A Shattered Dreams Production
Anyone can be infamous: just look at some of the people who are. We, who consider ourselves the smart people, differentiate between the infamous (Darva Conger, Monica Lewinsky), and those whose fame is based in true talent. The former are contestants on most reality shows: you get picked, you get voted off, you get known. These shows used to be fun to watch, but increasingly it’s hard to care about the outcome. Remember how unsurprising it was when Kent of Big Brother 2 revealed that most of the houseguests/contestants had agents?
Reality shows like Making the Band and Popstars are a little different: the contestants are expected to have noticeable, star-quality talent. Still, who could’ve predicted that Making the Band would become one of the most compelling shows on television when it debuted two years ago? The contestants had to sing, dance, and be charming in front of a camera. This couldn’t be faked: you either made the cut or you didn’t. The drama stemmed from our position as at home, couch-bound judges. The destructive life cycles of teen idols added a layer of intrigue: the guys fought with one another and with Lou Pearlman, their father figure/producer. It was the fastest thirty minutes on TV every week. The resulting boy group, O-Town, was a hit, as was Eden’s Crush, the girl group born of the first Popstars.
But we know the clichéd story of groups like Eden’s Crush and O-Town: they’re fads, trapped inside images that allow no artistic growth. When their fans, primarily young teens, abandon these groups, they’re left with nothing artistically and, in most cases, financially. That’s the way it seems to have gone, from Ricky Nelson to New Kids on the Block. This is part of the morbid fun for viewers: we get to watch this life cycle from ground zero.
Popstars 2, now co-ed, is a unexpectedly cold show due largely to the callous, opinionated judges and also to some editing choices. For the 1000 or so hopefuls (the number is pared down to 72, and then 10 finalists), there appear to be none of the warm intra-group hugs and kisses we saw in Making the Band. And the three official judges—all record executives—aren’t shy in their analyses. “If they don’t think they’re as good as Eden’s Crush, they should leave now,” says judge Jaymes Foster-Levy, an executive at 143 Records (famed producer David Foster’s label). Later, a singer blows his lines and pleads, “You can’t hold it against me.” Foster-Levy smirks, “Yes, we can.” Gone. Unsurprisingly, the feeling among the contestants is that the judges are way too harsh.
The judges on Popstars 2 find a wide range of faults with contestants: the kids are too shy, too obnoxious, too flat, or too rough, for example. But there are also some honest-to-God prospects. At first, we—the TV-viewers—mercilessly scrutinize every one of these hopefuls, much like the judges do. As the series progresses, however, and we get involved, we start to form our own list of favorites (or at least I did).
Take Angela, 19, from Chicago. She was going to try out for the first Popstars, but got pregnant instead. She makes it past the first cut of Popstars 2. Kim, from Texas, tearfully explains that she wants to be a star so she can have the resources to take care of her sick mother. She gets called back. Then there’s sweet, innocent Jennifer, bound to a wheelchair and with the voice of an angel. Jennifer pledges to do her best. “If it doesn’t work out,” she says, “It just means that this isn’t what God wants me to do with my talent.” Naïve as she appears, Jennifer embodies the kind of Horatio Alger story that TV loves, so we’re expecting the series to follow her. Alas, after making the first cut, Jennifer is sent home. “She didn’t sing as well as she did yesterday,” observes one of the judges.
We might laugh at some contestants, but deep down, we feel sorry for them. Popstars 2 reminds us that we often fall short of doing our best at the most crucial times. Yes, many people sound good when they sing in the shower, but it’s out in the world—which in this case is ruled by record execs—that counts, and Popstars 2 hammers this point home. Popstars 2 seems to say that both in the glamorous world of teen stardom, and in life as experienced by the rest of us, those who can adapt to a hostile environment and who can thrive under pressure will succeed.
To make the pressure more bearable, and also bringing the contestants’ youth into focus, many of these young would-be Britneys bring their parents along, most often their mothers. We see these adults’ faces pressed up against glass as they watch their babies perform, while a cold voice-over intones, “There’s nothing like a hug from Mom to make everything okay.” We see the contestants walk out, cry, then hug mom. Sometimes, they just cry, sometimes they just hug and don’t say anything. These images might help us to warm up to the aspirants, but since they’re always leaving the show never to return, we can’t get too involved with their emotional pain.
But isn’t that what we’re looking for when watching shows like Popstars 2, to be Truman Show-like witnesses, without responsibility and wholly entertained, sympathizing with the pain, but able to turn it off if it gets to be too much?
The contestants, however, have all kinds of responsibilities, including having to live with the agony of defeat. And they aren’t nearly as self-aware or phony as those on many other reality shows, because posturing like that will only get them thrown off the show. It offers no commercial rewards for the losers. In that sense, Popstars 2 might be the cruelest of all the reality shows: how can you not feel sorry for someone who needs to hug her Mom after her dreams have been shattered?
Popstars 2 is proof that youngsters have similar pop tastes from generation to generation. Since the show appeals so directly to the teen-worship experience, those of us who are older can compare it to the wish fulfillment fantasies we experienced in the ‘80s (adoring Duran Duran or Wham!) and the ‘90s (screaming for the Backstreet Boys). Maybe we want to see whether the winners on Popstars 2 follow the script of washed-out teen idols past. Perhaps we all dream of making it in show business in some form. Or maybe these kids’ dreams, like ours, are just that—dreams—and by the end of the series, we’ve thrown in with those who’ve been kicked off. It’s painful for us and for them. And it makes for compelling television.