May 14

BILLIE – “Because We Want To”

Popular58 comments • 6,372 views

#794, 11th July 1998

billie because Pop Between Realities, Home In Time For TOTP

I’ve talked about El 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 her 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.



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  1. 31
    wichitalineman on 23 May 2014 #

    Helen Shapiro was 14 when You Don’t Know was no.1, and turned 15 just before Walking Back To Happiness was on top.

  2. 32
    Auntie Beryl on 23 May 2014 #

    It’s a weird perspective that sees Billie Piper as more famous for Doctor Who than her pop hits.

    But then I know people that queue up to pay for autographs, so I know the market exists.

  3. 33
    Kinitawowi on 23 May 2014 #

    The seaside town of Hunstanton was not exactly a hotbed of teenage rebellion in 1998. It is in fact a deathbed of sleepy nothingness, a place where people go for one last breath of sea air before they expire from old age and boredom. When the old Pier Arcade – built on the last remnants of the old Hunstanton pier so “immortalised” by Deaf Havana – burnt down for reasons so obviously not arson and insurance related that nobody was ever able to find out the cause, the older residents petitioned for it not to be rebuilt because suddenly The Green led down to a view over The Wash.

    So, Because We Want To? We wasn’t us, and I absolutely didn’t want to. There was nowhere to dance all night, nowhere for the crowds to run around in. If we were going to go in for teenage rebellion, it wasn’t because of this song.

    But then, if the mountain won’t come to Muhammad, maybe Muhammad could go to the mountain.

    The BBC Radio 1 Roadshow had paid its first visit to Hunstanton in (I think) 1996. Attracted by the sea, the tourist levels, and The Green – whose slope down towards the seafront made for a half-decent natural amphitheatre – the town was reputedly a favourite stop of Chris Moyles, for reasons that are completely beyond my comprehension. He did apparently stop some kids being beaten up in front of the Golden Lion pub (once called the Sandringham Hotel – see my comments on Candle In The Wind ’97) once during his stay one time. But anyway. A whole motley crew of nobodies graced the town for a while; such luminaries as Dodgy, Baby Bird, Hepburn, one more bunny (in 1999, long (well, six months) after their fifteen minutes were up), and numerous others too anonymous to mention were as good as we got.

    1998’s Roadshow tour however was cut short by the World Cup. At Moyles’ insistence (so the story goes), Hunstanton remained on the billing; and so became the cultural highlight of Hunstanton’s 1990s, when we played host to Billie, Republica and The Lightning Seeds.

    Sixteen years have dulled the memory of this momentuous event somewhat, but the three most important things that stick out:

    1) Chris seemed to want to keep badgering Ian Broudie to do Three Lions. He refused, understandably (we were long out of the World Cup by then, Baddiel And Skinner weren’t there, and I had a sneaking suspicion that Broudie was getting sick of the song, a suspicion which frankly has never left).
    2) The most exciting song I heard that day was probably actually the lead track from Republica’s then newly released Speed Ballads album, From The Rush Hour With Love. (Ready To Go remains a beast of a song, though.)
    3) I still couldn’t stand Because We Want To. The chorus was still the same bratty crap that eighteen years of living in the middle of nowhere had conditioned me to hate and the verses were still dull as dishwater.

    The roadshow rolled on, people went home, the A149 was a flood of buses. Summer petered out, the tourists left. The town went back to sleep. The teens still had no real way to rebel; by most accounts, most of my peers who got stuck in the area ended up on heroin. Me? I had bigger plans; by the end of September, the University of Manchester was beckoning.


  4. 34
    mapman132 on 24 May 2014 #

    #29 So there *was* an attempt to break Billie in America. I don’t remember it, but then I wasn’t exactly the target demographic for this type of music. I’m pretty sure I’ve commented on previous threads about the inability of British/Irish boy/girl bands/singers to have sustained US success during this period. Usually each act in question would have exactly one Top 40 hit and no more (Billie didn’t even get that). B*Witched was a good example of this, and there’s many more to come. Notably, most of these one-hit wonders seem completely forgotten today in the US, at least if radio airplay and picking my friends’ brains is anything to go by. The causes of this whole phenomenon are still a mystery to me….

  5. 35
    mapman132 on 24 May 2014 #

    OK, at the risk of looking like I’m beating this topic into the ground, I decided to look at it a slightly different way:

    On the boys’ side, the Big 3 US boy bands at the time (Backstreet, NSync, 98 Deg) all were, to varying degrees, more successful in the US than the UK based on album and singles chart placements. So this may be part of the answer. Still, the US groups were generally more successful in the UK than the corresponding UK groups in the US.

    On the girls’ side, the previously mentioned “The Boy Is Mine” didn’t spend 13 weeks at #1 in the UK, but it still reached #2. Not bad, but the corresponding album flopped miserably in the UK. Monica had one more UK top ten and Brandy had a couple, but clearly they were more successful in the US. And then we still have You-Know-Who and You-Know-Who-Else to come. They did well enough on the UK singles chart that I can’t mention them by name yet, BUT I was surprised their UK album record was somewhat less impressive.

