Back around maybe the second or third season of American Idol, when the show was becoming the established pop cultural phenomenon it is today, we started hearing about similar shows being developed by Lord of the Idols Simon Fuller and 19 Entertainment in other countries like Sweden and Poland and Indo(friggin)nesia. To date, there have been approximately 30 various Idol-esque franchises created around the world. I remember reading around that time about Kurt Nilsen, the first-season winner of Idols Norway – just how cool he seemed. He was a guitar player and unlike earlier seasons of American Idol, he could actually accompany himself on the show. I don’t remember that I ever heard him sing until he did a duet with Willie Nelson on the song “Lost Highway” in 2008 (at which point I was duly impressed), but I remember thinking that he sounded like – well, like an artist. Specifically, the kind of singing-songwriting-guitar-playing artist that our own American Idol showed seemed to hold in contempt.
It’s easy to trash the pop we Americans produce because we’re fairly buried in it. And just like any landfill, you can bet that there are a few treasures in that giant mound of refuse (future ski-hill?), but the smell from the rest of it is way too powerful – even if we thought the Hope Diamond were buried in it, would that be enough for us to throw on the haz-mat suits and go digging? Instead, we see from a distance pretty flowers growing on what looks like a majestic purple mountain shrouded in the soft fog of an early spring morning, and we think: All those international Idol competitions are actually producing, real, good, legitimate stuff. Or at least better than that awful Kelly Clarkson that we’re stuck with. She’s never gonna last. (Editorial Note: This is my 2003-4 self speaking. In gross ignorance. I didn’t watch any of Season 1, and Clarkson hadn’t put out Breakaway yet, which I contend is one of the best start-to-finish pop records of the last decade. Carry on.)
But maybe that majestic purple mountain is really just another gigantic, disgusting, depressing landfill, and maybe its shroud of early morning spring fog is really just a cloud toxic fumes rising out of it.
Maybe it’s just my deeply ingrained musical Europhilia, but I think it’s always easy to fall into thinking that Europeans are just naturally more artsy than we are; that they’re more willing to hear songs in languages other than their first, more open to genuine weirdness in the name of art; and thus, easier to romanticize their Idols – Kurt Nilsen, for instance – as more talented, more legitimate, more worthy. But in 2010, American Idol‘s metamorphosis from mere singing competition to artist farm team is complete, a metamorphosis that probably began around the time of Taylor Hicks‘s win in Season 5 (the show’s peak ratings season, by the way) and has culminated with the coronation of an Idol, Lee DeWyze, not so very dissimilar from that chunky (for a Scandinavian) blonde troubadour from Norge; and this against Crystal Bowersox, a very white girl from Ohio, with white-girl dreadlocks, a serious Janis Joplin jones, a long-standing residency at one of her local pubs, and really bad teeth, who not only writes her own songs, but writes them well enough that one of them was actually featured in an Idol video package last week. American Idol has become the very epitome of the Idols I’d always imagined all those Euro Idols to be. (And yet, this season, I couldn’t have been less interested in watching it.)
Meanwhile, the most recent winner of the German Idol equivalent Deutschland sucht den Superstar , 29-year-old Iranian-born singer Mehrzad Marashi has just released the follow-up to his debut, show finale single “Don’t Believe”, which is still charting in Germany’s Top 10 this week. The song, “Sweat (The A La La La La Long Song)” is a pop-reggae duet with openly gay former Superstar winner Mark Medlock, the German franchise’s most successful winner to date. If you are still harboring any romantic notions about the presumed artistic superiority of the artists developed by international (read: non-American) Idol franchises, let the video you’re about to see be your reality check.
BTW: Marashi’s the one whose ridiculous, Guido-er-than-thou facial hair doesn’t form the weird trident points on his chin. And did I mention Medlock’s gayness? Also: Andy Samberg should sue.