Quick! Name them!
I like the Pussycat Dolls. I like how they’ve taken the Spice Girls template into even flashier, more unapologetically frivolous territory, not bothering to pretend they’re anything more than music-industry machinery at work. They’ve managed to milk their debut album for five hit singles, pretty impressive considering that mass-market singles with no niche appeal whatsoever are becoming rare things. Even more impressive: all those singles are pretty good. There’s already been a lot of stuff written about how they ganked “Don’t Cha” from Tori Alamaze and leeched all the pathos out of the song, but they also managed to turn it into a diabolically catchy jam, the sort of thing that gets stuck in my head all day when I hear Eddie Murphy sing it in the Norbit preview. They’ve made canny use of rap producers like Cee-Lo and Timbaland and Polow, exploiting them as hard as possible for their pop potential. In a music industry that gets more deeply dysfunctional every day, the Pussycat Dolls are functioning as a shockingly dependable little hit-factory. But I still can’t figure out why any of the nine women competing on the new reality show The Search for the Next Doll wants to be Pussycat Dolls that badly.
For one thing, PCD is more brand-extension than artistic entity. They started as a burlesque show in 1993 and only evolved into any sort of music-based thing a couple of years ago. On last night’s show, we met PCD creator Robin Antin and the group’s choreographer and musical director and vocal coach show up before any of the Dolls themselves. The contestants are being tested on how well they can follow orders; it’s not like any of them could possibly look at the Pussycat Dolls as a vehicle for self-expression. And it’s not like they’d become famous overnight either; how many people can name a single Pussycat Doll beyond group leader Nicole Scherzinger? It’s actually pretty funny the way the group is organized. Scherzinger, a reality-TV veteran herself, does pretty much all the singing; as Al Shipley pointed out a while ago, they’re pretty much just a group of video chicks with one girl who sings. So all these girls are competing to stand behind Nicole Scherzinger, sing occasional backup, dance, and look pretty. That sounds like a pretty fun life, I guess, but it doesn’t sound much like a dream come true. One of the interchangeable girls on the show last night said that the Pussycat Dolls stand for female empowerment, which is a bit of a reach. At least the Spice Girls occasionally trumpeted vague and toothless feminism; the message of pretty much every PCD song seems to boil down to either I-don’t-need-a-man or I-need-a-man. Another contestant said that the Pussycat Dolls have had a huge influence on her generation, and I don’t even know how to begin to parse that one.
But it doesn’t really matter all that much why all these girls want to become the seventh Pussycat Doll as long as it makes for compelling entertainment. Ken Mok, the evil genius behind America’s Next Top Model and The (White) Rapper Show, is this show’s producer, but so far it hasn’t managed to tap into the drama that drives both of those shows. Last night’s show had eighteen contestants, and none of them got enough camera time to make any sort of impression, a problem that will hopefully be corrected as the cast gets smaller. Antin, who was onscreen more than anyone else, is a creepy skullface lady with an inflection-free delivery; she sort of reminds me of the “cool mom” Amy Poehler played in Mean Girls. Mark McGrath from Sugar Ray, in all his douchebag glory, is on board to serve as this show’s ghetto-ass Ryan Seacrest. The only person to register any sort of personality thus far is Scherzinger, who seems like a complete dip. (To one girl: “I just think you’re just like a goddess.” To another: “I love your essence. I love your rawness. I love you!” Was she this bad on Popstars?) The big plotline in last night’s show was that one girl with an enormous forehead had some undefined virus that made everyone else sick; it’s not particularly fun to watch pretty girls barf on TV. Still, even if the show does manage to develop some compelling plots, I’ll still have a big problem with all the talk of Pussycat Doll boot camp and strenuous practices. Pop music depends on the projection of fun an immediacy, and this show seems to want to expose all the joyless, soulless machinery grinding behind it. This is going to look weird, but the Pussycat Dolls deserve better.
I could also say something here about why the CW decided to replace Veronica Mars, a show about a smart and self-sufficient girl, with a reality show where a bunch of girls compete to become singing Bratz dolls, but I’m depressed enough already.
Voice review: Allison Stewart on the Pussycat Dolls’ PCD