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opinion Opinion July 7, 2022

Hey, ‘Australian Idol’ – it’s a different world than when you left. It’s time to get with the program

Dr. Brendan Magee
Hey, ‘Australian Idol’ – it’s a different world than when you left. It’s time to get with the program

“Australian Idol” is back, but something isn’t sitting right. Here, Dr. Brendan Magee looks at the return of the iconic show, and the subsequent discontent it has created in a music industry that is currently reflecting on its culture, and attempting to address a range of behaviours within the industry.

It has been widely reported across major media outlets a new series of “Australian Idol” will return in 2023 after the Seven Network announced it will be picking up the show.

“Australian Idol” is a singing competition, which began its first season in July 2003 and ended its initial run in November 2009. It was televised on Network 10 for all seven series and was broadcast on the Southern Cross Austereo radio network between 2005 and 2007.

In its heyday, “Australian Idol” was one of the most talked about reality shows, producing stars such as Guy Sebastian, Jessica Mauboy, Anthony Callea, Casey Donovan, and Courtney Act.

In the USA, singers Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson and Adam Lambert all had their start on the series.

“Idol’s” return has been met with discontent within the music industry around the
exclusionary nature of the competition, and allegations of ageism. Originally, “Australian
Idol” “sought to discover the most commercial young singer in Australia through a series of nationwide auditions”.

It marketed itself to a younger audience, and the age limit of 28 was no doubt meant to reflect this.

However, “Australian Idol” has returned to a different world, where discriminatory behaviour within pop culture is increasingly being questioned, examined and rejected. ‘

In the 10 years since it was last on our screens, there has been a significant cultural shift in societal and industry expectations. As such, the previous entry requirements where “participants must be between ages 15 to 28” has been met with resentment from an industry in the midst of examining and reassessing a damaged culture, especially around its treatment of women.

The music industry – specifically pop music – has historically been ageist. For many years, it has been apparently acceptable for record labels not to sign talented artists on the basis
that they are “unrelatable” and “too old”.

In an interview with Rolling Stone back in 2015, Madonna was reported as saying: “It’s the one arena where you can totally discriminate against somebody…….because of their age. Only females, though. Not males. So in that respect, we still live in a very sexist society.” Madonna continued to “call out” the industry on its “relentless abuse” of mature women trying to succeed in the industry in her speech at the Billboard Women in Music Awards in 2016.

“Australian Idol” hasn’t been without controversy during early series.

Jessica Mauboy’s rise to fame on the show made headlines when judge Kyle Sandilands publicly told her to “lose the jelly belly”. Sandilands also criticised the weight of contestant Kate DeAraugo (who went on to win the 2005 series), telling her she had “tuckshop lady arms”.

2004 winner Casey Donovan also faced being dropped by her record company,
allegedly because she did not fit the ultra-thin pop star stereotype. At the time, her father,
Merv Donovan, accused the record company, Sony BMG, of deserting his daughter in favour of the more market friendly runner-up, Anthony Callea.

Interestingly, Casey recently took on the hosting role alongside Noni Hazelhurst and Kurt
Fearnley in 2021 for SBS TV’s “What Does Australia Really Think?”, a series that revealed what Australia thinks about disability, obesity, and old age through emotional personal stories, confronting social experiments and an Australia wide survey. The series demonstrated that both ageism and discrimination based on appearance are sadly prevalent in Australian society.

A recent interview with ARIA CEO Annabelle Herd shared an acknowledgement of ageism as a cultural problem, and also a commitment from ARIA to be more inclusive on a range of issues.

This commitment was evident in the change in the top award at the ARIAs, Best
Artist, to be non-gender specific.

On the issue of ageism, Herd indicated: “Yes, there are some big challenges, but there’s such a strong willingness to address these challenges and move forward, and of course we’ve got more talent than ever coming through.”

When labels and producers push through the glass ceiling, they have found huge potential
and success with many artists who were not discovered until they were older.

Examples include Debbie Harry, who worked as a secretary and dancer before her breakthrough with Blondie when she was 31. Sheryl Crow was a school teacher, jingle singer and backup vocalist; she released her debut album at 31 and didn’t get a massive hit until a year later with “All I Wanna Do” at age 32. Other artists who had a breakthrough in their 30s or 40s include Rachel Platten, Sia and Willie Nelson.

So it’s bizarre that the producers of “Australian Idol” have ignored this as well as the success found on similar programs, where an age-limit wasn’t a factor. Internationally, “Britain’s Got Talent” has discovered numerous older artists, including a 48-year-old Susan Boyle, who came to our attention as a contestant in 2009.

On 16 July 2021, “The Voice” casting website announced that two new seasons will be broadcast in 2022: the upcoming eleventh regular season, and “The Voice Generations”.

For the ‘Generations’ version, family groups, consisted in people of several ages, are the ones who can apply.

Then of course, was the infamous Triple J moment of September 2021, where a tweet intended to poke fun at its older listeners instead lead to a conversation about alleged ageism and sexism at the station and beyond, and highlighted the issues of ageism and the way discrimination is skewed towards women.

triple j tweet ageism music industry

In response to the tweet, The Music Network reported: “The industry tells female artists over a certain age that they no longer have anything to offer young music fans… Women must constantly ‘reinvent’ themselves – their sound, their image, their message. Men, not so much – and certainly not at the pace we expect from women.”

The acknowledgement of issues around ageism are not confined to the music industry.

The fashion industry is making a change with some designers now targeting an older audience.

With wealth and income shifting towards older age groups, many feel that the fashion industry is not only ageist — but is also missing out on a very lucrative older market. Changes are also being seen in demographics, producing clothes for plus sizes, and moving forward from the unhealthy obsession with “thin”.

In addition, the skincare industry is especially guilty of pushing age-phobic ideas in the way they market skincare products. For anyone that indulges in multi-step skincare routines, self-care often becomes intertwined with anti-ageing. There are many creams and lotions that are marketed as a solution to the ‘problem’ of ageing, again targeted predominantly towards women.

With a new series of “Australian Idol” under development, production company Fremantle Australia need to reflect on the changes that have occurred since the original series was axed and create a program that is reflective of current societal expectations.

The target audience from earlier series have evolved. Previously, younger viewers were reliant on TV Week magazine and primetime viewing to engage with the artists. With this new series, the expectation is to “create artists in the world of TikTok, YouTube and digital sales”.

Furthermore, they should reflect on the previous “Australian Idol” model that led to low ratings and eventual cancellation. By having contestants from a range of demographics, including different ages, “Australian Idol” has a greater chance of long-term viability by increasing its target audience from the teens of previous series.

More importantly, “Australian Idol” will also reflect the expectations of a society and music industry that is making a genuine attempt to make a change for the better. To do so, it needs support from all facets of the industry.

Hey “Australian Idol”, it’s a different world than when you left. It’s time to get with the program.


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