Jan 17

WILL YOUNG – “Anything Is Possible” / “Evergreen”

Popular36 comments • 2,693 views

#921, 9th March 2002

willyoung It was not immediately obvious that everything had changed. I was at an engagement party, and was introduced as a music fan to someone, and they asked me a question: “Will or Gareth?”. I didn’t really get what they were talking about. Pop Idol, of course. Oh, I haven’t been watching it. “You haven’t?” It seemed bizarre to them, that someone into pop music wouldn’t have felt the show was important. They were right.

There is an economic maxim called Goodhart’s Law: when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. Reality TV pop was the application of this to the charts. Being number one was the measure, already a shakily symbolic one, of popularity and fame. To be a pop idol meant having massive pop hits. And so the winner of Pop Idol would have the biggest hits anyone could. But what actually happened was the colonisation of the charts by TV, for several weeks a year. It became an annual event, like the flooding of the Nile delta. Instead of proving that Will or Gareth or Darius or anyone else could compete with the best, it made the weakness of the charts as a metric of best-ness – or anything else – absurdly obvious.

It wasn’t that Will or Gareth weren’t culturally salient – they were the hottest topic around. The public cared about them far more than about, say, Westlife or Atomic Kitten. But people cared about them as a TV phenomenon, as participants in a game show. And this, it turned out, was the saving grace of the whole Pop Idol process; the glimmer of potential, rarely realised, in the reality pop mechanism.

If the pop audience of 2002 had taken the show’s remit entirely seriously – if they’d voted purely and simply on which contestant would make the best “Pop Idol” – the results would have been worse. We’d have ended up with knock-offs – an own-brand Robbie or a Poundland Britney. As the process ground on for year upon year, and the talent pool thinned, several of those won anyhow. But Will Young wasn’t one of them. He’s thoughtful, self-effacing, versatile and impeccably pleasant. In other words, he’s a combination the reality pop method is well designed to locate: somebody with the talent to be a pop singer but the personality to win a TV show.

Like the switch from art school to stage school as the proving ground of British pop stars, this was helping to re-forge the pre-Beatles link between pop and light entertainment. The format has a bias towards ‘niceness’ which pop had spent four decades tacking away from. But at its best – Young, Kelly Clarkson, One Direction – it gave you stars who seemed unusually genuine, able to connect with and nourish especially loyal fandoms. The quality that won them their chance – they’re the kind of people you root for – managed to sustain itself beyond the narrative cycle of the show. For most, that didn’t happen, for reasons we’ll get generous chances to explore. But here, at the start, it worked. The public’s surprise choice – Will, not Gareth – turned out to be the right one.

Before he got the chance to prove it, there was “Evergreen” to sit through. “Evergreen” sounds like a Westlife song because it was a Westlife song – a non-single from the World Of Our Own album, written by Cheiron’s reliable ballad-wrangler Per Magnusson. It would have been one of their better singles, as Magnusson does a solid job with the soaring formula. And Will Young handles it better than the Irish lads, finding a querulous vulnerability in the song. It must have been a pleasant novelty for the writers to hear someone treat their verses as something to be given a reading rather than a staging post before the chorus thumps in.

Even then, “Evergreen” suffers from the same problem “Pure And Simple” did – because it has to suit any one of three singers, it can’t really attach itself to any of them. It’s written to be generic, the kind of song that pop stars sing and the kind of song a neophyte can master quickly. Still, it’s competent and brushes the memorable, which is more than you can say for “Anything Is Possible”, its AA-side.

“Anything” is our first encounter with one of the great curses of the reality pop era – the winner’s single about winning. As a narrative move, it’s necessary and savvy, which is why it later became such an unshiftable part of the process. It caps the story and gives the viewers closure, so the new ‘star’ can get on with the real work of making a debut album. But as pop, it’s almost always glurge: heavy-handed, pseudo-inspirational, and mawkish. Young does his best with “Anything Is Possible”, but it’s junk, built to serve the storyline not the listener.

And serving the storyline is the signature difference between Popstars and Pop Idol. With the introduction of the public vote, reality pop dropped its documentary pretension and became a gameshow, but one with colossal potential for engaging and soaking its viewers. Pop Idol offered producers Eurovision’s phoneline jackpot every week, but bigger and meaner. That shift coincides with the final slouch toward centre stage of Simon Cowell, the true breakout Idol star and the format’s master of narrative. Cowell is the single most prominent figure in the next decade of British pop, which is unfortunate, as he may very well detest it.

