Pop Idol Revisited
6th October 2001 in Britain. Osama Bin Laden had just gained global notoriety. The US government would launch military operations in Afghanistan the following day. The Conservative Party had recently elected Iain Duncan-Smith as its new leader after a second consecutive electoral landslide for the Labour Party 4 months ago. Kylie Minogue was number 1 in the singles charts with “Can’t Get You Out of My Head”, while the highest-grossing films of recent weeks included Moulin Rouge, AI Artificial Intelligence and A Knight’s Tale, with the release of Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone just a few weeks away.
But this date is significant in the history of British television, as it was on this day that the first episode of Pop Idol was broadcast. 5.24 million viewers turned to ITV to watch the birth of a popular culture phenomenon. Simon Cowell was shown doing his first bit of TV judging, while Gareth Gates stammered his way through his breakthrough audition to become the Susan Boyle before Susan Boyle – if there had been YouTube, no doubt he’d have got millions of hits.
But in fact this is the reason I’m writing this – I’m interested not because of what it is, but because of what it isn’t.
I grew up with the first wave of twenty-first century talent shows, although I was slow getting into it. My mother was the first in our house – she got hooked very early into the first of them, Popstars, which followed Polydor’s Paul Adam, 19 Management’s Nicki Chapman and anger’s Nigel Lythgoe as they assembled a five-piece mixed gender pop band, Hear’Say, before shifting to follow the band as it went through the process of doing the things bands do – record songs, make music videos, and eventually sell records. Lots of them. The only problem was the substance itself wasn’t good enough to sustain the band beyond the initial gimmick, and it split up in October 2002, less than 18 months after their first single, “Pure and Simple”, went to number 1 by breaking the record the fastest-selling debut single of all time – in that time, the band had even been involved in another Popstars-esque show to find a new member of the band after Kym Marsh left to pursue a solo career.
Popstars was very different to its predecessors because it was more of a documentary than a talent show – it showed the formation of the band, which could have been any band, but just happened to have a lot more publicity. All the phone voting was in the future – the first element of responsibility in the public’s hands was buying the single. In hindsight, it was an intelligent idea, because it built momentum as it went along – as has become standard in this genre of television, it was portrayed as a journey, on which we would learn more about the individual contestants. The hysteria was ramped up by the time the band members and band name were shown being chosen, which had been a few months before the broadcast, but this was cleverly capitalised on by the literal unveiling of the band in front of the photographers and news cameras not long after. By this point, the show’s following had grown to the extent that it was now considered major news in the entertainment sector. Just a couple of weeks later, in March 2001, the single was released, allowing the hysteria to run riot in supermarkets around the country.
Pop Idol launched later that year, and was seen as a logical step. One can see this as being portrayed as a kind of “democratisation” of the Popstars format – instead of being decided by a bunch of elitists in suits (not that they were necessarily portrayed that way), the power to choose the winner was being handed over to the general public. Superficially, control over the show was now in the grasp of the viewers.
Thirteen years on we (at least those of us who would read something like this) are a bit wiser to the various tricks that talent show producers pull. We know that not all the audition stages are shown. We know they make millions from the phone voting, and that the judges have wrested back a certain amount of control of the decision-making. We know that editing is done to develop characters in particular ways, that we’re meant to think in certain ways, and that there’s a deliberate creation of narratives for the public to relate to, to create “good/bad guys” and get an emotional reaction from us. We’re even suspicious about the voting. In short, we’re a bit more aware of and cynical about talent shows, and we know it’s not necessarily a representation of reality, even if it claims to be.
Back in 2001, we as a society were a bit more naive. But at the same time, the producers of such shows were more naive too. When Big Brother first launched in Britain in the summer of 2000, it was still genuinely considered a social experiment. People didn’t necessarily think that the contestants were being chosen for entertainment value. It had more than an ounce of credibility. That’s how people began watching. With the passage of time, it has become more and more obvious that it was all being manipulated, and in turn has become more and more self-aware – the contestants get crazier every years.
Similarly, watching the first episode of Pop Idol, which you can now do yourselves via YouTube, is a surprising experience simply because none of the great clichés that we expect from TV talent shows aren’t there.
The first thing that struck me watching it (for the first time, as once again it took a few weeks before I joined the rest of the family in watching it) is there’s no music playing between auditions – the soundtrack is incredibly sparse. So are the sets – there are no massive jazzed-up sets as we would associate with The X Factor before it moved into actual stage auditions, or even the second season of the show as shown in the picture below.
In the first episode of the series, it’s just a table with a Pop Idol logo in a large bland conference room. The judges are critical but often constructive rather than openly nasty or intentionally nice. There’s an intelligence and a sensitivity about it, but they’re also willing to have a laugh without getting away from the seriousness of the issue – at no point do you think they’ll put someone through who isn’t good enough, as opposed to The X Factor where anyone auditioning over the age of 80 will probably get through out of pity.
