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.
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: