Watching the first episode of Popstars – chunks of it are on YouTube – is like looking at footage of early motor cars. You’re watching a newly invented machine that will transform and scar the landscape it moves in, that will become an ordinary part of millions of lives, and that will make some of its engineers appallingly rich. But you’re not looking at a car as you know it now – you’re looking at a funny little device, all prongs and angles, trundling along on its four large wheels, picking up tentative speed. Walking ahead of the vehicle is a rangy, sandy-haired man, waving a flag with a rather pained expression on his face. His name is Nasty Nigel.
Nigel Lythgoe, Popstars’ main judge, is Bill Haley to Simon Cowell’s Elvis – the format is right but he’s a little too avuncular, a touch too awkward to land the moves. When he aims a barb at an early hopeful – “I’m sure the song was in there somewhere” – he leans back from it, lets it trail away. Not that he doesn’t mean it, but you sense he feels above it, aloof from the whole circus. Is this really going to work?
It is. Seven million people watch the first episode, which is framed in the worthiest possible terms: this is a documentary, an inside look at the pop music process via the experiment of forming a band. All the greasepaint and spotlights of later reality pop shows are absent: no public votes, no baying audiences, almost no live performance, and very little humiliation. We see a contestant sobbing, being walked out the door by a worried parent, saying “I fucked it up” – but we aren’t shown the fuck-up, we’re invited only to sympathise.
Popstars is part of that very early generation of reality TV which took itself more seriously as a docusoap than as a competition. The first series of Big Brother – a relative smash for Channel 4, and massive talking point, the previous summer – stressed the “psychological experiment” angle: what would ordinary people do in these weird, artificial circumstances? Popstars clothed itself in similar Reithian purpose – it would educate the viewers of Britain in what went into turning ordinary people into pop stars, and what talent in pop meant. So the series was structured with two peaks – a series of auditions and trials, building to an unveiling of the five chosen to become Hear’Say; and then episodes focusing on the process of pop – rehearsing, recording, marketing and ultimately, in the finale, charting.
And with that structure the future of reality TV pop was decided. Over the first seven weeks, building to the big result, Popstars gained an extra five million viewers. Over the six after that, it lost them all, and more. Nobody really cared about the pop. People wanted the stars.
It’s hard to blame them – one thing Popstars confirmed, if anyone doubted it, was that the work of being a pop star in 2001 was something of a grind. Long days in the studio, press junkets, PR training, meet-and-greets – and yes, singing and performing too, the thing the wannabes had signed up for. Popstars took its documentarian pose too seriously – it looked for young, dedicated, hard workers who wanted this unusual job, and were prepared to treat it like a job. Four of the five it selected have become fixtures, or at least regular presences, on stage or screen. As an interview process, you have to say it was successful.
But together, this team of model professionals lacked spark. Whatever tension or chemistry there might have been on screen was smoothed over by the material they were handed. “Pure And Simple” played things very safe. The arc of the series bent towards the single’s release and first-week chart position – which, lost viewers or no, was guaranteed thanks to the way Popstars had caught public imagination. But this outcome wasn’t certain when “Pure And Simple” was written. So the song’s job was to appeal as widely as possible to the broad base of viewers the show hoped to attract. It had to sound like a number one.
And it does. It sounds like several. There’s a lot of All Saints’ “Never Ever” – “Pure And Simple” isn’t trying to be any kind of pastiche of older pop, but it knows it wants sales from people who last picked up singles in the 70s or 80s, too. There’s a touch of Westlife in the key change (of course there’s a key change) and in the simple reassurance of the sentiment. But the other hit this reminds me of is Oasis’ “All Around The World” – a simple idea for a big communal singalong, which ends up over-inflating itself.
These are all big hits with disparate audiences – mixing up their style isn’t a bad strategy. And “Pure And Simple” gets right the two things it has to, to fill its role in the TV show. Emotionally, it’s an uncomplicated end-credits celebration, finishing Popstars on a high. And it hands a bit to each one of the five winners – the panoply of different voices is the best thing about it, bringing back memories of the initial, selection-box appeal of the five Spice Girls. But despite those positives, “Pure And Simple” sags. It never transcends its in-show purpose, never moves beyond being a happy ending to a story which had mostly played out on TV, not in the charts. At the time, nobody realised how typical this would be.
What “Pure And Simple” suggested was that the documentary format was Popstars’ biggest failing, and not just in terms of boring five million viewers away from it. A show about the creation of a pop group creates, well, just another pop group – that was always the point. And just another pop group records, inevitably, just another pop song.
It’s the great problem of reality TV music. Pop is an imperfect market, but one thing it has never, ever failed at is pushing up new groups and new stars. We are astonishingly unlikely to run of pop groups, so there is no real demand for Popstars or its imitators to supply. And of course it knows this – the show’s happy ending was exactly that: an ending, even if sheer momentum kept them famous for a while. There’s no space Hear’Say were filling, and – more of a failure, perhaps – no way for the project to be responsive to and make genuine use of the five talents it brought together. Pop in general, even at its most cynical end, had solved this problem long ago, found room for novelty and tailoring songs to stars. If watching early reality pop shows is like seeing the motor car invented, it’s like seeing it invented in a world where everyone already has jetpacks.
The public applauded Hear’Say’s success, but, as with Big Brother, that wasn’t actually what it was hungry to see. What strikes me watching that early footage, with the hopeful and hapless taking on a mulch of recent hits (the high note on S Club 7’s “Reach” a particular killing ground), is how plain it all is. The show plays fair, and trusts that simply seeing people’s everyday, likeable, ambitious selves on TV will be enough. The country of Popstars is a country which wants to look at itself and its ordinary daydreamers, and which treats them with respect. Sing along with the common people…
It didn’t last. Popstars is the shaking of the ground before the reality pop juggernaut truly arrives. The reality TV boom seems in its turn a clear herald of the social media era, an unlocking of the door between our lives and everyone else’s eyes; a proof of how happy people would be to show themselves, if you gave them the chance. The novelty of seeing other people would wear off, even if the thrill of judging them remained.
Popstars was a peak of something as well as the start of something new – that end-of-century tendency I wrote about in the “Millennium” entry, for British culture to enjoy its commonplace things, its tolerance and width, its mild shared blandnesses. The fashions of Popstars seem tacky, the verdicts soft, the songs tedious and the pace slow. But what shocks me about the show, seen in the watchful, vengeful, judgemental Britain of 2015, is its kindness.