Simon Cowell Talks New Idol Judges, Paula Abdul, and His New Show The X-Factor
What exactly is an X-Factor? An unknown factor in our algebra II class
that was only slightly less infuriating than y? The spot on a map where a
pirate's booty is buried? An element a starlet has to take into
consideration before dating John Mayer? Or is it something that singer Leona Lewis, or a man wearing a full body lobster suit and the gull to audition for a televised national singing competition possess?
Really, we're not sure. So we decided to ask The X-Factor's executive producer, Simon Cowell, ourselves as he swings into town for their Miami auditions on April 7th at the Bank United Center. And not only did we get to the bottom of what exactly an X-Factor is, but also talked new American Idol judges, Paula, and why you'll never catch him at a karaoke bar.
New Times: Is an X-Factor something you can describe in words or is it more of a feeling, like something that you can just sense?
Simon Cowell: I think it's impossible to describe it in words, so, yes, that's exactly what it is - a feeling, where not everything may be right 'but' it is right. Like, someone just walked in with a present but they haven't got the best voice in the world but they've got that indescribable something, a star quality. And when that someone would walk in, we'd always use the expression "you've got that X-Factor" as a compliment although no one really knew exactly what it meant. Which is kind of how the show ended up being called The X-Factor.
Which up and coming artists in music today do you think have the X Factor?
A lot of the artists who have established themselves in the past year, really - anyone from Justin Beiber, to Katy Perry, to Lady Gaga, I mean, the difference in Rihanna in the past twelve months has been extraordinary. You even have to say someone like Susan Boyle has the X-Factor because of the effect she's had and all the records she's sold in a short period of time. I think the timing on [X-Factor] really feels good because of what's happened in the past year. It feels like there's this brand new generation of pop star who's emerged and has sort of kicked out the old Gods and has taken over the charts. And these new pop stars seem to be making their own decisions and it has become fun, camp, interesting, controversial. It's like the music business in the past ten years was in black and white and it's now color. It's a weird thing but a very exciting time.
Do you think the word artist is too loosely used nowadays?
Well, when you look at someone like Beyonce, who really defines the word 'artist,' then no. She's someone who's a total 360 degrees - she makes great records, her concerts are impeccable, her TV performances are impeccable. You never see this girl doing less than 10 out of 10. I actually wasn't very nice to her years ago, I didn't know much about her, but I apologized to her and her father having met her because she's the one who's been behind the incredible success of her career. That's what you essentially look for in an artist, somebody who just doesn't stop trying to win and this girl's a winner. Lady Gaga's a winner, Madonna's a winner. And a lot of the artists I mentioned before, they're doing things their way. There's not someone behind the scenes, pulling the strings. Look at Oprah, everything she's achieved in her life is her own decision and the fact that she's been able to cross into every decade successfully is a massive achievement.
How about someone like Britney Spears, who obviously has the X-Factor, but tons of handlers? She doesn't seem to be in control of many of the decisions being made in her career but is hugely successful.
Yes, but she's not quite who she was before. And the truth is, she's got a ton of new artists nipping at her heels now, a lot of people whether it's Katy Perry or Ke$ha want to be the new Britney Spears. There are a lot of people who want to be in her shoes and she's going to struggle with that. Mind you having said that, she's still a star and if she wanted to come on the show, of course we'd say yes because she brings an awful lot of interest with her, which may be part of the X-Factor as well; that you can keep people and the media's interest in you for a long time. I mean, that's probably the reason why she's still making records.
Is there an art to being a good judge?
I think you have to be open-minded. And you've also got to have people you trust by you. We hired L.A. Reid for the simple reason that he knows more about the American music business than I ever will. He's very successful, very cool, and it makes your job easier if you've got someone around whose opinion you trust.
Is there any truth to the rumor that you're going to make Paula Abdul a judge on The X-Factor?
I would, definitely. Surprisingly, Paula always had great taste in music (but) she never really got a chance to show that because everyone was always concentrating on everything else, but I always found her very knowledgeable. She knew what was going on in the world and had good taste. She's also fantastically whacky to have on your side because when you had nothing to say, she would say something and it would be very funny. When she left Idol, the show lost its heart, as simple as that. She was the heart and soul of that show.
Speaking of American Idol, what you do you think of the current cast of judges?