(To be continued.)



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  1. 26
    EPG on 18 Jan 2017 #

    This didn’t do the business abroad, relative to its peers… ok, I mean the next one; maybe it wasn’t widely distributed? Ireland doesn’t count as it gets UK telly too. I assume that to be remembered as a great lost #1, your song can’t be so good that it’s just remembered as a really good song. I think the latter is the case for Shakira. Plus, isn’t the Verve Symphony remembered for its non-Verve-included authorship? I also assume that to be a lost #1, you have to be a Brit, ideally losing to a foreigner, not a foreigner losing to a Brit (so chart fans are nats too). The globalisation of music meant TV had to be recruited to boost England’s fortunes in the charts. People were listening to a hundred music channels, so how do you endow new talent with enough critical mass of appreciation (not necessarily mass of critical appreciation)? You go through a different medium and reach out to different people. Back to the theory of Westlife as entryists + a TV show. So British TV remains predominant cultural space vis-a-vis British music but as founder and shaper rather than mirror. PS Nickelback’s cred problem = could be faves of your dad + your kid brother.

  2. 27
    ThePensmith on 19 Jan 2017 #

    #24 – We do, interestingly, have another – and if I’m not mistaken last – example of the soap to pop route in a few bunnies time. It’s funny now that it doesn’t seem as commonplace, but then viewing figures for standard terrestrial TV isn’t what it used to be in the age of Netflix which is some of it.

    Also worth to note here in light of Amz1981’s observation re: the Pop Idol Xtra spin off show on ITV2. News has just broken tonight that The Xtra Factor will move online from next series, thus ending that channel’s 16 year attachment to being the home of the spin off show for the main show of Pop Idol or X Factor. A precursor for the channel itself, perhaps?

    Shakira “Whenever, Wherever”. Still a great pop record even to this day for me, although I remember Radio 1 cutting out the panpipe interludes after the choruses when they played it on the top 40 rundown. They did something similar with B*Witched, cutting out the Irish talky bits in “C’est La Vie”. This would also, had Pop Idol not happened, have marked Gloria Estefan’s first time as a UK chart topper, albeit as a credited writer.

  3. 28
    AMZ1981 on 19 Jan 2017 #

    Going a bit off topic but the crossover between acting and pop music is fairly understandable; any child with an interest in the performing arts is probably going to find themselves doing a bit of both. None of them remotely troubled the bunny but there are a fair few examples of Hollyoaks/ Coronation Street stars using their TV role to launch a pop career on the grounds that it was always their main interest. On the other hand Billie Piper is an obvious example of a pop singer who went the other way. The point is perhaps proven by the high percentage of young actors I’ve come across who have playing in a band as one of their hobbies.

    As with everything; the reality TV explosion is somebody hitting across a formula to create new stars and everybody else either trying to repeat the formula or squeezing the last bit of cash available from the also rans.

  4. 29
    Cumbrian on 19 Jan 2017 #

    26: I have not done any market research on this but the chances of anyone in the general population remembering Bittersweet Symphony for its contested ownership are, I would say, minimal at best. I appreciate that the prevailing critical line on this particular site is poptimist and thus not predisposed to The Verve in any sense (so this is likely to go down like a bucket of sick) but that song is likely to be remembered, if at all, for the video, the string hook and the chorus – because all of them are strong – and only people really paying attention will know that the string sample caused The Verve to lose half the royalties.

    The other thing that Bittersweet Symphony is going to be remembered for, for a lot of people, is being the theme for ITV’s coverage of England’s football matches for some years. Indeed, given that it’s now 20 years old – this is probably the primary association for anyone who recognises it under the age of about 26.

    Evergreen getting brickbats a bit here. It’s alright – nothing special – but alright. Will Young one of the better voices to come out of these sorts of series. As ever, when discussing the reality TV element of Popular, think it more interesting to compare and contrast Will Young’s two “slag the judges” moments and what it says about the evolution of these sorts of shows. They’re not massively comparable (Simon Cowell and Len Goodman at opposite ends of the likeability spectrum, probably, and also, on Strictly, the contestants are already famous) but standing up to the judges in Pop Idol in the early days of reality TV always more likely to go over better then than doing it now – because at the outset, the performers were the stars. Now it’s the judges that the public are likely to identify with, rather than the performers – particularly in the UK where, for some reason, the public now wants to identify with authority figures rather than with their fellow man.