And that’s perhaps the overriding feeling I have with this. I’m not saying this show wasn’t taking itself seriously, but there certainly isn’t the bombastic triumphalism of The X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent. Those two in particular stress the epic – everything is always emphasising the large scale of everything, and how it is getting bigger and therefore better. There are no massive words flashing up on the screen telling you how many million people auditioned, and nor is some O Fortuna-based classical composition playing to further emphasise the grandiose importance of what you’re about to witness.
Compare the introductions to the programmes. Pop Idol‘s seems almost futuristic, combining an electronic soundtrack with images of a water-based singer (who changes from male to female and vice versa) performing in an arena with planes symbolising the lifestyle of the Pop Idol. But the focus never strays away from that individual – it’s as if it is representing the personal quest of the performer as they bid to become a superstar.
The first X Factor intro from 3 years later is completely different. There’s no performer – it’s just a series of electronically-charged ‘x’s floating through the universe with flames erupting from the side for no reason. It’s very abstract (apart from the bit at the end where you see the crowd, who I assume are meant to represent the audience at a gig), but the whole idea of floating it through space stresses the epic – everything appears huge and expansive. Whereas the Pop Idol was going to be big in this world, the person with the “x factor” was going to dominate the universe. More recent efforts are less abstract but perhaps stress this even more, as well as making the most out of the latest HD-suitable graphics.
Basically, The X Factor wants to smash into your home right into your TV, and then blow its speakers with its awesome power. But Pop Idol was a bit more subtle and low key, and I think this reflects the forms of television that the genre was developing from. As with Popstars, the whole thing feels more like a documentary when you’re watching it, because of the way it was filmed and the lack of a soundtrack, hinting at the evolution process.
Also, as it was the first of its kind, nobody knew if it was going to be a success, so it was still a bit of a gamble, and I think there is an element of a lack of confidence in the show at this point. The producers lack the sure-footedness in what they were producing that they (collectively) would later develop in various other shows. The X Factor can get away with emphasising the epic because it has the self-confidence (and the money) to do so as it has had a stable huge following for a number of years.
With Pop Idol, things weren’t so guaranteed – they were starting from scratch. They didn’t know what the audience necessarily wanted, and, crucially, there were no tropes to tape into. By “trope” I mean the sort of clichéd stereotypes that talent shows are famed for using. As I mentioned earlier, a good example of this is the use music – they play a song which the viewer will identify that as a “sad song” (something slow and melancholy) or a happy song (something with a crescendo – Hoppipola by Sigur Ros is often used) to indicate a sad moment or a happy moment, or the difference between a serious contestant (again, slow and melancholy) and a contestant you know won’t be able to sing (light-hearted, perhaps brass instrument-based, something which makes you think “funny” immediately).
These days, so many of these audio cues are set up so that you the viewer make the emotional reaction the producers want – it’s the equivalent of those flashing “Applause” signs in a studio telling you when to applaud. It has become such an enormous cliché in talent shows that they could probably get away with not showing the end of a particular clip and people could still work out what would happen.
As well as this, there are various editing and selecting techniques – the “characters” (as that is what they are essentially developed into) that you are meant to think of as being stupid will be shown doing or saying something stupid, while the characters you are meant to cheer on are shown being emotional beforehand, often with the infamous sob story explained (and emotional music played over the top, obviously). It is a very formulaic way of producing a show, but people love it because it’s easy to understand and they don’t have to think for themselves.
This first episode of Pop Idol is a fantastic demonstration of what talent shows would be like if those tropes didn’t exist. There’s no music so you have to actually use your brain to think a little about whether or not the contestant in front of you will be good and will go through. Granted, it’s not totally free of that, as presenters Ant and Dec still act as guides, but with no audio cues, it has a very different feel to its successors.
For example, I was quite surprised that the first audition they showed was by a young man who looked like a would-be pop star who failed to impress the judges with his mediocre voice, and yet young stuttering Gareth Gates was able to wow them with his rendition of “Flying Without Wings” – perhaps a reverse of what people might have expected when they were introduced at the start of the episode.
I also found how the judges were introduced for the first time interesting – again, no epic music or police convoys as you get today. Instead they are shown doing their jobs – apart from Cowell, who they show as being a bit showbiz, driving around in his Jag, presumably because he is representing the music executive – even so, this is a more humble Cowell than the one we are used to. And when they each state what they are looking for, it’s not explained away with simplistic buzzwords and phrases – it’s actually presented as a little bit more complex, even if not particularly intellectual.
It is significant in hindsight that there were no singers on that first panel – instead there was a DJ (Neil Fox), a manager (Nicki Chapman), a producer (Pete Waterman) and an executive (Cowell). Cowell was probably the least well-known person on the panel, with Chapman familiar to viewers via Popstars, Waterman due to his success as part of the Stock Aitken & Waterman producing team and Fox due to his profile as a leading DJ on mainstream radio. These are genuinely serious music people who are meant to know how to identify a future pop idol, as opposed to the performers who dominate judging panels in the 2010s, often there as big name personalities or a potential source of controversy.
