Thursday, August 17, 2006

Of Idols, Idol worship & Network Reality Shows

I haven't been posting lately as I had a frustrating problem with my wireless signal flickering intermittently. But its a blessing in disguise as it has given me time to cook this very interesting (I hope) post.
Singapore has been in the grip of Idol fever for the past few months now. Yes, we're talking about Singapore Idol, our local offshoot of the hit reality singing contest American Idol, of which season 5 ended earlier this year with the crowning of southern crooner Taylor Hicks. This looks to get worse as we near the denouement - the finals.
The local free-to-air channels have their dose (overdose?) of reality shows, spurred by the success of such hits as The Amazing Race, So You Think You Can Dance?, America's Next Top Model (ANTM), Project Runway (PjR), Diva On A Dime and Survivor. American Idol spawned a whole slew of nauseating Asian clones like Project Superstar, Campus Superstar and, possibly the worst of them all, Star Host. And all conducted in affected Mandarin. More on our local language foibles in a later post.
A reality show's formula is simple - narrow the field from hundreds of thousands of hopefuls to a handful of finalists. These then compete, week after week; and each week one unlucky contestant is booted out until one finally prevails. That's probably why shows like ANTM and PjR are so successful. They are competitions in the real sense of the word.
ANTM is a modelling contest like no other, the brainchild of supermodel Tyra Banks. Each week the aspiring models are given a challenge to conquer and a photoshoot. They are then judged on these by a panel of celebrity judges and each week, one girl is sent home. PjR is a designing contest on a different level. Each week on PjR, the finalist designers must design outfits in response to a theme or an inspirational idea. They are given money to purchase fabric and are given a time frame to execute and complete their designs - usually two days, sometimes less. Professional models of their choice then parade these creations down a catwalk (hence the show's name) and celebrity designer judges rate them and vote one designer out every week.
Which is why the Idol shows are at once amusing and frustrating.
Idol is the only network reality show of its kind where the judges' remarks are incidental. Its the fans who decide who stays and who goes by casting their votes - the idol wannabe with the least votes is the one who goes home that week. Singapore is the only country in the Idol franchise where we are bombarded every week in the run-up to the performances (called "spectaculars") to (a) vote for your favourite Idol and (b) its a singing contest.
This is where it gets so funny it borders on the ludicrous. The two points (a) and (b) are at cross-purposes with the fans. From what I can see, Singapore Idol is emphatically NOT a singing contest, but one of popularity, evinced by the fans' piercing shrieks and screams which punctuate every performance as one of the judges, Ken Lim, was quick to point out.
Still the Idol franchise has been rife with shockers and has-beens. In season two of the American series, hot favourite Clay Aiken was pipped to the title by 1 vote! Reuben Stoddard won season 2 but where is he now? Similarly in American Idol 3, soul singer Fantasia Barrino edged out powerhouse Diana De Garmo, although fans were later heard to complain that away from the hysteria of competition her voice sounded like a cross between a duck and a sheep in pain. Neither singer has had much airtime since. Now season 5 and Chris Daughtrey who was chucked out 1 performance short of being in the top 3 because fans got over-confident and he lost out on votes.
Our local Idols have fared much worse. In Singapore, fame is a fad akin to fashion. As Heidi Klum of PjR says so aptly, "one day you're in, and the next, you're out!" Singapore Idol 2 was two years in the making as, according to the organizers, "we wanted the 1 Idols to develop their careers". Huh? What careers? Taufik, the original winner, was wildly popular for about 5 months after he won. All that remains of him today are his advertisements promoting 7-11 stores. Similarly Olinda Cho, second runner-up whose svelte figure graces the adverts for Royal Bodyline. Yes, but what of her singing? Where now are Sylvester Sim, Maia Lee and a host of other Idol wannabes who are mouldering in the annals of history? The answer = nada.
There is a sinister undercurrent here. As I watch the shows, it seems that the talented ones, the ones who should win, don't and are shown the door long before they deserve to be. Witness the exit of Nick Verreos. One of the best designers on PjR2 was denied a spot in the top three. His nemesis, Santino Rice, had an outfit that was glued together and was falling apart even as it came down the runway, yet Rice made it to the top 3. The only consolation was that Rice was given the cut at the very end, leaving Vietnamese-American Chloe Dao to win season 2.
Now SI2 and we're one performance short of the top 3. Four local Idols remain and Matilda d'Silva has departed, the most controversial casualty of the Idol voting system. I was sorry to see her go because amidst the farce that is Singapore Idol, she had the one thing the other Idol hopefuls did not - a voice. She, above all else, qualified that this is a SINGING competition. Yet homeward bound she has gone for the fans have decided that a teeny-bopping monkey and a St. Bernard lookalike are better Idol material than she. C'est la vie.
So Singapore Idol has degenerated, in spades, into a popularity contest. Never mind that you can't sing the song, I don't care if you sing flat or off-key, so long as I find that the way your hair hangs in your eyes is cute, or that I think you're a teenaged hunk/boy stud (I don't by the way) you stay on. A close friend of mind once said that Singapore Idol was "good for a laugh any day" but I think from now on I'll pass and take a leaf out of Heidi Klum's book - "they may be in but I'm out!" (say with thick German accent for effect.)

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