Long before the gold hot pants made their debut, Kylie Minogue was better known to Australian audiences as Charlene Mitchell, the tomboy motor mechanic from Erinsborough, the fictional suburb featured in the long-running soap opera Neighbours. In the late 1980s and 1990s, when Neighbours still attracted vast audiences in Europe, a string of its actors took Minogue's cue and tried their hand at music careers, some with enduring success (think Natalie Imbruglia and Delta Goodrem). But as ratings slipped, another show on commercial TV eclipsed Neighbours as a pop star vector. That show was Australian Idol.
Australian Idol is a franchise of American Idol, the nationwide talent quest in which thousands of aspirants are whittled down to one winner. A handful of former Australian contestants have gone on to launch lucrative solo careers, but none have enjoyed anywhere near the success of the original Australian Idol, Guy Sebastian, who shot to fame in 2003. In those days, Sebastian cut the figure of an unlikely pop star, sporting a woolly afro that framed gentle dark eyes and a chubby face. But he struck a chord with audiences, and his trajectory was straight and fast. For months, his latest album, Like It Like That, has dominated the charts.
Some Australian critics sniff at his oeuvre. "He's inoffensive and universal, what else is there to say about him?" one music journalist commented. Granted, Sebastian is prone to cheesiness. Here are some lines from Perfection, featured on his latest album: "Go and get Picasso, he can paint her eyes Michelangelo can paint her smile," "When she's 21 she'll change somebody's life. When she's 28 she'll be his wife."
But for all the pap, there's no doubting that he is a colossal talent. Hundreds of thousands of Idol watchers who saw him rise through the ranks could attest to this. If Stock Aitken Waterman (the producers behind Minogue, Rick Astley and Mel and Kim in the 1980s) encouraged the view that anyone with a pretty face and half-decent voice could be a pop star, then Idol, surely, cut it down. The programme's abiding legacy was to demonstrate that performers such as Sebastian, gifted with charisma and perfect pitch, are rare gems indeed.
As a rookie, he arrived at the first audition in an oversized anorak, and crooned Stevie Wonder's Ribbon in the Sky. The judges offered ample praise, which almost moved Sebastian to tears. He started out as a nice guy and, by all accounts, has stayed that way. The most remarkable thing about him is that in seven years in the public eye, he hasn't put a foot wrong. He doesn't drink or smoke and he met his partner at church when he was 13.
Sebastian began his singing career in the choir of the Paradise Community Church, outside the South Australian city of Adelaide. The Pentecostal congregation spawned the controversial right-wing Australian political party Family First. But Sebastian, while closely identifying with Paradise Community, has artfully steered clear of thorny issues. As an artist, his natural penchant is for love songs, and he has penned many of his hits. His preferred genres include rhythm and blues, soul and Motown. Aside from the light Australian accent he sings in, Sebastian's music contains few local references, but it still resonates with a generation of Australians who came of age listening to Beyoncé, R Kelly and Jason Mraz.
One glance at Sebastian's latest album and his target audience becomes clear. He's slimmed down and buffed up and he poses, before the New York skyline, in the kind of hat that Justin Timberlake helped to make fashionable. Guy Sebastian, the Idol from Adelaide, is trying his luck in America, the birthplace of rhythm and blues.