China’s Booming Idol-Raising Industry and The Fading of Individuality

On April 3, Super Girl contestants from 2006 reunited in a reality show, which raised a lot of discussions on Weibo. People recalled the crazy times over a decade ago when they supported those girls in their quest to prove their singing talent. With no online voting at the time, people had to text to vote and the text cost 1 yuan per vote while a normal text cost less than 0.1 yuan. The craze was real, since each phone number had a cap for voting, fan groups of different singers poured onto the streets to invite strangers to vote. If you once experienced the abundance of talent shows at that time, you might still remember that those Super Girls attracted supporters from kindergarteners to white-hair elderly people. Times even called Li Yu Chun, the winner of 2005 Super Girl, a “national icon.”

SEE ALSO: While Chinese Idol Groups Flop, Idol Survival Shows Are Flourishing

Talent shows were a novel format for Chinese audiences even 15 years ago. Back in 1984, CCTV started to host Young Singers Grand Prix, which became the biggest star-rising channel in China. The competition focused on singing skills and the range of knowledge of participants. The final score was composed of singing scores from professional judges and knowledge tests related to Chinese literature and culture. Winners usually had the chance to perform in the CCTV New Year’s Gala and attended different shows hosted by CCTV. When CCTV dominated people’s televisions, being awareded in Young Singers Grand Prix meant being recognized by national audiences and receiving an iron-bowl singing career. However, although Young Singers Grand Prix selected highest-level vocal artists, it was unable to pick out real stars because audiences had no voting rights and thereby the results did not reflect the preference of common people. Moreover, the homogenization of winners was widespread. All of them were well-educated artists but all they said and all they performed to the public were scripted. People’s desire for someone who could challenge the old-fashioned doctrines was becoming palpable.

Super Girl started in 2004 and accepted female participants with no age restriction ( the minimum age of 18 was set in 2006). Compared to other professional singing competitions, Super Girl favored personality over professionalism and nurtured an atmosphere of inclusiveness to encourage all participants to show who they were, which was reflected in its slogan, “I sing whenever I want.” Audiences played the key role in girls’ ranking. The contestant with the lowest score would be invited to the stage with her fate decided by 20-30 onsite audience members.

China’s entertainment industry was still blossoming and many candidates had zero training before hitting the stage. They didn’t know how to dress fashionably nor did they know how to ingratiate themselves with audiences. However, their unpolished appearances delivered who they were and thereby their progress towards becoming more fashionable stars engaged their fans on a completely new level. Going to an audition wearing a pair of loose jeans, a black button-down shirt, and a “boyish” short haircut with no makeup, Li Yuchun did not adhere to any of the aesthetic standards forced onto female stars at that time. However, it is her disregard of those rules that garnered her unprecedented support and triggered a nation-wide craze for gender-neutral looks.

Shang Wenjie, the winner of Super Girl 2006, had a similar story. Graduating from a top university with a B.A. in French Literature, Shang had a high-paying job before enrolling in the competition. After Li Yuchun’s brisk success in the 2005 show, many participants in 2006 were dreaming of becoming her, and Shang was not an exception.

Compared to Li, Shang’s appearance was unremarkable and did not draw much attention at first, she was even kicked out in two division-zones. She finally placed second on her third try, which gave her access to the national competition. Throughout the competition, people, especially well-educated white collar workers, gradually became attracted to her seemingly cold but resilient personality. Many people claimed that they saw themselves in Shang – forced to give up their dreams, go to a good college and find a stable job as their parents expected. They were glad to support Shang’s dream, as if it were their own.

Talent shows are still the most popular category among all shows. The new generation still shows strong support for their idols. The difference is only that the broadcasting platform has been transitioning from TV to online and the voting procedure was also digitized. You now rarely see fans gather in the street to ask strangers to vote for their idols, but if you browse Weibo, you would see the battle among fan groups still continues online.

15 years ago, Times started an article with “Chinese showbiz rarely produces icons,” which is certainly not true. However, despite the flood of new idols, no new Li or Shang has appeared. Compared to 15 years ago, people now have more options in talent shows, which now target all possible audiences. Learning from the Korean entertainment industry, China has gradually set up its idol-fostering system gradually with hordes of kids with pop-star dreams seeking professional training even before graduating from middle school. They are not only being trained how to dance and sing, but also how to smile and what to say to be more “charming.”

SEE ALSO: Produce 101 Begins a Wave of Interest in Chinese Idol Groups

Due to this, the general performance of participants in talent shows has risen to a higher level. However, unbounded creativity and liberating disregard for rules that can only be found in untrained ordinary people is disappearing. Unlike Super Girl that focused on individuals, most popular talent shows nowadays aim to build pop groups from contestants aged 10-15, requiring harmonious uniformity besides skills. In other words, the format itself limits the growth of personality. In one example, Wang Ju, a participant in Produce 101, was criticized for not being fit for a girl group due to her tanned skin and not-slim-enough figure.

With the development of China’s idol-fostering industry, more well-trained and highly-skilled contenders are entering show business. Sadly, there seems to be no place on the screen anymore for the girl next door with a unique personality and an unforgettable voice.