Popular

29
Sep 14

BRITNEY SPEARS – “…Baby One More Time”

Popular94 comments • 3,222 views

#817, 21st February 1999

bomt How was I supposed to know that something wasn’t right?

It was a gilded age: the commercial zenith of the music industry at the end of the 20th century. In America, its apex as a money-making force came in 1999 when – adjusted for inflation – $71 per head was spent on music, a small box set for every man, woman and child in the country. Other countries hit the summit a little later, but they hit it. Did the industry see a crisis coming? Certainly – the Digital Millennium Copyright Act passed in the USA weeks after “….Baby One More Time” was released. But the biz was surely overconfident, it had seen its way through busts before. In 1981, when Britney Jean Spears was born, the industry was financially stagnant, caught in a recession-hit decline after the unsustained mini-boom of disco. It climbed back thanks to technology, and kept climbing. CD revenues rose and rose, and the machine to ensure they would not stop rising grew slicker and faster: radio, TV, promoters, manufacturers, labels, press and retailers meshing ever more efficiently in the pursuit of getting people to take home silver discs. And here we are at the top of the growth charts: peak pop.

25
Sep 14

LENNY KRAVITZ – “Fly Away”

Popular49 comments • 1,849 views

#816, 20th February 1999

kravitz To get it out of the way: a dodo, a rhea, an emu, a penguin. “Fly Away” has the same chance of getting off the ground as any of them – a stolid, earthbound tramp of a song, anchored by a riff and a groove that does too much to be actually heavy but never enough to soar. Perhaps that’s the point – flight as an impossible aspiration. If so, Lenny makes it too hard and too long. Its basic rhymes poke weakly at me – wish I could FLY so very HIGH like a dragonFLY – but Kravitz gives them a throaty push to let me know he’s shooting for passionate, meaningful even. After a bit it strikes me – this circular trudge is a shoegaze record with the effects turned off, a #nofilters snapshot of a Ride song. And who needs that?

14
Sep 14

BLONDIE – “Maria”

Popular79 comments • 3,198 views

#815, 13th February 1999

blondmaria Whatever Jimmy Destri meant when he wrote “Maria”, it isn’t a song about a woman: it’s a song about men’s reaction to women – lust, fantasy, resentment, projection and ultimately psychosis. Debbie Harry – the most gazed-upon pop star of her era – diagnoses the problem as succinctly as anyone has: “Don’t you want to break her? Don’t you want to take her home?” She sounds suitably withering, singing as someone who well knows that the two impulses are not often separable.

11
Sep 14

ARMAND VAN HELDEN – “You Don’t Know Me”

Popular18 comments • 1,377 views

#814, 6th February 1999

armand The micropolitics of “featuring” credits on dance records is a fascinating world. Duane Harden – who wrote and sang the words to “You Don’t Know Me” – gets no sleeve credit on the UK release, but did on the US. Rightly so – his angry, wounded performance gives the record most of its flavour. “You don’t even know me / You say that I’m not living right / You don’t understand me / So why do you judge my life?” – even though Van Helden was on the ascendant globally, house and garage music in New York had strong roots as a music by and for the city’s minorities, and Harden’s defiant lyrics speak to that. If the sentiment resonated with house’s black, gay and Hispanic fanbase in 1998, its appeal since has hardly narrowed: constant, public judgement is the condition of online life, and it’s a burden as unequally distributed as ever.

9
Sep 14

THE OFFSPRING – “Pretty Fly (For A White Guy)”

Popular56 comments • 2,870 views

#813, 30th January 1999

offspring Whatever else boybands call to mind, they rarely make me think of being a boy. Mostly, they are a man’s idea of a girl’s idea of boys, and sometimes – by design, or an accident of casting – some of the pungency of boydom makes it through that filter. The music young boys like and relate to is something else entirely. This song, for instance, in its yelping, jumping clatter, in its broad swings at soft targets, feels very much like being a boy felt. And in something else, too: its meanness.

