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Friday, 4 June 2010

A Marxist Criticism of The Simon Cowell

What is my problem with this Simon Cowell? I want to take the opportunity to clear up a misunderstanding. A lot of people take umbrage with that guy – his persona is, after all, not meant to inspire a surge of warming fondness. “But he just speaks his mind,” people say, “he’s cruel to be kind.” “He’s harsh but fair.” “He’s brutally honest, but usually right.” Fair enough.

Although: actually, really, actually, he isn’t always right, actually, is he, really? Actually? Yes, he knows what cuts it for success in a certain cash-raking market, but in a broader sense his taste is, frankly, soul-numbingly bland and inane. I mean: Robson and Jerome, for fucks sake. As others have said before me, he couldn’t spot a Bob Dylan if it jumped up and blew a weedy harmonica in his face.

But this is not my problem with Cowell. He provides a necessary delusion-shattering service to the horrifyingly un-self-aware (though his shows have, it must be said, done massive, massive damage in encouraging such delusions of imminent discovery and stardom amongst the unwashed masses), and his pantomime villain shtick makes for entertaining telly. No, I have no real problem with that – my problem with this Cowell is that he is one of the most cynical, manipulative, exploitative, money-grabbing cocks ever to swagger into my purview, and the dubious ill-effects of his selfish activities on the all-pervasive pop-culture around me are constantly thrust in my face. That is my problem with Cowell.

That was unfairly personal – I’m sure he’s a nice guy when he’s at home with his pet dog (I am imagining a pet dog, I do not know with any certainty that there is a pet dog). Or at a barbecue with friends (perhaps the dog is there also). I would happily chew the fat, and a burger or two, with him. I expect he’s witty and diverting company, even. It’s not who he is or how he is so much as what he does that bothers me. Let me explain by invoking the restless geist of Karl Marx.

Karl “Groucho” Marx

I am by no means a Marxist by a long way: I find the goals of his Communist ideology head-shakingly naive and idealistic; I am suspicious that any such “utopianism” is, at root, simply an attempt for one person to forcibly stamp their ideals and values onto everyone else; and his treatment of everybody as an undifferentiated, faceless social mass strikes me as inhuman, and offends the nostrils of my firmly entrenched, individualistic, outsider mentality. However, I have a wistful soft-spot for Marxist criticisms of materialist, capitalist society, mainly because I live in one, and so much of what Marx highlights rings true in this respect.

For those of you unfamiliar with this, let me break it down like this:

You may think that when you apply for a job, this is what is happening: You are a free agent with time and skills to offer. Your potential employer needs a hand to get some things done, and could use your time and skills. So you rock up, and as two equal human beings you strike a deal that benefits you both – “Hey! I tell you what, if I help you out, how about you help me out? Yeah? Cool. Let’s sign a contract and we can all live happy and fulfilled as free, equal human beings.”

But – and here’s the Marxist elephant in the room – you are not actually equal at all, are you? Actually, someone is holding all the cards, and it’s not you.

This is what Marx would say is happening: Your potential employer is a bloated capitalist fat-cat who has managed to grab a whole bunch of stuff – money, property, resources – for themselves, probably through being (or their ancestors being) ruthless, cunning or even downright violent, and they are guarding that stuff like metal codpiece. You on the other hand, have nothing, neither you nor your ancestors being ruthless, cunning or downright violent enough. You rock up like a Dickensian orphan, cap in hand, and beg “Please sir, can I have some stuff (money, property, resources)? I promise I’ll do things for you. I’ll give up my time and work myself to the bone, and I won’t answer back.” And the fat-cat may deign to throw you a shiny ha’penny or two if you scratch his back and help to make him richer, or he may tell you to piss off. If you do not do this, you will starve. So much for freedom.

You are a dog, begging for scraps from the king’s table – and not Simon Cowell’s well-fed and well-loved barbecue-going dog, either. To Marx, in a capitalist society a small minority of people control all the wealth and resources. The rest of us are simply used by them as a source of labour, an energy source to exploit, a bunch of batteries to be used up in order to maintain and increase their control of the wealth and resources. 

But, you might protest, the capitalist fat-cats still have to answer to the whims and demands of what the masses want, or they won’t make any money – and here is where the clever bit comes in. No one is saying it is easy to be a capitalist fat-cat – it is a constant battle to maintain your wealth and position, certainly. But if you control the wealth and resources it is much easier to influence the masses – to ensure there is a market for your produce, and to ensure that your workers are kept sedate and unthinking; to ensure your labour force, your energy-providing batteries, are kept in their place, content to carry on working as batteries and unaware of any alternative – and even better, happy to buy the produce of your business and other businesses like yours.

