When watching the X-factor on Saturday night spare a thought for every young soap star growing bored of their day job. For decades the metamorphosis from soap star to pop star was virtually taken for granted with Australian soaps like Neighbours churning out pop stars with an unmatched prolificacy; Jason Donavon, Craig Mclachlan, Natalie Imbruglia, Delta Goodrem and not forgetting pop royalty Kylie Minogue all serving time on the soap.
As the latest soap starlet, Sam Clark leaves the sheltered cul-de-sac of Ramsay Street seeking pop fame the path he follows to singing stardom is far less certain and the dangers of sliding into career oblivion much greater. Not only do they face a raft of talented competition for their slice of the same saccharine pop market, but the TV soap itself has been dislodged as the sole direct-line to our collective cultural consciousnesses by the TV musical talent contest. The origins of which ironically also lie in Australasia.
First airing as ‘Popstars’ in New Zealand in 1999 the TV musical talent contest format made its way its way to the UK in late 2000 after TV exec Nigel Lythgoe (the prototype Simon Cowell) spotted an Australian version of the programme whilst visiting the country. The UK incarnation was an immediate hit both on the screen and in the charts with the resultant band Hear’say setting a new record for the fastest selling debut single ever.
The bands rapid success was matched however, by an equally sharp decline raising doubts over the longevity of acts produced in this way, but such concerns would prove to be no barrier to the formats success as it simply left a gap to be filled by an endless snaking queue of wannabes eager to impress at the next set of auditions. Some of the most vociferous criticism originates indie corner of the music universe La Roux’s Elly Jackson going as far as to accuse Simon Cowell of ‘ruining’ the music industry. Cowell’s defence simply that TV talent shows like the x-factor have revitalised what was a declining record industry.
On this point it is tempting to side with Cowell especially when it comes to the soap star turned popstar; after all for every Kylie there was a Danni and who can forgive teen-soap Byker Grove for unleashing Ant and Dec on the charts after they debuted as on-screen singing duo PJ and Duncan. The juxtaposition between the old-school and the new order is visible too on the x-factor judging panel where Danni sits alongside Cheryl Cole who found fame on x-factor forerunner popstars the rivals with the phenomenally successful Girls Aloud and is now in the early stages of what looks like an equally glittering solo career.
Like a soap opera there is one final twist. All formats have a life-span even successful ones and so it is with the x-factor format. No longer just a search for raw talent the show has become increasingly reliant on the devices of the soap, its semi-contrived storylines and stock of cut-out characters; the rags-to-riches tale, the mum striving to improve the life of her children, the virtuoso who has been stacking shelves for the past 20 years and finally some comedy characters for some light relief in between the tears. Like the soap these stories are intended as morality tales for our post-modern age. The overwhelming narrative of the x-factor is that a with combination of hard work, self-belief and determination talent will find its reward. It is a belief in meritocracy, of equality of opportunity, but where somewhat troublingly we can snigger at and deride the deluded pretenders.
The resulting irony from this is that whilst soap star may now find the route to becoming a pop-star closed the pop-star has become the soap star.