Simon Cowell and his cynical hit machine
Here’s a little tidbit of information for you: today, Alexandra Burke, winner of last year’s X-Factor, signed a £3.5million deal with Epic, an imprint of Sony. I know that the majority of Britain will probably toast the achievement – it’s well known that breaking the US is one of the most difficult things for any act to pull off, a fact demonstrated by Oasis’s failure to make any real impact – but to me it is a terrible indictment of our own gullibility, and its infectious nature. How on earth do we allow ourselves to be convinced by the hyped up, turgid dross that Simon Cowell feeds us? How are we not left feeling like foie gras geese – overfed, bored and vaguely frightened?
It seems sad to me that as a whole we repeatedly fall for Simon Cowell’s hit-making cynicism. He has a formula worked out that is slowly chipping away at the core of the music industry – quality music – and turning it into a commercial and corporate farce. The charts have become a circus, and Cowell is cracking the whip. By running his TV shows, Cowell obviously gains publicity, but he also makes it possible for viewers to empathise with artists in a way they’ve never been able to before, regardless of talent. In the past, before Cowell and his Syco label became so prevalent, talent came first – musicians were known primarily for their work, often without even being recognisable names – but now personality is at the forefront and the target audience feels like it knows the artist before they ever even sing their own songs, a situation which would have been laughable even ten years ago.
How else do you explain the huge success that Alexandra Burke had with her terribly sub-standard version of Hallelujah? It’s a song which has been serially covered since Leonard Cohen first penned it, as Rufus Wainwright, John Cale and Jeff Buckley have made their own versions, each of which far exceeds Burke’s generic and uninteresting interpretation and yet each has only made an impact amongst that small, loyal community who make the effort to dig out the diamonds from amongst the turds – it’s like defecating in a sieve. Buckley, in particular, takes Cohen’s words and adds an extra poignancy with his reedy, tragic vocals, whilst Burke merely injected a shot of generic R&B soul (ironic, considering her soul-less origins). How, then, did Burke’s version out-muscle not only the original melancholy recording but also the more accessible versions since in terms of popularity and fame? The answer is simple – because Cowell’s a canny marketeer, an expert manipulator of popular consensus and sympathy.
It is a source of great frustration to me that artistic talent, integrity and originality go unacknowledged while someone with a half-decent voice and some kind of sob story can shoot to fame. I wonder whether Jeff Buckley would have had the same success if everyone had known of his fatherless (his biological father was Tim Buckley, a renowned singer songwriter who died of a heroin overdose aged 28), rootless “trailer trash upbringing”. Maybe…if Simon Cowell had been involved.
Here is a man who has made an indelible mark on modern popular culture simply through his sharply honed sense of exploitation and heightened instinct of greed. Who can spell “boycott”?
By Chris Harding