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.



  1. 1
    lonepilgrim on 21 Sep 2015 #

    I was teaching GCSE Media Studies when Popstars aired and the exam topic for that year was Documentary TV so the programme seemed to me to be a sure fire way of engaging an adolescent audience with a potentially dry genre. Surprisingly (or perhaps not) the class showed only superficial interest in the programme and seemed to view the contestants with disdain for being so desperate for such manufactured success. Perhaps this reflected their media savvy attitude but I’m sure that a few years later they would be hooked on the more high stakes format of X Factor, etc.
    As a result I have some clear (tho not necessarily accurate) memories of the programmes. I remember that ‘Judge’ Nicki Chapman virtually insisted that Mylene Klass be a part of the group. At some stage it was later revealed that NC was MK’s agent – giving audiences an insight into how the pop sausage is made but undermined the credibility of the competitive format. Kym Marsh neglected to mention that she had a kid at home until she had been selected for the final group and there was much furrowing of Nigel’s brow while they considered what to do. I preferred Jessica who fell into disfavour for admitting smoking weed in her past, but went on to be part of Liberty X. Suzanne, Noel and Danny were pleasant but a bit bland.
    Watching the video after 14 years I was surprised how little Mylene Klass contributes to the song. Kym and Suzanne do most of the work with token interjections from the others. As noted the song sounds like a Primark version of several previous hits and this tendency to play it safe was what undermined the group in the long run – if a long run was ever expected.

  2. 2
    Mark G on 22 Sep 2015 #

    Chris Moyles did a pastiche of this, it’s one of his better ones – worthy of Stan Freberg inasmuch as he pulls no punches at all. Oh, and he also gets “All around the world” and “Never Ever” in there too.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KADVAaTiE5k but this one has some daft sound effects added by the uploader

  3. 3
    weej on 22 Sep 2015 #

    This was such a big cultural event at the time, and despite not having watched more than a few clips at the time, there’s so much that’s still memorable – Nasty Nigel, Darius singing ‘Baby One More Time…’, The fuss about Kim having kids, LOLZ Danny looks like Shrek, Why is there an apostrophe in their name? (for some reason people actually made a fuss about this), ROFLMAO it looks like they’re lighting their farts, The launch of Liberty (X), the subsequent careers of many of the people involved, and most of all the talent show industry it spawned…

    But the actual song? Or the group? Great big shrug on both counts. Despite it being everywhere for a few months I couldn’t even remember how it went without playing the video. And yet, this was the fastest-selling debut single of all time, and sold 1.2 millon copies. Wonder how many of those ever get played now.

    (Oh, and by the way, FT elves – I have a lengthy comment stuck in approval limbo for a few days now on ‘The Canon Crawl’)

  4. 4
    GLC on 22 Sep 2015 #

    For once, here’s something with a New Zealand connection. Believe it or not, NZ started Popstars back in 1999 with TrueBliss. So you can indirectly thank us for Girls Aloud as well as American Idol, for better or worse. I don’t know whether to apologise or not.

  5. 5
    Doctor Casino on 22 Sep 2015 #

    Listening for the first time and the first thing I thought was “All Around The World”; I was patting myself on the back until the similarities just kept piling up and it became clear I could hardly be anywhere close to the first person to notice this. Yikes. It is not, unfortunately, very interesting as a song in its own right, and having never seen the show I can’t really bring much else to it. Feels like an album track, maybe the closer if I’m feeling generous (or it’s a really weak album), but a hit single? A number one? Yeesh.

    But then, Kelly Clarkson’s post-victory #1 was “A Moment Like This,” heavily scented with “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and not really hinting at the better material she would take on later. It does, however, try to connect with the emotional arc of the TV show from what I can guess: “some people wait a lifetime for a moment like this,” in the song’s lyric referring to a romance but in terms of audience’s affections, obviously a celebration of her own unlikely rise to the top, the right theme song for the winner of an “it could be someone like YOU!” fantasy show. A little bunny tells me that I shouldn’t take the comparison much further, but in this light, Hear’Say’s number feels truly like any old tune that was about ready to go out the door.

  6. 6
    JLucas on 22 Sep 2015 #

    It’s worth noting that Pure & Simple was not tailor-written for Hear’say/Popstars, but a recycled album track from failed pop group/Simon Cowell pet project Girl Thing. So Popstars may have been a kinder, more sincere iteration of reality TV as we know it today, but it still had a very ‘will this do?’ attitude to the material it produced.

    In either version, it’s not a terrible song, just one that commits a common reality show sin of not being something that would have gone to #1 in any other circumstance. We’ll see how X Factor will come to commandeer the Christmas #1 spot, a cause of much grousing but perhaps fitting, given it’s the one time of year the UK public was already accustomed to sending songs to #1 based on context rather than quality.

    I’d have to re-watch the show as I haven’t seen it since the original broadcast, but in retrospect it does strike as odd that of the final ten competitors/auditionees, the rejected five who made up Liberty X seemed to be much cooler, sexier and more talented. But then, for all their success, none of the members of that group are famous now, whereas as Tom noted, individually 4/5 members of Hear’Say did pretty well out of it in the long run…

  7. 7
    Chris on 22 Sep 2015 #

    Written (or co-penned) by the one-time Betty Boo, the song was actually recorded by Girl Thing, included on their album in 2000 but given the thumbs-down by Simon Cowell who didn’t rate it. Which is strange considering how it ticks all the boxes in relation to an ‘obvious hit’ (albeit an insubstantial and derivative one, but does this market want much more than that?)
    I never bought into the reality TV pop stars thing – too old, too aware, too much of a genuine music-lover – and was never into all this cynical marketeering, but it has to be said that the three ladies of the band definitely had something.
    The only Hear’Say single that has a modicum of charm for me is the third, “Everybody”.

  8. 8
    will on 22 Sep 2015 #

    Did 4 of the 5 members of Hear’Say really do so well? Myleen Klass and Kym Marsh definitely have. I couldn’t tell you what the other three have been up to in the intervening 14 years.

    As for the song it’s just such a yawn. ‘Girl Thing album track’ just about sums it up. 3

  9. 9
    Tom on 22 Sep 2015 #

    Klass and Marsh have done the best, but Suzanne Shaw was a soap regular for several years and has had a decent stage musical career (Wiki suggests she’s essentially retired now). Noel Sullivan has done well out of musicals too – West End leads in Grease and We Will Rock You. Neither are A-Listers or even close but they made solid, decade-plus careers out of performing, which combined with the other two is a good return.

  10. 10
    Mark M on 22 Sep 2015 #

    As Popular’s insider in the world of women’s/celeb mags, I can ‘reveal’ that Suzanne Shaw is currently blogging her pregnancy for Closer. Bet you wanted to know that.

  11. 11
    JLucas on 22 Sep 2015 #

    I have a lot of time for some of the global iterations of the Popstars format – which, as mentioned, did not originate in the UK but in New Zealand.

    A lot of the countries chose single-gender pop groups (usually girls) which I think lent itself to stronger material. Inevitably, if you’re asked as a viewer to personally invest in a group of individuals over the course of a series, you’re going to expect to hear all of them sing, and even in successful mixed-sex groups like Steps and S Club 7 that was a fairly rare occurrence.

    The Australian group Bardot had a particularly good launch single in ‘Poison’ – a lot cooler than Pure & Simple and a song that actually sounded like it could have been a hit on its own terms.


    Germany’s No Angels had a longer career than most of these groups. Their launch single ‘Daylight In Your Eyes’ is a bit lyrically clunky but infused with Europop joy.


  12. 12
    Mark M on 22 Sep 2015 #

    Oh, and I like Pure And Simple a bit more than most of you – I think it’s solidly crafted 6/10. The blokes do, as often in these mixed vocal groups, seem a bit redundant.

    I haven’t re-watched Popstars, but what I seem to remember was a lot of talk from the judges about vocal talent, but it was pretty obvious that Suzanne Shaw was going to make it through mostly on cute blondness.

