Some 120,000 girls took part in the past year, in a sudden and unexpected burst of enthusiasm that has Beijing authorities slightly worried about the precedent it may set for more unregulated forms of pop culture.
"This is totally new to Chinese people," says Wei Feng, a student from the Beijing Foreign Language Institute. "The whole thing is about singing whatever you want, and millions of young girls in those provinces have never had that chance before."
In fact, the two top scorers on Friday were "girl next door" types, with the more feminine Zhang Liangying, who sang, "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," coming in a distant third. Super Girl Ms. Li has a small army of young supporters who see her as a role model.
"[Super Girl] represents a victory of the grass-roots over the elite culture," argues Beijing sociologist Li Yinhe.
"It is vulgar and manipulative," intoned an official statement from China Central TV (CCTV), the national state-run broadcaster, which added that the program was not high-toned enough, due to the gaudy clothing worn by contestants, and that the show could be canceled next season due to its "worldliness."
Technically, CCTV officials can shut down Super Girl, since they hold a monopoly position on broadcast decisions. Many ordinary Chinese say that it won't be worldliness that prompts any shutdown, but the fact that CCTV's advertising revenue on Friday night was lower than that of its modest Hunan competitor. A pilot of an official version of Super Girl produced by CCTV reportedly failed.
"Most Chinese TV is formulaic," says Luo, a young Beijing University graduate, who would only give his first name. "We can figure out after 15 minutes what will happen, but on Super Girl we can't predict what they will say."