Feature: reality pop

After two years of Hear'Say, Rik, Zoe, Gareth and Will, is the bubble of 'reality pop' created by television about to burst? Caroline Sullivan begins her investigation by following Mariah Carey and Shania Twain on to the BBC1 show Fame Academy...

Like most 65-room Georgian mansions, Witanhurst House feels the cold when autumn sets in. Its warren of corridors is dotted with signs reminding you to keep doors shut, and there is a penetrating chill that must make inhabitants think twice about getting up for the loo in the middle of the night. But the bracing air lends itself to the task in hand - the offering of advice to the students of Fame Academy, the build-your-own-popstar show devised as the BBC's answer to ITV's Popstars: the Rivals.

As a visiting industry type, I am following in the footsteps of MOR middleweights Shania Twain and Mariah Carey, who have held masterclasses at the £35m privately owned pile in Highgate, north London. Carey arrived with an entourage of seven, offering a dizzying glimpse of what the winner, who will finally be selected in December after weekly elimination rounds, might expect from life on the C-list. But, as Carey could have told them, the glamorous gravy is counterbalanced by critics who will joyously pounce on every musical misstep. Hence my invitation from Fame Academy "head teacher" Richard Park, former programme director at London's Capital Radio, to give them a taste of what lies in wait.

Input from visitors like me is one of the ingredients that is supposed to set Fame Academy - one of the most expensive entertainment shows in BBC history - apart from Rivals. It seems to be working; after a shaky start, it now attracts 6.5m viewers a week, against Rivals' 7m. But both are eclipsed by the figures of earlier reality-pop shows like Pop Idol; in February, the final show of that series, won by Will Young, attracted 14m viewers. Programme-makers say 7m is a natural settle-down rate, that they are satisfied - "delighted", even - by current numbers. But the fact is that fewer people are watching. Some are even whispering that reality-pop is nearing its cancel-by date.

It was inevitable that by the second year the format, which strips bare the process of making chart stars, would lose its appeal. The novelty of watching Hayley from Birkenhead stumble through an audition to the jeers of Simon Cowell is no longer quite so novel, and there is widespread resentment of the perceived cynicism. Even Kylie Minogue, hardly a model of indie authenticity, has complained that reality-pop fosters a culture in which fame is its own reward, "and that's frightening". Robbie Williams, himself a graduate of Take That, said last month: "I've nothing against anyone following their dreams, but not if they're crap. There's a lot of talent, but it's such cruel television - fucking with people's lives for entertainment."

Since the enormously successful first series of Popstars in 2000, which produced the luckless Hear'Say (who recently split after the public and media turned on them with unprecedented viciousness), it has been fashionable to deride the genre, with old hands like Elton John claiming it is "hugely exploitative". Now the music business itself, which works hand in glove with reality-pop TV companies (for example, Simon Fuller's 19 Management, which produced Pop Idol, sewed up a contract for the winner with BMG Records before the series even aired), is getting fed up. "We've been approached, but I'm not too enthusiastic," says EMI president Tony Wadsworth. "I'd rather develop artists who cross borders and produce catalogues for the future. Reality TV does neither."

But reality pop won't go away without a fight, not while there are big bucks to be made by TV and record companies. Hear'Say's first single, Pure and Simple, was the fastest-selling debut ever, while Idol's Will Young has sold more singles this year than anybody else: he and Gareth Gates have had three number one singles apiece, notching up around 2.5m each in singles sales. Pop Idol has made Fuller and Pop Idol judge Cowell multi-millionaires and they have recently successfully exported the show to America.

Reality pop has global aspirations that would shame Starbucks. Popstars was an Australian invention, and Fame Academy was imported from Spain. Pop Idol was adapted from a Dutch original and has subsequently become a hit in South Africa, Poland and Germany. The German version, known as Superstar, was launched last week and surged to second place in the ratings. "Simon Fuller's motto is 'If the water's hot jump in, if it's cold, get out,' " says Fuller's spokesperson, Julian Henry. "Pop Idol has the potential to be as durable as Blind Date."

The BBC invested £4.5m in their first stab at the genre. No expense was spared in hiring Witanhurst and rounding up a stable of industry names like Park, vocal coach Carrie Grant and songwriting tutor Pam Sheyne. Mercury Records is standing by with a £1m deal for the winner, who also gets a flat in fashionable (and expensive) Notting Hill and a sports car - though both must be returned after a year. No wonder the seven students - narrowed down from the 12 who moved into Witanhurst in August - seem so bubbly.

