Teaching the World to Sing in Perfect Harmony

They're bungling ballads in Kazakhstan, mauling Bollywood favorites in India and shout-singing Beyoncé numbers in Bolivia. Most every country—even those that lack running water and free elections—has its own version of "American Idol." This is not necessarily a bad thing. The very American idea that anyone can be a star has helped break down rigid class barriers in several countries. In places where the concept of democracy is still shaky, "Idol" lets viewers have the vote—last year alone, the global number of votes cast for contestants within the "Idol" franchise exceeded 2 billion. But as for "Idol" 's influence on music? Let's just say now that regional productions of the show have infiltrated 39 countries, "Idol" has lowered the artistic bar so drastically that Britney and 'N Sync sound like creative geniuses by comparison.

Listen to singing amateurs from Argentina to Afghanistan, and you'll discover that they all sound the same, down to the Céline Dion melodrama in their voices and the Mariah Carey hand sweeps. To ensure maximum predictability (which "Idol" producers call "brand integrity"), the "Idol" franchises keep regional flavor to a minimum. "We are virtual Nazis about keeping the format the same from country to country," says executive producer Cecile Frot-Coutaz of FremantleMedia North America, the company that sells "Idol" around the world. That means the same logo, opening music and lucrative voting system worldwide. And a lot of the same music. In Kazakhstan, nearly half the songs performed in the final rounds were American or British hits, sung in English. When local custom and culture do creep in, it's usually in "Idol" knockoff shows, like China's "My Hero!," where the audience pumps up its favorite contestants by shouting, among other colloquial sayings, "Add oil, good boy!" Of course it's fun to see a Kazakh who isn't Borat imitate James Brown. But it's also really painful. Malaysia pulled its "Idol" off the air by its third season, partly due to a flood of viewer complaints that the leading contestant was chosen for his looks rather than his voice. Sanjaya, anyone?

The American domination of the world's music is nothing new—remember when Michael Jackson's "Thriller" was more universal than a Coke and a smile? It wouldn't necessarily be a problem if other media conglomerates, such as "Idol" 's parent company, Bertelsmann, were developing artists with shelf lives longer than yogurt. But in response to a hemorrhaging record industry and Internet piracy, they're banking on the Taylor Hicks of Vietnam to keep their industry afloat. "Idol" winners almost always have a hit single and/or album right out of the box—only to fall off the chart soon after. In a few years, there'll be no new catalog artists like Madonna or U2—the music business's bread and butter for decades—because they've all begun to rely more and more on superaccessible quick fixes.

The true "Idol" breakthrough has more to do with busting cultural boundaries than artistic ones. In India, where caste and class are everything, "Idol" winner Sandeep Acharya became, for a moment, as famous as a Bollywood star. The "Pan-Arab Idol" achieved something that only Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser had: it united the region, or at least "Idol" watchers in Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and Jordan. So congratulations, Iraq's Shada Houssan—you rule!

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