Saturday, June 6, 2009

My Singapore Idol Experience (with pictures)

(As you can see, pictures have been uploaded.)

Yes, I went to The Cathay, along with many other Singapore Idol hopefuls. Unfortunately, I was there to watch Terminator Salvation with a friend.

The barricades were laid out outside The Cathay at Handy Road, in a manner that maximises the impression that a lot of people had turned up for the auditions.

Dressed predominantly in black tops (perhaps informing of a culture oriented towards hip-hop, heavy metal, indie, goth, what-not), a quick glance will help you conclude that a majority of the hopefuls queuing up were ethnic Malay. It is perhaps an opportunity for an ethnic Chinese Singaporean to finally get to know what it is like to be a minority (we take too many things for granted any way).

Many of the Idol hopefuls were in their teens, and it is a good sign that our youths are willing to take risks, join the contest and of course, test/realise whatever talents they have.

There were also many guitars being carried around. In my opinion, for a pop franchise like Idol, it is often not wise to use a guitar (or hide behind it), unless it is part of the image and personality, a get-up that is no longer unique today.

"Budding singer-songwriters brudddderrrrr!" my friend said. No, he's not ethnic Malay.

Above: Can you spot the ethnic Chinese auditioners in the crowd? How many can you find?

I played the race card and said, "Is this Singapore Idol, or Anugerah?"

Obviously, it was race, or rather, ethnicity that dominated our minds as we observed the crowds and registration processes.

After getting our tickets for the Christian Bale movie at Level 5, we realised that parts of the level were used for the Mediacorp production. We took a few pictures, but were told by one production assistant/facilitator, "No taking photos." I shot back, "This is a public area."

If the contest wants to display its logos and stuff in public, that's what they have to deal with.

I was about to take some pictures outside the theatre designated to be holding area. The security personnel from ESS, hired by Mediacorp, told me curtly "No photo-taking."

I asked: "Why?"
Security: "No photo-taking."
Me: "But why?"
Security: "You ask the organiser."
Me: "Why?"
My friend: "He's a fan. Let him take pictures." (Yes, I have been following the past two installments of the show)
Security: "Cannot take pictures. You have to ask the organiser."
My friend: "Why?"
Security: "You ask the organiser."

There is no valid or reasonable explanation at all. The security guy (and maybe the whole team) was probably not adequately briefed by the production manager or the assistant producers. They lack the courtesy and professionalism when dealing with members of the public. After all, we were not taking photos for profit. It is fair use.

Aside from that unpleasant experience, we were quite fascinated by various ongoing events.

Gurmit Singh and second Singapore Idol winner Hady Mirza were doing plugs for the show in front of the queuing hopefuls. The producers obviously wanted to get the crowd behind them in shouting in unison "Singapore Idol!", but oweing to over-night queuing fatigue and the rather unwelcoming late warming heat, the response was below production expectations.
Above: Not a very flattering photo, but these things happen. Sorry.Gurmit Singh, ever the professional and gentleman, got the microphone and spoke to the queuing Idol hopefuls and asked for their participation - turn to face the cameraman and say "Singapore Idol" together.
I wasn't sure if that was sufficient, because one of the production crew later took the microphone and asked everyone to do the same. He asked the auditioners to follow his instructions so that the camera could catch everyone of them (right).
My friend and I were discussing how unfair it was for the auditioners to be forced to wait outside just for production purposes, to prove that Singapore Idol was popular based on the 'huge' turn-out. Given the large venue, facilities and the seemingly well-coordinated production team, these auditioners can do without the necessary humbling experience of waiting in line. A young female production assistant/crew overheard us and agreed with us, but suggested it was all part of the show.

Just because the industry is cut-throat, filled with mean and unscrupulous people, it is unjustifiable that the rest of us and Mediacorp (too) behave like that. Of course, mean-ness is probably part of all of us, and most of us enjoy watching others in pain and suffering. Maybe that is a good substitute for political disempowerment.

The industry in South-east Asia is different too. The presence of Hady Mirza says it all. He might be there to provide support, or to co-host with Gurmit. In entertainment today, your 'core competency' is simply not enough. A singer has to host too. Essentially, you are a performer, not a singer, even though you want to be a singer.

Gurmit Singh is literally larger than life. Tall. Many years of hard work in the industry has brought him to where he is today, and above all, he has been friendly, professional and humble. Unfortunately, there are many Singaporeans who flame and criticise him. For those Singaporeans, they should try entering the industry and experience it first hand for themselves.

I did it in 2000, till 2005. I went for auditions (dramas, sitcoms, variety shows), I acted in a couple of productions, I did my make-up and wardrobe in Mediacorp. It is tough stuff. Physically draining, and it affects the mental focus that every actor/artiste needs.

