11
Jun 14

BOYZONE – “No Matter What”

FT + Popular49 comments • 2,942 views

#798, 15th August 1998

nmw “No Matter What” has an elevated position in Boyzone’s catalogue. It’s their big crossover hit, the one by songwriters of real mass-appeal pedigree – Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jim Steinman – and the only one to have done well in the USA. You might see it as Boyzone asking to be taken seriously, except it fits so well with the stately, windy ballads they were already making: this isn’t a stylistic change so much as a levelling up in songwriting competence. There’s an efficiency to the hook and a solidity to the structure here which you’d expect from two men made swinishly wealthy by their ability to pull out a show-stopping ballad.

Those abilities had been expressed in quite different ways. A glance down a list of Lloyd Webber hits – “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”, “Memory”, “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” – suggests one of his fortes is the philosophical ballad, the song that ties a bow on a lead character’s internal drama and sells it to the audience. But of course the details of this are very much down to his librettist, which is why the Jim Steinman team-up seemed so odd and (on paper) intriguing. Steinman got famous for songs where intimacy gets blown up to IMAX size, where interior drama isn’t so much packaged up as exploded in the audience’s faces, and then when the embers settle all the pyromania hides human feelings after all. If Lloyd Webber needs a lyricist for maximum effect, Steinman needs a voice that doesn’t just ride the bluster but puts its foot on the accelerator to make the song even bigger.

By these expectations, “No Matter What” is a very damp squib. Steinman doesn’t get his voice, he gets the maudlin strainings of Ronan et al. But Lloyd Webber doesn’t get his lyricist either – he gets Steinman ringing the changes on a three-word phrase to abstracting and tedious effect. Which means whatever the basic strength of the melody, I end up feeling “No Matter What” stretches itself desperately thin.

But an analysis of what might have been only explains why “No Matter What” is a disappointment – not why I particularly dislike it. And I do: in fact I detest it. It’s the least bearable thing by Boyzone I’ve covered so far, something which goes beyond an off-day by a pair of well-known writers. Trying to pin down the peculiarly bad taste it leaves, I keep coming back to “No Matter What”’s theme.

In Whistle Down The Wind, this is sung by a bunch of kids who have met a hairy guy in a shed and think he’s Jesus. The song is about their faith in the man. But by extension – and freed from this context to roam free on radio – it’s a song about any kind of personal faith in the teeth of adversity. “No matter what they teach you,” runs the key line, “What you believe is true”. There’s a righteous strength in that, but paranoia too – as a sentiment, it could be a source of comfort and strength to anyone on the losing side of a social argument, from apostates to anti-vaxxers. There is one moment – the most Steinmanesque bit of the song – where Boyzone solemnly assert that if prayers were answered, the words God would utter are… the chorus of “No Matter What”. It’s comical, but it makes complete sense: in a self-centred worldview, that kind of ultimate underwriting of belief is all faith is. This is my truth: don’t tell me yours.

So the more universal a pop song gets, the woollier it gets too – big surprise. If “No Matter What” walks a line between strength and complacency, it’s down to the performers and what they bring to it to push it one way or the other. And Boyzone certainly do. As usual, the group are here to soothe: they tie “No Matter What” back to romance in the second half, when it becomes more explicitly a song for persecuted lovers, but there’s no struggle in the singing, just creamy, self-satisfied reassurance . There’s been plenty of care taken over the arrangement – the final seconds, with the members of the band finishing each other’s lines, standing together, are certainly a thoughtful touch. But confronted with a notionally defiant Boyzone, I’m left with the same disquiet I had facing one who wanted to take a stand and change the world, on “A Different Beat”: I don’t believe you.

This might seem plainly unfair. “No Matter What”‘s dogged devotion – its affirmation that your feelings matter – isn’t taking it places “Viva Forever” doesn’t visit too. But there you go: it’s hard for me to give this mob a fair shake. It turns out that the incompetence, shoddiness, overreach and dreariness that characterised Boyzone’s earlier hits weren’t my problem with them. This is them scrubbed up and with their strongest material, and still almost every decision they make – including and especially those nerve-scraping “Chika-ahh-ahh-ahh” breaths at the start – makes me cross. Some bands get worse when they’re at their best.

