In the wake of the X Factor NZ finale, Claire Adamson rewatches Popstars – and discovered much more compelling insights into the world of manufactured superstardom.
The weird thing about rewatching Popstars – the Kiwi show that started it all – is the fact that it’s not a reality tv show as we know them today. It’s a documentary.
The format follows a small group of music executives as they go looking for the pop act that will capture the nation’s attention. A large group of enthusiastic women line up outside Auckland’s town hall for a chance to sing unaccompanied in the hope of a shot at stardom. Sound familiar? The show, which aired in 1999 and spawned Truebliss, a #1 single (the truly awful ‘Tonight’) and an album imaginatively titled Dream, was the very first in a category of music competition shows that have been staple on our screens since.
Popstars is quite a different beast from the format we’ve come to know and endure today. First off, it wasn’t intended as a competition, even though there are elements of that. Rather, it’s meant as a look at what it is to take a pop group like the Spice Girls from a queue of wannabes to chart success. There’s no pomp or circumstance to the auditions – there’s just 15 girls wearing bindis and singing a James Taylor song in a church hall on Jervois Road. I’m almost certain one of them was in Deep Obsession.
By the second episode, we have our group – all familiar, but most of them for their post-Truebliss careers. There’s the affable Megan Alatini, one day to be Dunedin’s premier hair-braiding expert and a judge on New Zealand Idol. Erika Takacs walks a fine line between gawky and beautiful. Carly Binding is almost terrifyingly intense (later in the series she will be described by Marcus Lush as “the troublesome one with the helmet hair”). Keri Harper’s Baby Spice act is no match for her incredible graphic design skills, and Joe Cotton stands head and shoulders above the rest, in terms of both stature and likeability.
The show does little to conceal its industry cynicism. You’ll hear X Factor and Idol judges talk about how it’s about the music, not the image – and shows like The Voice reiterate that. But the managers on Popstars talk about whether or not to use Joe because she’s “not a size 8” and there’s a great moment in the first episode where they speculate as to who one particularly intense auditionee (dubbed ‘Bono on acid’ by my flatmate) would appeal to. Boys? Girls? “That’s a really good question,” says the record company guy.
As we roll through the work involved in getting a band together – the record deal, the recording studio, the music video, playing a live show – we sit in on a meeting that talks about how much the girls will end up getting paid if they’re really successful. “An average wage,” suggests one middle-aged white man. The record contract isn’t guaranteed as unlike in later iterations of the show, there’s no indication the made-for-tv format will be successful. An interview with Glen, an indie barista at Santos on Ponsonby Road, worries about a future I know is to come. “Made for TV music?” he says, “ooof, evil.”
In fact, the record contract is a major plot point in one episode. A deal with Polygram goes awry and the girls end up in purgatory while a deal is worked out with Sony. This is where the show’s magic happens – the now-legendary dust up between Carly Binding and Erika Takacs.
This moment of the two of them yelling at each other is one of the parts of the show that I remember best from the first time around. Early in the episode, the two are called in to talk separately to Peter Urlich, with both immediately beginning to complain about the other when asked what’s wrong. When the thing with Polygram comes to light, there is a blow out, and Binding storms out, but not before yelling at the others about how all that matters to them is clothes and money. Takacs leaps to the defence of the others and bizarrely, the two argue about Binding’s tooth.
It’s incredibly compelling to watch. While shows like Survivor are built on that kind of thing, it is almost always missing entirely from X Factor. The top twelve in these shows are best friends, and any ‘behind the scenes’ stuff is always them jumping on each other’s beds and proclaiming their love for all and sundry. Show me twelve people thrown together by fate who all get along perfectly and I will be incredibly impressed – the five members of Truebliss sure didn’t manage it. After the show wrapped, Binding left the band, citing “creative differences”.
Truebliss made it to number one on the NZ charts with ‘Tonight’, a dance-tinged pop song which is the very epitome of ‘having not aged well’. It was written by Anthony Iosa, who worked on Strawpeople’s APRA Silver Scroll winning ‘Sweet Disorder’. Unlike that song, ‘Tonight’ does not stand up against subsequent NZ pop music – if I’m looking for a sweet Kiwi tune for #tbt I’ll go for Deep Obsession or K-Lee any day of the week. The best thing about ‘Tonight’ is its blurry, pseudo-arty music video, which, by any other standard is a hot mess of ideas in a barely cohesive whole.
The show ends with the question of whether the band can continue its momentum without the show to boost its fame. The girls are confident of their future as a band together, convinced of their talent and relevance. On the other hand, Rikki Morris – a veteran music producer – thinks that he too could have a number one single if he was in people’s houses every Tuesday night. Morris is right – in reality the only one who will have success in the music industry will be Carly Binding. Most of them will eventually slip into obscurity: something the show has in common with X Factor.
Popstars is now more famous for being ‘first’ rather than for the actual content of the show. It didn’t make anyone any money – showrunner Jonathan Dowling licensed the format to Screentime Australia. They then formed Bardot on screen, took all the credit and profited from the concept around the world. But this first bindi-encrusted outing, even though it felt manufactured at the time (even to preteen me), is far more revealing than X Factor could ever hope to be, and all the more compelling for it.