So You Think You Can Sing?
By Paul Rogers
According to Forbes magazine, Simon Cowell earned $80 million between 2009 and 2010 (ranking him No. 11 on its “World’s Most Powerful Celebrities” list). You’d think the guy would be sitting on some dreamy desert island with his feet up by now. Instead, this irrepressible British music and TV mogul—who’s best known as the shamelessly blunt judge on American Idol—is gearing-up for the U.S. debut of one of his most successful creations to date, The X Factor. Yes, it’s another TV-singing talent show, but The X Factor boasts some intriguing differences from the perennially-popular Idol (on which Cowell is no longer a judge). First auditions for The X Factor take place at the L.A. Sports Arena on March 27.
“You’ve got to believe in the premise of the show,” says Cowell of his tireless enthusiasm for the talent show format. “Which is: Do you believe the process can find a star? And if I didn’t believe that then I wouldn’t do the shows . . . And that’s really what drives me to carry on making the shows. Because the best feeling of everything is that moment when somebody walks in and you think, ‘God, I’ve found somebody fantastic!’”
Cowell, 51, began his career in a music publisher’s mailroom before working his way up to being an A&R man (responsible for seeking out and nurturing talent) and then running record labels. Along the way he was central to the success of a number of household-name acts in the U.K., including Sinitta, Curiosity Killed the Cat and Westlife. In 2001, he landed a judging job for Britain’s Pop Idol TV show and was invited to fill the same role on the show’s stateside equivalent, American Idol, the following year. In 2004, The X Factor, produced by Cowell and his company Syco TV, replaced Pop Idol in the U.K. and swiftly became a global phenomenon, with versions airing everywhere from Armenia to Colombia. Now, with Cowell’s American Idol contract expired, U.S. viewers will finally get to see what all the X Factor fuss is about when it debuts here this fall.
“The main difference I guess is the fact that we’ve tried to take off any rules—or certainly as many as possible,” he mulls. “We’ve tried to make the show as broad as possible . . . we’ve taken the [minimum] age down to 12; we’ve taken the upper age limit off completely and we’ve invited vocal groups to enter as well.”
So, in theory, the final of American X Factor could consist of “the next ‘N Sync versus the next Justin Bieber versus the next Madonna,” according to Cowell. Certainly the colossal success of British singer Susan Boyle, who was 48 when she was “discovered” by the Britain’s Got Talent show in 2009, will encourage older participants to enter X Factor.
Though American television seems to be reaching singing show saturation-point, Cowell believes that the viewing public has room in their hearts—and evenings—for The X Factor. He’s literally banking on it, offering the American X Factor winner an unprecedented $5 million recording contract with Syco/Sony Music.
“I find them fascinating still—because they really are reality shows,” says Cowell of the TV talent show genre with which he’s now synonymous. “I have absolutely no idea going into this how many people are going to turn up, what they’re going to be like or how they’re going to behave—but I like the idea that you’re going into the unknown and that’s what I think the public enjoys.”
Being formerly a behind-the-scenes music industry figure, Cowell was unfamiliar to most TV viewers when he first appeared on Pop Idol and American Idol. But though his original colleagues behind the AI judges’ desk, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson, enjoyed a degree of celebrity before the show even began, it was Cowell who made the biggest splash with his brutally honest style—a trait he has parlayed into a ludicrously lucrative second career, in which he now not only appears on the shows but also produces them (he also produces America’s Got Talent).
“I think that any artist who judges one of these shows is always slightly concerned about their own popularity, because that’s what artists are like,” says Cowell. “For me, it obviously didn’t make any difference whether people liked me or not, because this wasn’t my job. My main job was to run a record label . . . [so] I had a slightly different perspective.”
“The biggest compliment I get when I meet people when I go out in America is they say, ‘You say what I’m thinking.’ And that’s, honestly, the best compliment you can get, because it means that you’re doing your job properly and people can relate to what you’re saying.”
