Kelly Clarkson? Carrie Underwood? Chris Daughtry? These are not the people that have made American Idol the ridiculous phenomenon that it is. They've helped, but they are not the reason.
The reason is Simon Cowell. The man is marvelous. For all the hoopla given this show, he does get his fair share of credit, but I think he probably should get even more. There's ample opportunity for him to get pushed to the side with two other judges, an ever present host, and loads of singing talent, but he pushes back. Every week he pushes back and pushes his opinion into our homes.
Always trying to bring down what's on top, critics have cried out that judges are too mean and point the finger at Cowell. To that I say,"Boo freaking hoo." Those who appear on the show know exactly what they are getting into. If you inexplicably have never seen the show, you are bound to figure it out by the time you sit in an arena with 20,000 other people looking to audition. Contestants know exactly the situation and the consequences for a lackluster performance and are willing to take that risk in an attempt to reach the masses. It's a fair trade and one where both sides benefit. Any cries otherwise are misplaced.
For all the flak that Paula Abdul gets for her frequently stoned and odd rants, she serves a purpose. That being to make Simon look even better than he would otherwise. You could put a tube of toothpaste next to Paula Abdul, and it would look brilliant (as well as minty fresh). Juxtapose Abdul with Cowell and Simon looks that much profound. It's not unlike high school where you actually need those jocks and their 15's on the ACT if for no other reason to keep pushing you into a higher and higher percentile.
But it's not as if Cowell needs Abdul to be the star, it merely helps. The one liners are marvelous. After a contestant used "it was dedicated to my dying grandmother who suffers every day from an intestinal parasite bring immense pain except for when I'm singing" as an excuse for a crappy song Cowell quipped, "Can we take this back to a singing show for one second? I know. I know. I love grandmas."
The contestant dragged on the feel good vibe by then wishing his father a happy birthday. Cowell, fed up with this crap, replied,"By the way it's my mum's birthday in November. Happy birthday mum in six months time. What? Just thought I'd mention it. Let's all dedicate something." After everyone jumped on him for being insensitive, he slyly countered, "I like puppies."
Clearly an exchange such as that cannot be accurately captured in writing. The quick witted, camera savvy Cowell though succeeds in making you stay tuned to what will come out of his mouth next. Whether it be one of his unique analogies for poor performance or fending off one of Ryan Seacrest's overly plentiful jabs, the man has a unique, entertaining answer.
And it's the these answers that keep America tuned in while the singers are developing their trade. Nobody knew or cared about Fantasia Barrino a few years ago. Cowell kept people entertained while America persevered through sub par performances and stage presence development, all the while learning and caring about her story. And it's not Fantasia specific. Insert any successful Idol star and the time line is the same. Over the course of the TV season, the audience develops its favorites and sometimes appreciates the talent displayed (sons of bitches missed the boat last season), but it's Simon Cowell who is the steady presence that keeps it interesting while the new stars are born.