You promise them, perhaps, that if they are good, hardworking, obedient, humble drones then they will be rewarded in heaven. Or if they work really hard, then maybe they can be rich fat-cats too (even though, practically, this is extremely unlikely to happen). And if they feel any dissatisfaction with their miserable, monotonous, grey, work-exhausted lives, then the answer is that they should buy this amazing, life enhancing product that the fat-cats are making, and that will make everything better.

Meanwhile, they can escape into entertainments that numb the mind and show people like them living fun, happy lives, or lives full of gossip and drama and intrigue; or show people a bit better off than them being happy, successful, attractive, cool and care-free with the comfortable living from the money they’ve earned – if you work hard, you could get that too. Clever, very clever – capitalist society is set up to keep everyone working and keep the fat-cats rich. Everything that goes on happens in order to serve the interests of those who hold the wealth and power.

Or – here’s a thing – what you could do, right, is this: create a TV show that does lots of these things at once. It acts as mind numbing entertainment to distract you from the daily grind; it encourages you to spend your hard-earned on product and phone-ins; and, yes, it also lets you dream that, if you’re just lucky enough, you too could escape the grind and be that happy, successful person living the care-free life of glamour, fame and material excess. Thank you Mr. Cowell.

Simon “Fat-cat” Cowell

Yeah. Ok, maybe that is all a bit jaded. Most people are generally a little more self-aware than that – they know their jobs are shit, they know they’re not that likely to be the next Leona Lewis, they know the X-Factor is simply entertaining brainless guff. But not everyone. And there is something in applying Marx to Cowell. This Cowell has made his money out of, essentially, exploiting people. If you are in any doubt about this, consider the following:

1) People do not just walk off the street and out in front of the celebrity judge panel you see on TV. There are far too many people for that. Everyone who gets to see Cowell and the benign music industry deities that flank him must already have gone through multiple auditions to get there. Oh, yes. That means the crazies and no-hopers too. They have been selected by someone for the judges to humiliate for your entertainment. So much for “cruel to be kind” – they’re more than happy to build you up and play about with you for a few laughs first. It’s good telly.

2) A friend of mine has a friend who did, in fact, apply for one of these shows – it may have been back when X-Factor was Pop Idol (ignoring the potential law suit lurking in that statement), I’m not sure – but the first thing she was asked was “Do you have a personal life-story we can tell?” Hers was not deemed interesting or tragic enough. Because, if you’re not an out and out jaw-dropping weirdo, and you don’t quite cut it as a carbon-copy current-mainstream-marketable-popstar clone, then you can also get on telly by telling a lovely little tear-jerking “human interest” story. That will fill up a nice five minutes, complete with some tinkling tender piano motifs from a rousing emotional “indie” ballad of the moment, before they shatter your dreams, chuck you out on the street, and everyone forgets about you again. People’s actual real personal tragedies are all good currency to squeeze a sentimental TV moment out of. Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, never mind that these are real people’s actual lives being messed about with and thrown out for everyone to gawp at. 

3) When the fun’s been had with them, we get down to the serious business of creating product – but don’t be fooled, even the finalists are having their lives exploited for our entertainment. Most of them we will never hear from again (except maybe in tabloids and gossip magazines, who are making their money exploiting these people’s actual lives further) but their life stories are, for the short while they hold our interest, the batteries that fuel the producer’s grip on the wealth and resources of TV land.

Which really just goes to show that these shows are really all about the show. In reality the final musical product is kind of secondary. The show itself is what makes the money, and is impeccably crafted to pull at the heart strings – from the astonishing episode that I remember watching for 15 minutes, aghast that the entire time was an endless succession of people I didn’t know having teary reunions with their friends and family (to an endless succession of rousing, anthemic “indie” ballads, ad nauseum); to the manipulated “Cinderella meets Star Wars” narrative of the whole series: The rough, untrained peasants with their “spunk” and “talent” working through emotional trials and tribulations to finally “come good” and win the approval and acceptance of the begin Gods of light entertainment (best of all, watch how even boo-hiss villain Cowell comes to mellow and bestow his sensible hard-won fatherly respect on those who he once pooh-poohed. What a satisfying conclusion to the story).

To return to Cowell – whilst he earns plenty from his signings to Sony-owned Syco Music he earns more from the combined fees paid to him for appearing on American Idol, X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent. He is also co-producer on the latter two. The show is the thing: if it can successfully cross-pollinate with his music industry interests, then all the better – but if the next winner falls flat on their sincerely gormless face, then no big deal – the show justifies itself. The show is the thing.

