POP-EYE 7/4/02

It’s sad but true: Pop Idol makes Pop-Eye idle. Gareth Gates is at number one for a third week, and Will Young was at Number One for three weeks before that. I believe Zoe has a record out in a couple of weeks, a big-band version of ‘Get Happy!’. Oh, and Darius has just signed a million-pound contract. Gripping stuff you’ll agree. What can we say about it?

Well, first of all we can say that Pop Idol was good TV — most reality TV is. But this show was a little different, specifically designed to have a long-term afterlife outside TV, and it’s succeeded to a degree the programme’s producers probably didn’t anticipate. The result is a colonization of the charts by TV, the Top 40 co-opted into an ongoing television event — which is great for ITV but maybe less great for pop.

It’s not the only such blurring of lines going on, of course — as media ownership gets more centralized and international the trend is towards ‘entertainment’ as a single information flow — a celebrity is an ‘Idol’ first and a ‘musician’ or ‘actor’ second, and anything they do, films-TV-music-books-websites, is part of one big glamourous story.

In a sense this is turning the clock back to the days of the ‘all-round entertainer’, and you get a similar sense of regression when you hear the Pop Idol songs — Proper Songwriting designed to show off Proper Voices. ‘Unchained Melody’ and ‘Get Happy!’ are great songs, of course (and ‘Evergreen’ while a bit forgettable isn’t as weak as you might think) but these versions seem inert to me — not bad, not good, just irrelevant. The content, the quality, of ‘Unchained Melody’ matters as little as whether the picture of the queen on a pound coin is aesthetically pleasing.

What’s this? NYLPM complaining that pop is all about money? Not quite. The thing about currency is that its value is symbolic — a society agrees that a lump of metal means something and allows access to something — and similar things happen when pop becomes part of the entertainment-flow. A copy of ‘Unchained Melody’ is a pass-key into the Gareth Gates Story, the Pop Idol Story, a chance to make the fun last a few weeks longer. (and people hoard these singles, buy multiple copies, as if they were currency.)

Isn’t that how Britney Spears (in at no.2 this week with her worst single ever) works too, though? Not exactly — Britney has her celebrity story but it’s much more bound up in the music, not because she has any more control over it but because the image of Britney and the images conjured by the music speak to each other so intriguingly. Some pundits have said that when Britney does come out as a non-virgin, it’s game over, and I half-agree: she’s allowed far too much emphasis to be put on the virginity thing and by putting out nudge-wink records like ‘Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman’ she’s pushing that narrative along.

Actually though Britney’s a bit of an exception, in that she’s a pop star who does let her image interconnect with her records. The celebrity and the music of most pop stars run along parallel tracks — you can consume one without caring about the other. The Pop Idol boys and girls are different because there’s no need to make the music interesting — there’s only the celebrity to care about and the records are inevitable by-products of it. Britney Spears would not have been famous if people had not bought her record. Gareth Gates was famous anyway, because he was going to release a record — yes he then had to do so, but that’s irrelevant to his fame. (So of course the record he did release is the ultimate ‘safe bet’ choice.)

Other records came out this week but I don’t feel like writing about them (they’re none of them very good, for one thing) because the Pop Idol winners pose more interesting and more worrying — if not exactly new – questions. The main one being — what if modern pop music, the whole fifty-year history of it, was just a late twentieth-century bubble, a technological and cultural fluke? Modern pop not as in the music being made — which will keep on being made — but as something partly separate from the rest of the entertainment industry, with its own prophets, heroes, factions and arguments. Vague doomsaying? Probably, but with Gates’ mates potentially swapping the No.1 position for the rest of the year optimism is in short supply.