What better way to spend Jesus' birthday than by participating in the election—excuse me, "crowning" as the hosts called it—of the first-ever World Idol? After all, in the age of high-tech democracy, globalization, and the hypersaturation of reality television, we can no longer depend on God to tell us whom to worship. The first half of the worldwide talent show—the World Idol competition itself—aired on Christmas Day, while the heavily hyped finale—the "verdict"—will be broadcast New Year's Day (9 p.m. ET, Fox).
The Idol formula, originally developed by the British music producer (and Svengali to the Spice Girls) Simon Fuller, and since licensed to 22 countries, is an entertainment entrepreneur's dream: simple, cheap to produce, and yet capable of inducing the same masochistic stupor in the viewer as, say, the Miss America contest. In the national versions of Idol, viewers phone in their votes at the end of each episode, gradually reducing a field of 100 amateur contestants down to a single countrywide sweetheart—generally speaking, whichever performer offers the right titration of down-home folksiness and glib professionalism. World Idol brings together the champions from 11 different national competitions before a panel of 11 acid-tongued commentators, fires up the dry-ice machine, and lets the ballad-belting begin.
But as Slobodan Milosevic can attest, international justice is a bit more difficult to mete out. Left to its own Darwinian devices, a global talent contest would boil down to little more than a nationalist slugfest. So, World Idol, like the infamous Eurovision Song Contest (or—hey!—the American Electoral College) has opted for a weighted voting system designed keep the most populous nations from sweeping the whole thing. Each of Thursday's 11 contestants (from Australia, Belgium, Canada, England, Holland, Germany, Norway, Poland, the "Pan-Arab Nations," South Africa, and the United States) thus automatically receives all 12 possible votes from his or her own country, while viewers in that country are allowed only to rank the 10 "foreigners" in order of preference, via an international toll-free number. In other words, you can't vote for your own—a system unlikely to rouse xenophobic U.S. audiences from their couches.
World Idol's complicated voting system seems likely to turn off not only Americans but viewers all over, as suggested by this internal memo circulated by the show's production team: "It is an absolute necessity that each territory's hosts constantly 'incentivise' their viewers to phone in and vote for these other performers ... the viewers have to be made aware that the fate of every other performer still rests in their phone calls." This dull didacticism makes electing an Idol seem to be about as much fun as voting in a compulsory Soviet election. And the show's frantically cheery British hosts, Anthony McPartlin and Declan Donnelly, incentivize the viewers for all they're worth, mainly by using guilt tactics to drive us to the phones: "They may be foreign, but they've got feelings too."
The very concept of a worldwide pop music contest is something of a paradox, given that pop is an American invention. The contestants of World Idol are essentially being judged on their ability to sound American, and every contestant but one—Diana Karazon, a Jordanian representing the "Pan-Arab nations" with a classical Arabic song—sings in the English language and the rock/R & B tradition. You haven't lived till you've heard a German in a sleeveless T-shirt croon "She's a Maniac" or a Belgian grunge rocker send a shout-out to his "homies." But the best moments of World Idol are those in which actual cultural difference raises its quirky, unassimilable head, usually in the panel discussion that follows each bland vocal performance. After her uneven delivery of a song from Jesus Christ Superstar, Alex, a diminutive Polish spitfire, engaged in an untranslated shouting match with the Polish panelist, a loose cannon who distinguished himself from his colleagues throughout the show by being brutally honest, possibly drunk, and consistently insane. (He thrust miniature bottles of vodka upon his favorite contestant and critiqued a dull one with the observation that "The only thing keeping me in my chair right now is gravity.") The audience reaction provoked by this moment of linguistic anarchy was one of giggly, confused panic: What on earth were they saying? Good God, you'd think they were from a whole different country!
Now, I'm as lazy as the next American, but if I had to lift a finger to vote for one of them furriners, it would probably be Kurt Nilsen, a cherubic, gap-toothed Norwegian, or Guy Sebastian, an Australian tenor with a voice like Stevie Wonder and a 'fro like Angela Davis. At its best, World Idol is neither beauty pageant nor career stepping-stone, but a true amateur contest, a trumped-up karaoke night that allows us to witness everyday people experiencing the joy of performance. Still, the smart money for Thursday's title is on button-cute Kelly Clarkson, the 2002 American Idol, who is certainly no amateur: She's already sold a million albums, earned a Grammy nomination, and starred in the mercifully short-lived film From Justin to Kelly. Clarkson's position as unchallenged favorite ("a racehorse among donkeys," according to Simon Cowell, the notoriously cranky British judge) is roughly analogous to the United States' place in global politics. Though she gets to weigh in from her dressing room on all of her opponents' performances, Kelly doesn't need to worry about what other countries think of her. She has a voice as big as the defense budget, and damn it, she's American.