American idol, American idolatry -

American idol, American idolatry


The highlight of last night’s American Idol was a contestant’s performance of “Footprints in the Sand”, a song that hit big for Leona Lewis as a charity single in 2008. Many viewers were probably surprised to learn that Simon Cowell, a man famous for his no-nonsense, unsentimental persona, actually had a writing credit on this piece of sentimental nonsense.

Lord knows I was surprised, even though the by-the-numbers arrangement of the Leona Lewis version and the haphazard rhythmic tethering in the first couple verses are strong indicators of Cowellian involvement. As are Miss Lewis’s melismatic flourishes and corny octave-hopping. (Hit the “play” button at your own risk.)

Cowell is full of contradictions, all right. Not the least of these is that he is the creator of a remarkable living museum for the marvels of the pop canon, but as a producer and Svengali his influence is entirely destructive, devoted as it is to the promulgation of safeness, sameness, deadness. In the name of art he should probably be assassinated, and that act should probably be followed by the erection of a great public monument to his musical pedagogy.

But there is something delightful in the way that “Footprints in the Sand” compresses so much of recent cultural, religious, and economic history into a compact little four-minute earturd. “Footprints in the Sand” is based on “Footprints”, a ubiquitous bit of embroidery-grade evangelical doggerel whose origins are unknown. You know the one—the punchline goes “It was then that I carried you.” It was probably thunk up by some minister of the Gospel many decades ago, but it didn’t go viral until the late 1970s, after which it found its way into the sermonizing, extemporizing, and storytelling of worthies such as Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, Nancy Reagan, James Dobson, and Rexella van Impe. Needless to say, many lesser lights also used “Footprints” to pad books and speeches. If you grew up with churchy people you know there’s an astonishing (and quite profitable) ecology of anecdotal flotsam like this, an ecology of which the secular world knows nothing.

Since no true author of “Footprints” can be confirmed, a number of hucksters and self-deluders have emerged to claim they wrote it in a moment of inspiration. Rachel Aviv has written a good overview of their weird world; some have managed to make money out of “Footprints”, though all but one of them must be frauds (sorry, I don’t buy the “cryptomnesia” stuff; it’s the favourite Twinkie Defence of plagiarist scum in my own profession). The unexpectedly rapid digitization of the world’s literature should permit scholars to eventually establish a latest possible date for the earliest version of “Footprints”, and that should explode many of these creation myths. It would not surprise me much to learn that Fr. John Donne knew of it and deployed it in a weak moment one Sunday.

Cowell is said to have had the idea of turning “Footprints” into a song. Detractors of Cowell could choose to regard this as a cover story, concealing a revival of the old recording-industry practice of unethical horning-in on songwriter revenues by managers, executives, and other bigwigs. Even the official version of the story doesn’t really suggest that Cowell necessarily deserves a piece of the pie, technically.

But any ass who’s had a couple years of piano lessons—and, strictly speaking, even that’s not necessary—can write a middle eight. It takes a genius to see “Footprints” and hear the clanking of coin. For the purposes of hypothetical litigation, the poem was just lying there in the commons, waiting for someone to pick it up. Millions already love it. But surely it was Cowell who insisted on having the text transformed just the right amount—a subtle, difficult trick, if you think about it. The Page-Magnusson-Kreuger-Cowell “Footprints in the Sand” is wholly blasphemized; there is no Jesus in it at all, just the footprints themselves. The schmaltzy core is preserved without offering offence to those already familiar with the poem. Its audience is multiplied without limit by secularization, but Jesus people will still think of it as a Jesus song, since it’s performed asexually in a vaguely gospel-y style. They may never even notice that the Lord has hit the cutting room floor.

Combine these expert gymnastics with Cowell’s finishing move of forcing his intellectual property onto broadcasters, retailers, and record-buyers as a charity single—i.e., a loss leader that will pay dividends in the future, when the record is covered and sampled—and what you have is truly a command performance. Bravo, Simon, bravissimo. I begrudge you nary a penny.


American idol, American idolatry

  1. A great bit of pop criticism. I didn't grow up with churchy people, so I found your framing of footprints as representative of an anecdotal ecology fascinating. Something I had never really thought about before.

