Australian Idol

The tears are real because, but for the grace of God, that could be me up there… They’re all standing there, begging.
— Marcia Hines, The Panel, 6 August 2003

It makes for good television, but it has fuck-all to do with music.
— Renée Geyer, Herald Sun, 5 September 2003

By now, everyone knows what the Idol phenomenon is all about. Popstar wannabes undertake various auditions in front of three judges who critique their performances, before the viewing public decides whether or not they should make it to the finals. Across the globe, the show has spawned some successful hitmakers, and it’s likely to do so in Australia as well. Most interesting about the show is the controversy surrounding it, and the show’s own contradictions, which reveal that even the judges are confused as to just what makes an Australian Idol.

The Australian version of the show has reached the finals stage, with 12 performers preparing to do battle for a recording contract, and — more importantly, no doubt — the designation, “Australian Idol.” Over the course of the show, the audience has seen these performers in multiple auditions, and is aware of their individual talents. However, the process through which they have chosen to attempt big time success might prove to be the worst career decision they can make.

The criticism surrounding the show is the same in Australia as it is everywhere else, that the selection process is shallow and has little do with musicianship. Guardian Unlimited columnist Charlotte Raven called the UK’s Pop Idol contestants “parad[ing] poppets” (Guardian UK, 19 February 2002), while Australian soul singer Renée Geyer publicly damned the show as “insulting to real musicians” (Herald Sun, 5 September 2003). However, Idol doesn’t claim to discover “real” musicians. It doesn’t hide the fact that contestants are singers competing for a record deal for the sole purpose of making money for BMG.

The many times that judge — and BMG executive — Ian “Dicko” Dickson, has told vocally talented contestants that he won’t be able to sell them to the music-buying public demonstrates that ability has little, if anything, to do with it. Of course, singers have been primped, pressed, and stylized to suit industry trends for decades, so whether they are “real” or not is of no consequence here. The problem with this competition is not the contestants; it’s with the judges who contradict themselves. Do they want style, personality, image or talent?

The show’s standout performer suggests an answer. The gorgeous Courtney Act lost out in her finals audition, but was able to try again in the Wildcard show, in which 10 performers culled earlier in the series were brought back for another shot at the top 12. The barely dressed Act, the creation of self-proclaimed “gender illusionist” Shane Jenek, performed a riotous version of AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” to a mesmerized panel who said she was daring and beautiful, and praised her as a born entertainer. With nary a word about her vocal talents in her previous auditions, or in this performance, Act was selected as a finalist.

You’ve got to wonder where exactly this leaves competitors Yolande Jackson, Stu Campbell, Rebecca Tapia, Axle Whitehead and Anton Aktila — all of whom competed against Act in various shows. With personality to spare and exquisite voices (Tapia, especially), these performers were repeatedly criticized for either being “too rock,” “too cabaret,” “boring,” or, in Aktila’s case, looking too much like a cowboy. This despite the fact that Dickson told Aktila, “If there [was] a better R&B voice in this competition, I haven’t heard it.” Still, Aktila lost, because nothing was gonna beat Act’s outrageous style.

Aktila isn’t the only contestant to have fallen victim to such contradiction. Campbell was blasted for performing a rock tune in his final, not long after self-proclaimed “rock chick” Kelly Cavuoto was voted by the public into the top 12. Lauren Buckley received praise for her “daring” performance of “Imagine,” but Matt Chadwick received a right ribbing for choosing to sing such a crusty old number as Lionel Ritchie’s “Truly.” The list goes on and on.

The sad thing about the competition though, is how the contestants — currently on top of the world due to their positions as finalists — will be feeling in a few weeks time when the winner is chosen and the rest are relegated to has-been-dom. The winners of Australian Idol‘s predecessor Popstars — Bardot, Scandal’us, and Scott Cain — have all but disappeared, leaving a trail of crap songs, underselling albums and empty stadiums behind them. As those kids found out, in this business one season ends and another begins and it’s out with the old, in with the new.

Past failures, though, haven’t stopped a new crop of wannabes from testing the waters again. Maybe they think 15 minutes of fame is better than none at all? Or perhaps they believe Idol offers the chance to forever live their pop-idol dreams. Whatever the case, it’s hard to invest in these contestants, hard to feel moved by their off-stage emotions and passions, because we’ve seen it all before and it all ended pretty miserably. Idol is unlikely to break this mold. Yes, the single will hit the top of the charts, but this year’s winner will quickly be left behind when Australian Idol 2 rolls around.

Then again, shows like Popstars and Idol aren’t offering long term careers, they’re offering instant stardom — a promise they will certainly deliver on to the satisfaction of the viewing audience and, in turn, the show’s producers. One wonders though, if the winner of Australian Idol will end up the biggest loser of the lot.