Judging Pop Idol

ITV's new series following the creation of a Pop Idol is not nice - and that's its appeal.

Bill Durodié

Topics Politics

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You don’t have to be into pop music to find something refreshing about Pop Idol – the ITV show due to reach its climax in a few weeks’ time.

For those unfamiliar with the formula: 10,000 wannabe hopefuls auditioned to four judges at a number of venues across the country with a view to becoming the next Robbie, Kylie, or whoever. The judges, Capital Radio DJ Dr Fox, successful music producer Pete Waterman, Simon Cowell (an executive from RCA records with whom the winning idol will get a contract for a year), and celebrity manager Nicki Chapman (who will also have a contract with the winner), whittled the hopefuls down to a final 100, and then again to 50.

Viewers at home will be asked to choose two from 10 over five consecutive Saturday evening shows, leading to a grand final of 10, from which the nation’s idol will be selected.

Pop Idol is a variation on Pop Stars, which launched five wannabes as the group Hear’Say. The popularity of the programme caused Hear’Say to obtain the fastest-ever-selling platinum disc in the history of pop (although we hear little about them now). This time, though, there is less emphasis on group performance and team spirit and more on the ‘X factor’ – presumably a combination of raw individual talent, looks and drive. Another change is that in these final rounds, while the judges may comment, it is the viewers who decide.

But what stands out in the Pop Idol formula – previously used in Pop Stars, Soap Stars (where amateur thespians competed to become the new family on Emmerdale) and even Dog Stars (don’t ask), and which also hit you in the face if you ever watched Model Behaviour on Channel 4, where 5,000 hopefuls became four trainee models – is judgement. Not the sort of judgement some may apply when arguing the superior quality of Mussorgsky over Madonna or Schoenberg over Supergrass, granted. But – probably because of its rarity elsewhere on TV – judgement is central to the success of these shows.

Where else do you see somebody telling a hopeless wannabe, ‘don’t give up the day job, luv’? And that’s just one of the more printable statements made by Pete Waterman and Simon Cowell. Undoubtedly, the judges have been hamming it up on occasions, exploiting the phoney-hardness that has been made cool by Anne ‘The Weakest Link’ Robinson. But when faced with mediocrity, a smattering of joke entries and some very deluded youngsters, they are doing the right thing. When push comes to shove, honesty is necessary and certain unwritten standards needed to prevail. Even the more sedate Nicki Chapman, who has cultivated an image of niceness, had to make decisions. ‘You’ve got a great voice, but you’re not what I’m looking for’, after all, is only a polite way of saying ‘you’re a social inadequate and I don’t want to manage you’.

Of course, all this has raised whimpers from those who believe young people should not be receiving such a publicly hard time. Nicki Chapman herself confessed to having been concerned about the effect of some of the more critical comments made by the judges. But after talking it through with ‘Nasty’ Nigel Lythgoe, the ITV producer who became notorious as a judge of Pop Stars, she concluded that the judges were being cruel to be kind – that most of the entrants were simply not cut out to make it in such a tough industry.

Viewers could see that, on the whole, the judges in all of these programmes made sensible decisions. And that’s unusual! Today we are continuously reminded that we are all different and yet all equally valid, but this is patently rubbish (to be judgmental just for a moment). Quality matters more than quantity, period. The judges knew it, the public know it, even the losing – and often crying – candidates knew it. Simon Cowell and Pete Waterman were the judges they knew they had to impress.

Now all I look forward to is a scientific version of the formula – Science Stars, maybe. Just imagine the ecologist coming on to show an association between use of organochlorine pesticides and dwindling stocks of lesser spotted tit warblers. ‘Rubbish!’, would come the roar from the judges. ‘Association is not the same as causation and you have not explained why despite the falling numbers there are still more tits around today than there were 50 years ago – it’s back to the bog for you!’

Maybe – just maybe….

Bill Durodié is director of the International Centre for Security Analysis at King’s College London. He is the author of Poisonous Dummies: European Risk Regulation after BSE, European Science and Environment Forum, 1999 (download this book (.pdf 679 KB)). He is also a contributor to Science: Can You Trust the Experts?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and Rethinking Risk and the Precautionary Principle, Butterworth-Heinemann, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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