Saturday, March 3, 2001 by

Hear’say are hard at work in the studio, penning their first song. “Pop music is full of these,” cracks Noel, gesturing towards a book of lyrical clichés. So’s British telly, of course, but Popstars has become the one of the most original shows on TV.

It’s also a totally different programme to the one tentatively launched by ITV earlier in the year but which quickly became one of the network’s cash cows. Popstars Mark I was a wonderful show, doing several things all at once: exposing the processes behind the creation and development of pop product; legitimising – via the fearsome trio of judges – that great British pastime of knocking the over-ambitious (and the deluded chancers) by offering up an astonishing coconut shy of tuneless reedy-voiced crooners; and telling a multitude of mini-stories, each with their own turbulent dénouement, helped along by the natural crescendo in tension as the next batch of failures were eliminated. Great fun, with a host of heroes and villains, and bravely scheduled bang in the middle of Saturday night primetime TV.

Popstars Mark II is even better than its predecessor. It’s a programme about itself. Unlike the earlier episodes – filmed last year – each week’s instalment now “happened” in the real world just the other day. So we watch the band watching themselves on Popstars. Then we watch them reading about themselves watching themselves in the paper. The show has become self-replicating. Each new episode automatically generates the next one. While it’s doing its best to dramatise the day to day routine of Hear’say as an almost fly-on-the-wall “road movie”, in turn it’s saying a hell of a lot about the way not just the music industry works but TV and radio as well. It’s also shoving a cartload of television producers, executives, pluggers and management right in front of the camera. And bang in the middle of Saturday night primetime TV.

This week we followed Hear’say through a sequence of promotional activities that brought them into contact with various broadcasting fixtures – Radio 1, The Pepsi Chart ShowCD:UK. We also got an extended parade of media figures (both front of and behind camera) captured working in their normal environments, and often straying onto each other’s patches (Channel 4 turning up to interview the band on their video shoot, and in turn being filmed by LWT. But will the show follow Hear’Say onto Top of the Pops?)

Hear’say were conveniently arranged to appear for an interview on Chris Moyles’ afternoon show on Radio 1. First of all this was hyped up by the braying narrator as a tough occasion. Moyles, as if we didn’t know, is “notorious for giving guests a hard time.” Then, sure enough, the group confessed they did indeed think it was going to be tough. And then we saw Moyles in the studio prior to the interview acknowledging that yes indeed the group will have been told that the encounter was going to be tough. This was incredible – everyone talking about themselves in the third person, and no-one in the least bit concerned. The ensemble trooped into the studio and had to stand up, gathering round the mics like kids in a headmaster’s office. The narrator made out that Moyles’ questions were all part of a pre-planned grand strategy – “Chris’ next tactic …” to further dramatise the occasion, but in the event this showdown seemed rather tame and we didn’t hear what Moyles thought of them afterwards.

The group’s visit to The Pepsi Chart Show had already commanded tabloid inches thanks to the misleading way it was trailed as their “first live appearance”. Most viewers would’ve already known the background to this particular incident; and it’s here that the programme could’ve done more. “Because it’s a last minute booking,” we’re told, Hear’say are going to have to mime. But why is it a last minute booking? It’s not explained. The studio “doesn’t have the facilities,” to let them sing live, informs Noel – again, why doesn’t it have those facilities? When their appearance generates some negative publicity in the papers, we see their stroppy A&R boss Paul Adam whimpering like a baby. Surely he should’ve anticipated the backlash, isn’t that part of his job? It was amusing to see him slagging off the press like some simpering child, but with hindsight it was clear the setback only raised the stakes and nudged the drama one level higher: now the group had a real challenge to overcome.

Besides boosting Paul Simon’s bank account (thanks to those endless dreadful barbershop style singalong renditions of Bridge Over Troubled Water), Hear’say sound unlike any other group at the moment. The nearest equivalent are Steps – three females, two males – but their sound is one amorphous blob of processed cheese; you’re not allowed to pick out the various singers, and the blokes are invariably mixed so low as to be almost non-existent. Hear’say’s end product has to reflect the way Popstars as a programme placed so much emphasis on individual singing ability. Consequently it has to demonstrate the talents of each respective member of the group, and not end up sounding over-produced and treated.

The visit to the Brits provided the episode with a suitable ending. The Polydor bosses, with their over-developed ham bones, love the melodrama that the award ceremony evokes. Paul Adam wails, “It’s ab-so-lute-ly CRAZY!” but there’s never any question they won’t go through with it. Even the prospect of appearing on such a notorious show doesn’t dent the group’s spirit. Noel, as usual, is forever in hysterics – “We’re gonna present the award for – hur-hur – best international newcomer – ha ha – and then we’re gonna – ha ha ha – we’re gonna perform – HA HA HA – at the Brits!”

As real time has caught up with the programme, it means not only must Popstars be edited perilously close to transmission but that the increasingly high-profile and public events it documents such as the Brits are still really fresh in the mind. There’s very little “narrative” time for both fan and casual viewer – a matter of days between seeing or hearing the event the first time round then watching it second-hand. Not that this is a problem at the moment; we’re not into Big Brother territory of “during the last 24 hours …” quite yet. But it’s intriguing to wonder at what point the two will synchronise and what we’ll make of seeing live bulletins from thePopstars‘ house or studio. At the moment, it’s just great to see the British music and media industries sandwiched between Blind Date and Who Wants to be a Millionaire, turned into weird, fun entertainment for its own sake.


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