How Idol competitions change the world
May 25th, 2011
08:32 AM ET

How Idol competitions change the world

By Omar Kasrawi, CNN

Tonight is the American Idol finale.  The TV show has become such a staple of American life that many aspiring singers are now more hopeful of making it in the competition than scoring a record deal some other way.

The winner (but more likely the runner up or a cast-off) could go on to some lasting measure of success or wind up the next Taylor Hicks.

But the phenomenon that is Idol (and was originally UK’s “Pop Idol”) has a far greater potential social impact. The show's unique formula is changing countries from Afghanistan to the Arabian Gulf to China.

In the last few years, the United Arab Emirates has offered a take on Idol called “Million’s Poet.” In this competition, people write and recite original poetry, normally in a traditional Bedouin form called Nabati.  Afghanistan has “Afghan Star.” China has “Go! Oriental Angel.”

Idol competitions in countries with non-existant or underdeveloped democratic processes - and/or societies with strong ethnic/tribe/class divisions - creates an unique opportunity for anyone to step forward and be heard.

“One of the key words is ‘meritocracy’,” said Cynthia Schneider a Distinguished Professor in the Practice of Diplomacy at Georgetown University who has written extensively on the rise of these singing competitions in the United Arab Emirates and Afghanistan. “To have a completely open platform, which is what these programs are, (allows) anybody to enter and rise literally on the basis of your own individual talent. (This) is a very radical concept."

“Million’s Poet” has featured competitors such as Hissa Hilal and Aydah Al Jahnani (Featured in Schneiders recent TED presentation on the competitions). The subjects of their poems tend to be about women, their role in society and the threat of religious extremism. In Hilal’s case it led to death threats. It should be noted that in Al Jahnani's case her husband supported her from the start of the competition but her family did not. They got on board though as she began competing. These women have performed their original poems while wearing the niqab, a garment that covers their faces.

“That is a very hard image for a westerner to accept as someone who is breaking boundaries in society,” said Schneider. “In the local context it could well be that someone like that has much more resonance than an American official wondering why Saudi women don’t drive.”

In Afghanistan, their hunt for a musical Idol may be doing something that the United States has so far failed to achieve in the country: bringing together disparate ethnic groups.

In Schneider’s paper “A New Way Forward: Encouraging Greater Cultural Engagement with Muslim Countries” she states that one-third of the population in Afghanistan watches “Afghan Star” and that the winner has come from a different ethnic group each year.

“Eleven million of thirty million people. Of course that doesn’t mean there are 11 million TV sets. You get 50 to 40 people watching one TV set. So it becomes the whole community that comes together and then they all share this moment of real excitement around the finale,” Schneider said. “The people don’t just vote along [ethnic] lines. They vote on talent.”

Even in China, idol-esque competitions are breaking barriers.  One competitor, Lou Jing, caused a stir because of the color of her skin. Jing was born to a Chinese mother and African-American father, which led people to question “the essential meaning of being Chinese.” As TIME.com notes:

Lou's ethnicity has been the subject of a relentless barrage of criticism, some of it crudely racist. Many think she should not have been allowed to compete on a Chinese show, or at least not selected to represent Shanghai in the national competition. She doesn't have fair skin, which is one of the most important factors for Chinese beauty. What's more, her mother and her biological father were never married; morally, the argument goes, this kind of behavior shouldn't be publicized, so she shouldn't have been put on TV as a young "idol."

Europe’s “Eurovision” competition, for example, has also featured contestants that cross ethnic and even political boundaries. Turkey and Israel both compete in the competition despite neither being a European nation. In fact, in 2009 the Israeli entry for Eurovision was to feature a duet between an Israeli singer and an Arab-Israeli singer.

“In 2003 I believe it was a Turkish entry that won Eurovision. So you can make it in the contest before you can make it in the [European Union],” said Schneider.

Schneider goes on to add that the UAE and Afghan programs, although derived from the Idol-format, do not American-ize those countries. "Surprisingly it has had just the opposite result," she says. "It has revived interest in the local traditions. You have not only the poetry, but the local music and dance. As a result you saw men (in UAE) wearing their hair longer and wearing traditional dress and for young people, re-introducing them to their traditions."

However, one aspect of the Idol competition does have a very American ring to it. Xinhua, the official press agency of the Chinese government, complained that a 2010 Chinese Idol-like contest was causing a stir because it may “encourage youngsters to seek instant fame.”

