Published by Communications and Public Affairs (519) 824-4120, Ext. 56982 or 53338
June 09, 2005
Prof Uses Canadian Idol to Explore Perceptions of Stardom
Another season of Canadian Idol is under way, and the top 32 contestants have been revealed. A University of Guelph fine art professor has taken the phenomenon of the runaway hit show and used it as the basis for an art installation depicting contestants as they flirt with the idea of being famous and chase their one big shot at celebrity.
Suzy Lake, a photographer, spent six weeks shooting the Canadian Idol entourage during the show’s first season in 2003. She travelled to audition sites in Montreal and Toronto to dissect this cultural phenomenon and determine what it tells us about ourselves and our perceptions of stardom. The show, said Lake, is a season-long TV focus group playing as entertainment. It gauges what audiences want to hear and see in a pop idol, from voice to looks to musical repertoire to hairstyles, she said.
The result of this venture is Whatcha really really want . . ., titled after a hit song by the Spice Girls, an exhibit that provides an on-the-ground perspective of the entire auditioning process, capturing the desire for fame and the worship of youth and glamour.
The show opened last September at Toronto's Paul Petro Contemporary Art. From July 23 to November 5, it will be showing in France at the Centre de Photographie de Lectoure and then in Buffalo, New York, at the Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center.
In her photographs, Lake conveys the energy between camera and subject, the sense that candidates knew their image was being preserved on film.
“What I tended to do was select the photographs where it was really apparent there was a relationship between the performer and the camera,” she said. “That could be the relationship between, say, someone obviously posing for me, someone actually posing for another photographer, and someone watching someone else being photographed.”
Much of the success of Canadian Idol is linked to the voting process, and Lake explores voters’ criteria by assembling her own pool of Idol contestants — 50 friends, students and colleagues from U of G and the local arts community. They were photographed posing like pop stars with numbers pasted on their chests and microphones in hand against a glitter backdrop. Visitors were then invited to choose their favourites, and at the end of each week of the three-week exhibit, she tabulated the votes and posted new photos of the winning participants.
In the first season of Canadian Idol, Ryan Malcolm walked away with the top prize. Lake was also interested in some of the other contestants, including first runner-up Gary Beals and fourth runner-up Jenny Gear. She believes Gear, in particular, had star quality in her voice and made interesting song choices, but she couldn’t engage with the TV camera in the same way she could engage with audiences.
“She was singing all kinds of alternative music and really strange song choices, like Leonard Cohen,” said Lake. “A female singing Leonard Cohen has a kind of morose irony that’s really too sophisticated for a lot of people to support.”
Lake hopes to get visitors to contemplate the criteria for their choices and, by extension, what they see as glamorous or beautiful. She believes Canadian Idol viewers generally vote for a guaranteed, comfortable sell instead of daring and original acts, even though the latter may be more distinctive and harder to forget.
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