Simon Cowell's empire of televised singing contests — American Idol, The X Factor, Britain's Got Talent — have become rather predictable affairs over the years: The delusional freaks with poor voices come on to get ritualistically shamed early on; the blandly attractive contestants with serviceable voices go on to garner breathless praise and some degree of success as the season comes to a close. However, as the current season of American Idol has followed its typical patterns, the latest round of Britain's Got Talent has garnered international attention for blatantly defying audience expectations and milking that drama for all it's worth.
First came Susan Boyle, an impossibly frumpy Scottish woman who looked like she ought to be the next William Hung, but revealed herself to possess not only a stunning, pitch-perfect voice, but also an astonishing level of technical control and genuine soul. This weekend, 12-year-old Shaheen Jafargholi emerged as her top rival in the contest, burning through renditions of Amy Winehouse's "Valerie" and the Jackson 5's "Who's Loving You?" with the prowess, confidence, and preternatural emotional maturity of a young Michael Jackson. Though it's pretty obvious that a cute preteen boy is an easier sell than a dowdy middle-aged woman, Cowell and his producers managed to manipulate the situation and sell Jafargholi as the underdog. As the kid launched into the Winehouse tune, Cowell slipped into his default mode of jaded skepticism, stopped the performance short, and asked whether or not he could sing anything else, with the implication that the boy had only learned how to nail one song. After a beat, Jafargholi brought down the house with "Who's Loving You?," and basked in the rapturous approval of all of the judges, including the suddenly enthusiastic Cowell.
Everything about the Jafargholi audition seems artificial and inauthentic, but its staging was impeccable. This is in some part due to the way Britain's Got Talent is shot and edited. Where American Idol is straightforward and matter-of-fact in its presentation, the quasi-documentary style of Britain's Got Talent allows for a greater sense of intimacy and immediacy, and places a stronger emphasis on Cowell's intimidating presence. It's impossible to imagine the Jafargholi scene playing out the same way on Idol — for one thing, we would have missed a crucial establishing shot of the people backstage cuing up the Jackson 5 song, or the kid's family waiting nervously in the wings as Cowell feigned disinterest in his talent.
This is profoundly manipulative television, but the fortunate result is that Cowell has managed to inject actual sincerity and jaw-dropping talent into the show, all the while drawing an unprecedented level of attention to the series. With any luck, next year's Idol may pick up a few of these tricks, and Simon can work his dark magic to get America its own set of unlikely singing sensations.
And if you haven't yet seen Shaheen Jafargholi, here goes: