23
May 14

BILLIE – “Because We Want To”

Popular55 comments • 3,175 views

#794, 11th July 1998

billie because Pop Between Realities, Home In Time For TOTP

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.

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Comments

  1. 1
    Tamara on 23 May 2014 #

    I remember thinking this song was a little ridiculous at the time, a little too much – I was embarassed to listen to it because of that “Because we want to” chorus, even while thinking it was fun, and I was 11 years old. Its actually aged better than I would have thought, though there’s nothing of the blast of joy and nostalgia that the Spice Girls bring.

  2. 2
    lonepilgrim on 23 May 2014 #

    the theatrical has always played a part in the UK pop tradition in one form or another, whether it be Bowie training with Lindsay Kemp or Gary Kemp (no relation) of Spandau Ballet attending Anna Scher’s Children’s Theatre. As Performing Arts schools became more mainstream and ‘professional’ in the 1990s so did the performers. They were well drilled in the teeth flashing dance moves of musical theatre and this was reflected in the performers who achieved success in pop. I don’t decry this as a bad thing but as Tom points out towards the end of his review it’s the mediocre music and production that often fails to match the commitment of the performers.
    I also I wonder if the rise of the ‘Performing Arts’ served to deepen the wedge between pop and ‘indie’ performers who embraced sullen ‘individualism’ as a badge of honour with entertainment a dirty word.. Much of the best UK pop IMO has been when the quirky amateur tradition meets the professional entertainment tradition and the sparks that then fly.
    I like the chorus of this song, the verses of this are a bit meh though. 4 or 5 from me

  3. 3
    anto on 23 May 2014 #

    The verses are alright but the chorus is rather obnoxious. I’ve only ever seen Billie Piper as being marginally talented as an actress or a singer. I think she’s been pretty flukey, if anything.

  4. 4
    Jim5et on 23 May 2014 #

    I’m almost nervous to listen back to this, because it was one of the great pop moments for me, one of the few songs that penetrated the fog of depression that characterised my mid-20s by dint of pure energy. I’ve been fond of Billie ever since. Without a fresh listen, 8

  5. 5
    Tom on 23 May 2014 #

    #3 I don’t think she’s a great singer, no – the best bits on BWWT are the shouty bits, and I’m saving my verdict on her actual qualities as a pop star for next time, since I had a load of stuff I wanted to squeeze into this post.

    As an actress – honestly I’ve only seen her in Who, so I’ve no idea of her range, but I think her character and her performance of it was pivotal to that show becoming the success it became.

  6. 6
    punctum on 23 May 2014 #

    Accidental Prisoner references, part 458 (or was it an accident?): the younger Billie Piper, advertising the magazine Smash Hits, walking up to camera, blowing a bubble then bursting it and giggling: “POP!” I’m not sure it was so much of an accident, especially considering her later life as Rose Tyler; the miraculous recasting of Doctor Who as the slightly forlorn dreams of a girl needing a father figure and craving to free herself, or be freed, from the encroaching greyness.

    But her first number one does not demonstrate an urgent need for any parental figure, as such; “Because We Want To” was the latest, the most blatant and arguably the most colourful declaration of teenage girl UDI, a confidence easily able to charm or coax any reluctant participant out of their treehouse. If B*Witched skilfully reversed the traditional roles, then Billie offers a declaration of independence. Compare with the “Bad Boys” of Wham!; frustrated, angry, imprisoned in the bedroom at nineteen. Whereas Billie’s girls need tender no explanation or apology for what they are and what they stand for; the parental figures are mocked sardonically and fearlessly in the chorus – “Why you gotta play that song so loud?” she whines satirically. “Because we WANT TO!” she and the girls cheer in reply.

