One possible reason Popstars’ producers risked an unconventional song with Girls Aloud: the show itself had competition. The BBC approached the reality TV era warily, but there was no way the Corporation could stay fully aloof from those kind of viewer numbers. Still, appearances had to be kept up – if the BBC was going to run a talent show, then by jingo it would involve real talent. And, in pop terms, that meant songwriting.

The resulting show, Fame Academy, was originally developed by Endemol as a Pop Idol/Big Brother crossbreed – the novelty was that the contestants all lived together in a house being taught the ways of stardom (Academy, see?). The BBC’s publicity leaned heavily on the teaching aspect, perhaps hoping that an educational aura would somehow settle on a show clearly designed to steal ITV’s Popstars thunder.

Instead, it gave me – and I assume others, since Fame Academy wasn’t the hoped-for blockbuster – the impression that the whole show was going to be didactic and joyless. I also felt like enormous emphasis was being placed on songwriting as the element which would separate out the real talent of Fame Academy from the manufactured flotsam of those other shows. Perhaps, as a several-year veteran of Internet pop discourse, I was over-sensitive to that talk, but it seemed to bode ill. I passed.

So the first I really knew of Fame Academy was when David Sneddon got to Number One with the first-ever solo self-penned reality show winner’s record. At which point all my most jaded and prejudiced assumptions were proved appallingly right.

From its opening lines rhyming “café” and “coffee”, “Stop Living The Lie” is one of the greatest advertisements for song doctoring and professional writing the charts have ever seen. The problem – which should have been obvious from the beginning – is that while the craft of modern pop involves a huge range of musical, technical, engineering, performance and studio skills, the image of a songwriter in the public mind is a bloke with an acoustic guitar or a piano. That is what they wanted and that is what they got, in the unbearably earnest form of David Sneddon.

Is “Stop Living A Lie” about anything? It certainly is! Well, I think it is. It’s sung and written to sound like it is – there’s about-ness in every pained note. It might be about religion, in which case it’s very on the nose indeed: “We all have a saviour / Do yourself a favour”. It might be about true love. It might be about all the lonely people, where do they all belong, except in this version Father MacKenzie and Eleanor have a nice cup of tea together and it all works out fine. Someone is living a lie, but what that lie actually is? Not so sure. There’s a “he” and “she” who live lives of vague bleakness – Sneddon comes across as being more interested in the notion of writing a song with characters in than the more specific work of actually making any up.

In other words, it’s a bad song by a beginning songwriter, ponderous and hand-wavey but probably no better or worse than most people’s first efforts. Except Sneddon’s are being pushed into standing as exemplars for Proper Talent and his single is in a situation where it was likely to get to the top however dubiously undercooked it was. This is, ironically, a far worse abuse of the charts than Pop Idol pulled, as there was no pretence Gareth or Will were anything but attractive young fellows singing the song they’d been given, which has been an element in pop since its dawn. Stop living the lie, indeed.

Sneddon’s fame was quickly academic, but he’s gone on to a successful songwriting career, so I assume he got the basics sorted in the end. In some ways he’s a figure ahead of his time. If you’d asked me in January 2003 which of “Stop Living The Lie” or “Sound Of The Underground” would sound more like British pop in the 2010s, I’d have picked the high street futurism of Girls Aloud over the awkward young singer-songwriter guy. Wrong.

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