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The Search for China’s Next Big Boy Band is Emphasizing “Social Responsibility” Over Sexiness

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China hasn’t been immune to the wave of pop idol-producing TV shows that have swept across the globe in the past two decades — far from it. But as the authorities get increasingly nervous about the rise of the “Fan Economy” and the influence of the stars at its center, show creators are having to come up with new ways for light entertainment to meet the heavier demands of the widely-touted “New Era”.

And so, with virtually no heads up, the second season of iQIYI’s hit show Idol Producer began airing on January 21 under a new Chinese name, 青年有你 Youth With You. As indicated in the pop-star-minting reality show’s slogan, “Work Harder, Be Better”, the new season emphasizes hard work, social benefit, and “positive energy” much more than last year’s debut season, which has been viewed over 2.8 billion times.

iQIYI seems particularly adept at, or perhaps sensitive to, meeting the demands of China’s complex censorship system. When hip hop was supposedly “banned” on mainstream Chinese TV, the platform’s flagship reality show The Rap of China seemed doomed. Instead, iQIYI launched a street dance show (using aspects of hip hop culture but without any actual rappers) and retooled The Rap of China to emphasize “repping Chinese culture” over fast cars and drugs.

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So, how is the show formerly known as Idol Producer grappling with the new idol-phobic censorship environment?

At a press conference held to launch the new season, the show’s chief producer Jiang Bin and iQIYI VP Leon Chen announced a collaboration with two socially-aware initiatives — the China Green Foundation’s program Million Forest and the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation’s Bona Villa project — along with State media People’s Daily Wireless New Media program. “Given the influence that idols will have in the future, we add [these parts] for the public benefit,” Jiang explained. At the end of the first episode, contestants promoted anti-desertification in a Million Forest advertisement.

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Facing the field of 99 hopeful participants who compete from the show’s outset, producer Jiang posed a few questions to the would-be idols at the press conference: “Why do you want to join this competition? Are you ready for it? Why should I believe you?”

Returning as a key figure in season 2 is LAY (Zhang Yixing), an actor and member of K-pop group EXO who made his solo US debut last November. He also had some pertinent questions for the contestants:

“Are you the one who cannot dance at the same pace as the rest of your group? Do you just dress like a rapper, or can you really rap? Is your singing good enough to be heard when the accompaniment is turned off? If there was no camera, would you still work hard?”

This line of questioning brings to mind some of the major scandals that plagued the idol industry last year. LAY made his point extra clear when he frankly expressed dissatisfaction after seeing some bad performances, and was presented with contestants who had only been training for months or even weeks. “The market is focused on short-term gain,” he said, with Jiang adding: “What we want to emphasize is winning by working hard, not by luck.”

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As a producer and judge on the show, Zhang gave his final rating of A, B, C, D or F to the 99 hopeful contestants after their first-round performance on the season 2 premiere. His judgement also factored in the opinions of other star mentors on the show, including pop singer and songwriter Li Ronghao, Taiwanese pop queen Jolin Cai, K-pop group Seventeen member The 8 (Xu Minghao), celebrated rapper MC Jin (whose Mandarin has improved a lot), and relative newcomer to the rap game After Journey.

This time around, the reality show also features four nationally-known, veteran artists in the role of “art instructor”, three of whom used to be judges on CCTV’s Young Singers Grand Prix, a national singing contest that kicked off in 1984 and has launched the careers of many singers over 30 years. The art instructors on the show are “Chinese Pavarotti” Jiang Dawei, veteran singer Wang Jieshi, famous composer and orchestra conductor Teng Shichu, and classical dancer Huang Doudou.

Within the landscape of popular music in China today, rap is folded into K-pop — quite a few contestants on Idol Producer‘s second season so far have given MC Jin a shoutout while on stage, proclaiming themselves rappers. But in LAY’s eyes, singing is the necessary skill for a band member, whereas rapping is just a bonus. “There is a rap show on iQIYI,” LAY said flatly at one point in the opening episode, referring to the smash hit Rap of China and pointing at the door. “If you guys really want to be rappers, go to that show.”

Rap of China was quick to reference the moment on social media:

(The day after Idol Producer‘s second season began airing, Rap of China kicked off auditions for its 2019 season, although whether or not star host Kris Wu will return as judge is still a question hanging in the air.)

In the meantime, an issue that all online reality shows have to be very careful with — according to the latest government regulation — is making sure that no male judges or contestants wear earrings on screen. Season 2’s postponed debut was presumably down to the propensity of star judges Li Ronghao and LAY to rock some flash on their lobes, which required a bit of post-production blurring:

It’s not easy to be an idol in China, and it’s getting even harder to make an idol-producing show that makes everyone happy. Old fans are already missing NINE PERCENT, the boy band produced by Idol Producer‘s first season. And rival video platform Youku is splitting the market with its similar show, All for One.

Nevertheless, the contestants’ fan base is still on a growth curve, and the fan economy is still going strong: LAY’s 45 million Weibo followers are buying iQIYI memberships to put him on LEDs in China’s major cities as the spokesman for iQIYI’s VIP membership service (a role formerly held by Kris Wu, incidentally).

In addition, a spin-off series called Youth Arts Academy, which shows the contestants’ personality through games and performances, is attracting the attention of more fans. It seems there is still a strong possibility that Idol Producer will manufacture China’s next big (earring-less) boyband over the next four months (yes, four months) — we’ll be keeping an eye on it for you.

Cover photo: Idol Producer Season 2’s 99 contestants

Fan Shuhong
    Shuhong (aka Rita) is a language instructor, English/Chinese translator, writer, and proud bunny owner based in Beijing. She's previously worked in Washington D.C. and IUP at Tsinghua University. She loves Chinese language, Japanese arts, post-rock music and good English TV series. Instagram: rita_van