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Matthew Norman: Resistance is futile in the face of this master of psychology

Simon Cowell has no need to play God. On Greek mythological lines, he is a god

Thursday 12 November 2009 01:00 GMT

The shame and self-hatred bubble away like sulphuric acid in the soul as I write these words, which should be spoken only to a group of fellow sufferers, protected by the privacy of the confessional. But my name is Matthew and I'm a Cowelloholic.

I can't fight it any longer. For years I've denied it, railed against it and pretended to myself and to others to be loftily above it. But it's no use. I am utterly, helplessly and hopelessly obsessed with Simon Cowell, and with the myriad of mysteries that enshroud him.

So many questions, so few answers. Is he a benign dictator or a malevolent genius... pop culture's answer to Mr Lee of Singapore or the Third Reich's Joseph Goebbels? How far does his plan for global dominion extend and what, if anything, is its purpose? What, most unanswerable of all, drives him?

These are a few of the grander questions, but the trivial ones are no less obsessing. Does he script those thrillingly spontaneous slanging matches with Cheryl Cole verbatim, or do they improvise on a general theme? If Whitney Houston had walked on stage and sung "Baa Baa Black Sheep" in the voice of the Supreme Dalek, would he still have led Cheryl, Dannii and Louis in a standing ovation? And is he truthful in claiming to have no advance knowledge of the public vote when, as on the last two Sunday nights, he sends the least untalented X Factor contestant to "deadlock" doom at the hands of the most luminescently talentless?

The downfall of adorable Cardiff songbird Lucie Jones to the Brothers Grimes, so tragically transformed from deadwood to Jedward, marks a new apex in the nation's troubling relationship with this bewitchingly peculiar figure. "How could Simon have done it?" an anguished pubescent of my acquaintance asked on Sunday night, speaking for millions. "After everything he'd said about them? I mean, he said he'd leave the bleeding country if they won. And Lucie was so good. I'm beside myself with anger. He's gone too far this time." Having a soft spot for Lucie myself, I had to agree. "So we'll not be watching Saturday's show?" I teased. "Oh no, we'll be watching it. Of course we'll be watching."

The rage that will drive the ratings to another peak sustains. "Furious fan Steven James yesterday urged viewers to express their outrage by making Jedward WIN," The Sun reported yesterday. "It will demonstrate a massive victory for the British public, and also that a certain Mr Cowell cannot play God."

Steven misses the point. Mr Cowell has no need to play God. On Greek mythological lines, Mr Cowell is a god. Like Zeus gazing down from Olympus, he is the puppet master of all he surveys. He protects his chosen ones by removing from their path rivals championed by lesser deities, albeit he might turn on them if they show a hubristic bent.

There can be no massive victory for the public, because the public will do his will even when it thinks it's defying him. If Simon concludes that the cocky but vocally gifted Danyl Johnson should win, he will tweak the coverage in the tabloids that prostrate themselves before his Gucci loafers to persuade us that Danyl has completed the journey to true humility. If he decides one of the younger boys has more commercial potential, he will fix it for Olly Murs or Joe McElderry. If Stacey Solomon strikes him as the next big diva, she will triumph. He controls every aspect of this show, his sole possession and much the most brilliantly produced in TV history, in every minuscule detail.

And he controls us, partly because in this infantilised transatlantic age he is a master of child psychology. He knows even lukewarm praise of an act he previously attacked (Lucie and Jedward on Saturday; Rachel Adedeji the week before) will turn us off them; and conversely that if he goes too far in slagging an act off (Jedward previously), we will give it the sympathy vote in the naïve assumption that this will infuriate him. Gordon Brown, who knows enough of his omnipotence to suck up to him whenever possible, is the unwilling beneficiary of this very syndrome. The Sun, which lacks a shred of Mr Cowell's innate feel for how far to go, pushed far too hard with its conflated nonsense about that letter, badly overplaying its hand even as it ridiculed his.

The result was inevitable. Hearing the PM at Tuesday's news conference, I warmed to him as never before when he spoke with quiet but emotive dignity about knowing the agony of losing a child. If the public vote – or "general election" as it was known in pre-X Factor times – had been held yesterday there'd have been a dramatic late swing towards him. Whatever the truth of Mrs Janes's claim that her son would have survived with better battlefield medical attention, no one outside News International and its axis power partner at Tory high command wants the PM subjected to such repellent bullying. If Simon was in charge of Labour propaganda he'd have flammed up something similar, because his incredible cynicism – and how he ratcheted that quality up to unforeseen levels on Sunday after all these years is simply a miracle – is matched only by his powers of manipulation.

The faintly sinister thing is the sadomasochistic compact between us. You would have to be clinically dead, if not fully decomposed, not to see the strings with which he guides our emotions, yet still we dance like gleeful marionettes. The humiliation of spending so much more time debating the musical and personality qualities of a bunch of (at best) mildly talented kids than anything else is a virtually guilt-free pleasure across every socio-economic and educational demographic. None but the most high-minded is immune.

Forty years ago, Lew Grade, Mr Cowell's predecessor as the Barnum of British telly, put AJP Taylor in the ITV network's early evening slot, just before Crossroads, and some 20 million watched the history man stand in front of a lone camera artlessly lecturing on the English Civil War or the causes of the Russian Revolution That something profound has happened to popular culture need hardly be stated, but the rate of change has quickened so startlingly in recent years that where not long ago we saw ourselves, regardless of personal politics, as Thatcher's Children, we are Cowell's Children now.

And the nature of Our Father, who art in the editing suite or on the phone to the 3AM Girls preparing the next banquet of compellingly fake emotion, remains fascinatingly opaque. Some see in him a hint of Jay Gatsby, a self-created confection grown monstrously rich from selling moonshine, but fundamentally good natured. Others, recalling his recent purchase of a £25m, 11,500 square foot Xanadu in Beverly Hills, muse on a latter day Charles Foster Kane, and what, if anything, his Rosebud might be.

Eventually, painfully, Kane learned that he couldn't always control public opinion after all. But the Lucie Jones scandal doesn't look to me anything like Kane's demise at the hands of Boss Jim Geddes. Call him Faust, Beelzebub or whatever, this oddly vacuous impenetrable genius is the very devil... and while you can hardly accuse anyone ultimately responsible for Jedward's rendition of "Ghostbusters" of having all the best tunes, he still understands better than anyone ever has how to fiddle a compliant nation, and how to play it like a fiddle as well.

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