Raging Against the Cowell Factor

Sting, "Machine" fans fault "Idol" judge for downfall of popular music. But it may not be as simple as blaming Simon

By Jere Hester
|  Tuesday, Dec 22, 2009  |  Updated 8:45 PM PDT
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Kris Allen Wins an Upset on American Idol

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Simon Cowell isn't the idol of many music fans.

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Sting, whose occasional voyages into the sea of pontification can be forgiven due to his contributions to rock, is right about one thing: popular music is in a "crisis."

"In this crisis, how do you create novelty in a situation that is played out?" he asked during a recent public Q&A session, People magazine reported.

Sting’s question followed his criticism last month of Simon Cowell’s UK “American Idol”-like show, “The X Factor,” which the Police frontman slammed as “televised karaoke.”

But are the pop superstar and others right when they blame star-maker Cowell for the sorry state of popular music?

There's a growing Cowell backlash and it has little to do with his often-nasty turns as an "Idol" arbiter.

In Britain, as Time magazine reports, fans of Rage Against the Machine propelled the group's 1992 politically charged anthem “Killing in the Name” to No. 1 through a Facebook and Twitter campaign that notched the tacit approval of Paul McCartney, among others.

The movement accomplished its goal: breaking a four-year string of No. 1 holiday hits by freshly scrubbed stars from "The X Factor." Rage Against the Machine declared the chart triumph of the F-bomb-filled song the “Anarchy Christmas Miracle of 2009,” and promised to play a free concert in Britain to thank fans.

RATM’s Tom Morello praised the Internet campaign as an “unprecedented grassroots movement to topple the X-Factor monopoly,” while Cowell called the effort “stupid.”

Both sides will benefit from the publicity, but the us vs. them battle clearly has become a flashpoint for many music fans.

The music business is in transition, with sales down, and many bands making more money on merchandising and concerts than downloads. New acts, in theory, could bypass the record companies and go directly to the people via the Internet.

While that’s not impossible, it’s hard to get major notice without some backing. Many record companies, meanwhile, appear less likely to take chances on unproven acts at a time when executive should be shaking things up.

It’s telling that the Beatles, who last recorded together nearly 40 years ago, scored the No. 1 album of the decade with the hits collection "1." The accomplishment speaks both to the enduring power of the group and the lack of mass appeal acts in more recent years.

Another sign of the times: On Tuesday, the New York Post named the quarter-century old "Billie Jean" as the top song of 2009 – bringing home how this year in music was defined by the death of Michael Jackson, whose best days were two decades behind him but whose influence and loss are keenly felt.

“American Idol” and the such are among the last of the mass-audience TV shows in an era when interests and media are becoming increasingly segmented, due in great part to the influence of the Internet.

An unapologetic Cowell is in the line of minting pop stars who look good, sing well enough and rarely offend (Adam Lambert’s gyration antics aside). He's done it on "Idol" and on "The X Factor," which he reportedly plans to bring to Las Vegas (Cowell, meanwhile, intends to leave "Idol" after this season to concentrate on bringing "The X Factor" to the U.S., his brother said).

But let’s not forget that the busy Cowell, through his “Britain’s Got talent” show, gave us Susan Boyle, the dowdy, unlikely superstar who scored the year’s top YouTube video and a record-breaking album. Whatever one thinks of her Broadway-infused style and material, there's no denying the strength of her talent.

Cowell, who doesn't go out of his way to be likeable, is a convenient bogeyman for the crisis in popular music. But there are many factors at play, not just “The X Factor.”

It’s not as simple as blaming Simon.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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