Sep 15

HEAR’SAY – “Pure And Simple”

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#893, 24th March 2001

hearsaypure “I’m here to be a pop star. I’m sick of being skint.” – Noel Sullivan of Hear’Say, outside his first audition.

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.



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  1. 31
    Mark M on 23 Sep 2015 #

    Re27: There are a couple of different, although in practice overlapping, strands here: the ‘reality’ contest shows (BB, Survivor, Popstars and its descendants), and the non-contest shows that mixed docusoap with putting people into scenarios in which they would be out of their comfort zones (The 1900 House, Castaway 2000). If, though, the contest element is just a way of trying to keep things interesting and thinning out the cast, then these can end up pretty similar – i.e. mostly to do with people wanting to be on telly. Castaway 2000, for instance, which tried harder than most with the social experiment angle, was nevertheless an effective TV career launch for the deeply annoying Ben Fogle.

  2. 32
    flahr on 23 Sep 2015 #

    I feel a reasonable degree of confidence that Hear’Say’s London Arena show on 12th September 2001* was the first pop concert I ever attended. My sister was very much the right age for Popstars, I think she even had the dolls. I must have watched it too but I remember very little of it***, the name ‘Darius’ is familiar but meaningless. “Pure and Simple” I can remember the chorus very strongly but the song is an odder kettle of fish than memory suggested; I thought at the start it might almost be alluringly minimal and bassy but it doesn’t really do that and I feel faintly embarrassed on its behalf when it Goes Gospel at the end. [3]

    *there is a sort of grim humour in that the only thing I remember about the concert is the thing which means I can date it with such accuracy, viz. the fact it began with a minute’s silence. And I mean the only thing – until I looked it up I was 50/50 on whether it was Hear’Say or S Club 7, but Hear’Say were indeed playing at the London Arena** on that date and while I can’t find hard tour dates for S Club 7 it seems they wrapped up their 2001 tour before flying to America to film a TV series which started airing in September, suggesting they were well done by then.

    **oh my, the eight-sided video cube! what a bizarre feeling it is to be reminded of something you’d forgotten you’d even forgotten

    ***pretty sure we were both big fans of The 1900s House though, thanks Nick R! How have I forgotten all these things

    ANYWAY, while I might remember this from the time, it would have been as mere background to the actually important issues of the day, i.e. the fact that the release date of Pokémon Silver was marked on my calendar with a little cross and I was quite sure that I had never been so ready for anything in my tiny life.

  3. 33
    mark g on 23 Sep 2015 #

    The thing is, with the “Pop Stars” genre, this plays to a music interested audience, (genuine or otherwise, ahem), so it would follow that there would be hit singles.

    Whereas the Big Brother audience are not going to be more interested in music than any other random sample of tv watchers, so even if Craig won series one, and we all liked him, it didn’t make us want to hear him sing. And where there’s loads of time for 3 minute singles, there’s not so much time for the ten now-famous faces on mainstream tv shows. Craig got a DIY show which you’d expect, but spin a few years forward and Geordie lad Anthony who won BB, I don’t recall ever seeing him again (even reappearances on BB shows tended to be brief).

    Still, first evictee Sada managed to get her co-written ‘new age health guide’ book into shops with a “Featuring” sticker added..

  4. 34
    Mark M on 23 Sep 2015 #

    Re33: Essentially, as a way to get on to morning TV or similar, BB is a shortcut past many years on local radio etc. It hasn’t worked often, but it did for Brian Dowling and ‘Nasty’ Nick Bateman, who got a decade or so’s work out of it, and Alison Hammond, who is long past the ‘for Big Brother contestant’ tag. The late Jade Goody, of course, became enormously famous in this country. A few others have apparently had careers of sorts in the euphemistically named adult entertainment industry. In talent-spotting terms, out of 15 or so totally unqualified people a year, that doesn’t strike me as an absurdly low hit rate.

  5. 35
    Tom on 23 Sep 2015 #

    Someone from BB1 released a single – Nicola? It stiffed.

  6. 36
    AMZ1981 on 23 Sep 2015 #

    It was about four series in that Big Brother realised there was a slight flaw in their format; namely that there were housemates who kept their cool, made an effort to get one with everybody and didn’t contribute that much to the drama in the house. The problem was that such contestants would normally avoid nomination and the series would reach a point where the more volatile (and thus more notable) contestants would have been evicted and relative nonentities would make the final run off. The eventual solution was to avoid such people getting into the house in the first place by making sure all housemates were as volatile and unstable (and vulnerable) as possible. This made later series almost impossible to follow due to walkouts and expulsions. However this was what the Big Brother public wanted.

    As an aside it’s been a long time since I took an interest in the series but found myself looking up some of the series I remembered. Writing the above and remembering the famously dull fourth series I discovered that Scott Turner who would probably have got my vote in the final had I been bothered (he was a nice lad and good looking too) is celebrating his fortieth birthday today. How’s that for a coincidence?

    Getting back on topic, to an extent the musical version had to follow suit and become more of a freak show. It’s a bit frustrating that I can’t do a full analysis as there are so many bunnies involved – not all bunnied but by the end of 2002 we’ll have the first set of also runs and the first novelty act. It’s also worth noting that when we get a few years in it arguably becomes an advantage not to win as the winner was contracted to release an album of bland standards while the runner up and also rans were free to strike out in their own style.

  7. 37
    Mark G on 23 Sep 2015 #

    Nichola managed 72, Craig got to 14

    Any other housemates manage hit singles? I know Kate did lots of DJ work, but.

  8. 38
    AMZ1981 on 23 Sep 2015 #

    Nadia Almada managed a number 27 hit but I can’t think of any others offhand. Of course this excludes those Celebrity Big Brother contestants who were singers before going on the series and even then I think Mark Owen was the only one who was able to stage a comeback as a result (Preston and Pete Burns went top ten but with re-issued songs).

  9. 39
    James BC on 23 Sep 2015 #

    Having to feature both male and female vocalists must have limited the options when they were picking the song. Every member would have had a following because of the TV show, so they couldn’t take the Steps/S-Club approach of picking a de facto lead singer and ignoring most of the group.

    (Were they strong singers? It’s funny how they all went into TV or acting rather than music.)

    Betty Boo seems to be fondly remembered by many fans so it’s a shame this seems to be her only big hit as a songwriter.

  10. 40
    Edward Still on 23 Sep 2015 #

    Wow, a lot to unpack here, in a very important time for me where I was in the final months of my a-levels and looking forward to my future with a real carefree optimism. I don’t think I actually watched the show though. In our group of friends we only watched BB from that early reality genre – we were “above” lowest common denominator reality shows in general but BB was somehow absolved from our teenage disdain. We were well aware of PS though as was seemingly everyone else in the country.

    We did however love the song at the time ( as Oasis fans we noted the AATW similarity pretty quick ), and played it a lot. Listening now a couple of things stand out. Firstly, they’re don’t sound that great as singers on the record and am not sure that they would get very far on today’s x-factor etc ( one of the boys sounds particularly hammy, like he has been asked to sing unnaturally deeply ). The second is the occasional harmonies between 2 of the ‘sayers seemingly selected at random (2 – 3 females at some points, and a male and a female at others).

    Incidentally I remember catching this on TOTP and all the girls would scream “Danny” for whenever his bit was. Seems a shame that he is the only one not to have had continued succes from it, especially as he seems like a thorougly nice chap and some of the others, well don’t.

    5 for the memories.

  11. 41
    AMZ1981 on 23 Sep 2015 #

    I’ve amused myself today by compiling a list of the top reality TV acts in the UK single charts, using the Guinness Book Of British Hit Singles method of ranking acts by weeks on chart. As most of the acts are bunnied I’ve published it on my own blog at https://amz1981.wordpress.com/2015/09/23/reality-tv-stars/ As noted I’m indebted the excellent http://www.polyhex.com for the chart stats.

    Incidentally Hear’say would have been 13th with their bunnied rivals from the show in 11th.

  12. 42
    Steve Mannion on 23 Sep 2015 #

    Caroline O’Shea from BB1 had been a member of rave act P.S.I. in the early 90s who did a lot of PAs at Fantazia events. P.S.I.’s singles ‘Psikotic’ (which according to Discogs “samples Newt from the 1986 movie “Aliens” – hurrah!) and ‘Neurosex’ did not chart however.

  13. 43
    Edward Still on 23 Sep 2015 #

    Re: 36. From almost day one I thought BB should have just changed the vote-off question from “Who goes? You decide” to “Who stays? You decide”. Although you’d imagine this was going to give you the same result ( at least in 2 person run-offs which most BB votes were ) I think it would have energised people to vote for a lot of the more interesting ones to stay – eg Stuart from the 2001 show instead of boring Paul who just kept surviving due to being up against some colourful but antagonistic opponents.

  14. 44
    Edward Still on 23 Sep 2015 #

    Re:41 Fantastic work – delighted at the number 1 and slightly surprised by the number 2. I guess I’m really curious as to who was number 12 now though!

  15. 45
    Phil on 23 Sep 2015 #

    My fondest memory of Betty Boo is the radio comedy skit (Dead Ringers?) which had a snippet of “Neil Young” singing the eponymous song (Betty Boo… Doin’ the do…). I think I was still laughing at that a minute later, when they played “Bob Dylan” doing “Never gonna give you up”.

  16. 46
    AMZ1981 on 23 Sep 2015 #

    #44 There was a case for including Cheryl Cole’s solo career as she benefited a great deal from her role as a judge but as she was an established pop star it didn’t seem fair to include her. As noted, the runners up (only seven weeks behind and with an active chart single) had the advantage of the download era; their first single managed a 50 week chart run and several album tracks sneaked into the singles chart.

    Number 12 – Shayne Ward.

    And a further pedants note – The Long And Winding Bunny counts towards the total of both the acts involved.

