Lately, those seeking to swim in the chicken soup of the adolescent soul know that the place to plunge is Popstars, where on any given week you can hear philosophical insights on the order of ”As an individual, I’ve grown inside learning to be on my own.” I ask you: Could Bob Dylan have phrased it better? Popstars, ”reality” TV about the making of a female vocal group, concluded a successful first season last week, just as Making the Band, the ”reality” show about creating a male vocal group, launches its second season this week.

The allure of these shows is as old as rock & roll itself: the idea that anyone — with a little talent, good looks, a good song, and the gorilla weight of a major record company promoting you over the likes of, say, Aimee Mann — can be a star. What’s new about these shows is that they ride the current trend of teen idols (Britney, ‘N Sync, Backstreet Boys) by suggesting that 21st-century pop-stardom is something that can be constructed from a no-fail music-biz blueprint. The heck with being a performer: Band and Popstars offer viewers free crash courses in how to create and exploit performers — you too can become a mogul!

According to these shows, you just hold auditions in major cities and see what talent turns up; you cherry-pick the ripest fruit and get them to smear their signatures on a record contract; you hire a vocal coach, a choreographer, a photographer, and a video director and let them pummel your band of strangers into shape. Presto: screaming fans, sold-out arenas, hit singles, and MTV’s Carson Daly telling the world — well, the Total Request Live world — that Making the Band‘s O-Town and Popstars‘ Eden’s Crush are the coolest new items YOU MUST CONSUME NOW.

As television, Making the Band has it all over Popstars. Coproduced by Real World/Road Rules creators Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray, Band lathers up a docu-soap opera about the members of O-Town — Ashley, Erik, Jacob, Trevor, and Dan — five cute, clueless guys. Last season, they were the puppets of Lou Pearlman, the Orlando-based Svengali behind ‘N Sync and Backstreet. This season, they’ve been signed to J Records, led by Clive Davis, a music-industry legend who’s made hits with everyone from Barbra Streisand to Patti Smith, but to Erik, just an old guy who ”has a lot riding on us.” It’s obvious that pretty, sweet Ashley is the star of this act — obvious to everyone except the other four dudes, who throw delightful diva fits whenever ”Clive” isn’t ”down” with their musical decisions. Baby boomers should be on the lookout for episode 3’s secret hero: producer Mark Hudson, who the boys obviously don’t realize was once part of a boy band himself — the ’70s flash-in-the-pan Hudson Brothers. (Hey, kids — he’s Kate Hudson’s uncle!) Hudson is wonderful: jaded, witty, kindly, firm. The moment when, in the recording studio, he wearily tells his tuneless little mediocrities, ”I’d like to get this while I’m still in my 40s,” is priceless.

Popstars is a more depressing enterprise. In its premiere, we saw a promising mix of girls of every shape, size, and ethnicity. But subsequent episodes showed us the pop-music version of fast-food-chain marketing: the chosen five made over into interchangeably skinny, skimpily dressed, stiletto-heeled vamps. They ape Destiny’s Child’s harmonies; they crawl, catlike, across male models in their video, tongues occasionally flicking to simulate passion. Eden’s Crush? They should’ve called themselves Hell’s Lolitas.

The show is dismally edited. The series’ narrator breaks for a commercial with the limp promise ”Choosing a promotional photo proves to be more difficult than the girls ever imagined!” Popstars tries to convince us that a guest shot on Live With Regis & Kelly is a tense, make-or-break event; instead, it proves a pleasant promotional appearance.

All of which is not to say the exec producers, David G. Stanley and Scott A. Stone, haven’t done their job: My 11-year-old wants me to buy her the single. And I’m thinking about it.
Making the Band: B+
Popstars: C

Making the Band
  • TV Show