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Comments

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  1. 26
    Auntie Beryl on 13 Jun 2014 #

    And Shane Lynch has been told to ‘be Howard Donald’.

  2. 27
    Izzy on 13 Jun 2014 #

    Boogie Brothers’ ‘Inferno’ hit no.1 during Stardust’s reign here. It was a surprise to see such a hard-edged industrial track go all the way, though a lot of the appeal may have been Yvonne Elliman’s gorgeous, soulful wordless melody on the surprising piano coda. (8)

    It was succeeded by Monstarr Bunch with ‘Step On It’, the No Doubt revival being in full swing by this point. It’s decent enough if a way short of their preceding LP Parti Jamz (every frat house lived off this in 1997); but it was nice to see co-vocalist Muggs, ‘the GG Allin it’s safe to hug’, score a no.1 before his ill-fated cross-Pacific swimathon. It also made for one of the most memorable TOTPs ever. (6)

    No.2 watch: Dave Stavroz’ ‘Hot Lips’ (a Curiosity Killed The Cat-influenced number honed on Dave’s days working the Medway jazz scene), and Keni’s proto-afrobeat monster ‘Lust In My Head’.

  3. 28
    James Masterton on 13 Jun 2014 #

    I make no comment on its musical worth, save to note that No Matter What was a massive, massive single in its day.

    Holds the record as not only the biggest selling single by an Irish act ever, but also the biggest selling song taken from a stage musical, eclipsing Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.

    Also consider this…

    Number of number one hits produced by Jim Steinman for the rock acts he is generally associated with: 2

    Number of number one hits produced by Jim Steinman for cheesy 90s boy bands: 2

  4. 29
    Rory on 13 Jun 2014 #

    I’ve inadvertently tested this song’s earworm potential by listening to it precisely once when Tom’s entry went up and not at all since – and can still remember the tune note-for-note today, so that’s a plus for Lloyd-Webber’s contribution. Not his finest tune by a long shot, but still memorable.

    On that first listen the production annoyed me no end, as with all of Boyzone’s work, but I’ve given a couple of their past hits a 3, so production alone doesn’t drive their songs into 1 territory for me. I was so focussed on the surface of the song that I didn’t pay much attention to the lyrics, but after Tom’s review I’ve studied them more closely, and ye gods, they’re appalling. Jim Steinman has gone down in my estimation a fair few notches this week.

    On one level I can see them being read as simple affirmation of a young couple’s love for one another in the face of hostility from friends and family. No doubt that’s what drove the song to the top in Britain. But a blind-faith religious interpretation is also possible, and makes it surprising that this didn’t do more business in the US, or at least in the midwest. (Perhaps that’s why it got what little chart support it did there, though.)

    For my part, I find the sentiment of “No matter what they teach you / What we believe is true” totally toxic. It’s the worst aspects of cultural relativism in lyric form. It’s fundamentally anti-science, anti-rationality: a total eclipse of the brain. Lately my life-long environmentalist side has been preoccupied by climate science and its deniers, and this attitude seems to me exactly the sort of outlook that makes such denial possible. Ignore the evidence of the real world, ignore the expertise or experience of others: what you believe is true, because God says so.

    Jesus. 1.

  5. 30
    Rory on 13 Jun 2014 #

    #22: It’s going to seem strange not to be referring to “Bunnied Welsh Band” any more.

  6. 31
    Tom on 13 Jun 2014 #

    Thankfully, fans of the “bunnied welsh band” formulation can just switch to the St*r**ph*n*cs.

