Build them up, then knock 'em down

'Like a moth to a flame I've been powerless to resist the bland allure of this entirely artificial "documentary"'
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The Independent Online

For much of the population of Britain, Saturday night will deliver another defining television moment. For many more, it will not. I'll be watching the double-bill of the final episodes of Popstars, as the 10 finalists in ITV's trawl though Britain's 18- to 25-year-olds to manufacture yet another all-singing, all-dancing, wallpaper pop group are whittled down to five. Others, astoundingly, will remain blissfully unaware of the existence of a show that has "gripped the nation".

For much of the population of Britain, Saturday night will deliver another defining television moment. For many more, it will not. I'll be watching the double-bill of the final episodes of Popstars, as the 10 finalists in ITV's trawl though Britain's 18- to 25-year-olds to manufacture yet another all-singing, all-dancing, wallpaper pop group are whittled down to five. Others, astoundingly, will remain blissfully unaware of the existence of a show that has "gripped the nation".

Popstars is the new Big Brother, a show that has an hysterical following among a certain, largely youthful, demographic group, and has the press coverage to prove it. Yet Popstars can nevertheless draw blank stares from millions of sensible people, who, far from resisting the blandishments of popular culture, don't even notice that such temptations exist.

How I wish I could be one of them. Instead, like a moth to a flame, I've been seduced from the moment I saw the first queasy trailer, powerless to resist the bland allure of this entirely artificial "documentary". The quote marks here are used advisedly. It was once generally understood by the term documentary that something already in existence will be recorded in some medium or another for the purpose of elucidation or posterity.

But Popstars, like so many programmes billed as documentaries now is actually a survival game. The fact that there will be a human product, not just a winner at the end, is the show's little twist. Popstars is documenting nothing except itself. Without Popstars, Popstars would not exist. This self-regarding quality, of a programme disappearing up its own bottom, is just part of its corrosive charm.

The programme is about the auditioning of 3,000 hopefuls and selecting five bearers of a Polydor contract. In this respect it is reminiscent of the early section of Alan Parker's film Fame, or documentaries about other huge audition efforts, such as the search to find a little girl to be Annie in the eponymous musical.

The show came to Britain through the agency of ITV light entertainment executive Nigel Lythgoe, who saw the Australian version of the show (which was first staged in New Zealand) and found it gripping. He realised that while he knew the world of auditions inside out, television audiences would find it riveting. Since in fact television and film audiences have found auditions riveting again and again, this was not quite the revelation Mr Lythgoe thinks it to be. Nevertheless, as television light entertainment proves repeatedly, originality is generally the enemy of popular success.

Early editions of the programme were hilarious and embarrassing, as young people who could not sing at all were put through their lack of paces. One perfectly talentless girl travelled to regional heat after regional heat, begging to be considered again. Several wannabe pop stars could so clearly not sing that even they knew it, and would simply recite the lyrics to a song in the hope that this might be enough to talent-spot them. It was during these early auditions that Mr Lythgoe emerged as his own show's first star. By giving hopefuls uncompromising assessments of their lack of ability, he has inherited the Nasty epithet from Nick of Big Brother.

Nasty Nigel is celebrated for such bon mots as: "You don't put it down to their voices, you put it down to their ears. They must be hearing something different from us." One particularly sensitive young man, 22-year-old Nick Hill, has reported Mr Lythgoe to the Independent Television Commission and the Broadcasting Standards Council for mocking his performance of Robbie Williams's "Angels".

Such hissy fits are marvellously good publicity for the programme, but not quite good enough. Hence the plea in The Sun recently. "If you know any of the wannabe singers on the show, please call us back on 020-7782 4028 or e-mail features@the-sun.co.uk. Don't worry about the cost - we'll call you straight back."

Appeals such as these have thrown up meagre titbits. Kym, who is in the final 10, is a secret mother-of-two. Myleene, again in the final 10, appeared in Bravo's peepshow programme Doll's House, but left when flatmates were filmed having sex. So far, though, no really juicy scandal has been uncovered. Or as the Daily Mail said yesterday: "Do you know one of the Popstars? Call 020-7938 7107."

Alas, so far, the only real breath of scandal was uncovered during a fake press conference staged by the programme itself. As part of the slimming down from 30-to-10 process, the hopefuls were divided into groups of five and subjected to a grilling by journalists hungry to dig some dirt on them. The only one to seriously mess up was Jessica Taylor, who admitted that she'd smoked cannabis in the past. She is one of only three of the finalists not to have some kind of showbiz career or training already.

Needless to say, her performance as a slack-mouthed naif with no instinct for self-preservation in the face of the press helped to secure her a place in the final 10. She has expressed tremendous relief that her propensity for being bullied and manipulated by the press hasn't been her undoing. Of course not, dear.

Meanwhile, the final five have already been selected, and are holed up in a secret location until Saturday's shows reveal their identities. This is the reason why the final programmes have been brought forward. The press has already uncovered one location, and the Popstars have to become public property before the press can beat ITV to it.

Then they're on their own, with their recording contract, the manager who brought us the Spice Girls, the ruthless interest of the popular media and the ill-will of the "serious" music industry behind them. Virgin Radio has already guaranteed that it will not be playing any song released by the as-yet unnamed five. Never mind though, because bookies are already quoting odds of two to one that their first single will be top of the pops. And a Christmas number one is already riding at the hardly-modest six-to-one.

Frankly, though, it could go either way. While much emphasis is placed on the fact that all of these young people can really sing, that hasn't been doing much to help them thus far. And look at all those Big Brother contestants who could supposedly sing, and who since the show have signed contracts, released records and still only managed to cling to the public eye through the agency of getting drunk.

The Popstars have been built up no end, and all conerned have enjoyed it tremendously. It's not long now until the knock-'em down impulse really kicks in. What a pity this part of the game will be enacted away from the weekly format of Popstars. That's always the best bit, seeing if the young star will crumble under the pressure, or survive it.

The Popstars are going to be public property, in the most intrusive possible way, for the rest of their lives. The baffling thing is that they all think it's worth it, and so do the thousands who would have gladly taken their places. Whatever lies ahead, these bright and shiny media puppets need all the luck in the world. After all these weeks, they still don't know what's going to hit them.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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