As a result of all of this, it feels more “scientific”, although they still talk about the artist requiring “the x factor” to succeed. Similarly, their feedback isn’t necessarily black or white – the individual judges do give more detail. As well as this, while Cowell is stated to be the chairman of the panel, there isn’t a particular “nasty judge”, another trope of talent shows – Cowell would take that role over time but this was an organic process due to his criticism and the media marking him out as “the nasty one”; indeed, Waterman’s comments could also be quite cutting. Later in the series, the judges would also get their own criticism from the contestants – in later years this hasn’t been shown as much, perhaps because the contestants are now more deferential to the celebrities that are doing the judging.
In general, while The X Factor feels like a massive monolith, Pop Idol feels less distant and more down-to-earth, and in some way it gives it a bit more authenticity – it feels a bit more honest. As with the original Big Brother, it feels purer – a genuine quest for talent that happens to take the form of a television show. It gives off the vibe that the decisions the judges are making are to try and find people who are talented performers rather than picking those who will be the most or controversial fun on the show. It is taking itself quite seriously but it doesn’t feel especially pretentious, whereas The X Factor is still trying to infer that it is an actual talent search even though any scraps of credibility it once might have had disappeared when Simon Cowell decided he would rather keep Jedward in the competition rather than a serious singer despite criticising them for weeks before.
Maybe it’s just because we are wiser to the tricks of the trade now or because it reminds me of a more innocent time where we (or at least I) didn’t think about these things as much, but even watching that first episode back with my analytical head on, Pop Idol doesn’t feel as cynical as The X Factor. While ultimately it was trying to look for a pop singer to sing pop songs for the masses in order to make millions of pounds rather than some kind of genuine artistic endeavour, it doesn’t feel like it’s a means to an end – I’m sure Simon Fuller was looking to make a lot money out of it because he’s a businessman, but it feels like a genuine talent search. While watching The X Factor today can often feel like an insult to one’s intelligence, I have to admit that I actually found this first Pop Idol episode quite interesting and enjoyable to watch, even if perhaps only from a nostalgic perspective.
I think what we see is a process of developing self-awareness – those producing these shows, be it the singing shows or the locked-in-a-house shows, became aware of what the audience liked, and focused in on that. What happened over the course of the shift from Popstars to Pop Idol to The X Factor is that the producers reduced a documentary about a search for new talented performers to its component parts – while with the early series you get the feeling that this is something that could have happened even if the cameras weren’t there, now you have no mistake that this is a television show and could not be anything else, which is a pretty sizeable shift.
In particular, there is what is now considered to be “the main attraction” – the bad auditions, where the viewer is invited to laugh at people who are clearly being exploited. We now know that these people have been told they are wonderful in early audition rounds, thus building up their hopes before performing in front of the judges. And yes, this was happening in this first episode of Pop Idol too. But it doesn’t feel as sneery – the judges are trying their best to be constructive.
In 2007, Pete Waterman told The Telegraph “When we did the first series of Pop Idol, we insisted that we did not set out to embarrass those people who did not understand the way it all worked. But, in my opinion, that’s where they’ve taken X Factor. I say that without having seen it – but knowing exactly what they are doing…Yes [it is inevitable that it developed that way], because it’s television. It’s now perpetuated across all the networks. I went to Sky last year with a proposition and they came up with a phrase I had never heard before: they said that nowadays it was all about jeopardy TV. They want people squirming on television. I was appalled by it. The bottom line is that it’s a cheap shot.”
This sums it up perfectly – when creating Pop Idol for the first time, the producers didn’t know what the audience wanted; after it, they knew exactly what they wanted, and reduced the show to that, cutting all the crap. Some may describe Pop Idol as dumbed down, but when compared to The X Factor it looks positively intellectual. The fact is it is, and always has been, mass entertainment, the aim being to get as many people watching as possible. And the best ways of doing that are making it simple and easy to understand, and getting an emotional reaction out of people. Therefore, in the eyes of the producers, The X Factor is better than Pop Idol, because it’s better at doing this – it doesn’t matter, for instance, that first Pop Idol winner Will Young has endured longer than any of the X Factor winners.
But this doesn’t change my feelings on this. Maybe, as I said, it’s because it represents a more innocent time – I was 10 years old, just getting into “old music” (i.e. anything before about 1998) for the first time, and didn’t think about whether or not things were as they seemed. But I can’t help but think Pop Idol feels like a more authentic talent show, and that it’s more entertaining than The X Factor because if you are being led to think a particular way, it is far more subtle than its successor, and not at all patronising – unlike watching The X Factor today, at no point did I ever feel like I was being told to think a particular way.
Many people despise reality TV, and with good reason. But in hindsight, Pop Idol seems almost respectable. Perhaps that shows us how far we have drifted away from the original idea. As with all history, it’s a reflection of our society today more than it is a reflection of our society in 2001.