The album covers for each of the Popstars finalists. From upper left clockwise: 'Be Ready' by A.R.T, 'If You Ain't Looking' by Christabel, 'Maybe Tomorrow' by TJ Zimba and 'Outlier' by Skye Hine.

The Popstars finalists’ singles, reviewed

We’re down to four Popstar finalists, all of whom released their debut singles this morning. How do they sound?

It’s been seven weeks, and we’ve seen hundreds of musical hopefuls whittled down to 12, then six, and then a final four. Each of these – girl group A.R.T, and solo artists Christabel, Skye Hine and TJ Zimba – could take it out. They’ve all got the goods, clearly, and the show has been challenging, testing and moulding them week by week to make sure they’re ready to take on the challenge of not just being in the music industry (famously kind and not hard at all!) but being a capital-P Popstar.

Of course, being a Popstar doesn’t mean jack if you don’t have the songs. Can’t make a pavlova without egg whites, you guys. So it’s understandable that, as part of the three-episode-a-week process, each has recorded what they hope will be their first hit single. The songs hit the radio and streaming services this morning,

‘Be Ready’ by A.R.T

I tell no lies, if there was one act that I’ve been closest to stanning from Popstars, it’s A.R.T, the girl group from Poneke. They’ve killed it the entire competition, consistently upping their game as vocalists, songwriters and producers. It’s a huge help that the trio is also great onscreen talent, as quick to take to a joke as they are to tackle a challenge.

The obvious comparison here would be Little Mix, but I’d look further afield for the comparison: this song is pure Blackpink. It’s a cohesive track that holds together as a banger while showcasing each of the three members (Anastasia Sirila, Rosetta Lopa and Tiresa Foma’i): a rapped second verse, belted ad-libs, and a slowed down gospel-y middle eight. It shouldn’t work, but it does through sheer audacity, like many Blackpink songs. Beats-per-minute? That’s so 20th century. We’re talking hooks-per-minute in 2021.

It’s somewhat fitting that despite how far Popstars has veered from its turn-of-the-century origins, it has once again turned out… a great girl group. The difference is that A.R.T have been the package all along; Popstars has just refined that package, glossed it up, and got it ready for the world. If this single is any indication, they’re more than ready for it.

‘If You Ain’t Looking’ by Christabel

Throughout the competition, Christabel has been the source of most of the onscreen drama: she’s deeply invested in this, and prone to vocal self-criticism, which makes for compelling, if slightly uncomfortable TV. We know who she is, we know what she wants, and the obstacles getting in her way. Her main asset, unsurprisingly, is her voice: A massive, croaky belter that, in a different age, would’ve seen her pushed into the Duffy corner.

Instead, her debut single is an uplifting hand-clappy banger about getting out of a small town that recalls a mid-career Florence + the Machine. It’s a little bit on the generic side, but will do well with the sorts of people who listen to the Breeze and Shazam songs they hear in K-Mart. That might sound shady, but hey, Shania’s on The Breeze! You could do worse than Shania, and this song, as first singles go, is pretty damn catchy and a pleasant enough showcase for the singer. I’m not sure if pleasant is enough to win Popstars, though.

‘Outlier’ by Skye Hine

From surveying the five people I know who have been hanging on every episode of Popstars, 16 year old Skye Hine is a fan favourite. She’s the full package: authentic, direct, charismatic as hell, with a voice that you wouldn’t imagine coming out of someone that small. (Although, let’s be honest, we all know by now that huge voices can come in small packages, let’s stop being surprised!)

Her single is… fine. It ticks all the boxes of an early Billie Eilish song: it only just cracks the two minute mark, her voice barely pops out from behind the beat, there’s a spoken word verse, and it feels like the kind of song you would dance to if you were also a bit sad and hadn’t slept enough the previous night. Out of all four, it’s the one that’s grown on me the most, but it faded almost immediately after the first listen. As in, I probably wouldn’t have listened to it again if I wasn’t writing about it. But if there’s a popstar to emulate in 2021, you could a lot worse than Billie Eilish.

The biggest issue I have with this song is that it’s not an especially great showcase for Hine’s absolutely titanic voice. You wouldn’t know it from this song, but she has a huge range, and can belt at either end of that. My concern is that this single might put her in the glut of talk-singing vocalists who seem to upwardly inflect to indicate emotion between consonants. That’s absolutely not who Hine is, and is not what we’ve seen from her onscreen.

‘Tmrw Maybe’ by ZËxÏÏ

There’s nobody from Popstars I want to see succeed more than ZËxÏÏ aka TJ. I don’t necessarily think he should win Popstars – he’s a terrific producer but onstage there’s still something missing – but he seems like the most genuine, lovely, and talented dude and so I just want good things for him.

That sentiment translates to how I feel about this first single. It’s actually a great techno-lite tune, perhaps my second favourite of these four, but as a performer TJ never rises above his production. He’s charismatic but not compelling, pleasant but not wowing. I could see this being big on TikTok (but honestly I’m 30 and no 30 year old should be commenting on TikTok, let alone predicting who should be huge on it) but not necessarily being a huge radio hit. Of all the singles, it’s also the one that feels like it wouldn’t go huge live either – Christabel’s and A.R.T’s I can see going off – which is obviously a deciding factor to whether it’s a winner or not.

The finalists will perform these four tracks on Tuesday’s episode of Popstars, and the winner will be announced on the finale episode on Wednesday.

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