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Missing Simon: How will American Idol survive without linchpin Simon Cowell?

Cowell Forget Lee vs Crystal: My most pressing American Idol finale question has little to do with who will win TV’s highest-rated competition series tonight and everything to do with the man who built it up in the first place.

In other words, how do you bid a fond goodbye to a guy who may be the least sentimental person on television?

Nevermind that paying tribute to Idol judge Simon Cowell feels oddly like feeding his raging arrogance while simultaneously underplaying his importance. He’s a multi-millionaire record executive whose biggest artists are mostly TV creations; a voice of withering reality on a program some artists say smothers the music business; and a brash egotist who explains away his blunt manner as brutal honesty.

And as he leaves the show to start his own talent competition The X-Factor, Idol will miss him more than they know. Even now.

Fox executives have already said finding Cowell’s replacement is their most important job this summer. And those who hope to replace him have been campaigning for months, from U2 producer Steve Lillywhite’s pleading YouTube video (his money line: “I have spent 30 years telling Bono what to do”) to the Facebook campaign by Madonna’s estranged brother Christopher Ciccone (who set up an interview to talk about it all and then never called me).

Madonna-leotard Of all the names I've heard in possible contention, Elton John sounds the most feasible, at least for a compelling mix of celebrity, eccentricity, charisma and music business achievement. No other names really makes sense; Madonna (too busy for the schedule demands, too unsympathetic), Quincy Jones (too old, too old school and too rambling), Tommy Mottola (too unknown outside the record business) and Howard Stern (too scary to Idol's core tween female audience)  

The sad fact is, there are few people who bring Cowell’s oddly compelling mix of music business acumen, on camera appeal and ability to pierce a wavering contestant with a prickly observation so accurate that viewers forgive him for being an egotistical jerk.

“It’s actually more cruel to lie to someone and give them false expectations,” Cowell told me in an interview two years ago. “If they’re hopeless, no point in saying ‘Take a couple of singing lessons and you’ll become Mariah Carey.’”

Here’s the biggest reasons why we’ll miss Simon -- and the Idol band, which becomes Jay Leno’s Tonight Show band next week -- more than we’ll celebrate Lee DeWyze’s victory over Crystal Bowersox tonight.

(Cowell and Las Vegas oddmakers made this prediction before last night's Idol episode, where Bowersox shone and DeWyze choked a bit. So maybe Mamasox has a chance.)

Angrysimon3 He excuses and enables our own harsh analyses: By being so tough on the auditioners and contestants, Cowell implements an important element of any successful “reality TV” show, the humiliation ritual. Just like Jersey Shore or Maury, Idol attracts some fans by making us all feel a little superior to the participants – especially during the audition phase. And no one conjures superiority over stupid people more effectively than Simon Cowell.

He anchors the judges table: No matter what Randy Jackson, Ellen DeGeneres or Kara DioGuardi have to say about a singer, the show always seems to pause a bit before Cowell speaks. Even when he’s wrong, he makes sense in ways the three other judges still struggle to master. DeGeneres seemed to come to the show believing she could prove Cowell's brusque manner was hurtful and unnecessary. As she became less and less impactful in the judge's chair, she learned just how wrong that notion could be.

He has to sell the Idol winner’s record: Because his record company succeeds or fails based on who wins the show, Cowell’s opinion is the only judgment backed by a real financial motivation. At times during the program, you can almost sense him weighing words by sussing out who he’d rather see on an album cover, which makes Idol feel even more like a music business tutorial.

He doesn’t care what you think, either: Guest judges usually fail on Idol because they are too aware of what the audience may think of what they say (after all, the point of most of these appearances is to convince Idol’s audience to buy their records). But such mealy mouthed evaluations – I’ve begun to hate the way Jackson and DeGeneres start harsh critiques with “I’m a fan of yours, but…” – are ultimately boring. And the one thing Cowell hates more than stupidity is boredom.  

Check this video of Idol's early days:

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 3:08pm]


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