They bounce into the baronial living room, which is dominated by a massive oak fireplace. Above the mantelpiece, a Fame Academy crest carries the legend Contendere Semper ("always striving"). If it weren't for the radio microphones in everyone's back pocket, this could be a high-end boarding school. On second thoughts, it couldn't - the students are too intent on learning. I'm sitting in on what Ulster-born Sinead Quinn calls "our Saturday-night jamming session", where each student will play a self-penned acoustic song. The others, who range from teenager Katie Lewis to married-with-kids Nigel Wilson (who's 31, and doesn't quite fit in), plop down on the sofa with touching expressions of concentration. Unlike professional musicians, they are impressed at meeting a pop critic. And when Park announces that I'll be giving my opinion of songs written by each student, they look delighted. In the real world beyond reality pop, of course, this would never happen.

The sight of their expectant little faces is making me crumble, and nobody has yet sung a note. Appalling. Simon Cowell would have had them in tears by now. My approach - ingratiatingly shaking hands all round - is more Geri Halliwell. But even she, in her guise as a Pop Rivals judge, occasionally exhibits a steely core of sternness. Something to aspire to.

Fame Academy doesn't have judges but, rather, tutors, who coach them in everything from songwriting to "personal development". Contestants were chosen for musical aptitude, and most write songs and play instruments. In theory, the polishing they receive will produce a ready-made Robbie Williams or Dido - a "proper" act with a long-term future.

The contestants are recorded 24 hours a day, with only bathrooms off-limits to the cameras. To the production company Endemol, of Big Brother fame, it is Big Brother crossed with Pop Idol and a touch of Antiques Roadshow. "Nobody believed you could show people performing their own songs and have it be a success, but we knew it would work," says Endemol's Tim Hincks.

That said, even Park admits: "We're getting toward the ceiling of reality shows." Perhaps this is because of a rising tide of irritation at the manipulation of contestants' emotions, as well as the all-pervasiveness of their output. The fact that nearly all 10 Idol finalists now have record deals suggests that record company A&R departments are letting the shows do their job for them. Labels mopped up the Pop Idol residue - the far from inspiring Rik Waller, Zoe Birkett and company - because the programme had already "broken" them, saving the labels the trouble.

"There's a process in those shows that's A&R led, but it doesn't make A&R departments lazy," says Colin Farlow, A&R director at Polydor Records, which will sign Rivals' winning girl band (the boy winners will be contracted to Jive, where Britney Spears is a labelmate). "It's still up to us to find and develop talent. The shows aren't grooming artists for long-term careers."

Even the tabloid newspapers, which deserve much of the blame for shoving reality-pop down down the public's gullet, have turned on them. Dominic Mohan of the Sun says: "There have been signals that the bubble is about to burst. Hear'Say split up after less than two years, these new shows haven't fared as well as the old ones and the biggest thing is the Gareth Gates album getting beaten to number one by David Gray. One senior record company person said to me, 'This could be the line in the sand we've been waiting for.' "

Ironically, Park's own son, Paul Jackson, recently announced that Virgin Radio, where he is programme director, would "declare war on processed crap".

"Storms in teacups," Park says amiably. "It's spin. We made up at my daughter's wedding last weekend. He'd never apologise to me - that's not what he's like - but Virgin played [Academy student] David Sneddon's demo last night. They understand he's not manufactured."

Sneddon and the other students know nothing of any of this. No outside news is allowed to reach the house, where they are confined every day but Friday, when they drive to Shepperton Studios in southwest London for a live performance. The Academy press officer warns, "Don't tell them anything," but I'm concerned about the psychological effects of such a void, and, when we're all seated, fill them in about Princess Di's butler. "Really?" says Lemar Obika. "I haven't heard anything from out there since August 28." The PR snaps: "No news!"

"We do get the football scores. Life would be impossible without them," confides Ainslie Henderson, who is "only doing this by default. My ideal would be to front a band. I was in a band for five years and I love being a frontman."

He and the others were chosen from 10,000 auditioners; broadly the same pool who turn out for all reality-pop auditions. With open calls held in locations around the country - a process pioneered by early-90s boy bands - it is easy to audition repeatedly even if you live in the farthest-flung hamlet. When Hear'Say replaced Kym Marsh last winter, some of the 3,000 hopefuls at the London audition told me they had also applied for Popstars and would carry on till they were famous. I asked one if she remembered the 1987 Bros song When Will I Be Famous?, but she barely remembered Bros themselves. Well, of course - she was two at the time.

