When you look at American Idol's Simon Cowell, his buff plumpness packed into his fancy T-shirts, you might find another figure coming strangely to mind—William Shatner. More specifically, you might be reminded of the original Star Trek Shatner, who, even in early middle age, had to be girdled into his Enterprise stretch-wear. Both Shatner and Cowell are known for their histrionics: Shatner as Kirk looking into the alien heavens and tossing his head from side to side in B-movie despair; Cowell massaging his temples or rubbing his eyes in a hammy semblance of aesthetic displeasure. It took Shatner maybe 15 years before he began trading on his kitsch legacy by giving Kirkified poetry readings in cafes and punk clubs. So, with allowances for our tightening cycle of nostalgia and self-reference, we might give Cowell half a decade or so before he gets in on the joke that he is.
Like Anne Robinson of The Weakest Link before him, Cowell has benefited from the weird TV conceit that, perhaps out of some sense of our own cultural inferiority, Americans should enjoy seeing other Americans derided by sarcastic Brits. And yet an indispensable part of the American Idol experience is watching the imperious Simon flounder in his own show. In the competition's early rounds, the bizarre comedy of the flamboyantly "bad" singers sails far over his head. He's like a figure-skating judge bitchily scribbling down low scores without looking up to realize he's at Wrestlemania. But more interesting are the later rounds, in which Simon tries to impose his own rigid ideal of Idolness—a dull combination of capable singing and synthetic sexiness—on the voting audience. And the audience, animated by its own far-from-elevated biases, rejects it.
One vivid sign of Cowell's floundering: His famous putdowns, which—despite the stagy malice of the intent behind them—are toothless, indeed witless, in their execution. They are, in fact, more consistently cringe-worthy than the singing that provokes them. Cowell, who comes third in the line of judges, has even more time to hone the gist and syntax of his insults and these are what he comes up with:
"It was like The Exorcist."
"If your lifeguard duties were as good as your singing, a lot of people would be drowning."
"You had about as much passion as a kitten mewing."
"You sang like someone who sings on a cruise ship. Halfway through I imagined the ship sinking."
"I think you're amazing ... amazingly dreadful."
"That was extraordinary. Unfortunately, it was extraordinarily bad."
It's one thing, and a fairly benign thing at that, to venture a croaking imitation of Luther Vandross or Celine Dion. It's another thing to present yourself as the next great wit-misanthrope, a combination of Oscar Wilde and H.L. Mencken, when your verbal dexterity is more akin to that of Regis Philbin.
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