Friday, 26 August 2011

Old News: Failed Pop Stars

I’ve been randomly posting some old work on twitter each day, and rediscovered my ‘Old News’ project which straddled that odd, nervous period in 2005 between my exam project, graduation and the early beginnings of life as an illustrator.

Part one of the project consisted of collecting CDs from charity shops by manufactured pop bands who, despite major label backing and slick promo campaigns, fell by the wayside. From this I fashioned a one off book called ‘Old News’ which housed the CD collection along with portraits of the groups and silly factoids.

Back then my favourite default TV channel was called ‘The Box’ – it only played music videos. Frequently the ad breaks were taken up with lengthy promos for the latest girl or boy band, in which they’d give giggling frothy interviews and make nice for the camera. Desperation was frequently all too palpable. I remember one ad for a particularly dowdy girl group (the name escapes me) which featured them boasting that they were already ‘the biggest British band in Syria.’ I found it genuinely quite melancholy how small the success ratio was among these ‘next big things.’
Looking back I don’t think I’m being too lofty to suggest the project actually captured a moment in time - a desparate time in the music business. Record sales were falling and reality TV looked like it might supply the answer. Pop Idol had really blown the field open a year or two before, and there was a sudden feeding frenzy to find another Gareth Gates or Will Young. You didn’t have to win a talent show to get signed. Admittedly that is still true with the X Factor (think Jedward) – but back then you even got candidates who didn’t make the second round of auditions getting signed up. Yes, Cheeky Girls, I am talking about you. On series one of Popstars, Liberty X had proven that, in some cases, the losers could have more success – and so after series two (Popstars: the Rivals) you ended up getting, if you include the aforementioned Cheeky Girls, no less than five new major label groups and one soloist. Can you name them all? No wikipedia cheating!

Part two of my ‘Old News’ project was a limited edition hand finished book featuring failed solo artists of the same period. Most were, again, the flotsam and jetsam of various reality shows. Examples include the cheesy James Fox from the BBC’s flagship flop Fame Academy, or Welsh song-murderer Rosie Ribbons from Pop Idol (who, not content with flopping once, did so again on Australian Idol).

Interesting to look back and notice (as my friend Sean from Artmagic pointed out on Twitter yesterday) that amidst this cesspool of blandness, a few of my featured floppers were actually great singers who slipped through the net. They might still be remembered one day, and definitely deserved a better crack of the whip – perhaps more so than the ones who got success.

One example for me would be Mania, a duo girl band launched by Xenomania, the production house responsible for Cher’s ‘Believe’, Pet Shop Boys ‘Yes’ album and many Sugababes and Girls Aloud songs. Singers Niara Scarlett and Giselle Somerville were no pre-packaged pop product, in fact Scarlett had been an integral part of the Xenomania writing team for years – she helped pen ‘Sound of the Underground’ for Girls Aloud. Their debut single ‘Looking for a Place’ felt slightly cooler and weirder than anything else around, with a hellishly catchy whistled obligato. They too had their own promo ad on ‘The Box’ channel... but the single flopped and their completed album ‘Do you know your Daughter’s on the Roof?’ was canned. It remains one of my favourite songs. (

Equally, the solo career of Siobhan Donaghy can only be described as a ‘failure’ in the bald commercial sense. I hesitated to include her in my ‘Old News’ book because as one third of the original Sugababes, she had had her taste of fame. But in her own right, commercial success totally eluded her. She quit the Sugababes after suffering a reported depression following the alleged bullying of band-mates, and her record label chose to back her, not them. They dropped the other Sugababes and funded her first solo outing ‘Revolution in Me’, recorded with some-time Massive Attack collaborator Cameron McVey. The album was was a critical hit, but went down like a knackered lift on the high street. Poor Siobhan, it must have really hurt to see the Sugababes achieve massive success with ‘Freak Like Me’ just as her CD hit the bargain bins. But listen to it – it’s a gorgeous, catchy pop masterpiece – too cool, too skewed and at times too crushingly melancholic to set the dancefloor or the charts alight. (

Amazingly (after I completed my ‘Old News’ book) Siobhan got a second crack of the whip – this time signed to Parlophone who released another critically lauded but commercially ignored record called ‘Ghosts’. There are rumours on wikipedia that she’s working on a third album...