I’ve talked about Dr Phil Sandifer’s TARDIS Eruditorum blog before on Tumblr, but I’ve held off mentioning it here until this post, for hopefully obvious reasons. TARDIS Eruditorum is a critical Doctor Who blog which has been running since 2011 and will end this year. Its format – which Sandifer calls psychochronography – should be familiar to Popular readers: take a cultural object with a long history, and write about it in chronological order. Naturally, writing about the thing ends up meaning writing around the thing. My brother gave me the first three volumes of the book edition of Eruditorum for Christmas, and it was the kick in the arse I needed to really get moving on Popular again.
Eruditorum is tremendous, a mighty achievement. The workrate is boggling, the insight – about a fearsomely well-covered topic – is top-notch, the comments are friendly, the perspective is original. But my favourite thing about it is the structure – the way posts build over weeks, set up recurring concepts, pay off far later, and delight in the formal experiment and play that Sandifer occasionally unleashes within entries. If you don’t like Doctor Who, you might prefer his other epic project – begun last year – a history of British comics from the 1980s on called The Last War In Albion. (Go and look at its Kickstarter, which I’ve backed and might take your fancy too.)
Obviously, narrativisation is something Doctor Who lends itself to more than, say, the charts do, but even so Eruditorum’s narrative is beautifully done, and it’s been a big (and bleedin’ obvious) influence on me this year, not least in demonstrating that a three-posts-a-week workrate gives you a lot more leeway to spread out thematically. Narrativisation is something I’ve resisted doing in Popular, first because it started as an exercise in ignorance (what can I get out of music I know nothing about, without finding anything out?), then because it’s been flitting around and between a well-established story, and demonstrating the arbitrariness of pop success rather than pop’s progress or cohesion seemed far more to the point.
But I’m now getting to the point where existing histories of pop start to drop away. People have talked about what’s happened (or hasn’t happened) in music over the last fifteen years or so, but the stories haven’t quite settled – or at least, the ones that have are often told by more distanced and unsympathetic observers. It certainly isn’t clear that the UK’s number ones are the sensible or right way to tell such stories – Popular will always have more noise than signal – but I’ve found a few good threads to pull on here.
Billie Piper turns out to be a good place to start unravelling one. She is, of course, now more famous for playing Rose Tyler, one of the leads in the revived Doctor Who series. One of the most joyful moments of my dancing, listening, and fannish life was running Club Popular just before the new series began, and Steve Mannion mixing “Doctorin’ The TARDIS” into “Because We Want To”. I’d like to say I always believed Billie would be good, but I honestly had no idea. Whatever she was going to be like, for those five minutes I was totally up for it.
So Billie’s trajectory went from post-Spice pop star to gossip column regular to co-star in the BBC’s most famous show. But it didn’t start there. Before she got a record deal she’d starred in a handful of Smash Hits ads in 1997. Jumping around, scrambling up to the camera, arms swinging, gum blowing, declaring “100% pure pop”. A deal swiftly followed.
Smash Hits in 1997 was not as confident a magazine as its ads suggested. For all that its heyday in the early 80s had seen it bash margins and mainstream together with irrepressible glee and real impact, it had endured a tougher 1990s – successes with Take That and Peter Andre, but harder going in the heyday of Britpop. Now it saw another opportunity: with pop arcing younger, there was territory to claim. Hence the Billie ads – this loping, laughing 15 year old was Smash Hits’ pick as the face of pop.
But what is pop in 1998? What could Billie be the face of? There’s a negative case, put eloquently by commenter Iconoclast in the B*Witched thread:
“this once vital popular art has become commodified, sanitised, neutered, tamed, and bastardised to the level of unthreatening aural wallpaper you can pick up in the supermarket as background music for a dinner party with your parents; in retrospect, this is (probably unwittingly) laying the ground for the eventual Cowellisation (in a broad sense) of popular music, to be lapped up by a compliant and carefully-groomed public who would be baffled by the idea that things could ever have been different.”
Iconoclast represents one broad orthodoxy on pop music in the post-Britpop years. As you might guess, I think this is a bit simplistic – to take one example, while I’m not going to pretend Simon Cowell is remotely a force for good, his influence on pop has been far more contested and complex than “Cowellisation” implies. The rest of pop conspicuously fails to adopt Cowell’s dreary formulae, and his forte lies in building hostile fiefdoms which have a horrifyingly good success rate at launching raids on the charts but leave very little changed in their wake.