  13. 13
    Phil on 22 Sep 2015 #

    I don’t think they put a foot wrong for the first minute – it’s derivative all right, but it builds to an obvious but satisfying chorus in an obvious but satisfying way. But that’s all it’s got; somebody might as well have shouted “second verse, same as the first”. The breakdown seems like a good idea, but it’s vitiated by giving the authentic-soul-proper-singer-y bit to two voices in unison (possibly even three). As for the key change, there’s nothing inherently wrong with key changes, but there is something wrong with that key change – I’m not enough of a musician to say what, but it just sounds wrong. And, on a minor point, the video doesn’t work – they seem to be trying for the post-Fame* “supportive gang of mates each of whom is also a star in the making” vibe which the Spice Girls had nailed so well, but they miss it on both counts: no apparent star quality (ironically) and no real cameraderie.

    If this all sounds a bit relentlessly negative it’s probably because in my memory this song was an 8, a minor plastic pop triumph. Which, OK, it’s not. Still, that first minute… 8 declining to 2, averaged over the song to 5.

    *Only just thought of this connection. It’s probably been said many better ways.

  14. 14
    JLucas on 22 Sep 2015 #

    The video is terrible. One of the major problems Hear’say faced is that they simply didn’t have any authentic chemistry in the way that the best pop groups did. Everything about them read as phony and contrived, which goes some way to explaining the rapid and violent backlash they received. Putting them in a weirdly soulless industrial warehouse-cum-studio setting and directing them to ‘look matey’ – which I assume was the brief based on all the awkward mugging – was a total mismatch.

    S Club 7 were obviously the template, but even a group as pre-fab as that managed to come across like people who vaguely enjoyed spending time together.

  15. 15
    Mark M on 22 Sep 2015 #

    Re14: Some of that might simply be about size: the tallest S Clubber was apparently Paul at 5ft 9in. Noel from Hear’say is 6ft 1in, making him a clear foot taller than Suzanne Shaw, and Danny simply didn’t look like anyone who has ever been in this kind of group.

  16. 16
    mapman132 on 22 Sep 2015 #

    Hmm..”Never Ever” meets “All Around The World” said Wikipedia (and Tom)…that should be interesting. I never thought of these two songs together, but now thanks to P&S, hearing one in my mind is now destined to forever segue into the other. Meh…5/10 for P&S.

    I think most Americans (including me) have a tendency to forget the TV talent competitions didn’t start with American Idol. We in fact had our own Popstars which resulted in the girl group Eden’s Crush who had one Top 10 hit and promptly disappeared*. But they weren’t the first either: a previous show on MTV had spawned the boy band O Town who managed a couple of hits, some of which even got played on the radio.

    *One of their members went on to bigger things though, and is fact bunnied.

  17. 17
    alexcornetto on 22 Sep 2015 #

    Danny turned up in The Voice a few seasons ago. He didn’t make it past the initial swivelchair round with his soul rearrangement of Wannabe…which is an odd choice when you consider the whole Darius thing.

    Does anyone else remember that Hear’Say also turned up on the cover of the NME around the time this came out? http://www.peterrobinson.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/nme-hearsay-front-800×1013.jpg

  18. 18
    Mark G on 22 Sep 2015 #

    Oh, there were quite a few “watch some people get chosen to become famous pop stars” type shows, does anyone remember Ronan’s “Get your act together”?

    You’d think that it would have been more likely in the days of “only three TV channels”, that a talent comp winner would have more than one fair-to-middling hit before disappearing, but the Bernie Flint and Stuart Gillies roll-call is full of those “where did they come from? and where did they go?” entries, whereas in these days of multi-channel niche-age TV, that everyone who watched went out and bought the single, the album and the follow-up before sending it off to “Books and Music” a couple years later (where am I? Oh yeah) would be a more difficult thing.

    Unless what helps is the lower-level pricing of such souvenirs, and the massive availability of stock back in 2001 and the next few years.

  19. 19
    Mark M on 22 Sep 2015 #

    Re17: Love that pic – I presume the NME did an actual shoot, making them look as unpop as possible. As often, a quick scan of what else was in the issue makes a surprising cover choice altogether less surprising.

