On Wednesday July 5th, the news in Iceland was full of Magni Ásgeirsson, who would be competing on the reality television show Rockstar: Supernova on a direct feed from the CBS American broadcast that night. The attitude was a cross between optimism and bewilderment. At one point, in fact, local DJ and fantastically clueless music commentator Óli Palli was brought on the air, where he explained that while Icelanders just shrug at Magni, we do so only because he has been caught in a role, and that no doubt had we had the eyes of the producers who came to Iceland, we would have seen his true talent.
Had I only watched Icelandic news, I would have believed that the producers of Rockstar had vetted out Iceland’s greatest talent. This would have been curious, because the goal of the reality television show was to match a singer with a band made up of Tommy Lee, an admirable porn star, but a musician who has never recorded a decent drum track, the man Metallica fans refer to as Cliff Burton’s crappy replacement, and the guitarist Guns N’ Roses fans refer to as Izzy Stradlin’s crappy replacement. By trying out for a C-Class band, an Icelandic B-Class singer was getting more attention than any other artist in the country.
Only one Icelander pointed out what was about to happen, and he told me under his breath as he was leaving work that day: “We watch Rockstar cause it’s like karaoke from hell. It’s so brutal. But now, you know, it’s Iceland up there. It’s not going to be funny.”
If only these words could have been spoken by a public figure before the broadcast.
At midnight on Wednesday July 5th, I reported to a Gaukur á Stöng packed to absolute capacity. About 600 people were crammed into the two stories of the building, jammed together shouting “Ísland! Ísland!”, as Rockstar got going.
There were five acts to go until Magni, each remarkable, the strongest of the night we would later find out, and each booed relentlessly by an obviously hostile crowd. And then we saw Magni’s familiar face, and “Ísland! Ísland!” was shouted so loud, that it almost prevented us from laughing when Magni explained that he was “one of the ten most known singers in Iceland,” a figure that may have been true within Magni’s own family in Egilsstaðir, in the east of Iceland, but hardly true anywhere else. And then he explained, briefly, that he was singing for the whole country, which drew a hefty ovation.
Before I describe the performance, let me point out that Gaukurinn had never been this full before. A live music club, everyone from Björk to the Shins have played the place, and no music has ever packed it as well as the cover song that Magni was to sing on the most brutal of American reality shows.
There were 600 people shouting “Ísland” at a set of TVs early on a Thursday morning.
And then it started: “I can’t get no, satisfaction.”
And then, the crowd went silent.
Heads went down. A chair scraped.
The song went on, though Magni had, for some curious reason, put the mike to the crowd on the second line of the song for a sing-along, like Mick Jagger might if he had even more of an ego than he does. And Magni kept going, and even though it was quiet, it got quieter.
The camera on Rockstar switched to a close-up of a frowning Dave Navarro, the host, and a bored ugly-guy-who-can’t-play-bass-to-save-his-life from Metallica, and the crowd got more quiet.
When Magni had gotten through Satisfaction, Gaukurinn was down to 300 people. A woman, passing me on the way out, held her hand in front of her face as though holding a microphone, limply, and said, “He was just standing there.”
The club was one-third full when a wretched singer gave the chance for one of the cast members to deliver a quick second blow to Iceland. Describing a pitchless performance, a producer described a young woman’s singing as sounding “like a cross between Björk and Mazzy Star.” But nobody in the room really cared anymore. Most were ashamed.
Truthfully, Magni had done decently, considering he was singing English-language material, live, in front of millions of viewers, with a band he didn’t know, on a show voted on by people who likely don’t care about music. The disappointment of the 600 most loyal fans indicated how much hope they must have had.
The look on the faces of the few remaining patrons was absolute revulsion. As I passed them, on the way out, into the 1:00 am sunrise, I couldn’t stop staring at their faces. Outside, the whole street was full of people with the same look.
I decided to put my head down and get home.
Mercifully, a noble Icelander grabbed me by the chest. “Don’t go down that street,” he said.
Gaukurinn, overrun by more customers than it had seen in 20 years, had lost its sewage system. Or at least had a failure. As a result, gallons and gallons of raw sewage, faecal matter clinging to toilet paper, was flooding Tryggvagata, the large street in front of the Reykjavík Art Museum.
A crowd had formed to stare at piss and shit filling a street. The look on their faces was indistinguishable from the look on the faces of the defeated fans who watched Magni compete on Rockstar: Supernova. This was Iceland on reality television.