I've only seen them on the live show once and it's weird watching the show because this is the time of year I'd normally be on it. So, for me, it was basically like watching a brand new show. It didn't think it was Idol. It's a nice show - they're all so nice and so happy [Cowell starts to uncontrollably laugh]] and people seem to like it. I read recently about one of the producers saying that the show is so much better since I left and I thought, 'well, why didn't she say that to me three years ago?' They are thrilled with the show now, all of them. But it's a very different show now, nothing like The X-Factor, which I think is a good thing.
Do you think any of the three judges on American Idol now reflect your style of criticism?
No. Randy a bit because we worked together a long time, but really, the two new ones? No, absolutely nothing like me. No, no. No. They're nice. And obviously they've been chosen because they're nice.
Is there a line that can be crossed when giving an honest opinion?
It depends who you're talking to, you judge it case by case. That's why I ask contestants questions before they sing. Often I'll go to the holding room beforehand and remind everyone what the rules are - if I don't think you're very good, I'm going to tell you, and if you don't like what I've got to say, you can tell me, but if you anyone is genuinely afraid of criticism you shouldn't be auditioning and they should leave. And of course no one leaves and you do criticize them and they go nuts. So, it's all been a waste of time. But, I do try...
To warn them at least?
But isn't a contestant freaking out on camera part of the appeal of a like
American Idol or X-Factor?
Of course. But, if you want to watch a show like Extreme Makeover, which I like, they're never going to be rude to people. The house isn't going to fall down at the end, no one's going to complain about the way the house was decorated, you know what to expect, which is the same with Idol now. My show will be different and you're going to watch for a different reason.
Because you give an honest opinion and in turn, people flip out?
It will be uncensored and there will be controversial moments, but that's how I like my shows to be because that's the way it really is. And I always make the kind of show I want to watch and I like it to be funny and crazy because I've always worked with crazy people. Idol never went out of their way to be controversial in the slightest and we, or maybe it's just me, attract a different type of contestant. And I love all that.
Favorite vocalist of all time?
I've always loved Frank Sinatra. But I also like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gay, Ella Fitzgerald.
Have you ever sang karaoke?
No, never! [laughs]
If you had to, which song would you pick?
Probably "My Way". But, I would just be horrified. I remember the last time I went to the cinema in Los Angeles, I went to go see that Huge Grant movie with Drew Barrymore, Music & Lyrics and the film was terrible but what was worse was that every time he or she sang during the movie, everyone would turn around and stare at me like I was going to say something! And I'd think that if I were at a karaoke club it'd be the same thing. I'd be so embarrassed.
So, you self-created a stigma for yourself?
Absolutely, 100%! Every time I go somewhere and there's someone singing, I can see in the corner of my eye, someone staring at me like I'm going to nod and shake my head or something.
Do you think talent can be developed through a mentor, like you're going to have on the X-Factor, or is it something you need to be born with?
You can hopefully point someone in the right direction. And I bet on this show we're going to have a lot of kids showing up, like 13, 14, whose songs and outfits have been chosen by their mums and dads. And then you're going to see someone like that who's got real talent and that's the time where I think you can step in and say 'you know, you're mum has it completely wrong and I think you need to appeal to a younger audience.' And I see it in the wings all the time, mothers mouthing the words while their kids are singing and all I can think is 'you're doing this for yourself, not for the kids.' These kids need to appeal to 13, 14 year olds, not 55 year-olds.
How about someone like Rebecca Black, who just came out with that "Friday" song everyone's going nuts about?
Anybody who can get like, what, 300 million hits in one week is doing something 100% right. And the fact that some people love it and some people hate it is fantastic. There's more people talking about her than any other artist in the country at the moment.
Although Rebecca Black's mother paid some company to write those songs and make that video for her?
Okay, well, then I take back my comments about every mother not having a clue what appeals to a 13 year old. Obviously it has worked. And I find her video very, very funny to watch and good luck to her.
Are there any past American Idol winners that you're particularly proud of?
I've always loved Kelly. I think she's the best singer, by a mile. Carrie, because everything I predicted for her happened, I thought she was going to be the most successful. Fantasia as a person, just one of the nicest people you'll ever meet. Those are the ones that really stick out in my mind, but I have a soft place in particular for Kelly because she was our first winner and it meant a lot. And she's a good girl. We were lucky. She validated the whole process.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Miami and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.