That sounds like a very American export indeed.

You can watch Cynthia Schneider's TED discussion on Idol below:

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Topics: Afghanistan • China • Culture • Middle East • United States

soundoff (32 Responses)
  1. Chris

    As with so many 'hits' on American TV, the Brits did it first... from All in the Family to Dancing with the Stars, and dozens of programs in between (e.g. The Office), most Americans have no idea just how much they owe to British imagination.

    May 25, 2011 at 10:52 am | Reply
    • la

      You have no idea how much Britian owes American military might.

      May 25, 2011 at 2:33 pm | Reply
      • pf

        @la – try again. Hitler had already given up on harassing Britain well before the US turned up late to WWII.

        May 25, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
      • Gary

        Ha! Odd reply to the point being made. But in the same vein, if it wasn't for Britain's army saving you in the Seven Years War you'd all be speaking French now!

        May 26, 2011 at 3:05 am |
    • hmmm

      I do believe that the 'Gong Show' was the original, which was an american show, please state the british show that had song acts(or other entertainment type acts) up before a panel of judges?

      May 25, 2011 at 4:26 pm | Reply
      • dm nash

        that's right...we had Gene Gene the Dancing machine....da da datdatdat da da datdatdat

        May 25, 2011 at 11:44 pm |
      • dm nash

        we also had Star Search long before American Idol.....and many went on to be quite successful

        May 25, 2011 at 11:52 pm |
      • Gary

        Try "New Faces" as an answer to your question.

        May 26, 2011 at 3:01 am |
    • John smith

      Does that mean we should blame the British for bringing these crappy shows into their shores?

      May 25, 2011 at 9:42 pm | Reply
  2. TDK

    American Idol has been marketed well and the model has been accepted in various parts of the world in similar or somewhat different forms. The current format is an american export but the concept did exist before in television. I used to see two programs in the national TV in India in mid 90's that had the same concept, to find the best singer through a televised competition/elimination process. One important difference was that these programs did not have the concept of public voting, rather there was a panel of judges consisting of established singers.

    May 25, 2011 at 10:57 am | Reply
    • LCHughes

      The current format was devised by a British man named Simon Fuller and was originally used in the UK. He is a producer of American Idol and he decided to have fellow Brit Simon Cowell as a judge.

      May 25, 2011 at 1:40 pm | Reply
  3. Melissa

    American Idol is complete and utter crap. The winners always promote mediocrity as good. This season showed promise until yet again, its the average and mediocre at the top. I'm done with this show.

    May 25, 2011 at 12:30 pm | Reply
    • Denizen Kate

      I agree, however, the point of this article is that in many other countries, the "Idol" type of format is fostering a sense of community among different cultures by showcasing a wide variety of talents. Sometimes even mediocrity can serve a good purpose.

      May 25, 2011 at 5:06 pm | Reply
  4. wmsmale

    Lets hope what ever spin offs of AI there are elsewhere that there not munipulated, "fixed" as is the American format. Every f---g thing in America revolves around profit. Principles, integrity, are all cast aside for the all mighty dollar.
    AI professes to be a singing competition, that;s what they try and shove down viewers throat, when truth be told, it is a popularity contest, controled by the producers, host, and judges, who all get a pretty fat paycheck themselves. Teeneybobbers who are on the verge of puberty cast their vote based on who's cute and who they dream of. How does the show jump from one week of votes being at 50 million to the next week at 95 million. Who validates these votes, are their actual records that can validate these "fathom" votes. It's sad to think that Americans are sucked into believing this is a honest up front competition, when the fact is, AI is a slick production with money to be had as long as their cover isn't blown. For this season, AI is sucking up to Country because of the mainstream impact Nashville is having on the music scene and the amount of loot it is taking in, so AI has to apease Nashville. Hollywood and the
    West coast music scene have longed turned their nose up on the "hicks" in Nashville, but now that country music is a force, AI decided to throw them a bone. Anyone with a sense of musical value know that these last two contestants did not measure up to the talents of other constestants already cast aside for the purpose of good marketing. Yes they are wholesome, cute, etc. but if your picking someone based on musical talent who represents talent then something is wrong. I'm county, sing and write country songs, and even I admit that these two don't belong. Someone has to call out this show, the producers, the host, and the judges. The American public is being dupped. Someone please verify the votes, someone grab the card Seacrest holds to see what actually is written down. Are there numbers or just names who Searest decides to call for the good of the show. FIX

