21 November 2008

Whether it inspires or irritates you, reality television has the power to capture a wide audience, something Australian Idol has cleverly used to its advantage.

As part of his PhD research into the interaction between corporate brands and popular music culture, Dr Nicholas Carah, from UQ’s School of Journalism and Communication, found people tuned into the show regardless of whether they loved or loathed the content.

“With Idol I was particularly interested in examining how the show constructs and negotiates different ideas of authenticity – mostly by examining exchanges between judges and contestants, and then by examining some responses to Idol’s claims to authenticity by audiences,” he said.

Idol has its dedicated fans – those who believe it is real cultural space and find it useful for constructing their identity, but there are also the people who see it as unauthentic and contrived.

“People might hate it but feel as though they ‘get it’ and, almost ironically, enjoy watching it.”

Focused on the Australian Idol series broadcast between 2005 and 2007, Dr Carah’s case study found the show appealed to a range of perceptions of authenticity.

By choosing judges such as Kyle Sandilands and Mark Holden – whose opinions frequently conflicted – the producers managed to entice both Idol’s fans and its skeptics.

“For Mark Holden, authenticity is this very essential, or romantic, notion – it’s about ‘real’ artists with pure, artistic souls,” Dr Carah said.

“Kyle Sandilands has a more populist notion of authenticity – it doesn’t really matter what songs mean as long as ‘ordinary’ people enjoy listening to them.

“By playing out the negotiation, and not taking a stance on who’s right or wrong, the show allows viewers to validate their own perception of authenticity.”

Rather than monitoring each and every Idol’s journey, Dr Carah focused on particular narratives and negotiations which illustrated the authenticity debate.

“In the 2008 series, Wes Carr and the ‘male divas’ embody the rock myth. They can sing, and play their own instruments. And, they can be popular,” he said.

“This balance between a romantic authentic ideal and mass market appeal is what Idol seeks.”

The Australian Idol case study formed part of a larger research project aimed at examining how corporations used pop music spaces to build brands.

Dr Carah said the products of Idol’s sponsors were frequently incorporated into the show, allowing those companies to create brands which resonated with the audience.

“For example, McDonald’s sponsor Idol’s visits to Ronald McDonald’s charity houses, Allen’s confectionery sponsor the ‘Are You a Natural?’ Junior Idol competition, and Idols use Telstra phones to stay in touch, Maybelline and Garnier beauty products backstage, and Mazda cars to get to gigs.

“Corporations do not merely present or sponsor the show; rather they are an integral
part of the production of popular music culture.”

Media: Dr Carah (07 3365 3370, 0403 984 620, n.carah@uq.edu.au) or Penny Robinson at UQ Communications (07 3365 9723, penny.robinson@uq.edu.au)