In 2002, the UK television network ITV aired two TV talent shows: Pop Idol early in the year, and Popstars: The Rivals from September to December. In 2001, they’d also shown the original series of Popstars, meaning that for two years in the very early 21st century, British viewers watched a new talent search every few months. Despite the various shows, however, the format was always basically identical.
Each of these programs sought to find new pop acts to funnel into the UK charts. A roadshow of open auditions was taken up and down the country, looking for undiscovered, hot young things whose faces could sell records and whose voices would just about do. Their progression through the competition was judged by various music industry bigwigs, including, for Popstars: the Rivals, an Irish music manager called Louis Walsh—the man whose lasting contributions to the world are Westlife, Boyzone, and the phrase “you look like a pop star, you sound like a pop star” (without a hint of irony, I believe that this is a better legacy than most). Those who impressed the likes of Walsh would move through the heats, with eliminations every step of the way, until the chosen few contestants made it to the hallowed live shows, where they’d be placed at the hands of The Public Vote until someone won a record deal at the end and The Sun ran at least one front page headline calling it a fix or a “tell-all sex romp” with a C-list celeb.
Describing it now, 15 years later, feels pointless. We know how these things work. Reality TV still surrounds us; The Public Vote reigns supreme, whittling contestants down episode by episode whether they’re dancers, ice-skaters, or celebrities who have gone in the Australian jungle to eat lizard butt for a bit. But shows like Popstars and Pop Idol were the first to offer real world opportunities like major label recording contracts as prizes and, as such, viewer curiosity was massive. The format was fresh enough not to feel formulaic, the contestants naive enough to not know how to play the game.
The Pop Idol semi-final in 2002 pulled in ten million viewers, according to the BBC. The show, obviously hosted by Ant and Dec—the only deserving British institution other than Greggs’ sausage rolls and Stormzy—was a sensation. In its first series, it made stars of three men: Will Young, Gareth Gates (who made a career in the West End, but is now performing in a pantomime theater production; fame is a fickle mistress, etc), and Darius Campbell-Danesh, a man with a low ponytail and an appetite for finger clicking, whose sincerely dramatic audition for the previous year’s Popstars remains one of the greatest ever products of the UK.
The format proved irresistible, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that Popstars and then the Pop Idol franchise that followed changed the not only the British music industry—and British culture at large—forever, but also impacted the pop machine beyond this little island. Yes, because hand-in-hand with the press, those programmes made talent shows into must-watch phenomena. But also because, somewhere along the way, out of Will Young and Gareth Gates’ pubescent not-really-rivalry, Girls Aloud's Kimberly Walsh doing “Unbreak My Heart” on national television in the same manner as a serious woman named Dawn might do on Friday karaoke, and one more series of Pop Idol from which Michelle McManus emerged, victorious and hollering, Simon Cowell’s brainchild The X Factor was born, and nothing was the same again.
In some ways, these televised talent shows hold a funhouse mirror up to British society. In an economy where, over the last few years in particular, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for young people in the UK, people have looked to shows like Pop Idol, Popstars, and The X Factor for hope for years, despite the fact that the number of actual success stories is much, much smaller than the amount of people who audition. It’s a story that expands worldwide: Pop Idol as a format was expanded across 46 countries and broadcast to 150, including the world’s largest music market, the USA, where American Idol ran for 15 seasons between 2002 and 2016 and created a world in which Kelly Clarkson has risen to similar levels of pop success as vocalists like Pink or Shania Twain.
The fact that people’s aspirations are basically used as fodder by these shows is a fairly transparent window into the music industry’s calculatedness. On The X Factor, there’s a face that Simon Cowell pulls when he’s watching a pretty girl with a nice voice, or a band who seem to actually like each other, and I always joke to whoever I’ve forced to view the show with me that week that his eyes have glazed over because he’s seeing pound signs. It’s plainly exploitative (and has been called out as such by mental health charities and former contestants alike) but people apply anyway, because they’re willing to go through it for the simple reason that at the end, there might just be something better for them.
If you end up being one of the successful few, The X Factor’s track record is pretty good, at least short term. In seven years out of the last 12, it has produced a Christmas number 1, though public interest has waned recently—maybe coinciding with the maturation of online music culture, maybe just because The X Factor got a bit shit, and kept producing winners who were either a) white, male and all sounded the same, or b) Sam Bailey.
This year, however, we may get the best winner since the girl group Little Mix in 2011 (themselves the best since the Series 3 and 5 glory years of Leona Lewis and Alexandra Burke respectively) in the shape of Rak-Su, a London group with the ability to write hooks like Jason Derulo’s but without the suits or cringe, and who take the minutiae of grime—AKA the most successful British-born genre of the past decade—and push it to fun, uplifting reaches. Pop fans these days are overwhelmed with quality because pop is good, and streaming exists; they won’t settle for any old shit, and in Rak-Su, The X Factor has finally hit on something authentic by pivoting to showcase an act who actually write their own songs. They’re good because they showed up cool and stayed cool, and the show hasn’t rubbed off on them too much (plus, they didn’t get Louis as their mentor). Rak-Su are smart because they’re using the show as a platform rather than as a learning process, which is exactly what could give it the renewed credibility it has so desperately craved for years.
The TV music talent search has certainly evolved from its weird documentary-format beginnings. If you watch Popstars back it seems closer to a deadpan BBC sitcom than it does to The X Factor, and with concepts like The X Factor’s notorious Six Chair Challenge, the medium has turned more into a legitimate form of abuse than factual programming. But its heart is actually still quite true to its 2002 beginnings, and the format remains fairly similar. While it’s comforting in a way, to know that every year come September you can stop having to go out on the weekends, and wrap the show around yourself like a horrible leopard print slanket, it’s also not necessarily great news for its longevity. That’s why this year’s move, which saw representatives for the show scouting a number of the acts with an emphasis on songwriters, seems like a good one. Week on week, original songs prove to be the most popular with the voting audience, and it feels like finally, The X Factor is shaking off 2002, and moving into 2017. And while I’m actually quite fond of dresses over jeans, Gareth Gates' hairstyle as a national talking point, and Davina McCall, the music industry, for better or worse, has kinda moved on since then.