The United Nations will never be able to bring the whole world together like pop music television. The World Idol competition, a two-part series Fox aired on Christmas and New Year’s Day, showed us what such unity could look like. Eleven gawky youths from around the planet performed American pop songs, selling their hooks with the best Britney or Justin impressions they could muster.
As winners of their nations’ own Idol contests, each was identified by the country he or she represented. An “international jury,” comprised of a judge from each nation, evaluated the performances and millions of viewers worldwide called in to vote for “the ultimate world pop superstar.” Simon Cowell, the Winston Churchill of all this capitalistic pomp, displayed diplomacy as he leaned in for kill after kill: he trashed a teary-eyed contestant, savaged his fellow judges, parodied his own alpha male meanie persona, sipped his Coke. The designated “American” judge, the British Cowell sat next to the “British” judge (Pete Waterman), fortuitous representatives of this overwhelming reality franchise, initiated in the U.K. At long last, the sun is no longer setting on the Empire.
Simon Cowell, Pete Waterman, Anthony McPartlin (host), Declan Donnelly (host)
Regular airtime: 25 December 2003, 1 January 2004
Following Cowell’s lead, the other judges recited the rules of world domination. They seek the “total package” of voice, performance, and image; they fetishized the market, implacable and agent-less, as if their own actions and contracts don’t help to create it. The singers, pondering what becomes a World Idol most, looked terrified. Meantime, a spiky-haired British hosting duo (Anthony McPartlin and Declan Donnelly) told us that the contest was, actually, “The United Nations of Pop.” The “Polish Idol” (Alex Janosz), desperate in her braces, was the most spectacular washout, her punk attitude failing to cover mediocre singing; one leg of her jeans caught in her white boot, she cursed her home judge, and tried tremulously to understand the proceedings, her English abandoning her.
As subpar performances piled up, the judges started to bicker. Some wheels threatened to fly off the pop consensus cart as they raised old bugaboos like “authenticity.” As “Australia’s Idol” or “Canada’s Idol” gyrated onstage, we could picture what the U.N. would look like if it were run by singing waiters. We could all unite over hair gel, leather pants, and the German Ambassador’s rendition of Michael Sembello’s “Maniac.”
Then there’s the problem of the “world” language here—Western pop sung in English. The “Pan-Arab Idol” (Diana Karzon), assigned to represent an entire region rather than a country, broke ranks by singing a traditional Arabic song in her own language. Challenging what counted as pop, she implicitly put geopolitical tensions, like Middle Eastern wars in a post-9/11 world, on the table. Cowell finally proclaimed her performance had “no place” in the pop music industry, but that she had a “voice like an angel.” The others applauded her cultural “integrity” and the U.S. voters, perhaps weary of real political conflicts, voted her high on the roster of “greats.”
The judges blinked at the cameras, trying to keep their eyes on the corporate prize, even as they were distracted by their own language and cultural differences. Just when everyone was in danger of thinking about how complex such differences actually are, the “Belgian Idol” (Peter Evrard) appeared. He wailed Nirvana’s “Lithium,” wearing long hair, soul patch, and combat boots. Cowell, who knows a perfect strawman when he sees one, saved the day by staging a coup over fabricated pop music categories. He castigated Evrard for raking Kurt Cobain’s ghost over the coals. How could you sing anti-commercial prog rock in these unhallowed pop chart halls? You know, Kurt really “stood for something,” and you would scare him.
Opposing Cobain to pop, Cowell said what many must be thinking: the Idol franchise stands for nothing. Pop music mustn’t matter. The day was saved. The judges breathed a sigh of relief—they had nothing to do with politics. Cowell united them under one banner, one battle cry: pop music is pabulum.
So inspired, the show lurched towards its climax. In the end, the victor was a man decried by one judge as an unattractive “hobbit.” The “Norwegian Idol” (Kurt Nilsen), a plumber in his spare time, won the whole kit and caboodle. He crooned U2’s “Beautiful Day,” beating “American Idol” Kelly Clarkson, who sang about feeling like a “natural woman” while looking uncomfortable, like she was appearing under contractual obligation, through the entire proceedings. Cowell, careful not to mention how U2 opens the worm can of geopolitics all over again, crowned Nilsen, since millions of voters can’t be wrong, and united the world in global pop peace.
// Channel Surfing
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