Music News

Happy Birthday, Simon Cowell!

Even if he had relegated himself to working strictly behind the scenes, Simon Cowell would still have been a music business superstar. Born 52 years ago today, this tart-tongued Brit built himself a career as a successful A&R executive, producer, and entrepreneur who would virtually redefine the television talent-show format as we know it. Ted Mack may have invented the genre back in the '50s with his Ted Mack Amateur Hour, but these days, The X Factor and American Idol are the programs that come to mind as far as today's amateur entertainers are involved.

As a schoolboy, Cowell gave little indication he was destined to become one of the wealthiest and most influential individuals in the music biz. A contentious school dropout, he bored easily and displayed the contrarian attitude that would later help him gain fame. His father was an executive with global giant EMI and helped squire his son into a job in the company mailroom. He worked his way into publishing and eventually landed a talent scouting job for S-Curve Records through which he signed several midlevel acts and produced a variety of respectable chart successes. He subsequently set up his own label and went on to sign Leona Lewis, Il Divo, and other artists that he personally mentored. To date, he's been responsible for 70 Top 30 hits, 17 number ones, and more than $25 million in worldwide sales.

These days, the world knows him solely as Simon, the acidic, unrepentant, deliberately intimidating taskmaster whom everyone loves to hate. American Idol provided his first introduction to American TV viewers, and when the ratings rocketed skyward, Simon turned superstar. America's Got Talent and Britain's Got Talent added to his infamy, but his new show, The X-Factor -- which was launched just last month -- renews his contentious relationship with Paul Abdul and promises to force an entirely new crop of wannabe performers to submit to his barbs.

"Paula's a pain in the ass," Simon has complained of his costar. "She's just one of those irritating people. I agree with some of what she says; I disagree with a hell of a lot of what she says. I keep my time with her to a minimum."

Not surprisingly, the other judges and the acts that participate mostly play second fiddle to whatever Simon says, and what Simon says is often absolutely merciless. Regardless, he remains unapologetic. "I think you have to judge everything based on your personal taste," Cowell explains. "And if that means being critical, so be it. I hate political correctness. I absolutely loathe it."

He certainly needn't worry about crossing that divide. Cowell can be mean beyond measure, and his fabled putdowns frequently cause viewers to gasp in disbelief. In fact, there's an entire website -- -- devoted to his wicked ways and some of the nastier nuggets he's shared with contestants. Not surprisingly, it features a cartoon of Cowell in a boxing ring with boxing gloves extended. Here, then, is a selection of some of Cowell's more memorable comments:

"That was terrible, I mean just awful... You have to have a talent to progress it. I don't believe Cassandra has a singing talent. She's completely wasting her money. Sorry."

"My advice would be if you want to pursue a career in the music business, don't."

"Did you really believe you could become the American Idol? Well, then, you're deaf."

"I met someone the other night who's 28 years old, and he hasn't worked a day since he left college because he's pursuing a dream he'll never, ever realize. He thinks he's a great singer. Actually, he's crap. But nobody has said to him, 'Why have you been wasting your time for eight years?'"

"If your lifeguard duties were as good as your singing, a lot of people would be drowning."

"Shave off your beard and wear a dress. You would be a great female impersonator."

Ironically, Cowell's comments always seem to be prefaced with the phrase, "I don't mean to be rude, but..." According to a bio posted on Wikipedia, many of his classic putdowns were the result of lessons learned from a high-profile English publicist named Max Clifford. Not surprisingly, many of Clifford's clients seem to be of the sleazier variety, and many pander to the tabloids and other celebrity gossip sheets.

Still, for all the abuse he hurls at others, Cowell remains unapologetic. "The object of this competition is not to be mean to the losers but to find a winner," he's been quoted as saying. "The process makes you mean because you get frustrated. Kids turn up unrehearsed, wearing the wrong clothes, singing out of tune, and you can either say 'Good job' and patronize them or tell them the truth, and sometimes the truth is perceived as mean."

Perhaps he has a point. "If I said to most of the people who auditioned, 'Good job, awesome, well done,' it would have made me actually look and feel ridiculous," he once remarked.

Truth be told, Cowell appeals to the same sort of people who slow down to gawk at traffic mishaps. We're naturally drawn to the brazen and bizarre. So spew on, Simon. After all, who would want a kinder, coddling Cowell?

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Lee Zimmerman