Red Idol

Arriving in Pyongyang in August of 1987, Andrew Holloway spent a year in the Hermit Kingdom helping to polish English translations of texts for the DPRK Foreign Language Press. In his unpublished autobiographical account, ‘A Year in Pyongyang‘, Holloway describes the late 1980s local version of ‘X-Factor: People’s Republic Style’ that was screened on DPRK national television:

Every week there is an amateur song contest, when the workers and peasants get the chance to put on their finery and step into the spotlight… Their eyes shine and they make impassioned gestures as they perform the well-loved revolutionary ditties that extol the virtues of the great leader and the victories of the socialist revolution, to the accompaniment of accordion and guitar. When they have poured their hearts out, impassive judges press buttons. A red light comes on if their performance has gained the judge’s approval. A green lights denotes failure. Then the performer has to stand and listen to the judge’s criticism before departing the stage. The performers do not mind. Public criticism has become a standard part of daily life in their culture. It is considered good for people. Before they pour their hearts out, the performers announce their names and occupations. They have exciting jobs like fitter at the Kum Song General Tractor Plant, electrician at the February 8th Vindon Factory, or sub-work team leader on a co-operative farm. At any rate they perceive their jobs as exciting. For this is a society where the highest honour is not to be made a knight of the realm, but to be decorated as a Labour Hero.

The People’s Republic of China has it’s own versions of the television talent show. As described in Rowan Callick’s book Party Time: Who Runs China and How, Super Boys was a follow up to the hit show Super Girls. Concerned that the show would degenerate into the teary bitchy mess that traditionally characterises the format, the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (国家广播电影电视总局, Guójiā Guǎngbō Diànyǐng Diànshì Zǒngjú) decreed that only “healthy and ethically inspiring songs should be performed” and that when selecting contestants “their hairstyles, clothes, fashion accessories, language, and manners should be in line with mainstream values.

The Chinese show Red Song Contest took a few steps further towards the red end of the spectrum, showcasing performances of songs like Liuyang River. Yan Su, a veteran army composer, told the official newspaper China Daily, ‘These songs, which were composed in the red revolutionary era, even make me, a 77-year old man, feel excited.'”

I’d rather the dowdy but sweet DPRK version or sanitised auditory M-pop fairy floss than this.


2 thoughts on “Red Idol

  1. About North Korea

    Michael Harrold’s book “Comrades and Strangers” is pretty similar. Published in 2004, it recounts the seven years (1987 – 1994) the author spent in North Korea “working as English language adviser on translations of the speeches of the late President Kim Il Sung (the Great Leader) and his son and heir Kim Jong Il.”


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