But being rubbished by Cowell is the whole point of American Idol, and the reason the show has been the biggest thing on TV for the past five years. Each successive season seems to tap into a vaster ferment of delusion, a wilder and more desperate underworld of gibbering no-talents, and it has fallen to Cowell alone to sort them out. Randy is too impermeably jovial, Paula too scattered and all-mothering; only nasty Simon can deal the death blow. “Your future involves not singing,” he promised one teenager, a spotty boy who had augmented his vocal performance by dismally hopping about with some feathered juggling sticks. The boy came roaring out of the audition room with tears and curses — “Fuck him! [bleeped, of course, by Fox] He said that I sum up Minneapolis! That it’s my fault Minneapolis has no talent!” — but even here (poor kid!) one could see the justice of it: Cowell had stung him into life, out of the drabness of his dreaming and into full-color reality.
Cowell is no respecter of the vulnerable, and as well as inducing paroxysms of piety in his show-biz peers (“The whole thing, it’s terribly sad to me,” lamented Rosie O’Donnell recently), his cruelty has spawned a secondary industry of victimhood. Special Olympian Jonathan Jayne and his equally special friend Kenneth Briggs — described by Cowell as looking “like one of those creatures that live in the jungle with those massive eyes” — got booted off Idol straight onto the couches of The View, where their hurt feelings were massaged by the ladies. Then Jimmy Kimmel sent them to the Super Bowl. The aforementioned Ian Benardo was interviewed by Larry King, as was Chris Henry, whose pure castrato voice had moved Cowell to suggest that he should be singing “in a dress and stilettos.” (Growled Larry: “Was that rude, Chris?”) Cowell is also reliably lecherous. When a shapely contestant leaves the audition room, his eyes make a quick dip asswards — the camera never fails to catch it.
Without him, though, all would be chaos. In our lifetimes we have seen the abolition of ordinariness. No more middle ground — if not Fame, nothing. Give me Idolhood or give me death. They flirt, they plead, they scream: “I’m begging you on my knees . . . I’ll do anything . . . I’ve worked so hard . . . If I don’t get this, that means I was WRONG! Please! PLEASE!”
No, says Simon. That’s a No. Their eyes jolt, they struggle for oxygen. In the words of Ted Hughes, “Collision with the earth has finally come.” They stagger out, consigned to the hell of nonentity, into the arms of Ryan Toothpaste. Not all of them come apart, of course: some, like the man who dressed as a boxer and sang opera, or like “Pantherman” from the auditions in Los Angeles, are invincible fantasists, and a good Cowelling only tunes them up. These ones are easy to spot; they come cartwheeling in, high-fiving the universe, mad saints of self-belief. Here no corrective will suffice: with these ones, nothing can be done.