  5. 30
    Andrew Farrell on 19 Jan 2017 #

    #29: Videos, hooks and choruses are all solidly poptimistic, I’d have thought – if you’d been claiming its longevity was due to its excellent musicianship or Lurch’s deep soulfulness that might be a different matter.

  6. 31
    Izzy on 19 Jan 2017 #

    Bittersweet Symphony doesn’t have a chorus!

  7. 32
    DanusJonus on 19 Jan 2017 #

    Re25 – It was purely accidental, the intention was just to link Cowell and his label back into the narrative and to remember that he had form for taking TV stars under his wing. Can I count Teletubbies as well? Basically, the idea wasn’t original (a la The Monkees ) or much of a risk. I was probably also trying to allude to the inherent deal or route mapped out for Pop Idol with a specific label. Although created by Fuller, I always thought that the agreement was that the winners would be signed by Cowell (and that because of that both he and Fuller pitched the idea to ITV), or he at least had the option to do so?

    But yes, I guess looking back it’s easy to forget he wasn’t masterminding everything in the early days.

    In regards to the mention of S Club 7/ North and South, didn’t Cleopatra also have a TV show alongside their launch, but on ITV?

  8. 33
    fivelongdays on 19 Jan 2017 #

    Nickleback’s problem among rock fans is that they’re a little bit, well, lowest common denominator. A lot of their stuff sounds like it was designed by committee, and is a wee bit too polished for those of us who like our songs with a bit of grit. They’ve probably been overplayed and I think they attract a lot of people who, as far as rock goes, listen to Nickleback and that’s it. Sort of like a North American equivalent of what late nineties/early noughties Oasis were over here. Plus, Chad Kroeger is an absolute berk.

    That said, I remember being in a shop where they were playing a lowest common denominator local radio station…and How You Remind Me came on and it sounded absolutely MASSIVE. And they’re probably the best at doing that big, North American, ice hockey arena, hot dog and fries, radio rock. And they aren’t Creed, which has to be a huge plus.

    A not about WW – as someone who (and if you recognise and remember my posts on this sort of thing previously) isn’t a pop fan – I read Popular for the writing and discussion more than the music – I honestly thought that was a number one. Massive song, played everywhere, and I can remember it now, which I can’t do with Evergreen. So who’s the winner really?

  9. 34
    ThePensmith on 19 Jan 2017 #

    #32 – RE: Cleopatra. They did have a TV show, called “Comin’ Atcha” on CITV in the late 90s for two series. That, “No Sweat”, the S Club series and the lesser remembered T4 mid 00s TV pop staple “Totally Frank”, starring Xenomania produced girl group with guitars Frank (brilliant album if you can get it 2nd hand) were all the work of Initial, the music TV production arm of Endemol, that produced, amongst other things, “Big Brother” whilst it was on Channel 4, and now produces “Pointless” for the Beeb.

  10. 35
    Steve Williams on 19 Jan 2017 #

    I’m not sure Simon Cowell was even very prominent when Pop Idol began, I recall Sir Peter Waterman was the main attraction at the start, though Cowell soon overshadowed him (of course, he’d turned down the role of a judge on Popstars).

    #29 Like the mention of Bitter Sweet Symphony as the theme tune for England matches on ITV, which they’ve now used for nearly a decade making it one of the longest-running sports themes on telly. Because of the issue with the royalties, though, it means ITV have to run end credits on every show – which is almost never the case with any other sport on telly these days – just to credit Bitter Sweet Symphony as “Jagger/Richards, lyrics by Richard Ashcroft”.

  11. 36
    cryptopian on 20 Jan 2017 #

    I remember Pop Idol being big at the time, but I wasn’t into it at the time (I had a very brief interest in The X Factor, but mostly just to laugh at the bad auditions). Mostly fleeting memories based on things I’d heard from my sister and her friends.

    I can see that the purpose of the winner’s song is to wrap up the story and show that the winner is thankful for all the support they’ve received from the public (or more likely the producers thankful for all the money), but they always come across to me as arrogant and over-dramatic. Massively unfair on the performer, who hasn’t written the song, especially in Will’s case. We’re yet to meet my very least favourite of these, but still only a 2 for this.

    Evergreen is… fine I guess. Westlife power ballad by the numbers.

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