Our Idol is life-transforming
Last week, I was at a party where I stumbled across a conversation about Ben Mulroney. This struck me as gold. Mulroney is the perfect topic to bond any group of strangers. In my experience, it is pretty much a universal that everybody flinches when they hear his name.
However, against all intuition, the guy who led the conversation was singing Mulroney’s praises, thinking his Canadian Idol hosting was amazing.
At first I thought he was being sarcastic, but his lack of humour and selfimportance convinced me otherwise. In fact, handsome and wearing an expensive yet unattractive shirt, he even reminded me a bit of Ben Mulroney. And as I listened to this guy tell me that he was a powerful Toronto Investment Banker who had a big house in Yorkville, it began to make a little more sense.
Ben Mulroney is attractive and intelligent, a well-educated person who was born into celebrity. That he’s chosen to host Canadian Idol, rather than do something else that his countless opportunities would have afforded, seems a tremendous waste. However, to people born into his sphere, like the Yorkville investment banker, he’s one of them, and the soapy ease and studied charm he dedicates to celebrity culture, rather than to politics as his father did, must seem like appealingly rebellious self-indulgence.
Mulroney, who has presumably always received attention based on who, rather than what, he is, gives the audience nothing but a polished surface. He seems content to introduce talent, rather than exhibit it. On this, the sixth season of Canadian Idol, we are given the perfect Anti-Mulroney, and her name is Jully Black.
An R & B singer from the unforgiving streets of Jane and Finch, Black enters Canadian Idol as a mentor and commentator, replacing the forced comedic intrusions of “funny-man” correspondents of previous seasons. Black is effortlessly charming and a breath of fresh air, whether leading a call-and-response rendition of Amazing Grace or chatting with contestants from the sofa.
Black adds a shot of life to the show, which each year must work with a smaller talent pool than American Idol, and a thinner mainstream in which to market this talent. As a result, CI must make virtue out of necessity, and each season proves itself more inventive than the monolithic AI, where everybody ends up sounding like a Broadway performer. Canadian Idol has a regional and alternative feel, with contestants coming from, and sounding like they come from, communities that are still relatively insulated from the mainstream. Although they may not all have good voices, at least they sound genuine.
This season’s introductory portion, which just concluded, featured auditions from across Canada. Unlike the American version, which is often cruel, Canadian Idol is kinder. In this portion, American Idol always sets up people to fail, relishing the public self-destruction their delusion causes. There’s some of this on Canadian Idol, too, but usually we feel like we’re rooting for people, rather than against them.
This season, we’ll get to see if 25year-old Tetiana Ostapowych can become the next Canadian Idol. She has a merely serviceable voice, but does have a hot body, which was shown to us repeatedly from the posterior angle while she sang a very focused and contained version of an Amy Winehouse song.
Those of you with a keen eye might remember Ostapowych from season 7 of American Idol. During a San Diego audition, she sang a very focused and contained version of Someone to Watch Over Me, causing Simon Cowell to tell her that she wasn’t as good as she thought she was. It’s not clear to me how exactly she qualifies for both the American and Canadian editions of the show, but there she is. Her ceaseless ambition strikes me as more suited to the American show.
If she prevails, she will have to best the Pigott brothers. Blessed with a punk spirit and the wardrobe of thriftstore hipsters, they look to be the season’s alt-darlings. Oliver, the older one, looks a little bit like Henry Rollins and comes adorned with a bohemian past. He has bad-boy-with-asensitive-soul written all over him and is sure to be a hit. His younger brother, Sebastian, should not be overlooked, as he is cuter, and also exhibits a completely natural musical talent.
Twenty-three-year-old Earl Stephenson, from Lloydminster, Alta., works at Bob’s Backhoe Service. Wearing a stylishly unfashionable shirt, Earl looks down, his hands tucked in his pockets. Without any angst or pretension, he de- scribes his hometown as a typical grid city, one that has no music scene or sense of possibility. Like everybody, Earl has a story and, like most people, he wants to transcend the regional limitations of his hometown. Although he likes working at Bob’s, he feels he has more in him, and so he shows up on Canadian Idol, asking for an opportunity.
What Canadian Idol does very well is bring forth the stories of people, from across the country, who are looking for a transformation. On American Idol, it seems that the contestants just want to be rich and famous. However, on Canadian Idol, you’re not guaranteed any sort of professional success if you win. In a small market, overshadowed by acts from the States, you might have a year or two of performing before being forgotten and settling into a version of the life you hoped to escape through your audition. And so, the people you see on Canadian Idol aren’t doing it to make millions. That will never happen. They’re doing it because they crave the possibility of something more in their lives.
Brianne Chalifour is a 17-year-old who hails from a town of 300 in northern Saskatchewan. Wearing a zebra print top and a practical haircut, she belted out Barracuda by Heart on the first audition episode. It was fine, but far from dazzling, and clearly Brianne was unaware that her choice of music bordered on camp. The judges sat there awkwardly, until the acid- tongued Zack Werner asked, like a big-city snob, what year it was in Saskatchewan.
It was clear that Brianne had no hope of winning the competition, and the judges told her so, but kindly added that she simply needed some diversity of experience before she could succeed.
Exasperated Brianne, who had God knows what invested in this audition, began to weep, telling the judges that she can only get that experience if they put her through, that this was her chance.
At that moment, it was clear how isolated and trapped someone from a small and remote community might feel.
I imagined her sitting at home in front of the television, watching the culture that flourished in other places, dreaming of living where the graduating class contained more than six people. The judges, touched by her selfawareness and determination, opened the door and put her through.
To me, this is what makes Canadian Idol great. We don’t need to hear the best voices. If you’re watching for the singing, then you’re watching for the wrong reason. What matters are the individual stories the show presents.
More than AI, Canadian Idol give us the glimpses of people we’ve known and people we’ve been, rather than those, like Ben Mulroney, who seem to crave stardom more than change.