  17. 47
    Tom on 24 Sep 2015 #

    #41 great stuff – it’s the #3 that surprised me (and how close he is to the Top 2)! I will need to come up with an ‘angle’ on him I guess.

  18. 48
    mapman132 on 24 Sep 2015 #

    This seems as good a place as any to note the lack of mixed-gender pop groups in the US. Mixed gender R&B, country, even rock bands are around, but not straight pop groups like Hearsay, S Club 7, Steps, etc. Not sure why this is.

  19. 49
    swanstep on 24 Sep 2015 #

    ‘Pure and Simple’ is new to me (and I’ve never watched more than the odd youtube video from any music-reality show!)…so, heard just as music, I quite like this. It’s a bit irritating when it threatens to turn into Oasis-at-their-most-pedestrian but even those bits are nicely harmonized; I’d much rather hear this professional job than AATW. As Tom mentions there’s a bunch of ‘Never Ever’ in P&S – that track has emerged as one of the most influential chart-toppers on subsequent #1s that Popular has ever seen – but Hear’say make it sound good all over again. 5 or 6 from me.

  20. 50
    Steve Williams on 24 Sep 2015 #

    #45 Surely the greatest use of Betty Boo in a comedic context was the episode of Chucklevision guest starring Roy Castle where the pair attempted to break various records, and Barry tried to break the record for singing Doin’ The Do for as long as possible. Is this the only appearance of Betty Boo at number one, then? What a shame if that’s the case.

    I really, really loved Popstars at the time (although we’ll get to my favourite of these shows in due course) and it did seem absolutely fascinating at the time because they filmed and showed us everything. I remember hardly anybody turned up to the Belfast auditions and they admitted as such on air, which would be unthinkable on one of these shows now. And then after they’d formed the band it was equally interesting because it became a programme about itself, because Popstars would follow Hear’Say going onto other TV shows to talk about being on Popstars, and then they’d interview them for Popstars about being interviewed about being on Popstars.

    It is surprising how successful the record was, though, given how the public had absolutely nothing to do with any of the decisions.

  21. 51
    Iain Mew on 25 Sep 2015 #

    I remember the final episode trying to make a big thing of the tension over whether this song was going to be #1 or not, when its unprecedented success had already been widely reported earlier in the week. It wasn’t the last time that TV’s outsized influence on the charts would be in conflict with its own narratives.

  22. 52
    Mark G on 25 Sep 2015 #

    It could be the first time, however.

  23. 53
    James BC on 25 Sep 2015 #

    Are you sure you didn’t dream that Roy Castle/Chucklevision/Betty Boo crossover while nodding off in front of I Love 1990? Though I very much hope it really existed.

  24. 54
    FIFA Coins on 26 Sep 2015 #

    You always love it.

  25. 55
    Tommy Mack on 30 Sep 2015 #

    I don’t know if it was the same issue as their cover shoot but I remember the NME being pretty positive about this bringing the fun back to pop: “It’s not ripping off R&B, it’s not a cover and it’s not a duet with Elton John [a dig at Blue I think?]” quoth someone. They also sent Swells to audition as Danny for Near’say. He pretended the panel made him give them head but noted “the rest of the queue are such hardened showbiz professionals, they don’t even flinch”

  26. 56
    Auntie Beryl on 1 Oct 2015 #

    The bunny’s nose is twitching – and the NME wasn’t referring to the colourful boy band, as they were yet to release their first single when Pure And Simple was out and about. Can’t work out who had incurred their specific Elton wrath though.

  27. 57
    Billy Hicks on 9 Nov 2015 #

    The anthem of Year 7.

    I was, I think, Danny in our stage school’s production of this that summer, whichever one of the two blokes sang the “I’ll always be there for ya, bay-beh!” middle bit. While others would be chilling in the concrete playground outdoors, we’d be rehearsing the dance moves of this to *perfection* – the You’re-The-Only-One-For-Me multiple head turn probably the trickiest. Some of the older kids would snidely point out the Never Ever connection, but it didn’t matter. I fucking *loved* HearSay, and my heart skipped a beat when out with the parents in Harrods that year and oh my god THEY WERE SIGNING AUTOGRAPHS there but the line stretched all the way across the store, and, regrettably (though probably a relief for my parents) we didn’t have time to join it.

    It’s one of the absolute defining number 1 hits of my first Golden Era of Pop, one that ends in late 2001 and remains dormant until it all kicks off again in my late teens – the boundaries keep shifting, but right now I’d start Golden Era 2 with the first #1 of 2007 and maybe *just* stretch up to a three-week bunny in the summer of 2013, although it’s slim pickings that year since the previous autumn. Certainly it’s the last one where I actually have memories of being *with* people, sharing the love of the song rather than embarrassingly listening to it on my own as the rest of my age contemporaries moved over to garage and nu-metal.

    I really want to give it a ten for nostalgia. But, for me at least, it deserves at least a nine.

  28. 58
    Gareth Parker on 6 Jun 2021 #

    I think Tom’s 4/10 is spot on here.

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