16
May 14

B*WITCHED – “C’Est La Vie”

Popular41 comments • 2,558 views

#792, 6th June 1998

vie B*Witched have reformed, like most bands, and gave an interview last year where they “revealed” that “C’Est La Vie” was “about sex”. “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” is, apparently, some kind of secret sexual code. Shocked, aren’t you?

Tabloid coverage is the killing ground of ambiguity. In the red-top world meaning in songs is either in-your-face obvious or smothered in apparently impenetrable code, to be copped to years later as an ‘exclusive’. And so it’s a news story that a phrase everyone knows is a bit naughty might indeed be a bit naughty. Except “C’Est La Vie” isn’t really ‘about sex’, even in this coy way. You can say, perhaps, that it’s imitating a sexual world, in the same way a game of kiss-chase is. But this isn’t “Barbie Girl”, let alone “2 Become 1”. It’s a pop record for kids – B*Witched played their first ever gig in a primary school – and so it plays at being about what pop records are about, like a game of house or doctors and nurses.

So what’s a pop record for kids doing selling several hundred thousand copies? We’ve talked a bit about how new sales channels – supermarkets, especially – had led to an all-ages CD singles boom, and that helped groups like B*Witched do well. But we’re also dealing here with the fallout from the Spice Girls. Girl Power came along at a time the British music business – focused on Take That and Britpop – were astonishingly poorly prepared for it: the Spices got an entire album promotional cycle to themselves before any serious competitors appeared. And now they have turned up, in numbers, and playlisters and marketers are making up for lost time. “C’Est La Vie” is flagrantly pitching itself as “Wannabe”’s kid sister.

What’s interesting about the Spice inheritors is the way each of them settled into appealing to a different part of the Girl Power audience, sorted roughly by age. All Saints’ went for older teens and higher credibility. B*Witched aimed at 9-10 year olds. And we’ve got a third act coming up who landed roughly in between. Nobody went for the broad-church mass appeal which the Spice Girls had, by luck or determination, managed.

This kind of thin-sliced demographic targeting, as we’ll see, has a short shelf-life even when it’s a success. Once you’ve specifically hooked primary school kids, how likely are they to carry that excitement onto secondary school? Not very. And even beyond the short-termism, tight targeting suggests a limited view of what pop can do. Narrowcast pop moves against the idea of pop as uncanny or uncomfortable, as something that suggests new ways of being in your world. It’s a vision of pop that can scratch itches but can’t cause them.

But that’s a pan-cultural problem, and it’s a little unfair to load it onto music for young girls. A Duplo-brick version of “Wannabe” isn’t an evil idea. So as one, how does “C’Est La Vie” do? Not at all badly. It’s extremely catchy, as is probably the minimum requirement for kids’ pop. It keeps moving, bouncing along on that piano – this and the Mel C-esque backing ad-libs are its main musical borrowings from the Spice Girls – and throwing new vocal hooks at you. It’s cheeky, and its cheekiness helps seal the sense of B*Witched as a fun gang to be part of – certainly a lot more so than the feeble forced banter. (“Some people say I look like me Dad”). And of course it has one further card to play – the Riverdance-inspired instrumental break, just in case you didn’t twig that these girls are Irish. Their PR made no secret of Edele and Keavy Lynch’s brother being in Boyzone, but his band never had their Irishness pushed so emphatically – the fiddle break is clunky, and cynical, and makes B*Witched look like Father Noel Furlong’s youth group. On the other hand, Boyzone never got material this jolly either. There were always going to be Spice imitations, and they were always likely to play it safer. But while “C’Est La Vie” is very much the junior to its inspirations, it plays its part with real and enjoyable pep.

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Comments

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  1. 1
    mARK g on 16 May 2014 #

    Ah, the irish girls! They come over all flirty and that, then just when you think they’re actually interested, someone puts on Riverdance and they all band together onto the dancefloor and you never see them again!

    I’ll be after giving it seven points.

  2. 2
    Kat but logged out innit on 16 May 2014 #

    DOUBLE DENIM PROBLEMS

  3. 3
    anto on 16 May 2014 #

    Just awful – One could virtually predict the course of B*Witched’s career before it even happened so that obvious sell-by date perhaps made it a bit easier to tolerate the dreck they put out, but not entirely.
    Who in God’s name is going to go and watch their reunion shows?

  4. 4
    James BC on 16 May 2014 #

    I like the Asterix-style multilingual punning on ‘say’ and ‘c’est’.

  5. 5
    what? on 16 May 2014 #

    When this went to No.1 Boyzone were top of the Albums which I remember was a fairly big deal in Ireland. Irish acts at the top of the UK charts was still a big deal at the time although what was to come in the next couple of years would put an end to that. Of all the Irish groups B*witched were the best. It had the same sense of fun that the Spice Girls had lost at this point. And while it had the Riverdance bit it was different to a typical Irish pop group. No stools, key changes or endless ballads.