  20. 20
    Cumbrian on 22 Sep 2015 #

    Re: Tom’s 4th paragraph. One of the few things I can remember about the original series of Big Brother was that, although it was dressed up in a vaguely Reithian garb by its creators and curators, the contestants were not hoodwinked at all. When they were dutifully trooping off to the Diary Room to nominate their fellow housemates, they’d all sing their own little jungle – “Remember, it’s only a gameshow”. Of course, the public didn’t buy it either – it wasn’t Reithian, it was titillation. “Ooer, one of the housemates has got a boner”, “Which of them is going to have sex on TV?”, etc. The round up shows based on psychology hung in gamely for a bit before disappearing (though I believe they have been brought back). No one was interested in it – it was all “dance for me monkey, dance”.

    Popstars, as a series and what followed it, was broadly similar – as Tom points out. TV execs thinking “this is what the public will be interested in” and only getting it half right. So a post hoc competition gets set up between Hear’Say and Liberty X and suddenly, the scales fall from the eyes of TV producers everywhere. “People don’t want to know how the sausage is made – people want competition, winners and losers, sob stories, etc. People don’t want what we think they want – we’re out of touch. Give them what they want.” The result is, to my mind, depressingly Thatcherite (how apt that Myleene turned out to be a right wing shill). For more on the genesis of this, I heartily recommend everyone read Marcello’s TPL entry on “The Road To Hell”.

    None of that has anything to do with this song (which I don’t think is any good) nor the quality of acts that would follow Hear’Say (one or two of whom were excellent or, at least, had excellent moments). But the evolution of these shows and what is being pushed into them format wise says more about us than it does about music or TV, I think.

  21. 21
    Mark M on 22 Sep 2015 #

    Re20: But one of the key things about BB1 was that the contestants genuinely had no idea whether they would be famous or not, and a number of them were people who seemed to be doing as an alternative to going to Goa. The success of the show – and the public’s selection of the people they were interested in (heavily nudged/shaped by the editing choices) meant that in future it would be very different. Guardian article from 2009 with interviews with some of those involved arguing broadly that line.

  22. 22
    Cumbrian on 22 Sep 2015 #

    #21. Quite. I am not arguing against that at all – they didn’t know that it would be a huge deal and I have no truck at all with the people that did it, their attitudes,etc. They did have the savvy to realise it for what it was though. Essentially, a game show.

    What I am saying is that the TV (and media more generally) industry saw what people responded to and said “more of that, less of this public service nonsense – no one’s interested in that anyway”. That’s why I stand by my contention that how these shows evolved, how they were crafted and how people behaved on them says more about us than about the participants.

  23. 23
    JoeWiz on 22 Sep 2015 #

    I loved Popstars. I was never interested in authenticity or ‘real music’ I just loved the way pop made me feel, and here was a programme which showed me how they did it. I was a sucker for a ‘journey’, for love and hate them characters and of course for watching people be judged. Sad, wasn’t i? Ah, well.
    Having just watched that first episode again, it may as well be an edition of New Faces. Everything looks so slow and anachronistic, not mentioning Nasty Nigel’s every growing mullet. But it’s fascinating to watch the little signs of things that would be the staple diet of reality pop shows for the next 15 years or so.
    I liked this song and I hoped for greater things from Hear’say but a bit like One True Voice, they looked like a group of people who’d never clapped eyes on one another before, despite going through this long and dramatic process together. I’m off to watch a load of interview clips on YouTube for half an hour…

  24. 24
    Tom on 22 Sep 2015 #

    #22 Yes, I agree, this is the line of argument the entry is setting up too! The evolution of RTV is interesting – or at least, it’s usually more interesting to me than the music generated by its processes, which is just as well, since I have to fill dozens more entries on it.

  25. 25
    thefatgit on 22 Sep 2015 #

    My recollection of Popstars is flawed, hazy, in essence, downright unreliable. So I can’t effectively comment on the show. I have no interest to rewatch via YouTube, either. My thanks to Tom for putting himself through that for research purposes.

    So “Pure And Simple” is easier for me to recall as a radio staple, rather than the endpoint of a reality show I can barely recall. (Knowing Hear’say is a product of a reality TV show, overshadows the song to the point where it’s almost a secondary concern. This is especially true for the Cowell era, where it’s the journey rather than the destination that counts, but only if you’re invested from the start. It’s the “soap” element of subsequent shows that help to fix this format on the landscape). So PAS was cold-pressed extra-virgin pop to anyone, including me at the time, who didn’t realise Girl Thing had been there first. That didn’t matter to the punters. And it didn’t matter that it was derivative. It just seemed so joyous.