I hated my time doing make-up in the Mediacorp make-up unit. It consists of Chinese-speaking make-up artists. There was a hierarchy in the make-up unit. Even though a newbie like me entered the unit early (I usually came at least half an hour before my call-time for make-up), I had to wait for no reason, while other artistes who entered the place later than I did, got ahead of the queue.

I think there are a few factors. Firstly, seniority and reputation of the artiste probably mattered. Secondly, it probably depends on whether you are doing a Mediacorp project or an outsourced production.

I observed Channel 8 artistes getting their make-up done by the make-up crew with such diligence. They took their time. For me, slap slap, draw draw, powder powder, and after 3 minutes, my make-up is done, and the colour of my face is 4-5 shades darker than the skin-tone of my neck and ears. Maybe this is the rite of passage for every wannabe, but attitudes can definitely improve.

But hey, at least I had the experience doing it. And in my opinion, this is a nasty world. It puzzles me why there exists so many nasty people out there.

Back to Singapore Idol. Ethnicity is rather apparently. I notice many youths were ethnic Malay, dressed in black and most of them were aesthetically 'indie'. The Idol competition usually demands the wholesome character, something that the mass market can appreciate (according to most producers any way). Maybe Paul Twohill in the second Singapore Idol season was a successful exception. Any how, I believe that Kin Lim and the judges picked the wrong song for him which got him booted off the competition in the late stages. It was Adam Sandler's "I wanna grow old with you". Paul Twohill oozes indie rock but the sheer stupidity of song selection led to the crude mismatch of character and song.

A lot of the auditioners came as their own person, although sad to say, that indie seems a little mainstream to me now. I believe among the serious and focused ones, there were those who want to have fun and try this competition out. After all, it was all about experience right? The relatively invisible middle-class ethnic Chinese Singaporean explains what Chinese Singaporeans think about the competition. It shows that the non-Chinese Singaporean folks know how to have fun, and this contrasts with the cynicism of some of us ethnic Chinese folk. Or maybe, Singapore Chinese are simply not good enough for an English singing competition and we think we know that.

We already have Mandarin singing and idol competitions on our Mandarin-speaking channels, and the viewership is rather respectable. When it comes to an English-language singing competition, it is a whole different ball game for the English-speaking ethnic Chinese Singaporean. Will your cynical Channel 5 audience vote for you? Will Channel 8 viewers watch this Channel 5 programme and vote for a middle-class English-educated, English-speaking ethnic Chinese Singaporean?

That is why an aesthetically and culturally Chinese (some call it cheena, some call it cheena-pok, I call it "ah beng"-like) personality will progress further than an English-speaking ethnic Chinese who is more "ang3 mo2 pai4" (a.k.a. Westernised in his appearance and singing).

Of course, most of Channel 5's productions are rather oriented towards the production techniques, habits and directorship characteristic of Channel 8, Hong Kong and Taiwanese productions. Unless an English-educated middle class ethnic Chinese contestant harness the votes of his Church mates (if he was charismatic Christian), all the odds would be stacked against him.

Notice I have not mentioned "she", because female contestants tend not to do well in Singapore Idol. Maybe it is industry chauvinism, maybe it is viewer chauvinism.

As in my previous post on Singapore Idol, I believe it will be an ethnic Malay winner. It is not the idea of voting along racial lines, but the reality that there exists community support for the ideal Malay son/boy/performer, one that is sweet, sincere, occasionally naughty, but always filial and humble.

It also proves that the English-speaking ethnic Chinese viewers are generally not interested in voting, something they dismiss as expensive, irrational and... - add other Marxist invocations.

You need to have the pulling power of an ethnic Chinese Singaporean who is aesthetically, physiologically, facially and follicularly, not too Westernised. The cross-over appeal will be there for Channel 8 viewers to tune in and vote. Maybe the portrayal/presence of middle-class English-educated/speaking ethnic Chinese Singaporeans does not go down well with the Chinese-educated/speaking and/or working class folks. That is the impression I get any way.

Maybe things will change with the third edition of Singapore Idol. It is always great to watch talents and triers, and talents who try.

From my brief 3 years witnessing underground music competitions, I can safely say that the Malays have the soul, the moves and can rock it out. And as for the few ethnic Chinese acts I have seen, well, it is all about stiffness and dancing with your hands.

Reflecting on my experience today, as well as my past experiences, and playing with what some might call simplistic and generalising racial stereotypes, I also think about my position as an artiste. I am fundamentally an English pop-rock songwriter and having witnessed and experienced what I have, there's really no future for that part of me in Singapore or in this region. The issues of race, class, style and language do not favour me and I doubt I can even put bread crumbs on the table doing this.

When I walked into the studio somewhere in 2001 or 2002, Ken Lim shot me this question, "Can you speak Chinese?" I can take it from there that I failed my interview-cum-audition.

Any way, I'm happy being a house-husband for the moment.

