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Secret behind idol-making Super Girl contest
By Raymond Zhou (China Daily)
Updated: 2005-08-27 07:06

The second season of Super Girls, a TV pop star contest, came to a close on Friday night, but, after generating massive ratings and similarly huge earnings, organizers could be forgiven for not paying too much attention to who actually won.

Li Yuchun sings and dances at the 2005 Super Girl contest finals in Changsha, Hunan Province August 27, 2005. Li got more than 3.52 million votes in support of her. Zhou Bichang, the second place winner, and Zhang Liangying, the third place winner, received more than 3.27 million and 1.35 million votes respectively. [Xinhua]

The Hunan Satellite Television show's ratings have reportedly overtaken the benchmark CCTV Spring Festival Eve gala performance the first time a local channel has achieved such a feat. By Friday afternoon, so many people were babbling about the phenomenon that, on Sina.com alone, they left a trail of 2.4 million postings.

Pundits have been furiously reading tea leaves to decipher the secret formula for the runaway hit.

Yu Guoming, a media expert at the Renmin University of China, sees the craze as part of the free market trend in China's media industry. By dividing the contest into multiple steps, he writes, the show is able to "accumulate word of mouth and loyalty as if the audience were watching a serial drama."

Audience participation has been cited as the most crucial factor in its success. As winners were determined by cellphone short messaging votes - with each phone number able to vote a maximum of 15 times - the show "blazed a trail for cultural democracy," said Zhu Dake, a renowned critic of cultural matters.

"It's like a gigantic game that has swept so many people into a euphoria of voting and selecting, which is testament of a society opening up," Zhu argued.

Experts like Yu and Zhu view the show as a triumph of the mass public breaking loose from the "elitist aesthetics" that had been strangling the country's entertainment business. "It deviates from the norm, and therefore has created such powerful reactions from the public," Yu averred.

Criticism of the show has come from various quarters. "If anything, the show reflects the superficiality of our society," commented Li Yidong, a photographer in Suzhou. The maddening pursuit of quick short-term profit, be it real estate bubbles or pop culture sensations, is propelled by behind-the-scenes manipulation and state-of-the-art pomp and circumstance.

But a more fundamental question is: How come an imitation of a democratic system ends up selecting the singer who has the least ability to carry a tune?

Li Yuchun, the androgynous girl with the weakest voice of the top five, has been leading in popular votes by a huge margin throughout the season. Justifications for her appeal abound: Some say her appearance fits the ubiquitous cartoon images beloved by the younger generation. Others say that since the show does not include male contestants, women voters are naturally drawn to the most "male-looking" of the crowd. Feminists take her victory as a sign that men are no longer in a position to dictate how women should dress and look.

Li Yinhe, China's top expert on gender issues, maintains that many singers, such as Boy George and Michael Jackson, use the "transgender appeal" to lure both male and female fans. "Every demographic group has the right to tout its own standard of beauty, but not impose it on others. Often it's men who monopolize aesthetics, but that could actually hurt women."

In this jubilation to create pop idols, it seems the only people who will be "hurt" are the so-called "elitists" who doggedly adhere to the old ways of "idol making."

(China Daily 08/27/2005 page1)

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