  7. 32
    chelovek na lune on 13 Jun 2014 #

    ” But a blind-faith religious interpretation is also possible, and makes it surprising that this didn’t do more business in the US, or at least in the midwest. (Perhaps that’s why it got what little chart support it did there, though.) ”

    Probably because the message is completely antithetical to any kind of religious message ,and very obviously so. I am no fan whatsover of the kind of “contemporary Christian” music that does play well in certain circles (and more so in the US than in the UK), nor the kind of theology that tends to accompany it, but however it is summarised, relativism of the sort that this song exemplifies precisely what it is not. Soft woolly fluffiness is not a bedfellow of religious fundamentalism, but of indifference (and not of a commitment to wholehearted secularism or science, or of anything except self-satisfaction, really). I suppose Amy Grant is the nearest that any US artist of this type came to crossing over in the UK, and then with less religious stuff – at least as regards singles – but on the associated albums the lyrics of the more Christians songs are a million miles away from those here! They tend to be challenging and even introspective, rather than self-satisfied and complacent!

    Actually – I think there is an interesting debate to be had, much later on, and as a spin-off of debate on one future no 1 in particular, on the dramatic change of attitudes towards religious belief in Ireland in recent decades as evidenced in Irish popular music (with the attitude expressed in “No Matter What” reflecting a particular point in that shift).

    But just the thought of all the myxomatosis-afflicted Irish bunnies we have to face before we get to that point is almost too depressing for words. And they are all I have…

  8. 33
    Rory on 13 Jun 2014 #

    I agree, fundamentalism is antithetical to relativism, but that relates to my point about the lyrics being open to multiple interpretations. One of those could be attractive to a fundamentalist mindset: if you read from “Then we would hear God say” onwards as if the “I” is the voice of God and “they” is secular society, the whole song becomes about not what you, the individual, believe, but what we, the collective followers of our faith, believe to be true.

    I don’t personally interpret the lyrics that way; I interpret them as relativist, precisely because they have that “insert your belief here and these lyrics will justify it” quality. Because my own outlook is scientific, I refuse to take them up on it, because I don’t see that as being how truth works. But I imagine that anyone who does take them up on it wouldn’t see them as relativist: they would see them as justifying their own position.

    Re: “on the dramatic change of attitudes towards religious belief in Ireland in recent decades as evidenced in Irish popular music”: and other branches of popular culture. Graham Linehan said somewhere that he couldn’t have (co-)written Father Ted today, because its affectionate portrait of its priests would be so at odds with all we’ve heard in recent years. I was thinking about that this week with the horrific news from Galway. Sinead was a prophet before her time.

    (An aside: curious to see what she’s said about recent news, I checked her website, and from there found that she had a mere 391 followers on Twitter. Staggeringly low, really. Now 392.)

  9. 34
    Steve Mannion on 13 Jun 2014 #

    #27 Wow I didn’t know Boogie Bros. and Monstarr Bunch were real acts – they are both referenced in the ‘Music Sounds Better With You’ video (as the kid in it watches a chart rundown on TV). The video didn’t emerge until quite a few weeks after Stardust peaked at #2 here.

  10. 35
    glue_factory on 13 Jun 2014 #

    Re: 34, looking at the French wikipedia for Stardust (mon Francais non est bien, so I may be wrong) I suspect Izzy’s comment is a rather sly one :-)

  11. 36
    ace inhibitor on 13 Jun 2014 #

    thefatgit@14 – ‘your boyzone took a hell of a beating’, surely…

  12. 37
    thefatgit on 13 Jun 2014 #

    #36 :-))

  13. 38
    Patrick Mexico on 14 Jun 2014 #

    I’m back! At an ungodly hour. Thanks, World Cup.

    But I’m delighted to be back on FT. Older, wiser, sorted my life out – this time I will try to post a little bit less like a crazed fictional dictator. Delighted Tom’s ploughing through the late nineties like Mr. Mercedes.

    @11 – Aye, Mysterious Times was excellent, a rare high-charting trance records that genuinely thrills me, up there with Bullet in the Gun and Plummet – Damaged (one of the few trance records with an alt-country source!)

    In both MT and the first #1 album of 1985, the lyrics forewarn us of an even more dangerous boyband. Can’t give away the bunny, but I can give away something about a warm injection (I know)

    I’m also back in Clitheroe – Whistle Down The Wind was set in the surrounding villages, particularly Downham. Had fond childhood memories of that place, whole days spent throwing sticks into streams. (Sorry.. so sorry. Just one more won’t hurt.. ;) )

    Any chance of salvaging local pride from NMW? Sorry, nope. The only essence of the Ribble Valley here is that Boyzone sound like sheep (literally.) And sing a song about being them. (Metaphorically.) But the chorus is better than most things in this genre, for example latter-day Arcade Fire. 2.

