In which the King of Insults meets the Queen of Results.
On TV Guide’s 2013 list of The 60 Nastiest Villains of All Time, Simon Cowell sits at number 10, ranked only slightly less evil than Mr. Burns from The Simpsons. Cowell is a black-shirted, black-hearted manufacturer of the low-grade flapjacks we call “pop music”. Through his hosted shows X-Factor, Britain’s Got Talent, and American Idol, he’s sold millions of high-carb low-nutrient music-like units to non-discerning purchasers by coating his generic batter with syrupy flavor-of-the-moment singers and serving them up on his own record label. The singers themselves are his least important ingredients, as interchangeable as cooking oils, but the velocity of new faces help keep his factory humming. He’s helped create enduring stars out of Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, and Susan Boyle, but most of his TV show winners have had the shelf life of pancake mix.
Cowell admittedly doesn’t understand other forms of music, including such basic styles as hard rock, which may explain why Chris Daughtry could lose American Idol then sell 20 million records. But pop isn’t so much a genre as it is a goal. If you don’t fit into Cowell’s extremely precise mold of a radio-friendly unit shifter, you simply don’t exist to him, musically speaking. He could never discover or cultivate the next Arcade Fire or Kendrick Lamar, an aptitude gap that posed a problem when Jennifer Hudson enteredthe third season of American Idol in 2004.
If you’ve ever watched the American Idol tryout episodes, then you’ve survived an audiovisual assault by 11,000 pitch-imperfect hopefuls with fistfuls of dreams yet thimblefuls of charisma. By comparison, Jennifer Hudson is a powerhouse R&B singer with a three-octave range, one who’d been professionally singing since her teens and had already released a local album before landing on the show.
None of this impressed Cowell, who seemed bored with her voice, indifferent to her charm, and annoyed by her outfits. After a crowd-pleasing version of Wynonna Judd’s “No One Else on Earth”, he blurted:
“Let me sum this up for you. I think you’re out of your depth. There are people better than you and I don’t think you can do anything better to have any chance of ever winning this competition.”
I’ve added the video of this statement here, so you too can witness the look on Hudson’s face. Her expression is half “What the fuh?” and half “Vengeance is mine!”
But true to Cowell’s words she was eliminated four episodes later, which is how the show works. Somebody has to advance, so someone needs to get kicked to the curb.
The careers of American Idol runner-ups tend to be low-exposure show biz gigs: dinner theaters, cruise ships, or if you’re Clay Aiken, running for a North Carolina congressional seat. Hudson took a different route, miraculously out-auditioning over 700 actresses to to snag a plum role in the movie adaptation of the musical Dreamgirls. Her character? A powerhouse R&B singer who was cast aside by a black-hearted starmaker in favor of other singers that fit his extremely precise mold of a radio-friendly unit shifter. Although she had little acting experience, Hudson had plenty of recent life experience from which to draw.
Upon Dreamgirls’ release critics were unanimous in their praise for her performance, which ironically outshined Beyonce’s lead role. Hudson’s stellar take on the show-stopper “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” was not only the film’s pivotal emotional center, but also cemented her acting career, culminating in an Academy Award Nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Simon Cowell was a good sport about his flagrant lack of vision, sending Hudson a public congrats on her nomination. And on February 25 2007, three years after her elimination, the singer he’d told was out of her depth sang her way to an Oscar in her film debut.
You can see her acceptance speech here as well, where Cate Blanchett channels Jennifer Hudson circa 2004.
Hudson won 28 additional acting awards for Dreamgirls, including Best Supporting Actress from the British Academy Film Awards and the Screen Actors Guild, igniting a still-active A-list movie career.
In the decade since her American idol loss, every album she’s released went gold, resulting in several hit singles, a Grammy Award, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, an honor bestowed to no other American Idol contestant. (No, not even Kelly Clarkson.)
In the same decade Cowell the starmaker produced zero show winners whose careers came close to Hudson’s longevity or versatility. Not that he cares, mind you. He’s in the flapjack business, not fine dining. And he only wants to excrete what attracts the tastes of the average joe. Alas, even that skill is beginning to fade.
On February 8 2014 Fox canceled his middling X-Factor, citing its failure as a material drain on corporate profits. For the first time in 12 years Cowell will not be hosting a facile and exploitative talent show in North America. As American Idol is still going strong, it’s safe to say that as America is increasingly becoming carb-free culture, we’d like him to peddle his tasteless bits somewhere else.