    So, in conclusion, maybe it’s just simple regionalism combined with the US’s much bigger population and therefore cultural influence.

  6. 36
    Andrew Farrell on 24 May 2014 #

    Obviously the real inspiration for the melty bin man in the video is “Rose”!

    I do like the way that she’s spreading sci-fi sparkles throughout, the source of which is eventually shown to be her Billie-brand belt buckle. On a similar note, always a big fan of videos that end with the artist’s name spelled out, a one-man “you have been watching”.

    As far as the main thrust of the review goes, is this not also the waterglass trembling at the approach of the acolytes of a US mouse?

    #32 – They’re both about two years long – except she kept being brought back on TV. Also (as the career of Simon Cowell stands witness to), TV audiences are much larger than pop audiences these days.

  7. 37
    Ed on 24 May 2014 #

    It wasn’t really apparent at the time, but as Popular goes through 1998 it has become glaringly apparent in retrospect: this was the year that the generation gap really opened up for me.

    First we had Jason Nevins butchering the sacred music of my youth, then this, by a performer who was young enough to be my daughter. My instinctive response to this is entirely on the side of the censorious parents, rather than the stroppy teens.

    There is still a whole lot of great music to come on Popular, including some of my all-time favourite songs, but there was a fundamental shift under way around this time. It’s like going from being a participant in pop to being an observer.

    And there’s a bunny coming up soon that makes that clearer than anything else.

  8. 38
    mapman132 on 24 May 2014 #

    At the risk of incurring the bunny’s wrath, after writing #34-35, I listened to the next entry for the first time ever, and certain things became starkly clear, unfortunately. More to come, I guess…

  9. 39
    Ed on 24 May 2014 #

    @18: I couldn’t prove it, but I’d guess the crown is stolen from Jean-Michel Basquiat, who the sleeve designer would have found out about from the biopic a year or two earlier.

  10. 40
    Patrick Mexico on 24 May 2014 #

    @7 – In 2003, Avril Lavigne is alleged to have asked “Duran Duran, who are they? A new band?”

    @8 – So Marcello, you’re no fan of the Cribs’ mandate for “if you buy a Ramones T-shirt from Topman, you should be able to name at least three of their albums at the counter?” :D

  11. 41
    Erithian on 24 May 2014 #

    Ha ha, everyone’s entitled to their age-related blind spots. There was the tale of a girl overheard in a record shop circa 1975 spotting a Beatles album and saying “oh no, Paul McCartney has left Wings!” Of course by 15 both Marcello and I had read and digested “The Story of Pop” magazine, but we can’t blame those who haven’t.

    Glad Andrew at #36 spotted the link between melty bin man in the video and Mickey’s fate at the hands of the Autons, but surely the inspration was the other way round?

    I think my reaction to BWWT was the opposite to Ed’s – at 36 and a year out from parenthood, this clearly wasn’t pitched at the likes of me but I enjoyed the attitude and performance, though indeed the production sounds a bit limp now. I remember being vaguely uncomfortable at the crop-top-belly-button sexualisation of a 15-year-old, though – but by the time she turned up in Who, it was OK to appreciate that aspect of the show.

  12. 42
    tm on 24 May 2014 #

    Patrick @ 40: back in my stand up comedy days, I supported Richard Herring (in Palmer’s Green, first of several times) and pointing to his T-shirt said, ‘cool, you like The Who!’ to which he said, ‘not really, I just like this T-shirt’ which was fair enough. He did really like it too, it was full of holes.

    That said, I reckon it’d be a pretty uncurious person who’d buy a T-shirt of an old band and, if they hadn’t heard of them, not even give them at least a cursory listen on Spotify. Weren’t there rumours during the last series that an X-factor finalist blithely turned up to bootcamp in a Skrewdriver T-shirt?

  13. 43
    Andrew Farrell on 24 May 2014 #

    If you want to buy a Ramones T-shirt, I don’t think you should even need to be able to name three of the band!

  14. 44
    Mark G on 24 May 2014 #

    Clue: the names are on the front of the t shirt

  15. 45
    Utter Dreck on 24 May 2014 #

    #19-20 Interesting contrast of 2 to 1 – I think The Boy is Mine is one of the greatest singles of the decade, and back then (16 years? Hell’s bells) Monica & Brandy represented the pop tribe I was dedicated to, while this I just found embarrassing for all concerned. But I was 17 and very serious with it, so that’s to be expected.

  16. 46
    Kinitawowi on 24 May 2014 #

    Point of order: The Boy Is Mine was stopped by B*Witched. Number two behind this (and the next bunny) was Pras Michel and co with Ghetto Supastar, which… was interesting, but not as good as The Boy Is Mine (or B*Witched, for that matter).

  17. 47
    Mark M on 25 May 2014 #

    Re44: Yes, but if you’re wearing it, it would be hard to read them!

    My view is that the classic Ramones T-shirt has floated free of its original meaning and is now just a bit of classic design, and why not? I suspect that applies to several other T-shirts you see around quite a lot, including the Sonic Youth Goo one and the Delicious Vinyl logo one – ‘suspect’, obviously, because I have never gone up to someone wearing a DV shirt and asked them to spit a verse of Bust A Move or Ya Mama to establish the level of their fandom.

