From Iceland — Reality Check

Reality Check

Published September 8, 2006

Reality Check

I flew to America on a Tuesday, pretty much due to bad timing. Tuesday, in Iceland, is Rock Star: Supernova night, when we find out who’s likeliest to get voted off, and we see Magni, local hero, survive another night. Watching at 2 a.m., from Iceland, it looks like Magni is David taking on Goliath, in the form of the massive America-based entertainment industry that nobody represents better than Tommy Lee, the key judge, who is famous for drumming badly, making porn, and abusing women and drugs, but who has somehow turned this into a money-making entertainer identity.
When we got off the plane, we asked my father and family, somewhat casually, if we were going to make it in time for Rock Star.
“What’s Rock Star?”
He was the first to ask, but not the last.
It turns out, nobody in America is watching Magni defeat Goliath. Rock Star is a sensation in Iceland, so much so that the phone services are cutting rates to allow Icelanders to vote. Magni himself is becoming an icon, up there with boxer/fisherman/insurance salesman Bubbi Morthens, a tweaked-out 80s singer who judges Iceland’s version of the Idol series. In fact, recently, a tweaked-out former editor of a porn magazine wrote a lengthy diatribe in Fréttablaðið against the Grapevine for our criticism of the stalwarts of Icelandic culture: Bubbi and Magni.
So how many people are watching Rock Star, this show that has porn kings and various other Icelandic spokesmen screaming that Magni is above criticism? According to Morgunbladid, 7 million people watched Rock Star the last week of August, (it could be true, though the show didn’t crack the top 20, which is as far as is generally reported in the Nielsen Ratings). This isn’t American Idol, which got 33.6 million viewers in its opening night alone. In fact, the ratings are close to Rock Star: INXS, which was considered a failure when it had the same kinds of numbers.
But there’s more to indicate why Rock Star is pretty much a flop– The show is on the most-watched American network, CBS, and it comes on immediately after one of their most popular shows, Big Brother. The best possible estimates suggest that at least two million of my reality TV-watching countrymen, arguably the laziest people on the planet, managed to get together the energy to click their remotes to get away from Rock Star: Supernova.
Watching the show over the internet with this in mind, the whole world started to make a lot more sense. Cheering for Magni, who had another strong performance last week, I no longer felt confused by the song selection. Yes, of course viewers want to see a performance of a song by Live, a band from Pennsylvania likely on the state fair circuit. This is a show made to entertain… very, very few people.
Then again, the show is custom-made for Iceland. Most importantly, with so few viewers in America, Iceland’s hundreds of thousands of active viewers, and voters, can strongly impact a vote – it is likely that the national push could keep Magni going in this international competition. Second, CDs in Iceland are expensive, and not all that many are imported; it has no radio stations, to speak of, it has a brainless media conglomerate, 365, which doesn’t let much of the outside world in, and for this reason, a show that features ten-year-old pop songs is as well-suited to the Icelandic market as it is to the small trailer towns in the Western states, where people are forced to listen to whatever is on the Wal-Mart shelves.
What does this all mean for Magni? On the bright side, the likeable frontman from the East Fjords has not done anything disgraceful. Even if he had, the record-buying public wouldn’t notice. On the other hand, he is now spoken of in the same breath as Bubbi, the epitome of big fish in a small pond.
What does it mean for Iceland? I asked a range of record shop owners and DJs in my new home, Seattle. The most succinct answer came from the bartender at the College Inn, which has the best jukebox I’ve ever come across.
I asked him if Rock Star: Supernova would help people find out about Icelandic culture.
“Everybody who knows music knows Iceland. You’ve got Björk, Sigur Rós, and that weird guy, Bang Gang,” he told me.
I repeated the question, and had to explain what Rock Star was.
“Jesus, if I were in charge of Icelandic tourism, I wouldn’t let anyone know an Icelander was on a reality TV show with Tommy Lee. Definitely not one that involved music. Someone should have nipped that in the bud. Like a presidential veto or something.”

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