    Very much in the post-Spice firmament, with musical references to “Say You’ll Be There” in the bridge and “Who Do You Think You Are?” lyrical cues in the middle eight (“So shake it, move it, use the groove”), Billie alternates between sweet enticement and fuck you pride; the elegant swoon of the bridge with its awed “We can do what we want to do” echoing back towards the sixties of Billie Davis; the completely bewitching South London accents in the middle eight shoutouts (“Let me tell you it’s sweet and it’s an up beat!” – the revolution starts in Catford), her “you’ve nothing to teach me tiger” Ronan-go-home growl on the “come” (yes!) of “Come on and help me sing it!”…her timing is actressly immaculate, and her dervish chasing away of darkness (“Some revolution is gonna happen today/I’m gonna chase the dark clouds away”) foresees Amerie by almost a decade. “Why d’you always say what’s on your mind?” Because…as Billie well knew even, or especially, then, sometimes we have to. 8

  7. 7
    Andrew Zigmond on 23 May 2014 #

    I said when discussing Under The Bridge that a) I would have happily given that record minus points and b) it wasn’t the worst number of 1998. The worst number of 1998 – here we are.

    I hated this record with a passion almost holy at the time and over the years I’ve often called it the worst song ever. However, and knowing this entry was on its way, it ocurred to me that I hadn’t heard it for ages so made a bee line to youtube.

    And it’s not quite as bad as I remembered. The production is dated now but does have more punch than I thought. And the verses, the bit that put Billie and her surprisingly strong voice to the fore, aren’t actually that bad (the `perfect solution` bit aside).

    But I still hate it and for the same two reasons; one of which has nothing to do with the song.

    I’m of the same generation as Billie Piper, albeit a couple of years older. I turned thirteen in 1994 weaned on the movie presented myths that, a bit of angst aside, your teenage years were the best of your life. To say that mine, racked by depression, anxiety issues and a nervous breakdown were nothing like that was an understatement. I rebelled in my own way I suppose but it wasn’t all `play that song loud, stand around in crowds, say what’s on my mind – BECAUSE I WANT TO`. So I found this record offensive – this stage school brat bouncing around a chipmunk chorus thinking (and she said it in interviews) she was singing an anthem about rebellion.

    Which leads me on to the other problem, Billie Piper herself. I’ll allow for the fact that she was only fifteen at the time and she has, of course, had a longer career than most of her 1998 pop contempories. But during her first stint in the limelight we were treated to such pronouncements as, `well I’m only fifteen so don’t know much about Abba` and worse, asking Cher if she sang I Got You Babe with UB40 – all of which suggested this supposedly bright young pop star knew nothing about music and certainly nothing about her heritage.

  8. 8
    punctum on 23 May 2014 #

    Well, that’ll teach her not to have your problems and not be a walking encyclopaedia of pop! If you were in charge of things, all would-be pop stars would have to fill in an application form and sit a written exam before being given permission to sing a note.

    (helpful motto from my teenage years: pop stars aren’t me. Actually I made that one up myself but it’s true nevertheless)

  9. 9
    thefatgit on 23 May 2014 #

    If the Smash Hits ads introduced the face of Billie Piper to us, the name was first heard on the late Mark Speight’s “Scratchy & Co”. A sort of halfway house between Max Headroom and Lazy Town, on CITV, Saturday Mornings.

    Someone, somewhere in the future will look at British children’s television programming and do a “Babylon” style expose on some of the more tragic figures of this arm of broadcasting entertainment, not least Mark Speight, who took his own life after his fiancee and “See It, Saw it” co-star, Natasha Collins died of a drug overdose. If Billie remained in this sort of company, her story might have been quite different. Needless to say, Chris Evans and their altogether brief and boozy relationship looks like the better bet, with hindsight. So the Swindon girl gets to be a pop star, tailor-made for Smash Hits’ target readership. Speaking of which, didn’t she get the ad deal through a Smash Hits competition?

    “Because We Want To” is probably the most explicit post-Spice #1 we’ve seen so far. Chock-full of teen attitude that’s tempered with a kind of children’s TV positivity, made Billie the kind of teenager, both sides of the generational divide wouldn’t be at all alienated by. As an introduction, it works. As a pop song in its own right, there’s not much beyond the chant of a chorus that’s memorable. Most of the points awarded here for attitude. (6)

  10. 10
    Kat but logged out innit on 23 May 2014 #

    Video = notable for AWFUL cgi silver-surfer-meets-Secret-World-Of-Alex-Mack figure morphing up from the melted dustbin and jigging along with our Billie in the street (in Greenwich somewhere IIRC??)