Tonight's session is led by Park and Pam Sheyne, a New Zealander who wrote the Christina Aguilera hit Genie in a Bottle. Both sit attentively, pens poised over clipboards, as David Sneddon and Katie Lewis step up to the fireplace. David slides behind a keyboard and they're off, delicately harmonising on a ballad called Kiss These Tears Away.

The self-written tune is the fruit of a week's work during which each student was set the task of writing a love song. It is a pink, Shania Twainish concoction fit only for Radio 2, and it doesn't do justice to their singing, which is strong and sure. Flushed with enthusiasm, David and Katie await my reaction. How do you tell them that the song they've laboured over for a week is stonkingly boring? Swayed by their hopeful smiles, I find I can't say it. "Not my kind of song, but you've got great voices," I mumble. I disgust myself.

Ainslie and Lemar are next. They sound like David Gray and Seal duetting on a Phil Collins number. In other words, decent voices, terrible tune, but I soft-pedal again. It is so much harder to be a critic when you're face to face with the people you're criticising. Gangly Irish gas-fitter Malachi Cush is something of a revelation, in an emotionally derelict, Jeff Buckleyish sense. He has never heard of Buckley, but promises to buy an album when he gets out.

The others go through their paces, and it is the same story. They are all excellent, distinctive vocalists, but why are they wasting themselves on middle-aged ballads? This issue also afflicts the Friday shows, where they perform cover versions for a studio audience - invariably Elton John or Sting songs with no relevance to themselves or the teenage fans.

At the end of the session, Park, who has been taking copious notes, asks if I'd like to add anything. The experience has been so disheartening that it is clear there can no more Miss Nice Guy. Why can't they ditch the light-entertainer rubbish and sing, oh, a Strokes song or something? "The powers that be only allow them to sing certain songs," says Sheyne. "It's a family audience."

This calls for a rock'n'roll response. "Well, fuck 'em," I say. "Why don't you just do what you like?" After a stunned silence, the students break into whooping applause. Sinead gleefully kicks her feet and Malachi gives a beaming thumbs-up. It is a heady moment. (Needless to say, when my visit makes it on to the Tuesday late edition of the show, they have cut out the F-word.) But don't believe for one second that the kids from Fame Academy will rebel. Talent or no, the stage-school element is too strongly ingrained. Whoever wins next month, it is a safe bet they won't be releasing a Rammstein cover as their first single - which will conveniently be in time for Christmas, along with the Rivals winners.

If they did, they would be in step with popular taste. Rock is enjoying one of its biggest years ever, with the metal end faring especially well. In global terms, Nickelback are far more significant than the localised phenomenon of Gareth Gates. In which case, if there must be reality-pop, why not do the logical thing and launch Nu-Metal Idol? Ainslie, who longs to be in a band, might find his true calling.

Claudia Rosencrantz, ITV controller of entertainment, who commissioned Popstars, laughs thinly at this. "Not on ITV, I don't think. Pop entertainment shows are still massively popular. Our greatest achievement is bringing Popstars: The Rivals back with a fresh and dramatic twist [pitting boys against girls], and I feel passionately that the drama of seeing the judges interacting with the contestants draws you in. And the music business wouldn't be selling the huge number of records they're selling without these shows."

Not necessarily true, as this week's top 10 albums attest: U2, David Gray, Nirvana, Manic Street Preachers and Badly Drawn Boy didn't get where they are by pirouetting for Geri Halliwell on the telly. But it seems that, diminishing figures or not, reality-pop won't go quietly. Fame Academy and Pop Idol have been recommissioned - oh, and an advance warning: Simon Fuller's next project is Superstar Girl, where contestants have to display both musical and sporting ability in a Pop Idol Goes to the Olympics scenario. God help us.

The Academy students see me out with beaming smiles, though a minute later I overhear an exchange between Katie and Sinead on a TV monitor. "What did you think of her?" asks Katie. "All right, I guess. I dunno," says Sinead. Just wait till they're pop stars. They won't be nearly so polite.

· Fame Academy continues on BBC1 on Sunday at 9pm.


Caroline Sullivan

The GuardianTramp

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