    May 25, 2011 at 12:31 pm | Reply
    • dm nash

      You seem bitter...no publishing deal or recording contract yet? For a self proclaimed Country songwriter singer you seem to speaking with the lack of knowledge of what went before kinda like a teenage American Idol might...(ie – Scotty thinking "Swingin'" was originally done by LeAnne Rimes rather than John Anderson). First, as another songwriter, may I recommend a visit to the Country Music Hall of Fame for some historical reference. Next, getting control of the English language and music terminology might be helpful – it's not "teeneybobbers" – it's "teenyboppers"....and it's pretty self explanitory that we're talking about teens & cuties. It's exhisted for quite some time and in fact spawned a magazine/tv/movie industry going back to the time of Sinatra or Elvis(heard of him, he's from Memphis), Pat Boone (recorded for DOT Records started in Nashville), Ricky Nelson – who recorded some Country hits along the way – "Hello, Mary Lou" or "Garden Party" ring a bell or that little Brenda Lee produced by Owen Bradley at Decca in Nashville (Patsy Cline's producer). Many of these artists performed on the talent/variety shows of the day. Some of these teen folks were not taken too seriously at the time nor we're the likes of Buddy Holly who passed through the hands of Nashville....and the rest is history.
      Of course, you can't count "fathom" votes because that's the wrong word – unless we're talking about underwater measurements. Didn't you mean "phantom" votes? Without a change of voting methods and 4hrs for texting and online voting for the obsessed teens & younger demographic – it is what it is (not to mention viewership is different weekly too). Be it an unfortunate gauge of talent or not, to your ears/ego and others. Having witnessed the trite song selection by the label head and producer Jimmy Iovine, you cannot lay the blame entirely on the voters. Isn't the idea of being a songwriter singer the ability to make a living, make money at what you love and quiting your day job? Sure, it's about the exposure too – so you can make a living doing what you love... It's not wholly an American concept either. Trading & haggling goes back to the beginning of time and is still a method in other countries – Middle East (as this article relates to) – same difference.
      As for Hollywood only calling on Nashville now....again you need some history. Let's see, there was the Porter Wagonner Show w/teen Dolly Parton getting her start, the Johnny Cash Show, Hee Haw, Roy Rogers and on....Nashville has long played a role in movies going back to the Sons of the Pioneers etc. – either via music(Flatt & Scruggs "Beverly Hillbillies" or Urban Cowboy), subject matter (Thing Called Love), stars (Glen Campbell, Kris Kristoferson, Kenny Rogers, Tim McGraw)....and these are the more recent,not current bandwagon so much. I believe most folks would recognize Martha White Flour as being a "sponsor" of the Grand Ol' Opry since radio days. All this was long before your frustration with American Idol.
      You may also be under the impression that there weren't more worthy artists now or back when whose names you'll never know. Instead, you know the one's who made it – and most are happy to share their lesser known influences (ie – Garth Brooks talking up Chris LeDeux etc.) If you really think everybody w/ a deal is the cream of the crop....... well that's just naive.
      While my response to your nonsense again has little to do with this article about the effects of such shows on International liberation – much as we writers hope our songs are able to do in bringing diverse people together or effect change (ala Bob Dylan) – I couldn't help but "refudiate"(lol) your uneducated statements of bitterness in having to now compete with the final 2 in the biz. If you really do care about Country Music, then you should be pleased that a mass market show now finds Country palatable much like Les Paul & Mary Ford were ambasadors able to forge a trail in times of Big Band & Jazz singers popularity – it's all good for Nashville exposure & economy. Maybe you can make your rent playin' on lower Broadway for the tourists 'til you get your break 🙂

      May 26, 2011 at 1:31 am | Reply
    • Karyn

      I hate the voting system that American Idol has. It's crazy that one person can call back to back for 1 to 2 hours and also vote via Internet (up to 50 emails), but if they limit the online voting to 50 votes, it should also be limited per each phone number and it's also not fair that Only AT&T subscribers are allowed to Text the word Vote to a certain phone number, they also count all of those votes. If they used the same voting measure as Dancing With The Stars everyone that wanted to vote would be able to without having the issues of busy phone lines because there are so many kids trying to call in. I guess they think saying that 90 million then 122 million voted makes them seem they are gaining popularity in the show but the numbers don't mean anything. I voted up until the finale because I didn't care for either singer, I stopped voted when Haley was eliminated but it pissed me off that I had to vote over and over for Haley, where as when I vote for dancing with the stars after my 5 or 6 votes if tells you that you have reached your limit. Yes, the producers will continue this method of voting because they know young folks will continue to vote in the masses. I refuse to vote like crazy any more.

