China rockin' to "Super Girl"
For nearly three hours, Chinese stopped ¡ª and voted. No, it wasn't a
political revolution, but a mass thumbs up to a 21-year-old from Sichuan who
belts out the song "Zombie" from the Irish rock band Cranberries as part of her
China's "Super Girl" is an "American Idol"-style TV show whose grand finale of dancing and singing drew 400 million viewers here Friday night, more than the combined populations of the United States and Britain.
In China, "Super Girl" created a stir from bamboo-forest villages to the crab shacks of Shanghai and is seen as a new phenomenon. Nothing this large and spontaneous has ever pushed its way unapproved into China's mainstream media before.
Some 8 million, mostly younger, Chinese paid the equivalent of 2 cents to send a "text message of support" (the word "vote" is avoided) via cellphone for one of the three Super Girl finalists.
Li Yuchun, a music student whose tomboy looks and confidence onstage are the talk of Chinese chat rooms, won with 3.5 million votes. The three finalists, all in their early 20s, became instant celebrities in a nation that really hasn't made much room for the pop-star concept, except when they come from Hong Kong or Taiwan.
"Super Girl" owes its popularity to its authenticity, to indirectly giving voice to individual Chinese through a vote, and to its unscripted creation of a happy feeling, said a dozen young Chinese interviewed in Beijing Friday.
The program did not, for example, emerge from the Beijing studios of official Chinese programming, but from a provincial station in the gritty heartland of Hunan that has a satellite uplink.
The contest is officially the "Mongolian Cow Sour Yogurt Super Girl Contest." Any female, young or old, talented or not, can participate ¡ª not just the beauty-queen types from central casting.
Some 120,000 girls and women took part in the past year, in a sudden and unexpected burst of enthusiasm that has Beijing authorities slightly worried about the precedent it may set for more unregulated forms of pop culture.
"This is totally new to Chinese people," says Wei Feng, a student from the Beijing Foreign Language Institute. "The whole thing is about singing whatever you want, and millions of young girls in those provinces have never had that chance before."
Super Girl Li has a small army of young supporters who see her as a role model.
"[Super Girl] represents a victory of the grass-roots over the elite culture," argues Beijing sociologist Li Yinhe.
"It is vulgar and manipulative," intoned an official statement from China Central TV (CCTV), the national state-run broadcaster, which added that the program was not high-toned enough, due to the gaudy clothing worn by contestants, and that the show could be canceled next season due to its "worldliness."
Technically, CCTV officials can shut down "Super Girl," since they hold a monopoly position on broadcast decisions. Many ordinary Chinese say it won't be worldliness that prompts any shutdown, but the fact that CCTV's advertising revenue Friday night was lower than that of its modest Hunan competitor.
A pilot of an official version of "Super Girl" produced by CCTV reportedly failed.
"Most Chinese TV is formulaic," says Luo, a young Beijing University graduate, who would only give his first name. "We can figure out after 15 minutes what will happen, but on "Super Girl" we can't predict what they will say."