  11. 11
    mapman132 on 23 May 2014 #

    Wasn’t expecting such a long entry from Tom here…and to think I was going to dismiss this with a pithy one-liner…

    As you’d probably guess, Billie Piper is known in America as the girl from Doctor Who and nothing else (and even that’s a bit of a niche market). I don’t know if there was any attempt to break her in the US back in 1998, but if so, it failed miserably. Can’t say this upsets me much, as BWWT really doesn’t appeal to me. Maybe it’s an acquired taste. 3/10.

  12. 12
    lonepilgrim on 23 May 2014 #

    Billie Piper is currently to be seen in ‘Penny Dreadful’ as an Oirish Tart with a Heart of Gold, etc (and consumption to boot).

  13. 13
    James BC on 23 May 2014 #

    I was Against This at the time but it seems pretty harmless nowadays. Billie is pretty good in it, making the awful “run around in crowds” lyric come across far better than it has a right to.

    I suppose the stage schooled pop artist has its precedent in the various former Neighbours and Home and Away actors who came over from Australia – by this point we’d already seen Kylie, Dannii, Craig McLachlan, Jason, Natalia Imbruglia and probably others. I don’t know what their schooling was but they seemed to treat singing and acting as branches of the same tree in the same way as Billie and her successors.

  14. 14
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 23 May 2014 #

    I haven’t seen any of Penny Dreadful and fear it a bit: I don’t think BP is cut out for historical pastiche. Ruby in the Smoke wasn’t very good (not entirely her fault: I didn’t finish the book it’s based on).

    What she really is pretty good (as an actress) at is “young woman right here right now”. She was good in the Canterbury Tales; she was fairly good in the Secret Diaries of a Call Girl (it was flawed and she didn’t rescue it; but she wasn’t the flaw either).

    And in Who she’s basically quite a bit better than both of her two leads. Ten Ants had a great quite amusing shtick he then entirely wore into the ground. Ecclescake — I know this is controversial — just wasn’t that good. Right from the outset I think he looked down on the material a little (i.e. even before he began to fall out with the management etc). It was smart stunt casting from a OMG lookit-this POV but he didn’t then think through where he needed to go with it.* BP had a more straightforward role to flesh out — and RTD actually made her the centre, and wrote to that (in his usual wild chaos of good bit/bad bit/[insert working here] bit), and she entirely rose to the challenge.**

    *Obviously he’s plenty good elsewhere (though not always).
    **i realise Who is not exactly “right here right now”, but her character was, and she worked that element very effectively

    Re music: didn’t she say somewhere that she hated almost everything about the routines of pop-music-as-a-career and was really really happy when it stopped being her job.

  15. 15
    ciaran on 23 May 2014 #

    Your a sucker for anything Dr Who related Tom. Maybe the video magic a sign of things to come!

    BWWT was one of the rare occasions I can remember a song having its own TV ad before its release and there was a lot of hype over it.

    The intrigue for me was that she was only 15/16 and with girl groups all the rage at the time it was like a throwback to the days of the PWL-Kylie Era who was all but gone at the time!

    In fairness it was quite enjoyable at the time but immediately dismissed a a bit juvenile. The atrocious video doesnt help matters here with its dodgy cartoon/terminator like characters, woeful dancing and coronation street style setting. I was half expecting Les or Janice Battersby to make an appearance.A bit like Usher from earlier in the year in that they went on to much bigger things.

    Listening to it now after a long absence from any radio station and the subsequent acting success of Billie Piper I’m digging it all over again. Could probably do with being a bit shorter and like C’est La Vie before it the video spoils it for me a bit but in its own way is a rebirth of ‘Popular’ Teen/young solo acts. 6.

