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.)