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Broadway Books
"American Idol" fans will find only mild gossip in Simon Cowell's new book.
msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/19/2004 4:32:33 PM ET 2004-01-19T21:32:33

Professional meanie Simon Cowell inspires strong feelings. He is harsh on “American Idol” contestants, but he can also be refreshingly honest in an industry and setting where a lot of people blow smoke. He’s easily more interesting than either Randy Jackson or Paula Abdul. But does Cowell have enough to say to merit a book deal?

Cowell’s recent book “I Don’t Mean to Be Rude, But…” is part memoir, part rehash of the first two seasons of “American Idol”, and part guide to starting a musical career. In other words, it tries to be too many things and fully succeeds at none of them. The book’s subtitle reveals its split nature: “Backstage Gossip from ‘American Idol’ and the Secrets That Can Make You A Star.”

Who is the audience for this book, exactly? People who love Simon Cowell? People who hate Simon Cowell? People who can’t get enough information about those “American Idol” losers that have long since disappeared back to their hometowns and retail jobs? People too dumb to buy one of the eight million other guidebooks on breaking into the music business?

If you’re looking for hints as to how Cowell got so blunt, or interesting and never-before-revealed anecdotes about Cowell’s childhood, you're out of luck. Instead, Cowell relates charming tales about how he tortured his younger brother and terrorized their nanny. As a teen, any time things didn’t go his way, he ran away from home, only to return a few hours later when he got sick of carting around his heavy suitcase.

After finishing his schooling, Cowell pouted about his parents’ insistence that he get a proper job, because he wanted to work in the entertainment industry. When they arranged an entertainment job for him (as gopher on Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining"), he whined about that too. All evidence suggests that Cowell was a spoiled drama queen from a young age, and reading about his antics and privileged upbringing doesn’t make him any more likable.

Cowell finally found a music industry job he enjoyed and worked to move up the corporate ladder, but was frustrated when his co-workers and bosses ridiculed him for signing recording contracts with WWE wrestlers and the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Can you blame them?

Cowell complains (and this becomes a popular refrain) that his colleagues valued “street cred” over sales, and he truly does not seem to understand why that might be. His devotion to creating pop records is single-minded, but he never explains exactly how he would define pop music. The reader is left with the impression that Cowell considers pop to be whatever sells the most copies. By Cowell’s standards, singles that feature barking dogs are the equivalent of a song by, say, the Jackson 5.

Tame tell-all
The second section is why most people would buy this book—the promised backstage gossip about “American Idol.”

The tidbits Cowell drops are mild at best. He fought often with Paula Abdul, but ultimately came to respect her judging abilities, although he never explains what changed his mind. Randy Jackson is a great guy, although they too have had their differences. Brian Dunkleman is an idiot who blew a great opportunity by acting like he was above the show. Ryan Seacrest is a hard worker who shows too much enthusiasm.

Most of the former contestants (except for Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard, Clay Aiken, and teacher’s pet Tamyra Gray) are destined to sing at amusement parks or on cruise ships. Cowell plows through both seasons of the show and offers a rehash of each and every episode that reads like a boring DVD commentary track. There is the occasional interesting glimpse (did Corey Clark really have a threesome with Kimberly Caldwell and Trenyce, as Cowell implies?), but even the casual viewer has heard much of this before.

Where is the trademark Cowell brutal opinion? Sprinkled throughout the book are sidebars where Cowell rants for a few paragraphs on subjects such as Madonna, Michael Jackson, or the music industry in general. These are meant to be dishy and bold, but the sentiments expressed are so old hat (Madonna is cold and calculating! Michael Jackson’s singing career has taken a nosedive!) they're just dull.

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The allegedly gossipy segments of the book show that Cowell has mastered the art of calculated rebellion. He wants to get attention, but doesn’t have any conviction. The things that he says aren’t shocking enough to earn him any true animosity.

The first shot at a celebrity takes place on the fourth page, when Cowell claims that Enrique Iglesias doesn’t have much talent and only got a record deal because of his parentage. Way to go out on a limb, Simon! Cowell is careful to avoid taking shots at targets that could bring him harm. Tellingly, he has nothing but kind words to say about FOX executives.

The final section of the book attempts to deliver on the promised secrets that can make you a star. Cowell lists off what an aspiring singer should do, but doesn’t seem to realize how unrealistic his suggestions are.

He suggests that aspirants get on a television show to establish their name, like Janet Jackson did with “Good Times” and “Diff’rent Strokes,” without acknowledging that Jackson had a few family connections the average wannabe doesn’t possess.

He urges people to find good material from top songwriters, but doesn’t explain how to convince those songwriters to give up their best material to an unknown.

Cowell’s suggestions might work for the next “American Idol” finalist, who has already received national television exposure, but they’re not going to work for a talented nobody from Boise. Thanks for nothing, Simon.

It’s as if Cowell offered up a proposal for a memoir, but the publishers realized that Cowell’s life story was neither interesting nor instructive, and that people really wanted juicy behind-the-scenes tales about “American Idol.” The result is this cobbled-together book. Instead of getting the best of all worlds, it is the least of each.

Kim Reed is a freelance writer living in Upstate New York.

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