Rock and Reality: How TV and Pop Got It Together

Simon Warner

The young starlets rocketed from obscurity to celebrity overnight also seem likely to return to obscurity, carrying the embarrassing ignominy of their brief TV fame, with them.

Television and popular music have shared an uneasy relationship over the last half century. It's never been quite clear which is feeding off the other; which benefits most from the other medium. In recent times, it might have been assumed that the rise of cable and satellite services had forged an uneasy peace between the small screen and rock. Those who wanted wall-to-wall pop, via services like MTV or VH1, could receive it through a different portal; mainstream TV could dabble occasionally in the wonders of pop and hip-hop, heavy metal or reggae, but never commit itself fully to the demands of such ephemeral forms that appeal to such disparate demographics — young and not so young, girls and boys, white and black — that large audiences are difficult to construct.

But the turn of a new century has seen pop snuggle up to a new kind of home entertainment — reality TV — and the incestuous affair between those who make programmes and those who shape musical careers has blossomed into more than a fleeting entanglement. America has had its experience of American Idol I know, but the UK is now drowning in shows that take unknown kids and intensively shape them into passable impressions of pop stars.

The history of this wider association is actually quite interesting. When TV came on stream in the US in the 1940s, there was a surprising fall-out from the arrival of a new technology. Until then radio had been the main player in this field and there were serious fears that the arrival of words and pictures combined would see off the existing format. Who would want to merely listen when images were available, too?

As a consequence, radio licences were sold quickly and cheaply to squeeze the last revenues out of an outdated medium, assumed to be on its last legs. This allowed hundreds of new stations playing country music, race records and other marginalised styles, to join the broadcasting roster. It was a key, and retrospectively historic, moment in the dissemination of a musical hybrid soon to be called rock 'n' roll.

Within a decade, television and radio had tapped into the potential of these fresh and vibrant sounds. But it was not long before commercial boom was marked by the whiff of scandal. Payola allegations, investigated by the Federal Communications Commission, put paid to the high-flying career of DJ and rock 'n' roll promoter Alan Freed, who faced charges that he'd been paid to play the records he chose. Another man who faced investigation was American Bandstand frontman Dick Clark. He was reprimanded, too, but his television reputation escaped the devastating treatment meted out to his radio rival. Some felt that Freed's promotion of black styles had sealed his fate.

In Britain, as usual, things were moving more cautiously, less frenetically. The BBC, the only radio broadcaster in the UK until 1971, gave short shrift to pop music, but its television channel did begin to transmit a chart-based show from 1964. Top of the Pops, which would become a legend in TV circles, stuck slavishly to the Top 40, offering a mimed selection of the current hits. Recently the series chalked up 2000 editions, accompanied by the usual fanfares, a remarkable survivor in an era when television has been forced to adapt its products almost annually.

Top of the Pops was a rare UK example of pop and TV operating in harmony. Maybe 20 other shows, over the decades, have attempted to exploit the relationship — The Roxy, The Chart Show, The Pepsi Chart Show, The Old Grey Whistle Test, CD:UK and numerous others have toiled to follow in its wake — but few have achieved the cachet and none the longevity of their senior rival.

Summer 2000, however, inaugurated a trend that has been the main influence on this association ever since. When Channel 4 launched a British version of Big Brother — it had already been seen in Europe — ratings were sufficiently impressive to arouse the interest of producers and executives across the small number of key networks which operate here. The mix of the fly-on-the-wall documentary and the mind-numbing banality of round-the-clock domestic detail proved both a winner with the viewers and confirmed that our voyeuristic inclinations were hungry to be fed.

By the end of that year the first UK show to combine reality doc techniques and popular music was in production. ITV's Pop Stars, a formula which had been first aired in New Zealand, again drew high audiences, as hundreds of hopefuls were whittled down, week after week, to five: three girls and two boys collectively christened "Hear'Say". In spring 2001, the group's debut single raced to the top of the chart breaking records for first week sales in its wake. It was the precursor of several similar productions to follow.

In 2002, a variation on the theme provided us with Pop Idol -- the British name for American Idol - where telephone voters alongside expert judges chose Will Young as their winner. Like his runner-up Gareth Gates, a flurry of chart action followed. Young's debut release broke first-week standards set by the popsters in Hear'Say.

Since then the tears and the fears, the acclaim and the pain, have been regurgitated in a pair of further formats -- the BBC has belatedly joined the race with Fame Academy run alongside the latest ITV model, Pop Stars - The Rivals. The former is built around a school of the performing arts created for the show; the latter has set out, with viewer input, to manufacture a five-member boy band and a competing girl group. Each will go head-to-head in the battle for a Christmas number one.

I have taken more than a passing interest, a distracted concern, with these developments, principally because the university course on which I teach recruits the kind of talents who might have considered the TV conveyor belt if they didn't have their hearts and heads set on something more substantial. The television blueprints we have been describing churn out fine looking specimens -- great faces, great smiles, well-honed bodies - who then proceed to deliver well-sculpted but utterly banal versions of cover tunes.

They revive, therefore, a tradition was respectable and appropriate pre-Lennon and McCartney but should have been relegated to realms of sepia-tinged nostalgia not promoted as the centre-piece of prime-time, 21st century entertainment. The Beatles did many things but one vital act they performed was to prove that bands had singer-songwriters quite as good as the tunesmiths of Tin Pan Alley, the songsmiths of the Brill Building, where ballads were penned, often by little-known writers, and delivered to the singing stars of the day for them to interpret.

Paul and John not to mention Dylan, then Jagger and Richard, Pete Townshend, Brian Wilson, Ray Davies and others, signalled a sea-change. The new rock stars were not musical marionettes but auteurs. This hardly meant the constructed performer went away -- we only need to mention the Wall of Sound and Motown to realise that the svengalis were still pulling certain strings -- but bands who managed their own artistic destiny become much more significant.

So, as I work with songwriters and composers, performers and engineers, who aim to bring their own vision eventually to the world, it is a little disappointing to see TV deliver its instant dreams, its instant plaudits, to teenagers who only have to sing someone else's song. Furthermore, the young starlets rocketed from obscurity to celebrity overnight also seem likely to return to obscurity, carrying the embarrassing ignominy of their brief TV fame, with them.

It can't go on, can it? Oh, yes it can. Simon Cowell, the man behind Pop Idol and American Idol, has further schemes afoot. The Midas of this instant media model has a new plan up his sleeve. Second Chance Idol intends to take one-hit wonders from the past and re-generate their faded, forgotten lives. We thought it could get no worse and now it will. America has its own one-hit wonders but British readers should tread warily - Joe Dolce, Clive Dunn and St Winifred's School Choir await their curious resurrection.

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