      May 26, 2011 at 2:02 am | Reply
  5. Lee Oates

    I am calling for an investigation of the takeover of all CNN sites on Libya by, apparently paid, Gadhafi people. All views that support the rebels are being deleted. This is foreign intervention into the right of Americans to express their views.It would seem that Gadhafi's supporters are frightened to face criticism from Americans, so do everything they can to block it.

    The great majority of commenters have been against Gadhafi, a bloody dictator and murderer, and have been systematically removed since the conflict began. CNN is no longer a place to exchange opinions, it has become a Gadhafi propaganda machine.

    I will continue to place this message on every news media outlet I can until some action is taken.

    May 25, 2011 at 1:22 pm | Reply
    • Grumpster

      Why don't you investigate a better way to spend your time than on loony ideas like this one?

      May 26, 2011 at 9:04 am | Reply
  6. Tom

    Worst Idol finale EVER!

    May 25, 2011 at 2:26 pm | Reply
    • Karyn

      You say the worse, I say it was great as far as entertainment was and worse as far as the two contestants. I found them to be pretty boring but loveable. Overall, I think they pulled out all the stops with the stars they had performing, Great night and good performances, and I loved seeing all the other idols – it was so good to see them performing again and I am over 50. Best year in a long time.

      May 26, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Reply
  7. Bly

    TV is a wasteland, an addiction to visual and auditory trash. As John Prine sang, "blow up your TV, eat a lot of peaches."

    May 25, 2011 at 2:53 pm | Reply
    • NRPjbo

      You should check out the shows on Showtime, HBO and Starz, they have some great shows.

      May 25, 2011 at 2:57 pm | Reply
  8. Lee Oates

    I am calling for an investigation of the takeover of all CNN sites on Libya by, apparently paid, Gadhafi people. All views that support the rebels are being deleted. This is foreign intervention into the right of Americans to express their views.It would seem that Gadhafi's supporters are frightened to face criticism from Americans, so do everything they can to block it.

    The great majority of commenters have been against Gadhafi, a bloody dictator and murderer, and have been systematically removed since the conflict began. CNN is no longer a place to exchange opinions, it has become a Gadhafi propaganda machine.

    I will continue to place this message on every news media outlet I can until some action is taken.

    If you would like to help keep America free from Gadhafi's crew (apparently headed by namia), please repost this somewhere.

    May 25, 2011 at 4:21 pm | Reply
  9. TowelHeadsAreMorons

    So are people who watch American Idol.

    May 25, 2011 at 10:13 pm | Reply
  10. Grumpster

    Million's Poet....oh that's just got to have a ratings boom there.

    May 26, 2011 at 9:03 am | Reply
  11. redeye

    DO PEOPLE REALLY WASTE THEIR TIME WATCHING THIS NONSENCE?

    May 26, 2011 at 10:22 am | Reply
  12. muin

    You would think all these incentive would help improve the quality of music. That's not the case. Good music and art always happens out of pain for some reason.

    May 26, 2011 at 10:54 am | Reply
  13. blind leading the blind

    I can't think of one show that airs in the US that is from the UK or from anywhere for that matter. I know American shows air in other countries. But seriously, why are they trying to brag about inventing shows. They must be sinking to new lows and have nothing to be proud of anymore. The only thing I've seen from UK recently is The Royal Wedding and Manchester United. Other than that, everything else seems dead.

    May 27, 2011 at 11:59 am | Reply
  14. Ron

    I don' know where Arabian Gulf is though, can you please enlighten us? I searched all the maps, looked at history books and this gulf wasn't there.. Maybe you should read some history books too, if not, how about being an educated and wise journalist??

    May 29, 2011 at 1:50 am | Reply
  15. Mike in Vancouver BC

    How did it change the world? Well for one, there are no shortage of Las Vegas style lounge singers.

    May 30, 2011 at 3:40 pm | Reply
  16. Poetry

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    April 5, 2012 at 12:08 pm | Reply

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