    Well, on a recent listen I realised “joyous” was never the case. It has aged badly. I hear vocal mismatches rather than harmonies. I hear the key change brought to you by Eddie Stobart after a pretty mimbly instrumental interlude. Most of all though, it’s a song that does very little more than fill the gaps between the chorus and its obvious hook. Bleurgh! (3)

  26. 26
    AMZ1981 on 22 Sep 2015 #

    There was a precedent for Popstars which few people remember now. In 1996 the BBC aired a documentary about the formation of a boy band showing for the first time how such an act was put together and marketed. That band were Upside Down whose first single was sitting at 35 when the documentary aired; a week later the exposure (on a documentary largely aimed at an adult, non music audience) pushed the single to just outside the top ten. With hindsight it was hardly surprising that the souvenir single from a prime time entertainment show took off so strongly. That said it’s also worth noting (and we’ll touch on a few later examples) that the British public aren’t fools to be fobbed off with inferior product – a few Big Brother contestants had released singles and been given short shrift. So at least some of the people who bought Pure & Simple must have liked it for its own merits.

    The ultimate failure of the Hearsay project is probably best discussed in their next bunny. One thing I do remember is that Noel Sullivan suffered from a lot of speculation over his sexuality and fourteen years on doesn’t appear to have confirmed and denied it in any way. I mention this because one of the better things about reality TV is that it did reflect a more tolerant society – in 2001 an openly gay man would win Big Brother and four years later we’d have a transexual winner. The music side of reality TV would of course produce a pop star whose sexuality proved to be incidental but we’ll have plenty of opportunities to discuss him.

    Finally Pure and Simple was a three weeker, albeit with a relative lack of opposition (Westlife were at two for its first week followed by Shaggy rebounding for the next two). Following just two weeks after Whole Again managed four and discounting late 1999/ early 2000 (Millenium Prayer & I Have A Dream, the latter having two dead sales weeks to enjoy) the last time there were two three week plus runners in such quick succession was late 1997 (Candle In The Wind 97 and Barbie Girl).

  27. 27
    Nick R on 22 Sep 2015 #

    > “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?”

    The first TV series I watched that I’d count as part of the modern reality TV genre (rather than a docusoap) was The 1900 House. That programme, like Big Brother’s early promotion, definitely stressed the educational aspects of its premise – explaining the amenities that would have been available to middle class Victorians.

    The 1900 House was broadcast in late 1999, but always seems to be forgotten when the history of reality TV is discussed now. People are more likely to describe Castaway 2000 and Big Brother as the start of the trend.

  28. 28
    Mark M on 22 Sep 2015 #

    Re22 etc: Yes, indeed. In one way, BB1 was more conventionally a gameshow than it later became, in that the cash prize for winning (£70,000) was the target, rather than maximum exposure, as it later became, as it became clear (on all reality contests) that winning the show didn’t necessarily set you up as the long-term winner.

  29. 29
    Auntie Beryl on 22 Sep 2015 #

    #7 Go on then, I’ll bite. Define “genuine” for me (in the sentence “genuine music-lover”). Give some examples.

  30. 30
    Phil on 23 Sep 2015 #

    I guess the ultimate progenitor of Pop Idol et al was that slightly sneery That’s Life spinoff that set out to show just how easy it was to manufacture a pop star, and proved it resoundingly by manufacturing Sheena Easton.

  31. 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.

  32. 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.

  33. 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..

  34. 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.

  35. 35
    Tom on 23 Sep 2015 #

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

  36. 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.

  37. 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.

  38. 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).

  39. 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.

  40. 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.

  41. 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.

  42. 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.

  43. 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.

  44. 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!

  45. 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”.

  46. 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.

  47. 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.

  48. 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.

  49. 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.

  50. 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.

  51. 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.

  52. 52
    Mark G on 25 Sep 2015 #

    It could be the first time, however.

  53. 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.

  54. 54
    FIFA Coins on 26 Sep 2015 #

    You always love it.

  55. 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”

  56. 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.

  57. 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.

  58. 58
    Gareth Parker on 6 Jun 2021 #

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

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