Wednesday, 3 February 2010

2001 Hear'Say: Pure And Simple

At various points across the decades I've touched upon the old chestnut of the 'real' v 'manufactured' music argument. To state it baldly, I mean the way some people will dismiss a certain artist or band out of hand as somehow being 'not real' or worthy of their (or any) attention. The underlying reason always seems to be that if an act hasn't paid its dues by building success on the live circuit or aren't playing their own songs on 'proper' instruments then they're operating at a remove from the realms of 'proper music' and any success they enjoy is unearned and unwarranted. The Monkees are usually held up as a classic example that both confirms (four guys selected by audition to mime to other people's songs) and refutes this stance (they did actually produce some very fine singles), but latterly its come to apply to a wider ranging field of criticism that takes in music from a DJ promoting his latest remix (of someone else's song) to the clean cut boy bands grinning in syncopation at the camera. As I write this, Lana Del Ray is getting the same treatment regarding her 'authenticity' from a vocal section of the public annoyed at her sudden fame - in that respect the times are most definitely not a' changin'.

For my own part I tend to hold a certain ambivalence or disinterest toward the argument, though I'll admit that's not always been the case. In times past I've filtered my perception of what was 'real' music through the net of my own snobbery, but the more enlightened me of the here and now has more regard to the end product itself rather than the name on the tin it was delivered in. As I've stated elsewhere, 'Mr Tambourine Man' is generally lauded as a landmark release and few would dare suggest that it's not 'proper music', yet in truth only one 'Byrd' plays on it and the rest of the 'band' made up of session musician guns for hire, and ones playing someone else's song at that.

Come 2001 though, there was a sea change in popular culture that rammed any 'behind the scenes' shenanigans firmly into the public eye. The cause? 'Popstars', a TV show presented as a psuedo documentary based around the formation of a brand new pop group. The aim of Popstars was to throw light on the mechanics of the backroom boys by showing the auditions and rehearsals etc as the band was pieced together while still trying keeping to sell the dream like a father trying to convince a child that Santa actually exists after dutifully pulling on a Father Christmas suit in front of him on Christmas Eve. Because by the end of the series there was a product that needed selling.

This wasn't strictly a new development of course; talent shows have been a common feature of domestic television for almost as long as television was domesticated and the likes of Patti Boulaye, Showaddywaddy, Peters & Lee and Mary Hopkin all caught their first break via exposure through such shows as 'New Faces' and 'Opportunity Knocks'. But it wasn't really as simple as that either - most of these were already established acts on the live circuit and so a certain amount of those all important, legitimising dues had already been paid before that opportunity came knocking. What 'New Faces' et al gave them was the much needed exposure that took them out of the clubs and into the public's consciousness, a precious commodity in the pre Facebook and You Tube days of the seventies. Popstars, on the other hand, was solely concerned with plucking five complimentary individuals from obscurity and throwing as much money at them as was necessary to shape them into a successful pop group, all played out in the high profile glare of a much watched TV show that gave hope to millions that, but for a lucky break, they could be famous too.

And it worked, after a fashion - the resulting/winning band Hear'say scored a number one with their first single that, to date, was the fastest selling debut of all time. For a while they enjoyed the fame of, if not Kings then at least of The Beatles at their peak. It didn't last of course, but then I'm guessing it was never meant to - sustained fame would have deflected attention from the next round of hopefuls queuing up to audition for Popstars: The Rivals the following year which had its own end product to shift (we'll be meeting the outcome of that little adventure later). I didn't watch Popstars in 2001. Not though innate snobbery, but through a genuine surfeit of better things to do, so I'm happy to ditch the baggage and take 'Pure And Simple' at face value, not worrying too much that Hear'say had never played King Tut's Wah Wah Hut in Glasgow on their way to the top.

So what of it? Well in a move almost tailor made to wind up the 'proper music' fans yet another notch, 'Pure And Simple' was originally earmarked for and recorded by all girl band Girl Thing before being given to Hearsay for their debut. Again, a good pop message should remain regardless of the messenger so none of this should matter, but 'Pure And Simple' was never pop of particularly good vintage, and on its own merits it singularly fails to impress regardless of who was serving it up. Girl Thing scrape out their parchment dry harmonies like they're scraping shit off their shoes, yet even through the pain of their delivery it's clear how much 'Pure And Simple' sounds like All Saints' 'Never Ever', especially the latter's "Never ever have I ever felt so low, when you gonna take me out of this black hole?" sections. Much too much really.

To throw the lawyers off the scent, Hear'Say's take comes with a harder urban edge(supplied mainly through what sounds suspiciously like a uncredited TLC drum sample), to fashion a re-tooled version that's reluctant to let itself be carried solely on that main melody and instead falls under heavy fire from kitchen sinks full of backing vocals and fussy detours that do all they can to throw the shared lead vocal off course. Like dressing a skeleton in stiff clothes and splints to make it to stand upright by itself, 'Pure And Simple' use its sonic busyness to try and disguise the fact that there's only the bare bones of a song underneath and it all goes to starve 'Pure And Simple' of air to present a starched and swampy stew of leftovers reheated until they're burned back to tasteless - it's hard to think of a song that more belies its title than this one.

There's no light in 'Pure And Simple', no art and no craft - as a single it's all tightly packed molecules that make up the forced grin of a desperation to be liked rather than the easy smile of confidence that it's going to be, a situation born from the fact that the underlying song is plain done and simply not very good. Which to my mind is a far worse criticism that claiming it's not 'real' music. But however you want to cut it, the significance of 'Pure And Simple' getting to number one can hardly be overstated; the charts own Rubicon had been crossed and things from here on in would never be quite the same again.

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