    Bille was never a big deal at my school amongst the girls. If this was released at a time other than the summer holidays it might have been a different story.

    I personally would prefer one of the more harder sounding Billie offerings but thats a while away yet!

  16. 16
    daveworkman on 23 May 2014 #

    I’m pretty certain she played at my old primary school as part of a pre-release ‘tour’ to promote her song. Which seems a bit surprising to me, as the notion of pitching songs at the under ten’s, as we saw with C’est La Vie, seems to have been quite a modern conception, and that seems very targeted. But clearly it worked somehow.

    Someone also once asked me who my first celebrity crush was, and after thinking a while I think I might have said Billie…

  17. 17
    swanstep on 23 May 2014 #

    For mapman132′s reasons this is new to me, and it just sounds pretty junky and demo-like from that perspective: weak, cheap-sounding backing track meets weak vocal (and insufficiently worked on and worked out backing vox) meets limited vocabulary lyrics. That it’s kind of well-intentioned (hey the kids are kids and they’re alright!) is about the best I can say for BWWT.

    Maybe hearing BWWT in its original context makes all the difference. Certainly Tom’s positioning of BWWT as pivotal for the sociology of UK pop was far more interesting to me than the track itself:
    4

  18. 18
    Steve Mannion on 23 May 2014 #

    Sleeve Notes: Interesting logo design for Billie on the artwork suggests they were going for a post-Diana ‘new Queen of Hearts’ image. That seems like a silly thing to do with the end of your ‘e’ too (“hon, e to the b?”).

    Track-wise this reminded me a lot of George Michael’s ‘Star People’ with a heavy hint of Junior’s ‘Mama Used To Say’. I like the honking geese intro.

  19. 19
    swanstep on 23 May 2014 #

    Checking, the US at this point was one nation under the groove of Brandy and Monica’s ‘The Boy Is Mine”s 13 week run at #1.

  20. 20
    Tom on 23 May 2014 #

    Plenty of awkward (for the Brits) US-UK comparisons coming up soon…

  21. 21
    ciaran on 23 May 2014 #

    #20 – Careful Now. Big brother is watching you!

  22. 22
    Steve Mannion on 23 May 2014 #

    Surely nothing else coming up on Popular could be worse than 4 weeks of Aerosmith Armageddon?

  23. 23
    Mark M on 23 May 2014 #

    I always felt that there was just too much of a disconnection between the verse and the chorus. The chorus is all cartoony yapping kiddie stroppiness, but Billie sings the verses as if she’s prematurely old in that kind of deep voice that characterises a lot of teen pop stars, and yet appears to treated repeatedly as surprising despite a tradition that stretches from Helen Shapiro to Tanita Tikaram to Joss Stone. In some cases, that really is their natural pitch – in others (Alex Chilton) when they actually grow up they find a natural range that’s somewhat higher. Anyway, she had a couple of better tunes to come, my hazy memory suggests.

  24. 24
    Kat but logged out innit on 23 May 2014 #

    #15: *slaps forehead* of course TERMINATOR yes that is a much better reference than Alex Mack: The Girl Whose Superpower Was Turning Into A Puddle.

  25. 25
    Tommy Mack on 23 May 2014 #

    Sukrat @ 14: yes, I read an interview with her where she talked about touring America at 19 and being all but ordered by her management to flirt with middle-aged radio programmers who were all but touching her up, then going back to the hotel room and drinking herself to sleep. Lot of bad’uns in the music biz.

  26. 26
    mapman132 on 23 May 2014 #

    #19-20 Notably this is part of a long string of UK number ones that started with “Three Lions” and doesn’t end until the ageless auto-tuned wonder, that made little or no impact in the US.

    #22 Agreed. That one is nothing for us to brag about….

  27. 27
    iconoclast on 23 May 2014 #

    I’ve never been accused of being “eloquent” before, never mind by such a figure as TOM EWING! That really made my day. I think I’ve come over all pretentious; you have been warned! There’s a lot more to it than this, but I don’t want to waste too much of your time.

