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.

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