That’s getting ahead of myself, though. And just because I reject this radically negative version of pop as a whole doesn’t mean I don’t see where it’s coming from. Things were fundamentally changing, and changing in ways many people would see as a loss. Billie, in fact, is a fine example of this, precisely by virtue of being on Doctor Who. She successfully crossed the tracks between pop star and actor – a notoriously difficult journey that tended to leave pop musicians looking horribly embarrassed. But Billie was a triumph.
So how does she cross these tracks? What Billie Piper had that a lot of previous stars lacked was theatre school training, at the Sylvia Young school (a miserable experience, by her own later account). This is one of the big late-90s pivots in British pop – the point at which stage school really started to become the training ground for a pop career. And to accentuate the shift – though one trend does not cause the other – it happens when the art school tradition that had fed into UK pop since Lennon and Stu Sutcliffe has begun to sputter out, a victim of funding cuts and the end of student grants.
The rise of stage schools following the decline of art schools has an ongoing effect on who gets to be pop stars in Britain, a shift in emphasis that also shapes the critical reception of UK pop music. Critics train themselves to spot and respond to the kind of qualities the art-pop tradition fosters: self-expression, conceptual fluency, executing your ideas well. The story of British pop in the 60s is – partly, at least – the story of people discovering how fantastic an arena pop was for those qualities.
A performing arts education – I apologise for the vast and possibly ignorant generalisations I’m committing here – is set up for slightly different things. Performance, obviously. The discipline and craft to repeat those performances. And the ability to inhabit, interpret and communicate material, deeply and quickly. Pop music should benefit hugely from that stuff too – though almost nobody, whatever their education, gets to be famous in pop while being awful at communicating and performing.
It’s not that one educational tradition is good for pop and that one is bad. It’s not that a stage school background means you won’t be great at the kind of things art school brought to pop. And there’s always a cartload of other things happening outside either. But the rise of performing arts influence was bound to have an impact.
It’s relevant that Sylvia Young pupil Billie Piper got to notch up number ones and then dance over to acting. It used to be that acting was a famously terrible pop move. Now music and acting are both options in a more general entertainment career – the old light entertainment model that worked for Cliff Richard and Adam Faith, back again. But it’s also relevant that Billie, the 15 year old face of pop on TV in 1997, gets to cross from audience to performer so quickly. It suggests an ideal of pop stardom that plays, at least, at being democratic. Pop in the art school tradition was something alien, something that might drop into your world and help you fall out of it. Billie’s version of pop is something you step up and become part of.
Why? How? Because you want to. “Because We Want To” is an awkward if likeable thing, a mash-up of two kinds of teenage autonomy songs. One – mainly in the chorus – is a battle cry of domestic rebellion in all its snotty, petty and essential glory. That’s all about doing what you want, and if it’s pointless and banal to the grown-ups – “why do you hang around in crowds?” – so much the better. The verses song – perfect for a vision of pop meritocracy – is about being who you want, following your dreams. “Some revolution is gonna happen today,” Billie sings, but it’s a positivity revolt, where the battles happen around mood and attitude, “We’re gonna chase the dark clouds away”.
The do-what-you-want song is honestly the stronger one here, probably because it’s a lot older: its roots go back to the Fifties and generation-gap tracks like “Yakety Yak”. It’s hard to go too wrong with snotty teen rebels, however corny and carefully constructed they are. The be-who-you-want song, though, feels more modern – an approach one that’ll really come into its own in the 00s and 10s with Christina Aguilera and Katy Perry. In this form it’s too frothy, though. It can’t build the demolishing momentum it needs, it has to stand back for the other Billie, kicking over bins, stomping her feet and wanting to dance all night. That version is simply more fun.
The devil, unfortunately, is in the execution, particularly the music, which is often the great weakness of theatre school British pop. You can have a charismatic performer, but too frequently there’s an apparent assumption they can settle for second-rate backing. Here it’s the kind of light R&B we saw on the Spice Girls’ “Say You’ll Be There” – already a little dated in 1996, but sold on unexpected touches (the P-Funk, the harmonica) which “Because We Want To” doesn’t deliver. And it’s the part where Billie quotes the Spices where the song falls over hardest, nudging her towards rapping, where she loses any hope of sounding like a force of teenage nature and ends up at a kids’ TV approximation of streetwise. “If you want to catch a ride then GET WITH US!”. As Billie’s predecessor on Doctor Who would have said: wicked, Professor.