Idolotteryby Brandon Edmonds / 13.06.2011
About as much as Sir Mix-A-lot likes big butts, I enjoy big juicy metaphors that smuggle in political ideas while you’re innocently enjoying the comparison. Call it lefty subliminal advertising. Which is to say holy smoking drone-flattened Pakistani villages, Batman, Idols (Season freaking Seven) is moerse boooring. So boring we have no reason to consider its content. There’s nothing left there to see.
Many strangers sing. Some sing (and often look) better than others, and they get a Golden Ticket to prolong the agony of renown. Eventually someone (well on the way to becoming Someone) will win, injecting them directly into the artery of local celebrity, ensuring homeownership, gift bags, long-form You magazine features, and an appreciable bump in disposable income. Whoopdifuckingdoo.
This cynical, tired, jejune show offers all the experiential richness of a trip to one of its feculent fried chicken-shilling sponsors’ outlets. It’s as life-affirming as a fast-food drive-through. At least, to grasp wildly at straws, the pasturing of Mara Louw, who dared rupture the flow talking about race (only to disappear down Paula Abdul’s self-medicating worm-hole), means a very pregnant Unathi Msengana, an arrestingly beautiful woman, winningly prone to gratuitously smacking Gareth Clit, joins us. And there’s your silver lining.
Anyway, let’s get stuck into those metaphors.
Idols is Genetically Modified White Bread.
The essential SA Civil Society Information Service (SACSIS) suggests that “South Africans are the first people in the world to consume a genetically modified (GM) food as a staple.” Over 75% of local white maize is GM. Since poor households, the absolute majority of the country, subsist on pap and samp, white maize is often all they eat, this amounts to “one of the most massive unregulated experiments on humans ever”. GM foods, despite massive obfuscation campaigns by Agribusiness, skewing science, are proven to damage the liver and kidneys. The Idols link is obvious. GM growers claim their “franken-food” is ‘substantially equivalent’ to the real thing. That fake, engineered equivalence is exactly the approach to popular music Idols takes. Producing living facsimiles of prior talent. The “damage” is cultural.
Idols is the Corporate Enclosure of the Internet.
In a new book called The Filter Bubble – What the Internet is Hiding from You, Eli Pariser reveals that “there is no standard Google” and websites shape themselves to “conform to our perceived prejudices” so “information that is likable gets transmitted while information that’s not likable falls out (so you) start to get content that just reflects what it thinks you want to see.” While the internet has been relentlessly promoted as a ‘democratic free-for-all’ in truth “a couple of big companies control most of the information flow and are acting as the new gatekeepers.” The Idols link is obvious. The show seems to be an open, participatory platform where anybody can emerge given talent but its filters (age, looks, salability) effectively pre-determine the outcome to service what Sydney Pollack once called an “adolescizing culture”.
Idols is the DA.
Jane Duncan, also on SACSIS, asks what type of society the DA wants to build? It’s apparently “an open society for all…a meritocracy, where government enables individual advancement on the basis of supposedly inherent talents” (rather than gender, race or political allegiance). So failure is your fault, not society’s. Unemployment, say, is voluntary. It’s a result of “individual weakness, not the system”. Naturally, the “historically advantaged” have a “head start in realizing inherent talent” (better schools, more resources, better health and nutrition). What tends to emerge from open opportunity societies are “entrenched pockets of inequality”. There’s a conscious downplaying of the stubborn structural-historical background of poverty. As Cliff recently put it: “Oh, it was a waste of time to go to Polokwane. There is one person from ‘Poloks’ among the finalists… all that driving and stuff – never again.” The Idols link is obvious. There’s never been an outright African winner. Take it away Mara Louw: “Black people don’t have access to DSTV. So a large part of SA is excluded. White people vote for white people and blacks get the short end of the stick.” The DA, like Idols, essentially reflects a privileged minority.
Idols is Neoliberal.
“Corporate welfare substituted for people welfare” is how Marxist geographer, David Harvey, sums up neoliberalism. The ‘private sphere’ takes on traditional State functions (water, education, electricity, mass transport, health) and competition (between individuals, cities, firms) is the “primary virtue”. Personal freedom is guaranteed in the marketplace but “each individual is held responsible and accountable for there own actions and well-being.” The goal is the dismantling of the collective safety net in the name of cost-cutting efficiency. Again, success or failure is your indaba.
Success is increasingly about having the right combination of character traits and, as feminist Nina Power, puts it, “men and women are at all times supposed to be a kind of walking CV, constantly networking, constantly advertising themselves. Everything is on show, everything counts.”
When contestants fail, it’s consequently devastating. It’s extremely personal. The whole fantasy-structure of neo-liberal success dies with the judges’ thanks-but-no-thanks. So when Kelly from Bellville didn’t make it in the opening episode, she said, “So Ja a ‘no’. I can’t reach for the stars now!” The Idols link is obvious. Young people walk into the judging arena and stand on the logo and perform. All they have is who they are and what they can do. Support (family, friends, lovers) falls away, left outside the door. They promote themselves to advance.