Cowell admirably makes no bones about the fact that he is fundamentally about making money. He doesn’t even appear to be much of a music fan, certainly not a connoisseur, and as said before, his tastes are extremely conservative, bland and narrow. He is not that interested even in making “good music”, let alone “art”, he simply wants saleable product.

For this, what you need is technical perfection and polish, an attractive image, and something that is safe and familiar and apes what is currently popular. It’s showbiz. It’s light entertainment. And that this, in the minds of many, is confused with the criteria for “good music” is one more reason I have a problem with Cowell.

Not his fault, I suppose, but he perpetuates it. In fact, that may be all “good music” is to the likes of Cowell. Many have accused the X-Factor of breeding a stable of bland, homogenised clones, that are really no more than good karaoke singers, slick cruise-ship style entertainers as opposed to unique, charismatic, original, raw artists. This may be unfair to the more talented of the participants (and cruise-ship entertainers) – it may not be my cup of Earl Grey, but it’s all fine and good in its right place.

However, there is an alarming trend for everything talent-show related to take over ever larger swathes of the TV schedule and music charts. It’s symptomatic of the age – where media saturation of our lives has reached a constant roaring background noise; where the business of music, and the public’s familiarity with it, is now so old, seasoned and practised that everything fits into a recognisable market – and those markets themselves are so massively over-saturated that everything threatens to become subsumed and lost.

We do appear to be in danger of entering a kind of 1950s-style déjà-vu state where entertainment is predominantly corporate mainstream (even "niche" stuff is only really a polished mainstream take on "niche") and controlled by a few Svengali figures who care only about slickness of product and the bucks they’re making from it – and don’t even know what concepts like artistry, authenticity and originality mean, let alone care for them. If it isn’t tied into the corporate machine, forget it. You will never hear about it.

Theodor “Theodor” Adorno

So, this Simon Cowell character has been a major player in the resurgence of the talent-show format, though we cannot put all the blame on him, of course. He appeared on Pop Idol, but that was his former friend Simon Fuller’s beast. Clones such as Fame Academy were others’ attempts to cash in on the phenomenon. Now it appears every other show has a panel of judges, or at least a couple of them (the judges, of course, are as much performers as the “performers”): The absurdly named Strictly Come Dancing, traumatic business ordeals like Dragon’s Den and The Apprentice, restaurant/food snob shows – that’s you Masterchef – and the Lloyd-Webber horrors. 

There really is something maddeningly feudal-system about the whole thing – television’s obsession that anyone who’s not on it is an unwashed peasant who must beg for the approval and acceptance of some lofty self-appointed “experts” who swan about being rude and demanding and dangling the golden keys to their successful, glamorous world in front of all who prostrate themselves before them. I haven’t even mentioned Gordon “fucking sweary chef” Ramsey. 

What’s more these shows are so obviously just the same format lazily tweaked a little and repeated over and over again, that it’s barely even worth commenting on.

However, someone who did comment on just such a thing was a guy called Theodor Adorno. Adorno was a sociologist and cultural critic who was heavily influenced by Marx. In Marx’s time (the 19th century) the media was obviously nowhere near as all-pervasive as it is today. For Marx, the “opiate of the masses” – the thing that kept the workers docile and numb by structuring their lives, promising them a delayed paradise and instilling obedient, conformist behaviour – was religion. For Adorno, it was the media.

Adorno died in 1969, but his criticism of the media has an enduring appeal. He suggested that, in a capitalist society, the media would be hijacked by the fat-cats, or those working in their interests, because the fat-cats are, of course, the ones who hold the real power and influence. Thus the media would be flooded with shows that might seem like harmless and informative entertainment on the surface, but are actually designed to instil all that Marxist “opiate of the masses” stuff: To convince people their lives are fine and good as they are, or to numb and distract them from their unsatisfactory, alienated situation, to promise them amazing rewards if they continue to be good workers and good consumers, to encourage them to go out and buy stuff. 

In fairness, this is not necessarily a conscious thing. The media reflects the basic values of its society – it could hardly be any other way. However, in order to do this, Adorno suggested there would be a few limited formats that would be churned out again and again with slight surface variations to convince people that they have more choice and variety than they actually do, and keep them bamboozled by the shiny pretty things presented within.

