In praise of Australian Idol


Having an 11 year old daughter, I watch a lot more reality TV talent shows than I otherwise would. (My seven year old son prefers to use the TV to study the footy a figure of quiet pathos as he clutches a black and white striped ‘Beanie Baby’).

Herewith a review of one of the titans of the genre Australian Idol to be followed with a subsequent post on ‘The X Factor’ in a day or so. I go slowly at first, trying to explain the genre to those who’ve not watched it but the ‘point’ of what I’m writing about the way in which the show has surprised and delighted me begins to assert itself after this introduction to the genre is finished. So skip to down below the numbered points below the fold if you know the show.

The Australian Idol formula and franchise appear as the result of a pursuit of ratings and cash that is as relentless and as well honed as the quest for speed round the Grand Prix track is in the design of a Formula One car.

This has its downsides obviously enough. It homogenises things around the key demographic of the show (adolescent and pre-adolescent kids, particularly girls) to an unfortunate degree but hey this is commercial TV. Since when was that not par for the course?

It’s amazing how a few simple tweaks of a standard talent show format can add intrigue, suspense and interest. Added to the standard talent quest with rounds and a final, judges comments and so on is:
1. The sheer number of rounds means that you get to know the contestants better than most talent shows. This adds a dimension of ‘human interest’ which gets you engaged more fully than you would be just appreciating their talent. This improves one’s engagement and indeed one’s appreciation for their efforts.
2. You get to see the contestants palpably ‘growing’ in their art. It’s a worthwhile, indeed uplifting experience. Learning how to do anything better is one of the joys of life. So is watching others experience the same joy.
3. The contestants are socially engaged with each other with finalists being locked up in a dorm in their own cut down version of “Big Brother”. This adds depth, engagement and trivial gossip value.
4. Rather than finalists being chosen for being the best in the group, they are the survivors from a round of evictions, one each round. So a final of twelve people lasts twelve weeks ten evictions, a final and then a show in which the result is announced.
5. One of the most cynical aspects of the show, like lots of reality TV shows is its dipping into the audience for cash through voting. However this also adds a good dynamic tension into the show between the judges and the audience. It does help to be cute looking (and male) but the dominant consideration for the audience is usually the quality of performance.

It’s not, as the saying goes ‘all good’. The thing I dislike the most is how the programs humiliate those who it is considered have made fools of themselves. (However in true modern or post-modern style this has been turned to both ratings and individual advantage with a specific episode now dedicated to the most embarrassing acts. There’s fierce competition for the prize and this year anyway, the winner released a video clip in which girls were falling all over him and a single.) Another real irritation is the relentless padding. There’s usually an hour or more on Sunday and a half hour show on the Monday with ‘Inside Idol on Thursday. The Sunday show is where the contestants compete. The Monday show drags out an eviction and a couple of songs in a half hour! I think the Thursday show goes on for half an hour and is a magazine of these celebrities in waiting. Speaking of waiting, I go upstairs and work for the Monday and Thursday shows.

All the series I’ve seen have had really good outcomes. The first Australian Idol brought us Guy Sebastian, Shannon Noll and Paulini. Guy Sebastian provides me in my middle age with a window on how idealism is playing itself out in the world in which ideologies are a shadow of their former selves. Sebastian is a devout pentacostal Christian.

He’s a virgin and intends to remain so until he gets married. In my generation such a stand would most usually have expressed priggishness and timidity. It doesn’t appeal to me as inherently worthy (or unworthy for that matter), but for him it appears (to me anyway) as an emanation of idealism and good health. He’s a big healthy guy who holds his head up high. There’s nothing false about him and, though he doesn’t peddle his religion he gives every sign of living it. I’ve not much liked the songs that he’s released on the radio, but he has a lot of talent and the courage of his convictions. In the ‘World Idol’ a global final between the finalists of all the national Idol franchises, he sang the Louis Armstrong classic ‘What A Wonderful World’. I think he was advised not to do so by his PR people but he sang it anyway. Good on him. He came 6th (or thereabouts).

Shannon Noll is an Aussie from Condobolin. He was hard up on his luck and now he and his brothers play the pubs of Australia and are making lots of money and having a great time. He got busted for drink driving a few months back. His voice (which I like) has a rasping quality a little like a lightweight Jimmy Barnes.

Paulini has a fabulous silky black voice though she has a little difficulty projecting a ‘star’ personality. ‘Dicko’, probably the most charismatic judge, plays the ‘bad guy’ as required by the format. His role is to be ‘controversial’. He told her to lose weight if she wanted to wear slinky dresses. The odd thing was very few people thought she was overweight. Dicko’s comment probably got her through to fourth place as she picked up a sympathy vote for one of her less good performances. Since the program Paulini’s been tizzed up by her PR people. I thought she was better on Idol.