    Thanks. Great writing.

  2. So pieing is tantamount to terrorism but calling for Simon Cowell's assassination is hunky-dory?

  3. Footprints in the sand probably has a similar origin to the Peace Prayer attributed (falsely) to St. Francis. Like "Footprints" it has the sort of feel-good sentimentality that appeals to the devotions of middle-aged church ladies, and so caught fire.

    I'm wondering, as more "new atheists" become parents, what will their exasperated offspring call them? We have "churchy" for those full of high emotion evangelical zeal, but we don't have a term for the type of people that participate in "unbaptizings" where they dry each other with hair dryers marked "reason".

    • The "ungodly" ?

    • The hair dryers have Darwin Fish on them, but that's generally the idea, yeah.

    • "People overdoing it just a tad"

    • This new-fangeled, atheist parenting style will not force their children to worship an all-powerful super-hero who spends his days watching them from space.

      • Yeah, you. What do we call you?

      • No, that would be atheists, agnostics, and your average mainline denominational believer. I'm talking about "new" atheists.

        I'm talking about the people with the eyes empty of intelligence and the ****-eating grins who like to share "the truth" with you at uncomfortable and inappropriate times. The kind of people who like to insult people by comparing their beliefs to flying spagetti monsters. The people who have no problems with pseudo-scientific literature that affirms their own viewpoints, and have bumper stickers and decals proclaiming their beliefs on their car.

        So what is the "new atheist" term for churchy?

  4. "Combine these expert gymnastics with Cowell's finishing move of forcing his intellectual property onto broadcasters, retailers, and record-buyers…

    Cowell has psychic powers. That is how he compells people to do exactly as he wishes. The girl on Idol was probably his daughter, or something.

    I tip my tin foil hat to you, sir.

    • Does it have "unbelievably literalist Maclean's commenter" stamped on it?

  5. Never cared for American Idol; either because of Simon's big head and bitchy attitude, or because most of the people sing the same four notes and are airbrushed before they hit the stage.

    • Couldn't agree more–even the male contestants all sound like Whitney Houston being electrocuted.

  6. Cowell has positioned himself quite well to exploit key variables for successful pop, the biggest of which is having the money and connections to make it work. He can also take the time to analyze the pop market; then comes his multimillion dollar job seeing/hearing thousands of voices. All this and he can even be himself on the show- a narcissistic jackass- and appeal to the audience! And the self-fulfilling prophesy perpetuates… Geez…

  7. I really enjoyed your take on Svencowelli. I only watch the audition shows, because I get terrific amusement from watching just how delusional people can be. This is must-see, so bad, it's good programming! I agree with you about what's so wrong about the rest of the show, and that it promotes the worst aspects of pop singing like absurdly over-ornamented vocals that aren't motivated by the lyrics or dynamic of a song.

    (I wrote a post about American Idol and other fame addictions on my blog too.)

  8. Didn't Pat Boone do this song? "On a day like today, we passed the time away, writing 'Footprints in the Sand'…"?

  9. Really interesting post! If anything I am not surprised at all that Simon's name is on this song. It seems like the completely unsentimental would be the best manipulators of sappy and inconsequential dribble.

  10. great follow up defenltly cool

  11. Gee, Colby, what a murderous piece of prose (yes, I've shamelessly paraphrased Martin Amis' take on the stylings of Mark Steyn). Might be best to take a pass on future episodes of Yankee Idol lest you explode like the parrot on Monty Python. As a major fan, I worry for you (ok, not really, the worrying part that is). LOL.

  12. Really interesting post! If anything I am not surprised at all that Simon's name is on this song. It seems like the completely unsentimental would be the best manipulators of sappy and inconsequential dribble.

  13. Give unto Cowell what is Cowell's…

  14. "In the name of art he should probably be assassinated"

    Not to be all Debbie Downer here but I can't help but read this and recall that some blogger in Quebec just got jailed indefinitely the other day for making comments that were vastly less threatening and inciteful than this.

  15. II am not surprised at all that Simon's name is on this song! I love american idol. American idolatry

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