Now, Adorno, like Marx, seems very jaded when considering the best of TV, radio and publishing media. This view doesn’t show much of an appreciation of what media can do at its finest – this does not explain the difference between a crappy sitcom and a sublime one, it does not explain the role of satire or thought-provoking drama or properly informative documentary.

What it does explain though, uncannily well, is populist mainstream TV. Think about Adorno’s idea of a few limited formats given endless new spins and think about the TV schedules. Daytime TV. Saturday night TV. Gentle “wind down and go to bed early to be fresh for work in the morning” Sunday night TV.

Think about all the shows (from the X-Factor to The National Lottery to Big Brother to bog standard quiz shows) that promise extremely unlikely riches, fame and success for the hoi-polloi. The soaps that raise dull, work-a-day gossip to some kind of Greek tragic levels of drama. The aspirational comedies and dramas that show materially successful people being attractive and witty or strong and heroic. The voyeuristic reality shows that spew infinite inane gossip, whether about “real people” or celebrities (oh, they’re just like us! I could be a celebrity just like them, too!) The endless parade of fine dining and property-market shows, that tell you what you could and should be doing with your money, if you work hard enough to get it (watching a celebrity chef create an intricate masterpiece out of fresh locally-sourced ingredients in Indonesia, followed by a professional couple buying a second home in Spain as a fixer-upper opportunity... all whilst sitting in your rented flat eating a microwave lasagna).

And, of course, all the above-mentioned “expert judge” shows, of which the X-Factor-style talent show is only the most basic example... why not combine the format with food, or business, or both? A quick look at the schedules tells you all you need to know about the materialistic obsessions of the capitalist west – fame, food, property, money, fashion, body image, gossip. No wonder Al Qaeda hate us.

What was my point? Where did I start with this? Ah yes... my problem with the Simon Cowell man. Well, what have we found out? He is a prime purveyor of the Adorno-style numb-the-mind-and-promise-everyone-fame-and-riches “opiate”, right down to the tweaked-format spread of shows. He basically makes his massive wealth out of using up and exploiting the lives of naive, vulnerable people who are totally at his mercy, like any capitalist fat-cat.

So what, though? It’s business, and business is cruel, but that’s the free market – it’s Darwinian and dog-eat-dog, but it’s always proved to be the best way to run an economy. And fair enough. No one has to enter the X-Factor, no one will starve if they don’t. I probably wouldn’t care if all this produced something good as an end result.

But there it is, see, it doesn’t, at least not to me – it leaves a massive smear of bland, homogenised shit across the bathroom wall of popular culture, and for what? Cowell doesn’t care, he’s just making money. The cynical, soulless values that stuff promotes offends my finer sensibilities and worse, Cowell’s influence, Cowell’s world, seems to be ever encroaching on mine, inescapable. 

This is what annoys me – it leaves me feeling alienated from my own (pop) culture.

But never mind. I will not deny occasionally being diverted by Cowell’s shows, and I am probably grateful that it gives me something (essentially pretty innocuous and whiffly) to rage about. I think he is a cynical, manipulative, exploitative, swaggering alpha-male cock, but I’d still consider inviting Simon Cowell along to my barbecue. He could bring his dog. I like that dog.


  1. Sorry. This really is tl;dr.

  2. Dude, go to bed...

    Seriously though, great piece of work. I'll bounce it around for you.

    I have copied your polling card and adopted your identity. I am now you. I'm going to buy fags and pies with your purse of monies...

  3. Good stuff. I agree with most of what you say, but hoi polloi is as much to blame as the Cowells of the world. Unfortunately, what most people want more than anything is just to be comfortable (or numb) and not to have to think about things, and I don't think it's uncharitable to say that, because there's nothing necessarily wrong with it.

    One small point, the "materialistic obsessions of the capitalist west" are mere velleities compared with those of the capitalist east. I think the only place where capitalist rapacity isn't the dominant mindset is Antarctica, although I've never been there so I could be wrong.

  4. I enjoyed that. You should be in THE MEDIA.

  5. I can't argue against the Frankfurt School critique, but I'd be far more concerned about the alternatives. If we want a change in how culture's controlled, how do we choose a vanguard to make those choices? And how do we choose who'll choose a vanguard? All sounds very dodgy to me.

    The people want to watch Simon Cowell. Damn it - I want to watch Simon Cowell. He deserves the money and the power, because his form of exploitation is highly entertaining. Who made him boss? We did. More so than our politicians, he is democratically accountable. And we get to vote every Saturday night.

  6. Ok, yeah, as always with Marx that's where it all falls down - the alternative of "State controlled entertainment" is too offensive to contemplate...