This raises an interesting question. The judges often try to second guess the commercial reaction of the public so there’s an odd self reflexiveness about it. The beauty contest where everyone is trying to pick others’ preferences rather than their own. The thing is, as indicated by their reaction to Dicko’s comments about Paulini, the judges often do the public a disservice when they dumb down their expectations. The public often sets higher standards than the judges.

This was exemplified by the second series of Australian Idol which was won by Casey Donovan, over a cute guy of Italian extraction who sang well, but didn’t make a big impression on me. The adolescent teenybopper audience gives ‘spunky’ males an big advantage. So Casey was an underdog. Just sixteen, of large girth, monosyllabic and reclusive, she was a bit of a misfit. She also had aboriginal heritage but was not conspicuously aboriginal like Ngairre a very striking and talented contestant who dropped out fairly early on. Casey has a lovely voice.

But I think its very unlikely that the judges would have picked her as the winner. They’d have said she wasn’t commercial enough. Maybe she’s not we’ll see how her recording career goes. But she won the comp because, after bumping along near the bottom of the votes in one show after another and thus barely surviving several evictions she and the audience felt their way towards a change in the script. Without any prompting from the show’s producers, but no doubt assisted by the ‘human interest’ vignettes which pepper the whole program and dominate the Thursday ‘Inside Idol’ program, the adolescent girls in the audience began to focus not on their fantasy boyfriend but rather on their fantasies for themselves. Casey growing in skill and confidence every week began to spend less time straggling in the votes and surviving evictions by the skin of her teeth. She began to buy into a well known idea. Its most simplistic form is that you can live your dream. Now her body language showed that Casey never thought she was going to win. But Casey was beginning to have faith in a truer and more realistic version of the same idea. If you care about something, and especially if you are good at it, you should give it everything you have. You’ll get your best shot at your dream, but in the quite likely event that you fall short, you might be able to stave off the worm of regret. You won’t die wondering whether a little more effort might have changed your life.

Casey likes heavy metal. My daughter bought her record but doesn’t like listening to it too much because Casey is pretty dark. I hate heavy metal, and she’s not too good a ‘role model’ for my daughter. Casey’s father walked out on her when she was young and in one of her performances she sang ‘You’re so vain’ with such unnuanced, burning rage that the judges normally each a study in loquacity were speechless. Simply dumbfounded. Casey turned up to the final dressed as Cleopatra with a gold chain hanging from her nostril. Casey, who gives the impression of having slipped into youthful nihilism more than once in her life, gave it everything she had. When she won, she couldn’t really believe it. She beat the odds. All the odds. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one with tears welling in my eyes.

Next – The X Factor – you have been warned.

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Don Wigan
Don Wigan
2024 years ago

Right on, Nicholas. What I found so fascinating about Casey was the incongruence: whenever she was interviewed she was a shy immature young teenager.When she sang, there was incredible maturity and range in her interpretations.

She’s not only built like Ella. One day she might be as skilled.

2024 years ago

Nice little aria Nick. I’ d score you highly on that. But perhaps do something about your stage clothes. Good point about the judges trying to second guess the audience reaction rather than their own.

Tell yer 11 daughter though the real bucks and power are offscreen in management, production and distribution. Starry eyed-kids love hearing that kinda commonsense from their parents.

2024 years ago

Interesting change of pace Nicholas! Some of my best friends follow Idol avidly and unfortunately my workstation is about 1.5 metres from the TV. Still, it is not as distracting as the football. I presume your son is happy with the weekend result, as is Tim Blair. And also Imre Saluszinsky, who is a Hawthorne supporter.

2024 years ago

thankyou Nicholas

a far more elegant answer than I would have dreamed

2024 years ago

Imre supports Hawthorn? For fuck’s sake. It’s bad enough having to share that allegience with Jeff Kennett…

David Tiley
2024 years ago

That image of your son is very very endearing.

Depending on the code, it could lead to wrecked hammies or cauliflower ears, but that is far in the future.

Nicholas Gruen
Nicholas Gruen
2024 years ago

My son’s very endearing, so I’m glad the image doesn’t lie.

2024 years ago

“a figure of quiet pathos as he clutches a black and white striped ‘Beanie Baby'”

Is this a Collingwood thing?
The saddest and loveliest show on earth.
The Collingwood Fan Club.

If Gruen junior isn’t a follower, he really should be. He has what it takes.


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