Music

An ode to Popworld: the music show which delighted in being badly behaved

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Dave Fawbert
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It was shortly after the release of Amy, the stunning documentary about the tragic life of Amy Winehouse, that a clip from the depths of YouTube’s vaults started circulating around the internet.

It was a short segment from the Channel 4 music show Popworld, which ran for six years from 2001 until 2007, and featured Amy and presenter Simon Amstell travelling around London casting for votes for her to win a BRIT award. It is an utterly fascinating four minutes of footage.

As Amstell himself admits the entire exercise was pointless, seeing as the award wasn’t being voted for by the public, but the clip shows several things.  The fact that, before the beehives and all the rest, Amy Winehouse was just a normal Camden girl, game for a laugh, and highly charming. It shows you how effortlessly Amstell, and his sidekick Miquita Oliver could get popstars to willingly go along with their japes.

And, most importantly, it reminds you just how much Popworld set the tone of pretty much every entertainment show that was to follow over the next decade, as the likes of Steve Jones, Rick Edwards, the rest of the T4 brigade and a thousand wannabe presenters adopted sarcasm, relentless irony and knowing winks at every single juncture, with precisely none of the actual, genuine love that Amstell and Oliver had for the music and popstars that they featured on the show.

But before we go any further, and something that needs establishing, seeing as many of you might be wondering why a show that ran for only six years (and only five with its key presenters) could be so important – what exactly was Popworld?

In January 2001, pop music existed in a very different place. The first series of Popstars: The Rivals was to air later that summer, and would be the first chance the general public had to take a look into the pop machine, in all of its cynical and brutal glory.

It was still a magical place where pop stars could be genuine stars, beamed in from another planet, where they would appear with their shiny new songs, do the rounds of CD:UK, Blue Peter, Top of the Pops and the rest and then see whether they’d hit the top 10. It was a simple game, where the most taxing question you’d ever be asked was what your new song was about, and what your favourite colour was.

To be quite honest, it was a gentle, nice era to be a popstar. Westlife, Dido, pre-breakdown Britney and pre-Dirrty Christina – turn up, look pretty and may the best song win.

Popworld, with its ideal hangover slot, nestled alongside reruns of Hollyoaks on a Sunday morning, was in a perfect position to start skewering this cosy state of affairs. Led by Amstell, they gradually ramped up the level of surreality and dryness of wit, as popstars struggled to cope with this unfamiliar style of questioning, so used as they were to simple puff questions and a quick mention of the single release date. The results were compelling, and utterly hilarious.

Sometimes, they handled it well:

Sometimes it exposed their terminal dullness:

Sometimes, it knocked them so off-balance that they revealed details that they perhaps didn’t want to:

And, if ever pop stars attempted to be weird themselves, it was never enough to phase Amstell. There was only ever going to be one winner if it was a battle of awkwardness.

But the gift that was given to Popworld was the rise of indie, which catapulted serious musicians, concerned with image, having the right sort of skinny jeans and generally being far too cool to do anything so tawdry as promotion, forced into the arena of mainstream TV by their record companies, eager to maintain the traditional route to shifting big units.

The poor lambs, used to deferential fanzine interviewers asking them what their favourite Gang Of Four record was, were like lions to the slaughter, as evidenced by this legendarily amazing interview with The Kooks, which saw Amstell constantly mentioning frontman Luke Pritchard’s former girlfriend Katie Melua, with Pritchard’s increasing annoyance only encouraging him further.

And, in what is surely one of the greatest interviews of all time, Simon just couldn’t get over the fact that he’d been lumbered with the drummer and guitarist from The Killers instead of Brandon.

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Of course, there were so many other brilliant features (not all of which YouTube has, sadly, preserved). ‘Lemar from Afar’, when Fame Academy’s Lemar was interviewed while at the other end of a street with the aid of a megaphone, The Dead 60s receiving counselling from a highly-serious Amstell, only asking Tweet questions that rhymed with Tweet (sample: “have you been to Crete, Tweet? D’you know anyone called Pete, Tweet?”), interviewing Natalie Imbruglia whilst wearing a paper bag over his head, the Pussycat Dolls interviewed by a horse – we could go on.

It even attracted some genuine scoops – witness the first TV appearance of the Arctic Monkeys, with Alex Turner at peak awkwardness, way before he discovered American rock and an Elvis quiff.

The glory years lasted until 2006, when Amstell and Oliver left the presenting roles, to be replaced by Alex Zane and Alexa Chung, but by this time, popstars had adjusted to the show: much like Channel 4’s fellow stalwart Ali G, as soon as the guests knew what was going on, they were prepared, which took all the fun away. Meanwhile, Alex and Alexa didn’t quite have that honest love of pop that underpinned the whole spectacle, they quickly descended into the uber-ironic tone which was to eventually completely take over all the T4 presenters.

There have been many calls for the show to make a comeback – the usual, ‘how we need Popworld more than ever’, in this time of blandness, never-ending Jess Glynne number ones and where Rick Astley’s new album outsells every other new act that’s come along in 2016.

But, sadly, it could never work. For one, the last decade – in part inspired by the likes of Popworld – has seen snarky irony and surreal humour become mainstream currency. Just take a look at Twitter: no one can say anything without a thousand people immediately pitching in with the best cutting takedown or hot take.

And, in addition, popstars are so much more accessible than they ever were – either because we got to know them via X Factor, or because we know their every waking movement via Instagram and – again – Twitter – that there seems no point in attempting to demystify them. Besides, new artists are so desperate to try and work out a way of making money in the increasingly difficult waters of the music industry that they’d be happy to subject themselves to any abuse in order to get a few more streams on Spotify. When Clean Bandit are willingly signing up to promote Cortana in the worst advert of all time, then they wouldn’t baulk at being interviewed by a badly-dubbed talking horse. Hell, people go on Carpool Karaoke every week to goof around with James Corden and make themselves look like a normal commuter.

Popworld was a perfect show, at the perfect time, with the perfect outlook on life. It was cutting, witty, merciless – but it also had heart, as that Amy Winehouse clip demonstrated so beautifully.

Perhaps what we really need is a show that’s just nice about music, to counteract all the nastiness, trolling, and slagging off that’s the norm these days.

Anyone for a Philip Schofield-fronted return for Top Of The Pops?

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Dave Fawbert

ShortList.com staff writer Dave’s primary passions are pop, prose, punning and power ballads (and alliteration). A lower division football enthusiast and long-suffering cricket fan, he is one of only 110 people followed on Twitter by Chas Hodges from Chas ‘n’ Dave. Follow Dave on Twitter like Chas: @davefawbert

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