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Culture, Music


by 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.

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  1. potkettle says:

    A few days ago Brandon placed the following on Facebook: “The earliest cultural and religious traditions of humanity regard work as a curse”. I’m assuming here that he was trying to illustrate an ethical virtue that our ancestors connected with and which we have somehow lost.

    ” So failure is your fault, not society’s” – touche’

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  2. Tim says:

    There are three kinds of people who get onto Idols (the Idols which the public sees);
    We have the singers, people who might have a shot at winning.
    We have losers who can’t sing for shit and are the subject of the judges ridicule.
    And we have the emotional, who can sing but not well enough, the ones who the producers think they can squeeze a few tears out of.
    Each of these three types are picked to get an emotional response from the audience which has them coming back for more, whether it’s HOPE, SCHADENFREUDE, or PITY.
    It’s not only failure which is your fault; society is your fault too.

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  3. Anonymous says:

    Failure is your fault, not society’s… but society produced you to fail. So let’s all sing The Circle of Life. 1,2, 3…

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  4. Nerd says:

    Hmm. I know it’s hardly central to the article, and that agricultural sciences aren’t really part of Mahala’s regular topic lines, BUT I don’t believe that Mr. Edmonds is particularly qualified to comment on the safety of GM foods. Not to say necesarily that GM foods are safe, nor even to say that they don’t damage liver or kidneys (of labrats, mind you), but to make such statements of bald fact on a topic that remains so far from consensus just distracts from the debate.

    For the record – I’m anti-GM, but also anti-misinformation.

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  5. brandon edmonds says:

    Well thanks for weighing in Ivo Vegter.

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  6. Nerd says:

    Ivo Vegter writes and argues for fun and profit – I assure you, I take little joy in being contrarian.

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  7. Tim says:

    Almost 7 billion people in the world, non-GM foods can only feed 4 billion at most. How can you be anti-GM?

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  8. Nerd says:

    Really, Tim, I’m largely anti-GM because of those oft-repeated pseudo-facts like ‘we can currently only feed 4 billion people’ – really? This belongs in the same pile as ‘GM foods are proven to cause liver damage’ – both are selective representations of a situation manipulated to fit whichever agenda is being punted.
    GM is largely unneccesary – we can feed the world on our existing resources if we make smarter use of the resources and technologies we have available to us.
    The argument that we need GM crops as a humanitarian tool is a load of horseshit – if ‘we’ were truly concerned about starving peasants in farflung 3rd world locations, we could provide training, fertiliser and irrigation to every other peasant on the continent for a fraction of the R&D costs that;ve gone into GM over the last few decades. We could easily have bred seeds suitable for those climates/conditions that DON’T need genes from bacterium and fish. The best part of all those technologies (fertiliser, irrigation, plantbreeding, EDUCATION) is that we already understand them and we’re pretty experienced at applying them, and they’re actually pretty cheap.

    The same cannot be said for our relationship with the genome, which as Brandon alluded to, is more complex and troublesome than we’ve been assured.

    Still, Pop idols, eh – ? Sorry Brandon

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  9. Tim says:

    Yeah, like that’s gonna happen. Food is owned by big business, they can’t make money off self sufficient farmers, and by make money I mean use them as slaves after first making them completely dependent on them.

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  10. brandon edmonds says:

    Yeah fuck off Nerd. Go amplify one aspect of someone else’s work to satisfy your slanted gripes…you probably fixated on the curtains in Deep Throat.

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  11. Thishiwe says:

    is Danny K really DA? There goes that fantasy…

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  12. Nerd says:

    Oh come now Brandon, don’t be sore, I DID say sorry for changing the topic.

    It does seem a shame, though, to go through all the bother of crafting a dense and cerebral little essay, actionpacked with literary allusions and terms like ‘structural-historical background of poverty’, only to reveal yourself as the kind who will quickly settle for ‘Fuck Off’ as a retort.

    Let me not interrupt any further the rigourous debate that your article has inspired – let the comment boards roll on.

    (except to say that, Tim: you are bang on the money. GM interests and Big Food interests are one and the same – a GM-friendly society would be great for Big Food, it doesn’t mean it’s in your and my best interests. So I would suggest that you are effectively anti-GM).

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  13. wankbank says:

    another pointless Edmonds wank-fest, spluttering critical theory and completely irrelevant observations. prime example of how an intelligent man can take any topic, blow it out of his own ass and make it sound like it’s worth reading.

    write about something real for a change, can’t imagine your thumbs can take much more of this sucking…’idols is DA’, ‘idols is neoliberal’…oh jesus, why not start with Adam and Eve? makes about as much sense and has about as much weight behind it.

    stop wasting your time. and ours.