4
Sep 14

911 – “A Little Bit More”

Popular56 comments • 1,913 views

#812, 23 January 1999

911b The formation of minor boyband 911 is a telling vignette of how pop in the late 90s was working. The general boyband narrative is one where a managerial Svengali recruits rosy-cheeked poppets who emerge three or four years later, a little wiser, hopefully richer, and generally sporting unfortunate facial hair as a sign that they are now their Own Man. They celebrate cutting their ties with the pop machine by falling into complete obscurity, and then it’s all over bar the reality show reunions. It’s a career.

31
Aug 14

FATBOY SLIM – “Praise You”

Popular23 comments • 1,986 views

#811, 16th January 1999

praise you Norman Cook had ridden across 1998 in triumph, building his Fatboy Slim persona into a dependably gonzo pop brand. On “The Rockefeller Skank” he’d pushed his machines hard enough to break them, the track unspooling into a chaos of jammed samples, the sound equivalent of a stuck keyboard keyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy. Following in that greatest of pop traditions, it sounded brilliant so he kept it in.

Then built on it: under a bouncy – and annoying – brass and vocal sample, “Gangsta Tripping” was a ball pit of joyful splices and rapid cuts. His remix for Wildchild’s “Renegade Master” was harder-edged, pushing cut-up repetition to brutal levels before taking his hand off the brake for moments of delicious dancefloor relief. How far would he push it? “Praise You” starts off slow and intimate – the bassy roll of a piano riff, and a sample of Camille Yarborough’s “Take Yo’ Praise” – and then slips into his longest stuck-sound yet, the word “should” extended second upon ludicrous second. It sounds like the gateway to the biggest, baddest Fatboy beat-drop yet… but instead he does something else. The trapped-fly buzz of the “should” falls back into the track, overcome as the rest of the groove builds up. The song gets gentler.

30
Aug 14

STEPS – “Heartbeat” / “Tragedy”

Popular40 comments • 1,624 views

#810, 9th January 1999

steps This is the first Popular entry I’ve written in the Southern hemisphere. And while it wasn’t a big hit down under – or, I think, anywhere except the UK – “Tragedy” moved one of my marvellous Australian hosts to asset that it was the greatest pop performance of all time. His other comment was that this review should just be the “Tragedy” dance, done by me, as a gif. I’ve spared you that, at least.

But that’s “Tragedy” summed up – it’s a record with an outsize reputation in some quarters, and certainly it’s Steps’ big cultural moment. And it’s also a cover version with an extremely easy dance step. This was part of Steps’ initial concept, when Pete Waterman decided he could do more with them than the line-dancing cash-in they started off with. Steps by name, Steps by brand: each single would come with its signature dance. It was a shrewd gimmick, though it’s the other half of the concept that interests me more – Waterman decided Steps would stand out in an age of bubblegum and R&B inspired groups by offering “ABBA on speed”: big, melodic, heart-on-sleeve pop.

15
Aug 14

CHEF – “Chocolate Salty Balls”

Popular36 comments • 2,489 views

#809, 2nd January 1999

chefcsb Every so often on Popular I hit a knowledge gap that there’s simply no way of talking around, and this is one. I have only ever seen one episode of South Park, after the pub one night, sometime in its first flush of success. I didn’t like it enough to watch more, and that turned out to be it for me and the show – this single aside. If you want a comment on South Park, how “Chocolate Salty Balls” fits into it, its cultural significance – well, the box is open, and I know a lot of the writers here are fans.

With that large and necessary context torn out, what independent life can this song have? Quite a lot. It’s the first outright comedy record to get to #1 since “The Stonk”, but the gap in care, structure and wit between the songs is colossal. There’s none of the soul-shrivelling forced bonhomie of Red Nose Day about this record, where you herd the comics of the day into a studio and pray something half-funny emerges. This is a return to a seventies model – funny songs that got to Number One because they made people laugh.

13
Aug 14

Popular ’98

Popular38 comments • 1,168 views

I give every record on Popular a mark out of 10. This poll is your chance to tick any singles YOU would have given 6 or more to. In 1998 my top score was a 9 for Cornershop, my lowest a 1 for Boyzone’s “No Matter What”. Use the comments to discuss the year in general, present other lists, etc etc.

Which of the Number Ones of 1998 would you give 6 or more to?

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Poll closes: No Expiry

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