In the beginning, it was all about Simon. When American Idol debuted in the summer of 2002, millions of viewers tuned in weekly to hear what outrageous things judge Simon Cowell would say as much as to check out the talent on display. No, he did not just say that, we collectively thought, gasping in horror every time he opened his mouth to offer some scathing review. We lived vicariously through his nasty commentary because he said all the things we were thinking but were unable to say on national TV. Then something happened on the way to Idol becoming a phenomenon. Simon started to become kind of irrelevant. As he and Randy Jackson are so fond of saying, Idol is a singing contest. And guess what: That became the No. 1 reason people tuned in.
Now reports are rolling in that Simon will leave Idol when his contract expires in 2010 in order to launch the U.S. version of The X Factor. We've heard the departure rumor before, and one day it's bound to be true. But what a foolish move that would be, to leave the show that made you a household name in the U.S. for a venture that's not guaranteed to fly. People in the UK may eat up these talent contests and send their winners straight to the top of the charts, but Americans have different entertainment values. There's a reason why none of the other Idol-like star searches have made it big in the states. Americans may embrace multiple procedurals, hospital dramas and cop shows, but when it comes to national talent shows, I suspect that there is only space in their hearts for one.
To be honest, I wouldn't mind seeing Simon go. Although the contestants still seem to hang onto his every word, not feeling as if they've really done an outstanding job unless Simon gives them two thumbs up, this season, Simon has actually inspired as much eye rolling on my part as Randy, Kara DioGuardi and Paula Abdul.
Remember when he described Kris Allen's performance of "The Way You Look Tonight" as "wet"? Kris looked utterly confused, and frankly, so was I. What does that even mean? It wasn't the first time this season that a Simon critique was off-key (such as when he was the lone judge tone deaf enough to rave over Matt Giraud's awkward rendition of "My Funny Valentine"). Even the bloggers have moved on. They seem to have a better time lampooning Randy's non-commentary (that was mad pitchy, dawg), Kara's crazy slips of the tongue (that's Saturday Night Fever, not Saturday Night Live!) and Paula's general wackiness. The most notable thing about Simon this season is that he looks bored.
All that said, Simon's departure could be a devastating blow if his replacement isn't carefully chosen. When he left Pop Idol (the UK show on which American Idol is based) to launch The X Factor in the UK, Pop Idol was soon history. The same thing could happen here in the U.S. if the Idol producers don't do better than bringing on another Kara DioGuardi. Quentin Tarantino has been my favorite mentor of the season, and his assessments were more or less spot on. But I think they should go with a credible musician, preferably a singer (this is, after all, a singing contest), not an industry exec like, say, Clive Davis, who'd bore the contestants and viewers to tears. Also, no more lightweight pop stars. One Paula Abdul is enough. Brandy never particularly impressed me on America's Got Talent, and I don't think that the other performers in her age group -- Pink, Jessica Simpson, Britney Spears -- have the musical training or the vocal prowess to give the kind of truly informed critiques that the show has been lacking since day one.
John Mayer is a possibility, but he doesn't have the cranky quality or ruthless disposition (outside of his love life) to fill Simon's seat. Madonna comes to mind as well, but she probably wouldn't be caught dead going anywhere near Paula Abdul. I say go the Brit route again and bring on Elton John. He's as A-list as they come. He knows music and has had a hand in creating more hits than Randy, Kara and Paula combined. Best of all, he's practically made a second career out of dissing fellow musicians. Remember when he called Madonna's "Die Another Day" the worst Bond theme ever? Or when he dismissed George Michael's Patience CD as rubbish? He did the same to Kylie Minogue's Fever, chalking it up as one great song, "Can't Get You Out Of My Head," surrounded by filler.
Frankly, I beg to differ with all of those slams, but I never get tired of reading a good Elton rant. I can only imagine the glee he would have had this season putting Lil Rounds firmly in her place (not that Simon didn't do an admirable job of that). And no doubt he would have been the judge to knock that preening, histrionic Adam Lambert off his high horse. Danny Gokey probably would be a distant memory by now. And best of all, Allison Iraheta might be on her way the finals. (Elton knows a female powerhouse when he hears one; just check out his list of female duet partners, live and on CD: Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Mary J Blige, Jennifer Rush, Millie Jackson, Kiki Dee, George Michael...) Adam, Allison and Elton. Now that's an Idol finale, I'd actually be excited about watching.