Lies, damned lies, and end of year polls

The volatile world of British pop tossed up two end-of-year news stories that were, alas, but lightweight tales that demanded little effort on behalf of news editors and reporters, radio presenters and commentators, and so they fitted the seasonal mood. Like the so-called “silly season” — high summer — when everyone’s away so that newspapers and news shows have to pad out their reports with stories that are light, shallow and sometimes implausible, Christmas and New Year presents a similar case in point. Thus, when one bunch of bubblegum Brits announced their intention to split and a poll revealing the UK’s greatest pop idols of all time was unveiled, there was a surfeit of candyfloss to be chomped on during the holidays.

Firstly, a five-piece group of all-singing, all-dancing popsters called Steps, three girls and two boys who have become the pin ups of kiddies of five and grown men of 50 and most in-between, revealed to the world — well, at least to that over-populated island northwest of Europe — that after three years of extraordinary UK chart success, the end was nigh for this quintet. Steps are not a significant matter in their own right. Rather, they are a mirror to the pop age that accepts that finely-tuned, highly manicured teens and early twenties generation; posed, plastic and palatable. In short, they are the mainstream white music diet of the early 21st Century. As the US has had its Backstreet Boys and N’Sync, Britney S. and Christine A., Britain has had an extraordinary rush of similar, middle-of-the-road entertainers. Send in the clones, indeed.

In fact, 2001 has seen this lucrative, commercial conveyor belt enter new realms of cynical sophistication. If they had told us at the height of the Beatles’ fame or when punk exploded so devastatingly or when club culture organically fertilised in the underground clubs of Detroit and Manchester, that the day would come when television viewers would pre-select their pop stars before they even had a recording contract, we may have suggested that what seemed a great idea for a Philip K. Dick short story was nonetheless a concept that had nothing to do with our rock reality. Now that what once was at best science fiction has in fact become reality, and shows like Popstars and Pop Idol are among the biggest audience draws on the UK small screen, we know that the money men (rarely women) have little intention of risking their promotional budgets on singers who have not already received the “thumbs-up” from a few hundred thousand viewers who telephone their satisfaction ratings via premium rate phone lines.

To be fair, Hear’Say, the winners of Popstars, were selected by rigorous audition and industry experts. The process made for excellent TV; imagine the joy, the heartbreak and the tantrums. The process produced a vocal group whose first single, “Pure and Simple”, became the biggest-selling debut release of all time. Pop Idol is a different process: while experts mediate the selection process, in the end the public decides who earns the break and gets a record deal, a video, and/or some mass media promotion.

By comparison, Steps have emerged almost Beatle-like from the provincial undergrowth. After all, Brian Epstein, according to the urban legend, had to find the Merseysiders and tell them to clean up their act — mod-ish suits for biker jackets and moptop trims for Teddy Boy locks — before “Love Me Do” et al, could enter the global consciousness. Steps did arise from an advert in the British theatre weekly The Stage, but the Spice Girls, no less, had a similar genesis.

The person who placed the ad, Pete Waterman, was more crucial than those who responded to it. Waterman is a giant of Britpop. As a producer with 20 years of unrivalled success to his name, it is hard to see anyone but George Martin challenging his pre-eminence. Waterman is Spector, Gordy and Martin rolled into one. Yet because he works at the cutting edge of the ephemeral — power pop, dance pop, manufactured pop — he is never likely to enter The Cleveland Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame. This is a travesty; symptomatic of the two-tier snobbery that has infected pop ever since the mid-Sixties when rock music and the charts went their separate ways.

Waterman took on the three girl/two boy construct in 1997 and rapidly transformed them into household figures. Soon they raced into the Top 10 with a string of originals and covers sabotaging the playlist policies of BBC Radio 1, whose lack of interest in the group did nothing to crush their aspirations. Boys, girls, clubbers, housewives, gays . . . millions flocked to the Steps shrine. The lustre of their smiles may have been as false as the glitter of their wardrobe but authenticity, that ancient litmus test of credibility, is now virtually a redundant term in the critical canon.

Why have Steps, after four largely successful years, decided to implode? The press statements simply suggest that they wanted to quit while they were at the top. The phrase “musical differences” was absent from their valedictory remarks. More likely, they want to leave behind the financial arrangements, the price of Waterman’s original invitation, came to roost. Now they can seal solo contracts that will see their sales translated into large earnings. But in fact as separate entities their fates are much more uncertain. Steps were much greater than the sum of their parts and there is no guarantee, even in the age of TV popularity polls, that a star-studded résumé ensures continued success.

Continued success haunts one legend, however. Elvis Presley has just been voted Britain’s ultimate pop star in a poll conducted by internet portal Vizzavi, itself part of the world’s biggest music company, Vivendi Universal. Credit to the Pelvis 24 years after his demise, but polls are run-through with laughable inconsistencies. For example, the Beatles are fourth in the chart, separated from the Graceland’s burger king by two virtual non-entities, Cliff Richard and Robbie Williams. I say that not unkindly, but in the sense that Richard and Williams are just bit players in the world stage; Cliff never meant anything in the US, for instance, and Robbie may never mean much.

One woman makes the list. Madonna, despite her extraordinary four letter antics at the recent presentation of Britain’s most important art prize, the Turner, is now virtually a London society fixture. One non-white star, Michael Jackson, scrapes in, and even Sinatra takes his place among the notables. I looked longingly at the Vizzavi chart and hoped for Hendrix, Dylan, Bowie, James Brown, the Sex Pistols and Public Enemy. Instead, Freddie Mercury and Elton John take their seats at the top table.

The old Broadway show gag comes to mind, “No one liked it, only the public”. No matter how we as critics, fans, followers of the trends, want to shape popular music in our own, individual image — whether we are b-boys or goths, unreformed hippies or ageing rock’n’rollers — the “people’s choice” is rarely going to accord with our own. We may feel like renegades and mavericks, keepers of the spirit of rock and soul’s holy grail, but in the end pop tends to be about the rise and fall of dispensable acts like Steps and artists like Elvis, the latter whose chart-topping vote probably owes more to his dismal post-army career than the pre-conscription excitements of Sun and Jailhouse Rock. The really meaningful players such as Hank Williams, Billy Fury, Sam Cooke, Kurt Cobain, Curtis Mayfield and Tupac Shakur, are influential beyond chart statistics and instant surveys, but their legacy is too deep to shape the superficial whims of the latterday phone-poll electorate. A clear case, I’d say, of lies, damed lies, and end of year polls.