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  14. brandon edmonds says:

    Wow this has been fulfilling. This site is the best.

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  15. Sipho Hlongwane says:

    Ivo is a doos

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  16. Keenoh Cummys says:

    I’m Keenoh and I’m so bald. When I touch myself I think of Redi & Jenny doubling up on John.

    Ivo taught me that you don’t need hair to have a good time. I’m turning 40 next year but I tell the chicks at the bowling club that I’m 32.

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  17. will says:

    so idols, dstv and gm foods suck?

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  18. Mike says:

    “…accountable for there own actions…”

    Either Edmonds or David Harvey, Marxist Geographer, can’t spell. My guess is the former.

    The most valuable point he raises for me is that these judges are trying to find someone who they think ‘other’ people will like. Why, then, as the competition progresses, do I like the contestants less and less? Its like they turn into styrofoam more and more with each successive round. Blegh. And I suppose it is political. I don’t know when, if ever, BEE will end. A pity that it has no end date and may take a monumentous event for things to ‘really’ even out.

    I’m a white dude. I assume there ARE black people out there with access to TV and who are voting for their idol. So Louw’s statement that ‘Black people don’t have access to DSTV’ is just … what is that even? Its absolutely ridiculous! I don’t think I’ve ever read a more pathetic generalized statement before. If I was going to go the same blanket-statement route I’d say ‘Black people are the ones voting with their cellphones over and over and white people couldn’t be arsed to vote’.

    Gotta be careful for people like Edmonds who tout brainless rhetoric. Still, some interesting points.

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  19. brandon edmonds says:

    ‘tout brainless rhetoric’ wow okay. ideas really scare you huh fella. why does the internet bring out these vengeful extremes? because of a single typo I “can’t spell”. it’s just…sigh.

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  20. Tim says:

    Hold on, why am I anti-GM, simply because it’s a tool used by Big-business? It’s the only thing preventing them from ‘retrenching’ the slaves they currently own with their classic cry of “It’s no longer profitable!” Only ‘retrench’ in this case equals death, since these people have become dependent on the parasites which feed off them. Food from an enemy satisfies like food from a friend. Whether the food’s quality or source is not what it should be is of no consequence if it’s the only option. “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.”

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  21. Sarah Dee says:

    I have materialised to tell you the truth – that it ain’t so bad. Not even a little. Nice piece.

    A little while back I crewed on an SABC show in the same vein, but aimed at finding SA’s new “Leading Man”. It was a devastating experience in many ways. Its “filters” are more conscious and and less subtle than could be imagined. What gets edited seamlessly together into a coherent day’s audition is in fact done over more than one day:

    On the first day, the herds of aspirant are sheperded through preliminary auditions, the function of which is to discard the curve of the bell, the mediocre, the bland. Call backs are made for the following day to those who are truly terrible, and those who are promising, and those who have a heart-wrenching story. (Ever wondered how they have time to go interview their double-amputee granny between their queuing and their audition?) But they don’t tell the poor contestants their reasons for callback. So the next day, they arrive, all full of hope, puffed up feeling encouraged to stand in front of the celebrity judges for the first time only to have the rug pulled from under them in the most humiliating of ways, when they realise they’re not one “of the lucky ones” but have been caught out in a manner more suited to a 1980s Leon Schuster film. It’s an Emperor’s New Clothes scenario, which doesn’t do the drama or humour factor any harm either. It’s callous and cruel in the extreme.

    Auditions for shows in this format, like Google, function with an algorithm in mind which not only limits the possibilities of the outcome, but also sorts the freaks from the chaff as a kind of cruel morality tale for the neoliberal reality of “Dream! But not too much!”

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  22. Metal Womble says:

    Dreary article about a dreary show… Yawn.

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  23. Tim says:

    @ Sarah Dee, see comment 2

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  24. Sarah Dee says:

    @ Tim

    I’d like to believe my analysis is slightly less banal than that.

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  25. JM Koet$ee says:

    That was fun.

    Anyway, Brandon, keep on writing what you write. You have a conscience and analytic skills, and you can write scorching sentences. That will always be better than trolling.

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  26. Tim says:

    @Sarah Dee, I don’t know; I think repeating what someone else has said, regardless of your eloquence, is banal.

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