Also, though Cowell claims his early career as an A&R executive was like one long audition (“I kind of learnt my job through harsh but honest criticism,” he says), he has never had to stand before a panel of judges and perform as an artist. So, while the likes of dancer/singer Abdul and bassist Jackson, both former auditionees themselves, might identify with contestants and cut them some slack accordingly, Cowell’s objectivity is unclouded by empathy.
The X Factor arrives stateside with built-in credibility thanks to the international success of British singer Leona Lewis, whose career (which includes a U.S. No. 1 with her debut album, 2007’s Spirit) went stratospheric when she won the third series of the U.K. version of the show.
“Part of the issue with a lot of these shows is that, historically, you’re always going to get a winner, but I don’t think there’s been enough worldwide stars off the back of them—which means that we’ve got to do a better job of the judging process, of the mentoring process,” says Cowell.
“Obviously Leona selling all over the world gave the show credibility, and that’s essentially what we’ve said right from the outset with the American [X Factor] show—that we’re not just looking for somebody to win a competition and then hopefully sell records in America. We want to find somebody who can be a global star. And that’s the promise we’ve made to the candidates: that we are taking this very seriously—and that’s why we put the $5 million on the table.”
If you fancy a shot at that bounty, and think you have the voice and charisma to impress Cowell and his fellow judges (Record producer and music exec L.A. Reid among them), you should know that X Factor auditions are a little different from those of American Idol. Most significantly, they’re held in front of a live audience of thousands.
“I’ve been on a number of shows where you sit in a hotel room [for auditions] and it’s just an unnatural setting—you don’t get any feedback other than from the people sitting on a desk with you,” Cowell laments. “What we’re looking for is more than a singer—we’re looking for a performer. So, we kind of test them right from the beginning to say: ‘If you can win over an audience of three or four thousand, then you’re on your way; if you can’t, forget it!’ In a way, even though it sounds more difficult, it actually makes the process slightly easier, because when you’ve got the crowd on your side it gives that extra bit of confidence.”
After the success of Moreno Valley’s Andrew Garcia on the ninth season of American Idol (in which he was the ninth place finalist) last year, expect a good number of hopefuls to make their way from the Inland Empire to L.A. for the X Factor auditions.
“I remember when Kelly Clarkson won Year 1 [of American Idol], and she was representing Texas at the time. You’ll always see an increase in [auditionees from that area] in the second year,” notes Cowell. “It shows that no matter where you’re from, no matter what background, if you’re given an opportunity to shine, you’ve got a shot.”
Inland Empire singers who commit to the trip to the L.A. X Factor auditions (for which wristbands will be issued on the previous day) won’t have their time—and ever-more-expensive gas—wasted, according to Cowell.
“No matter how many people turn up, everybody gets a chance to audition and you’re going to be seen and heard,” he assures. “You can always notice the people who stand out in the crowd, which is why we always say don’t turn up as if you just came from school or the office—do make an effort to get yourself noticed . . . Particularly with the success of artists like Katy Perry and Lady Gaga, you’ve got a chance to be different. Don’t be afraid of looking different—you’re not going to be discriminated [against] because of that.”
Even for singers who don’t get asked back, the L.A. auditions should be quite an experience—and a chance for some incidental exposure—in themselves, says Cowell.
“It’s a fun day. You’re meeting a lot of people who all want to do the same as you. The vibe is always great. There’re a lot of film crews around, news crews, so you’ve got an opportunity to be noticed whatever happens . . . If you’re prepared well, you’ve got every opportunity. Because we don’t turn away good people—it’s as simple as that.”
Talking of preparedness, Cowell has one principal piece of advice for aspiring X Factor performers: once you’ve chosen the song you’re going to sing at the audition, make it your own. “Like, if you’re a guy, I often suggest instead of doing a guy’s song, do a girl’s song . . . ’cos a great song is a great song,” Cowell advises. “Do something which we haven’t heard before. Make it your unique version. Most importantly, demonstrate the type of artist you want to be.”
The X Factor auditions at L.A. Sports Arena, 3939 S. Figueroa St., Los Angeles; www.fox.com/thexfactor. Sun, March 27, 8AM. Wristbands required and distributed Sat, March 26, through Sun, March 27, 6AM until 6AM.