Here are more pictures:

It was getting pretty hot. You could see lots of umbrellas in the queue. The auditioners should not be treated like that.Below: The ghostly finger of bad photo-taking.
Inside The Cathay:Above: You can do a cultural profile from the items leaning against this column. Skateboard and guitar = "street cred"/"indie spirit"?Above: Part of the cinema was used as the audition room.
Above: Hopefuls walking into the holding area.
Even an elevator was specially cordoned off for the auditions, and guarded by a Cisco officer. No, I am not the Cisco officer.


Kenny Choo said...

I guess the whole separation between the two types of Chinese are very much divided by policy of creating two TV channels which is labeled according to language

Sam Ho said...

but for channel 5, i would believe there are some cross-over viewers who continue to identify with the aesthetics of channel 8 production, and this explains why on occasion, we see channel 8 stars acting in channel 5 productions.

(predominant) language is not a proper measure of classed/stratified culture.

i think it'll be rather cheeky (and interesting for me) if they divided channel 5 into two channels, one that has programmes for heartlanders (with all the stereotypical heartlander values and aspirations) and another for the middle-to-upper classes (with all of their accompanying values). i'm a bit tired of the mish-mash of heartlander values and middle-to-upper class values that sends conflicting signals to our viewers. the show under one roof best encapsulates this mix.

nick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
nick said...

Hi Sam!

As a middle-class English-educated, English-speaking ethnic Chinese Singaporean who happens to fall into the local singer-songwriter category, I think I might speak for most musicians like me when I ask 'So where's Taufik/Hady now?' and subsequently 'Do I want to be doing that?'.

In addition, Mediacorp is sometimes questionable when it comes to being professional about artiste management and stuff. The Idol franchise might get the viewers they want, but all too often at the expense of the talent they feature. Am I willing to be one of the sacrifices? Not really.

Also on a interesting personal sidenote: there seems to be much more female singer-songwriters (those who stay solo) than male singer-songwriters in the local scene. More marketable perhaps? Or reverse chauvinism? I guess I just try to fight battles I know I have a chance of winning. :)

Very thought-provoking post.

P.S. Sorry for the double post.

Sam Ho said...

thanks nick.

i'm a bit chauvinist when it comes to female singer-songwriters. of course, they have it harder because people think they're just pretty faces who can sell music rather than make music, which means they have to try a lot harder to be musically credible.

and i happen to be one of those people who feel some female singer-songwriters are not as talented/good as they make out to be. but i'm willing to give credit if i like the song.

i think taufik had it a little better. as for hady, i've no idea. poor guy.

i agree. mediacorp doesn't take care of its artistes and talents. they should be pumping money into regional publicity for taufik and hady, and getting them top songwriters to push them to be asian icons for starters.

at least you're a singer-songwriter, i'm just a freaking songwriter haha.

there should be more songwriting competitions out there, don't you think?

nick said...

I would assume that the average Singaporean guy would want to achieve stability job wise and settle down with a nice girl (maybe I'm stereotyping here). Hardly fertile ground for the idealism of musicians and artists I guess?

Unless you're in it to get groupies, of course. But Singapore where got groupies. :( Our girls all very respectable one, okay.

Singer-songwriter sorta happened as a fluke; couldn't really find people to perform my songs so I ended up just doing the damn thing myself. I'd take writing behind the scenes than the glare of the spot light any day, man. :)

My thoughts on Mediacorp actually stem from experience, and what considerably little business I have had with them has not been pleasant.

Local songwriting competitions generally speaking tend to be Chinese music-orientated. Many of my friends have gone along that route, and I've even (tried to) dabble, but my dismal Chinese has led me to believe that I should just stick to what I do best.

Also, writing ballad after ballad is kind of boring.

Sam Ho said...

ah, i feel you.

well, i still have hopes of writing songs, but have gotta keep that as a secondary job or sideline.

if my groupies can appreciate music, i think that's nice. i'll probably cry with joy after the groupie orgy.

all songwriters have egos. we can never find the right and competent people to play our songs the way we want them to play. it's pretty difficult to find the right sessionists.

i record my own stuff instead.

and i appreciate comments so i can improve my skills.

do you have a website where i can hear your stuff?

i can't stand chinese pop songs. a lot of them are variations of the same thing, much like hip-hop to me. but then again, music is growingly become similar. so once in a while, we get breakout artistes who transgress genres.

nick said...

Haha it's not that I was being picky to find the 'right and competent' sessionists, I think. More like literally could not find people at all.

So, here goes my shameless plug: I really should update it more often.

Sam Ho said...

i think a musician will know best what he/she exactly wants in his/her own song.

wah, your voice is rather rich and rounded.

the folk guitar is quite distinct, and i can hear the favoured usage of minor 7s, maj+2s, maj+5s, maj7s. very nice songs, and i'm saying that about a genre i don't really fancy haha.

i can't strum the guitar well at all like you. maybe i should get an acoustic and start practising.