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Culture, Music

Idols and other False Gods

by Stanley Zive / 07.06.2012

If a publication whose focus is music and relevant pop culture goes after another publication with a similar agenda it could be misconstrued as sour grapes. So let me make it perfectly clear then that I ask the following question with the utmost love and respect: What were they smoking in the offices of Rolling Stone SA when they decided to put the Idols judges on the cover?

When Rolling Stone launched in the late 60s it soon became synonymous with the counterculture, irreverence and the rock ‘n roll spirit. This was the magazine that published the works of Hunter S. Thompson, Lester Bangs and Annie Leibowitz. And yes, in the plastic decades that followed, this upstart of a magazine, full of piss and vinegar, has had increasingly regular forays into the mainstream. After artists like Lennon, Zeppelin and Marley graced their covers they would go on to feature Britney, Christina and Justin Bieber. But South African Idols must be a new low. This is a TV show that has become synonymous with the lowest common denominator, conservatism and everything that discerning people have come to distrust about the music industry. If they are such strange bedfellows then why this unholy union? Is it a mere blip on a PR report, or a sign of things to come?

I believe mainstream pop can grace the cover of a rock institution like Rolling Stone if there is sufficient cultural significance. The judges of American Idol appeared on the cover in 2004 but this was after the show had turned everything in the world of music on its ear. The same cannot be said for the South African franchise. They have no track record of success. People forget the winners less than a week after they’ve won and they’re lucky if they make a second album. Heinz Winkler anyone? Not one South African Idols winner has gone on to enjoy an autonomously successful music career. Where is the contribution to original, contemporary South African culture? It’s a poorly done pastiche of a tasteless global TV show that even creator Simon Cowell has grown weary of.

In the June issue of Rolling Stone SA the Idols crew talk about how they’re revamping the show. Season 8 will be the most representative yet. They’ll be simulcasting on Mnet’s Mzansi channel and reaching a wider audience. Thus far the show has been typified by the usual fare of power ballads and singer-songwriters. This time around, the Idols judges promise that they’ll address the issue of having “no R&B, no soul, no rap”. It would be something if the winner of Idols was someone the people of South Africa could actually get behind. But what is the best case scenario here? A poor man’s version of Usher? Let’s face it, it’s not like Curtis Mayfield or Jay-Z are gonna come off this show. Can you really see Randall Abrahams taking someone under his wing and turning them into an R&B sensation? The man wouldn’t know funk if Bootsy Collins slapped him across the face with the headstock of his bass.

Look at it another way. Imagine there was an artist who made seven forgettable yet strangely popular albums. Should they be on the cover of Rolling Stone just because they’re working with a new producer? If an artist couldn’t put something decent together in such a massive canon of work then what should lead us to believe the next time will be different. Even if Steve Hofmeyer said his next album was being produced by Spoek Mathambo that would be a sidebar at best. It wouldn’t make the cover until we’d actually heard something and liked it.

The singing talent search is, by now, a very tired genre. (Perhaps this accounts for the droopiness of Gareth Cliff’s eyes?) We’ve been inundated with X-Factor, The Voice, Strictly Come Singing, Who Wants to Make Simon Cowell a Millionaire and, my personal favourite, Minute to Win It. There’s no story left here. And let’s be honest these shows are about television not music. Most of the highlights of these shows are memes not music superstars. Even American Idol, the best of the brand, hardly ever gets it right. For all their ratings success and millions of albums sold over the last ten years there are maybe two that would warrant a Rolling Stone cover nowadays. Kelly Clarkson and Adam Lambert. Maybe Ryan Seacrest at a push. He’s still more likely to get on that the Ruben Studdards and the Scott McCreerys of the world. The people who get the most notoriety from these shows are the judges. And really their contribution to the music industry is questionable at best.

The cover of Rolling Stone should be reserved for those who change the landscape. The first few issues had it spot on. Bra Hugh, Miriam Mekaba, Die Antwoord, Spoek Mathambo and a weird head nod to Paul McCartney (at least no one can question his pedigree). So how is it that Gareth Cliff can now be listed amongst those names? Johan Stemmet’s waistcoats have had more influence on music in this country. Gareth Cliff, a man whose radio show has playlisted music and slaps his name on formulaic dance compilations, has now been on the cover of South Africa’s premier music magazine ahead of David Kramer, “Hotstix” Mabuse, Francois Van Coke and Koos Kombuis to name but a few. If you want to ruffle feathers and get people thinking then put the BLK JKS on the cover, in a parody of The Spear. Alas the Idols cover does not so much indicate a bankruptcy of ideas as it points towards the economic realities of the South African publishing industry.

The big question the brains trust at Rolling Stone need is ask is: What is to be gained by pandering to an audience of Idols fans? The June issue also features Radiohead, Blondie and the nu-skool Jozi electro rap of Dirty Paraffin. Regular readers of the Stone are proper music fans, and I’ll tell you this for free, they don’t care about Idols. And Idols fans wouldn’t know Thom Yorke from Debbie Harry. Most of all, can you picture Miles Keylock and his team, rushing home from work to catch the latest installment? Of course not. So if they can’t stomach it why try sell it to their readership?

Once again, this is not so much a dig at Rolling Stone, as a heartfelt plea from a concerned fan. They’ve done a great job thus far. It’s important that they continue to be a light in the shallow trench (thanks Hunter) of the South African music business, guiding people’s tastes and opinions out of a conservative and formulaic wilderness. South Africans need savvy, sardonic eyes and ears that they can trust. Someone unafraid to call it like it is. So seriously, Rolling Stone, don’t stress if you don’t feature a commercial musical cul de sac like Idols in your magazine. They won’t go hungry for media-coverage. That’s why we have YOU Magazine, it’s half the price and comes out weekly. Your credibility is paramount to your success and your cover is precious real estate for far more deserving musical causes.

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