  18. 48
    tm on 25 May 2014 #

    Am I right in thinking The Ramones made way more money from t-shirts than from records?

  19. 49
    tm on 25 May 2014 #
  20. 50
    tm on 25 May 2014 #

    46: I’d forgotten Ghetto Superstar: it got a lot of airplay as I recall, it was pretty weird hearing ODB’s slurring tones on daytime radio, like seeing Mark E Smith guest-present TOTP in some parallel universe.

    47: Am I right in thinking that The Ramones made way more money off T-shirts than records? I almost bought a Ramones T-shirt in ACTUAL, REAL New York but went for The Stooges instead. It had the cover photo from Fun House on it and when the white paint cracked in the washing machine made Iggy look like he had a terrible skin disease which made the T-shirt EVEN MORE PUNK!

  21. 51
    Ed on 27 May 2014 #

    @47, @50: I was at airport in real actual New York recently, and in one of those tourist shops that sells fridge magnets and models of the Statue of Liberty, there was a huge pile of Ramones gear. It was right next to the Yankees gear, where you might have expected to see kit for the Mets or Jets or one of New York’s other less heralded teams. As Mark M says, it looks as though the Ramones have become a free floating signifier of the city.

    “And I made a Ramones shirt / More famous than Dee Dee can.” Although I don’t really know who could say that. How did it get that way?

  22. 52
    Rory on 30 May 2014 #

    I didn’t mention it before because of login woes, but Auntie Beryl @32, “It’s a weird perspective that sees Billie Piper as more famous for Doctor Who than her pop hits” – that’d be me, then. I wasn’t paying attention to the charts much in the late ’90s, let alone the charts of the other side of the world from Australia, but I sure as hell paid attention when Who came back.

    It’s a useful reminder of the attention bubbles we can find ourselves in, thinking that our concerns are shared by everyone when they aren’t. A bit like tales of mid-1960s adults who’d barely heard of the Beatles. Now that I’m in my distracted mid-40s, I can see why that wasn’t nearly as remarkable as it would have seemed to teenage me. And Billie was no Beatles.

    So this was a weird video to watch, not least because the aliens and setting make it look like a scene from Rose: The Musical. It’s like seeing a photo of a friend or partner from a few years before you met them. Or those “what celebs looked like in high school” features on Buzzfeed.

    The song… sounds okay to me, after a few listens. 5.

  23. 53
    Tom on 30 May 2014 #

    I actually had a thing on my Tumblr about this question a couple of days ago – I meant to crosspost here but it slipped my mind. So:

    “There was a brief discussion on Popular while I was off in Suffolk about whether Billie Piper is now more famous in Britain for Doctor Who than for being a pop star. Initially, simple maths suggests Who – her highest rated episode was seen by 12.8 million viewers last year, whereas around 300,000 people bought her best-selling single back in the 90s. But her records were playlisted on Radio 1, which had an audience of around 13 million (ish) at that point.

    To settle it, I decided to turn to the tabloids, figuring that whatever their shorthand description of her is is likely to be the answer. Naturally, the Daily Mail have some bullshit stalkery non-story about her up within the last day or so. So what would it be? How would the Mail remind its readers exactly which woman they should be tutting over? “Doctor Who star Billie Piper” or “Former pop singer Billie Piper” or perhaps “The pop singer turned actress”…

    But of course, and not for the first time, I overestimated the Mail. It was, and probably always will be, “Secret Diary Of A Call Girl star Billie Piper”.”

  24. 54
    weej on 1 Jun 2014 #

    Aged 18, Billie’s rebeliousness seemed ludicrously contrived and hilariously lame (oh wow, you play music loudly and say what’s on your mind? Amazing that you weren’t expelled from Sylvia Young with an attitude like that!) but under that there’s a very enjoyable little pop song here with quirky, cheeky production and one of those lovely early-90s-R&B vocal lilts into the chorus (“tell yourself you can do it”) – It’s product, yes, and throwaway, sure, but I’ll give it a 7 all the same.

  25. 55
    Lazarus on 14 Jun 2014 #

    Because we want one?

    That reminds me, I need to get some batteries.

  26. 56
    benson_79 on 18 Feb 2021 #

    As time passes Billie is definitely known more for her acting than her brief pop career. And, perhaps, for her love life, now that her ex Laurence Fox has reinvented himself as a grifting, alt-right, anti-mask loon.

    As has been noted, it’s quite the feat when Chris Evans isn’t the worst of your ex-husbands…

  27. 57
    Gareth Parker on 31 May 2021 #

    “It’s quite the feat when Chris Evans isn’t the worst of your ex-husbands…” – Totally agree with that comment! As for Billie, a charitable 4/10 from me.

  28. 58
    Mr Tinkertrain on 14 Apr 2022 #

    Urgh, I hated this at the time. Incredibly irritating. It’s actually a little better than I remember on re-listening, but not much. 4 is as high as I can go.

    Of course, this sort of child-friendly pop would seem very dated in a year or so’s time…

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