From Justin to Kelly
American Idol was designed to be, more than a television show, a total advertising environment. Imported from the UK by way of New Zealand by Spice Girls and S Club 7 manager Simon Fuller, the American version put forth the most advanced audience engagement program of any previous television event. Not only was it intended as a stimulus package for a pop music industry troubled by the rise of file-sharing, it was also a trial run and demo for the capabilities of SMS texting services, a part of Coca-Cola's rehabilitative branding strategy, and an experiment in outsourcing the focus group to the American living room. It's not hard to see how Idol's primitive media convergence models have been fully taken up by live network television and the culture at large. See: hashtag promotions on chyrons baiting “expressions” over “impressions,” the reading of tweets on TV news, and the emergence of the “platform” as the dominant media form.
Of course if the enterprise wasn't dystopic enough, once a winner is declared they enter a coersive and exclusive contract with Fuller's management company 19 Entertainment. Kelly Clarkson, the show's first winner, learned that quickly when the Idol brand drew immediate criticism for scheduling her first major public appearance as a September 11th commemoration at Lincoln Memorial. Clarkson expressed public dismay about the potential insensitivity of turning the national anthem on a day of mourning into a cross-promotional opportunity, but she was nonetheless contractually obliged and the show went on. This was to be but a prelude to Clarkson's heel-dragging performance in From Justin to Kelly, screening on a rare 35mm print tonight at Alamo Drafthouse Brooklyn.
Simon Fuller had intended to replicate the lucrative branding strategy he had perfected with Spice Girls with a theatrically-released tie-in movie conscripting Clarkson and runner-up Justin Guarini. As with Spice World, the film was penned by Fuller's brother Kim, but while Spice World's script was an agreeable self-referential romp à la Head or Richard Lester, From Justin to Kelly had plot and dialogue more half-baked than even the laziest American International beach picture. Director Robert Iscove's She's All That had shades of what was to come when Usher lead the school prom in a fever dream dance-off to Fatboy Slim, although with considerably better choreography—From Justin to Kelly expands the inane battle-of-the-sexes number into feature length, with some of the flimsiest songwriting and mise en scene in the game. Clarkson reportedly resisted at every juncture.
Don't let me turn you off: the movie is a hideous fascination. It's become a blinding cliché of art and criticism, exacerbated by the current reality TV White House administration, to invoke rapid-fire juxtapositions of '00s trash culture and Bush war crimes, but here we are. As the United States imperial machine was churning out atrocities—the PATRIOT ACT, Guantanamo, Operation Enduring Freedom, the invasion of Iraq—American corporations were scheming on how to create the ultimate ubiquitous, undetectable product. From Justin to Kelly is one of this paradigm's mutant offspring, ill-advised at every level, crass and pointless. It is for this reason indispensable for fans of both turn-of-the-century uncanny valley schlock like Coyote Ugly, The Room, and Gigli, and of bloated pop-accelerationism like Southland Tales and James Ferraro.