Idol Pleasures

The surprising outcome of the World Idol competition.

A hobbit with an angelic voice

Maybe there’s some hope for 2004 after all.

On the first night of the new year, I was making notes for another Slate article while sort of half-watching the TV show on in the background (because, hey, it’s my job) when I noticed that it was almost time for the airing of the World Idol finale. Having weighed in on Part 1 earlier in the week, I decided to kick back and procrastinate for another hour. Who would have thought that the dreary goings-on in a glitzy London auditorium would provide the year’s first joy injection?

As entertainment, the show was negligible—the producers were apparently so desperate for filler that loyal viewers were forced to watch, for each of the 11 contestants, almost a full minute of footage recapping the Christmas Day performances. There were also guest acts by professional singers that lacked a tenth of the spark and conviction of even the least giftedidol. Elton John pounded out a lackluster late-period ballad at the piano and then bolted, without so much as a nod to the fandom of 16-year-old Dutch idol Jamai, who claims Elton as his hero and sang one of his songs in last week’s competition. Elton, the kid owns 28 pairs of glasses just to be like you! Call him onstage for a hug and a singalong! In an amazingly cynical instance of product placement, former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham—who is managed by none other than Simon Fuller, creator of the Idol franchise—came on stage to cavort in an evening gown in front of a chorus of male acrobats dressed as “rappers.”* It was the kind of television you hate yourself for watching—that is, up until the results were announced.

The entire airtime for the World Idol verdict show could easily have lasted less than 10 minutes, like one of those local-access lottery segments where a guy pulls numbered pingpong balls out of a fish tank. As each country’s voting scores began to flash on-screen (see Tuesday’s article for an explanation of the contest’s complicated scoring process), my boyfriend and I worked ourselves into a high-fiving frenzy. Against all odds, the title went not to Kelly Clarkson, the much-hyped American favorite who took second place, but to Kurt Nilsen, a 25-year-old Norwegian plumber about whom Ian Dickson, the judge representing Australia, remarked: “You have the voice of an angel and the face of a hobbit.” But Kurt Nilsen has a round rosy face, golden locks, and an irresistible gap-toothed smile. He also delivered his song, U2’s “Beautiful Day,” with the dazed eagerness of someone who still can’t believe his own luck. What more do you want from an amateur pop star?

Since each national contest winner was contractually obligated to appear in the international competition for the nominal fee of $1,400, and the only reward for becoming World Idol is, well, being World Idol, it’s not exactly clear how this will change Nilsen’s life (though it should sell plenty of records for his band, Fenrik Lane). But for a few brief moments last night, it convinced a couple of New Yorkers with too much time on their hands that Jan. 1, 2004, was indeed a beautiful day. Nothing against America’s own Kelly Clarkson, but maybe her seemingly inexorable victory reminded me of another favored Texan who will be hard to beat in 2004, and her unexpected defeat provided a foretaste of just how sweet it would be to watch him go down. Kurt’s dark-horse victory reminded us that once in a while, elections don’t feel rigged, and hobbits with heart can actually stand a chance. It made me wish I’d picked up the phone and voted on Christmas Day.

Correction, Monday, Jan. 5, 2004: The original version of this article stated that former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell appeared on the World Idol contest, and noted that she is managed by BMG, the same conglomerate that owns the Idol franchise. In fact, it was former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham, whose manager is Simon Fuller, creator of the Idol franchise. Return to the corrected sentence.