Each reality TV show number one so far asked and answered different questions about the format, as it grew and mutated well beyond its originators’ designs. Hear’Say were a dramatic proof of concept – lash a story to a record and it could sell millions. Will and Gareth showed you could trust the public and maybe even get a viable career artist out of it. Sneddon ran up against the limits of artistic freedom. Girls Aloud showed maybe those limits weren’t binding.

But it’s Michelle McManus, the second and final Pop Idol, that brings the first phase of reality pop to a close. She was a plump Scots twentysomething with the kind of unflashy belting voice that delights pubs up and down Britain – an approach to singing and performance which became the Achilles heel of reality pop. The public tended to love it on stage a hell of a lot more than the judges did. But they broadly shared said judges’ opinion on whether it was worth buying.

Not that the voice was the issue here. Reality pop was a fundamentally narrative format, not a musical one, and the question Michelle asked of it was this – what happens when the judges, and the press, and the public don’t agree on what the right story is? 

The public story was pro-Michelle and the reasons are clear enough now – after “Killing In The Name” and Boaty McBoatface and so many more. Michelle McManus wasn’t the kind of person who won reality pop shows, which meant she had to win it.

The moralistic wing of the tabloid press either didn’t get this or affected not to – a fat (and by all appearances contentedly fat) celebrity was a breach in a broader construction of normality. Some journalists conjured up a fat bloc vote (the Scottish bloc vote was likelier by far) or affected to see gross threats to public health in Michelle’s very mild ignorance of her allotted place.

It’s the judges’ response, though, that shows the fission between the original concept of reality pop as a talent show and its flowering as a seasonal soap with a record at the end. Pete Waterman – the man, let’s recall, who brought us Sonia – walked out in disgust at the prospect of a winner so obviously unsuited to a longer career. Simon Cowell, on the other hand, supported Michelle, at least initially. Perhaps he saw the possibility in the narrative approach. Perhaps – more cynically – he saw the potential of damaging a brand he didn’t wholly own to make room for one he did.

In the middle of all this is Michelle McManus herself, whose pop career was exactly as successful as everyone thought it would be, and whose record is even more an afterthought than most winner’s singles. Except it’s actually one of the better ones. The Westlife crew – our old pals Steve Mac, Wayne Hector et al – were brought in to write “All This Time”, and there’s more life to it than anything they’d given the Irish boys in a while. The thought of an “Evergreen” or “Pure And Simple” size payout sharpened the mind, you’d imagine.

I’m not saying it’s a good song or even worth a listen – once you’ve heard one Wayne Hector chest-pounder, you’ve heard enough. But it’s a good winner’s single, because it wholly embraces the reality show narrative and draws energy from it. And because Michelle probably knew it was her one big moment in the spotlight, she sells it hard too.

It’s a final act song, triumph snatched from the jaws of defeat, the kind of thing you couldn’t storm in with as a launch single unless you’d had the booster rockets of Pop Idol to push you higher and earn the story – and it’s made more effective by being the end of that story, not the beginning.

Score: 3

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