his or her wit, style and occasional adeptness at snark. Foer agrees, and sees all of those facets incorporated in Cowell's repertoire. However, Foer gives a very weak body evidence for this shaky appeal. Maybe I am wrong to assume Foer would include the best of Cowell's put-downs and observations in his article, but, honestly, I only found one to be even close to attaining canonization: "You have about as much Latin flair as a polar bear."

Cowell is not, as Foer points out, as offensive as some may think. My own first experience with American Idol happened well into the "Simon Cowell as Rude Offensive Jerk" publicity push. And I was strangely underwhelmed by the "snark" of his evaluations. His assesments are usually precise, calm and direct. However, where Foer sees a critical style affecting artistic substance, I still see a Coca-Cola marketing executive giving notes on the campaign and packaging of Coke Zero.

Interesting that just an issue or two ago The New Republic launched a takedown of Harold Bloom, who, more than others, gives truth to the lie that the critic has no authority. Though the article, by James Wood, was more about theological differences regarding the new book Jesus and Yahweh; The Names Divine, it still seems to downplay the "phase" of Bloom's career that has produced his bestsellers like The Western Canon and Genius. These are popular works by man who makes no pretense that he about anything other than the championing of aesthetic standards and the support of truly transcendant artists.

So, in the funhouse of our commercially driven society, Cowell is the Highbrow, and Bloom is the ineffective, whiny Gasbag.

Mr. Foer may do well to listen to a quote from Mr. Edmund Wilson:

"The implied position of the people who know about literature (as is also the case in every other art) is simply that they know what they know, and that they are determined to impose their opinions by main force of eloquence or assertion on the people who do not know."

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