    Of course things are a lot more complicated than a glib term like”Cowellisation” implies; but something was clearly changing in popular music at this time, and not for the better. My perception is that it steadily became increasingly common for music to be something you just *did* – typically as part of your performing arts career, or as a way to build awareness of your personal brand – rather than being an expression of who or what you were, or a form of Art you made for its own sake. Along with this went an increasing disconnection between the Performer and the Creator – especially with stage-school types who were marked at children too young to be properly critical – which inevitably led to the focus shifting to the public and personal lives of the Performer rather than the actual Music, which became less interesting as a result. I can remember being less and less hopeful that something properly NEW! and EXCITING! would turn up on TOTP. Or maybe I was just getting old.

    Anyway, the young Billie Piper’s first single is a good example of all this: “Because We Want To” is an ungainly combination of moody and partly effective verses lashed to bratty shouty choruses, underpinned and undermined by a formulaic and uninspiring synthesised drums-and-bass backing track. It makes no effort to be anything more than something turned out to keep ver kids happy, and it doesn’t hold the attention well enough to deserve more than SIX.

  28. 28
    chelovek na lune on 23 May 2014 #

    #10 Battersea, actually. (though it does look a bit like East Greenwich).

    Well, I am surprised, on relistening to this, for probably the first time since 1998, to find this a reasonably delightful pop song and (yes, very stage school – but, let’s be clear: not Bonnie Langford-awful-irritating) statement of youthful defiance, with the mixture of confidence and vulnerability being utterly real (as indeed it presumably was for the performer).

    Cons: the disconnect between the verse and the chorus. I actually find the verse superior – even harking back to early 80s New pop, almost (Toni Basil’s ‘Mickey’ springs most immediately to find, but that may be a function in part of the stage school thing: and also on that note, how naff – not necessarily unpleasant – the music associated with ‘Fame’ was: it is clear that something has evolved in the stage school approach to music – less ‘variety’, more ‘pop’ is part of it between then and this.

    Also an anecdote, re the chorus. I had a post-degree summer job in 1998, which involved patrolling parks and open spaces in an outer London borough, the purpose of the post mainly seemingly being to maintain the pretence that the council wasn’t letting them go to rack and ruin, as part of which we all carried radios (ie walkie-talkies: we are just before the age of cheap mobile phones). One of my colleagues, working on an estate near Romford with a deservedly bad reputation, was ‘relieved’ of her radio by some of the local yoof. They spent a couple of days making occasional rogue broadcasts, hearable on anyone on the council radio frequency. They chanted the chorus of this song at least a couple of times…..

    7 I think: somewhat better than anything else I’ve heard by Billie, and I’ve never seen her acting. But the vivaciousness and likeability of this is what makes the song for me. As the MSPs put it, this is, in its context, 4REAL.

  29. 29
    tonya on 23 May 2014 #

    #11 there was definitely an attempt to break Billie in America. I remember sitting in a movie theater in Ohio and listening to a pre-film segment introducing her. The song was Honey to the Bee and we were in hysterics at how she sang “sugar lips”. She’s sort of a predecessor to the Girls Aloud vocal style, it doesn’t translate well.

    And I would bet there are more people in America who’ve watched that prostitute show than Dr. Who.

  30. 30
    Mark G on 23 May 2014 #

    Youngest female solo number one?

    Even now?

  31. 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.

  32. 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.

  33. 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.

    3.

  34. 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….

  35. 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.

  36. 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.

  37. 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.

  38. 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…

  39. 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.

  40. 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

  41. 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.

  42. 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?

  43. 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!

  44. 44
    Mark G on 24 May 2014 #

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

  45. 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.

  46. 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).

  47. 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.

  48. 48
    tm on 25 May 2014 #

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

  49. 49
    tm on 25 May 2014 #
  50. 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!

  51. 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?

  52. 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.

  53. 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”.”

  54. 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.

  55. 55
    Lazarus on 14 Jun 2014 #

    Because we want one?

    That reminds me, I need to get some batteries.

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