The toughest gig around

2009-03-27 00:00

I had something else planned for this week, but it’ll have to wait. I need to talk about Idols. I’ve been struggling with an epic inner conflict. For me, the whole concept of Idols represents the worst type of postmodern television. But — and here’s the rub — a very good friend has just made the final eight and I really want him to win. I’ve nearly worn my fingers out voting my quota.

Idols is incredibly watchable. It’s a postmodern spectacle depicting the triumph of style over substance. Now that we’re over the excruciating auditions and the bloodletting, the competition has begun in earnest. All the finalists have had their extreme makeovers and every bit of individuality has been styled out of them. They’re all dressed up and ready to rock. The staging is fantastic. The band is superb. The lighting is terrific. The audience is whipped into a state of near hysteria, but the performances every Sunday evening are pretty average. This isn’t a bit surprising. Not many singers could belt out a rivetting performance in front of four unpredictable judges, their fiercest rivals and a whimsical voting public. If you ask me, it’s the toughest gig around.

The nineties and 2000s have seen an explosion of television shows that showcase our current fascination with the evolutionary principle of survival of the fittest. Quite why this should be the entertainment blueprint of choice is puzzling. These shows trade on the brutal torture of public elimination.

I hate to dispel the myth, but Idols is not about music. Idols is about commercially successful television and a music competition just happens to be the vehicle for exploiting lucrative advertising and sponsorship opportunities, and raking in a whole heap of cash.

Idols makes some dubious claims about what is needed to make it in the pop industry. There is the notion that stars can be manufactured. It’s the ultimate postmodern Cinderella story. That given a smattering of raw talent, a kindly mentor and the right wardrobe, fortune and celebrity is just a dream away.

Then there is the view that idols need to be versatile. They have to demonstrate that they are able to sing anything. That’s just plain nonsense and if you think I’m wrong, ask Beyoncé Knowles to make a country album. Yet how else are the producers going to fill 10 shows and eliminate the worst act every week?

The subtext of Idols suggests you don’t have to be rich or thin to make it big and you don’t have to sing in key — at least not all of the time, but you do have to be young. These are worthy but questionable assumptions. All well and good if you want to win Idols, but my view is you’re going to struggle to be a megastar if you and your fan base are poor or you’re overweight or you sing flat — even some of the time — no matter how old you are.

In reality, you have to have talent, you have to have ambition, looks help, and you have to work hard and write your own material. It’s a big ask and in South Africa you are guaranteed a miniscule audience, few live venues, fierce competition from a lot of artists who are better than those you beat on Idols. And you will have to buy your own clothes.

That aside, I’m voting Jason Hartman all the way and if he doesn’t win, I’m off to purchase Idol Barbie. She can’t sing but she’s got a cordless mike, a hot roadie and a drop-dead gorgeous wardrobe. I’ll be entering her in next year’s competition and getting Lendel Moonsamy’s fans to vote for her. In the meantime, every Thursday for the next seven weeks you’ll find me hosting the Bone Idles at Crossways. So get yourself dressed, bring your best act and wow us with your talent. It’s the hottest gig in town.

• Tracy Stark holds a Ph.D in media and communication from Wits University. She is working as a musician and has started a music school.

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