  14. 39
    swanstep on 14 Jun 2014 #

    Since Patrick@38′s mentioned the WC, what a cracking start this tournament’s had (good effort Aussies!), and good luck to all Popularista-supported teams, including of course England tomorrow. (All the Anglosphere teams are in beast groups, which is making for a very exciting first phase of the tournament in my household, and I’d guess for Popularistas generally.)

    @rory, 29, 33. Yeah, it’s bizarre hearing certain US right-wingers run all sorts of relativist/post-modernist lines to defend themselves against science when they’re wildly non-relativist/absolutist about morals (and much else).

  15. 40
    ace inhibitor on 14 Jun 2014 #

    I don’t think NMW is relativist. A relativist lyric here would go ‘No matter what they teach us / we need to challenge the foundationalist assumptions of that knowledge / and interrogate the ways in which it is paradigmatically constructed in the world’ which doesn’t scan as well but is, y’know, better (and not incompatible with a scientific rationality). What NMW is, is solipsistic.

  16. 41
    chelovek na lune on 14 Jun 2014 #

    #40 hmm, not sure I entirely agree – also, only a certain Bunnied Welsh Band would come up with a lyric that so combines bad scansion with a not necessarily perfectly applied intellectual precision. (BAITS THE BUNNY FURIOUSLY)

  17. 42
    Rory on 14 Jun 2014 #

    #40: I’d call yours a postmodernist lyric. NMW is like the crude stereotype of relativism that critics of postmodernism accuse it of being.

  18. 43
    Cumbrian on 18 Jun 2014 #

    If you tolerate this, Westlife will be next.

    I didn’t think this was quite that bad, though still very bad, but the comments have helped alerted me to the lyrical problems that this song has. Difficult to see it as anything other than hateful now.

  19. 45
    skpow on 24 Jun 2014 #

    I can’t find it on the net but thought I’d mention that the popularity of the next number one saw the title used to protest against the silvermines in Tipperary Ireland becoming a landfill site. True fact and it seems contextually relevant! http://www.anphoblacht.com/contents/4301

  20. 46
    fivelongdays on 24 Jun 2014 #

    Waiting, somewhat impatiently, for Tom to make his pronouncement about the next entry…

  21. 47
    Tom on 24 Jun 2014 #

    Sorry, sorry, huge apologies for leaving you with Ronan and the lads for ages. I blame the World Cup. Anyway, bunnied Welsh band is BUNNIED NO LONGER.

  22. 48
    ciaran on 4 Jul 2014 #

    Ah Tom of all times to give this lot a 1.It’s not that bad!

    It’s probably their most agreeable thing they did popular wise.I would say whats left of them is more deserving of a lower mark than this. 5

  23. 49
    Zacco on 13 Nov 2014 #

    I generally don’t like boy bands so unsurprisingly I’m not a fan of this. The only Boyzone song I’m familiar with and I have little motivation on exploring their catalogue further. I don’t hate it but I don’t like it much either. Vocally it’s bland and very uninteresting. The whole thing is a chore to sit through and I wish it had ended a minute earlier. The production is probably the only thing here I find redeeming here and even that is nothing noteworthy. Poor man’s Take That for sure. It (just) gets a 3 from me.

    If anything, the worst thing about this record going to #1 is it blocking Music Sounds Better With You (which would get a 10 from me) from #1. I don’t know a lot about UK #2 hits, but this would go up there as one of the worst blockages from #1 ever for me. Blocking Sash!’s Mysterious Times is also annoying, not just because the song is very good but also because of the unlucky run of #2s that Sash! had in the UK. Blocking these two songs is only made worse due to the fact that Boyzone had 5 other #1s and that this blends in with so many other similar songs by boy bands. This only got to #5 here in Australia, but it spent 16 weeks in the top 10 and 29 in the top 50. So undeserving of such a chart run.

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