On 'American Idol,' Simon Cowell's Cruel Streak

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Remember the first time you heard Kelly Clarkson sing? Don't feel bad, because neither did Simon Cowell, and he had a front-row seat. He couldn't even recall Kelly's name. "I just don't like this girl," he mumbled to Paula Abdul, after a performance. It was one of the few times Cowell was wrong about something. For the last nine years, he's been our pop-culture oracle—or as the New York Post dubbed him, a modern-day P. T. Barnum. He's acted as the driving force behind the majority of our biggest music icons (Carrie Underwood, Chris Daughtry, Clay Aiken, even Susan Boyle). And now it's time to shed a tear for Simon, because he exits American Idol this week. It's strange to say that we'll miss him, because Cowell made a jarring first impression in the summer of 2002. The man with the funny accent and tight undershirts attacked our youth with impunity, and it was startling, like watching a car crash right before your very eyes. "I was so happy," Clarkson said after her audition, "because the British man didn't make me cry." Simon Cowell wasn't just cruel. He was so gross, he made you want to shower.

None of his nasty critiques seem so shocking now, of course. We are a culture that thrives on meanness—mean blogs, mean political campaigns, mean girls. We are so accustomed to mean outbursts, we barely blink when a congressman yells "You lie!" at the president during a speech. Cowell helped take us there. Before him, we lived in a time of propriety and Miss Manners. The judges on Star Search simply scored the contestants without a line of commentary. That show ushered in Rosie O'Donnell, a stand-up comedienne who launched herself as talk-show host dubbed "the queen of nice" by NEWSWEEK. Cowell changed all that, maybe because his technique was so easy: blurt out what you really think, and turn up the volume. It'll get attention, and it's also a form of self-protection. Nobody can hurt you if you throw the first punch.

Not surprisingly, our kids had no trouble adopting the Simon Cowell language. Two years after Idol, Perez Hilton launched his blog, where he dissed celebrities and drew phallic symbols around their faces. His readers would then add their own nasty quips, usually the kind of thing that if you said out loud at the dinner table, your mother would wash your mouth out with soap. In the last decade, the Internet has turned us all into players in the game of Simon says. We're in a scurrilous race—who can be the meanest of them all? It's all so easy because it's anonymous, and we're not longer accountable for any of it. We've always been a society fascinated by the act of undercutting, which is how the medium of criticism was born. A writer like Pauline Kael could dump on The Sound of Music, and it was considered an art form. But the meanness we see now goes beyond that. It's meanness as a pastime, as a recreation, as sport; some of it is just plain disgusting, like when a woman is murdered and people post comments about her appearance.

We hardly even notice all the meanness around us anymore. For the last half of the last century, the sitcom sidekick was an affable, self-deprecating figure. Consider Phyllis on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, who had a wicked tongue, but it was often at her own narcissistic expense. Rhoda, her good-natured doppleganger, would always come out on top: she was the nice one, and she was right. Simon reversed that notion, that the mean guy was also the bad guy. On Idol, Paula was the puppy dog, but she was also the crazy one who could fall out of her chair at any moment. Simon was the voice of reason—the smart judge. His words were as prickly as a cactus, but he managed to intellectualize bullying. It's no surprise that the Cowell model was soon mimicked by every other judge on every other reality show (Dancing With the Stars, America's Next Top Model, Project Runway, and don't forget The Weakest Link). Even on Glee, the character of Sue Sylvester is essentially a female version of Simon. She cuts down everybody, and she's everybody's favorite character for precisely that reason.

Over the years, Simon has continued to find new ways to reinvent his lacerating critiques. But his words don't seem to sting anymore. We've become immune to his meanness—even though we still find niceness boring (which is why Ellen DeGeneres is such a disappointment as a new judge). The most savvy Idol contestants found ways to fight Simon on his terms: to pick on his wardrobe or his musical tastes. Then the show's host Ryan Seacrest would chime in, and he'd throw a few additional low blows at Simon. Sometimes the audiences would cheer; sometimes they'd boo. It was like watching a big unsupervised playground, where all the kids picked on each other because of their own insecurities. It would be funny, if it wasn't so scary: the truth is, Simon Cowell has dragged the rest of us in the mud with him.