  6. 6
    mapman132 on 16 May 2014 #

    This made it to #9 in the US the following year, becoming their one and only significant US hit (they’d have one more minor one). I doubt many Americans would remember it today…

    I have a habit of associating certain songs with a particular place I was driving when they came on the radio. As a result this song conjures incongruous thoughts of Interstate 95 in Philadelphia. Weird I know. Anyway, not great but fairly catchy. I actually like the jig in the middle. 6/10.

  7. 7
    lonepilgrim on 16 May 2014 #

    the video looked like it was filmed near the Teletubbies’ house and has a similar sugary vibe; with a hint of Spice Girls and a sprinkling of Riverdance it’s like aural tooth decay

  8. 8
    23 Daves on 16 May 2014 #

    The second number one in a row that I dug up again very recently and put on my iPod – is my subconscious telling me to revisit the big hits of this era for some particular reason? It wasn’t exactly a fulfilling time for me, I was dirt broke and seldom socialising at this point in my life.

    Anyway, this is a good single in small doses, I’ve found. Listen to it for a week or so and you’re merry and satisfied – try to drag out the experience any longer than that and the sheer bright, sugary nature of it overwhelms and becomes extraordinarily irritating. It is absolutely overloaded with hooks, with the “I’ll huff and puff and blow you away” part cementing itself as firmly in my mind as the actual chorus, and it’s initially too carefree to dislike. Like all bubblegum, though, you can only chew on it for so long.

    Clearly I was never supposed to be the target market for this, but there is an innocence to a lot of music that’s targeted at the pre-teen market which is often under-rated. Back when sixties music archivists first started digging back through piles of scratchy and dusty old acetates, they frequently mistook children’s music (such as Sweetshop’s “Barefoot and Tiptoe” and Kid Rock’s “Ice Cream Man”) for obscure twee psychedelic pop (“Ice Cream Man” wasn’t actually issued until the seventies). There’s a temptation to laugh at the foolishness of this, but frivolous, innocent music can be enjoyed by anyone if they’re in the right mood, and B*Witched pretty much nail it here. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a lot of parents listened to it themselves on the sly at the time.

    I prefer not to watch the video and listen to this, though, just because B*Witched looked so damn awful, even at the time. I’m not arguing they were physically unattractive, but the overload of denim and casual clothes is just an eyesore. They’re one of the worst dressed successful pop acts I can think of (even Rick Astley tried in his own way).

  9. 9
    Doctor Casino on 16 May 2014 #

    Just listened to this for the first time – well-constructed chorus, not in a hurry to hear it again though. That layering-up of chirpy trebley voices just screams “kids’ music” in the specific sense of “forced fun” – might as well actually be a tribe of tots chanting out the lines, as in Kidz Bop, which I’m surprised to learn didn’t debut until 2001. The “Irish” sounds, whatever cheesy branding is at stake, do cut through the mix and give this some interest. The Riverdance connection does make sense… although didn’t that peak a few years earlier? As a US listener I want to link this to pop-country – e.g. the Dixie Chicks’ very good “Ready To Run” of the following year.

  10. 10
    Tom on 16 May 2014 #

    #9 “Riverdance-inspired” might be a stretch, I admit, in that it’s just a jig – Riverdance itself got its start at Eurovision in the early 90s, IIRC, but I think still by this point it and Irish jigs weren’t really separable. So “inspired” might be too strong, but I don’t think this record would have the jig in it without Riverdance having become popular.

  11. 11
    thefatgit on 16 May 2014 #

    The Irish Spice Model. Whatever that means…coriander in your colcannon?

    Anyhoo, this is not particularly bad, until we reach the Riverdance section, when it all goes a bit awry. But then I feel like I’m giving their USP a kicking. I’m not the target audience for this. My Daughter was, but I have no recollection of her getting all excited over B*Witched like she did with the Spicies. I know the magazines she was buying with her pocket money were heavily pushing B*Witched, with weekly doses of the usual superficial profiles and “fashion” and “make-up” tips, which was beginning to feature large on her radar at the time.

    In my mind, I believe their future output plays down the Oirishness, which is a good thing. Whether this is actually true, remains to be seen. (5)

  12. 12
    iconoclast on 16 May 2014 #

    How it seemed at the time: now that the dust has finally settled after the collapse of Britpop and the detonation of the Spicebomb, it’s clear that popular music is in a very different world from a couple of years previously. Being in a “band” now means looking good, behaving properly for the gossip magazines, and – most importantly, it would seem – performing the dance moves in the right order; it doesn’t involve writing songs, playing instruments, or even needing to sing. That and all other creative duties are now taken care of by backroom teams of whom nothing more is required than turning out pop-by-numbers to fit the “band”‘s predetermined “image”. Thus, 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.

    What, then, to make of the curiously bowdlerised B*Witched, whose success seems to have been due at least in part to familial connections with Boyzone? “C’est la Vie” is a bright and affable song with some nice funky guitar, but it pulls too many punches; lacking the cartoonish personalities necessary to emulate the Spice Girls, they clearly had to resort to playing up their Irishness instead, and the obligatory Riverdance-esque instrumental section sounds like it belongs to a different song entirely. There’s actually a decent song in there trying to get out, but overall it does little to dispel the suspicion that it was made by something approximating the band-naming computer in _Boyz Unlimited_, or – for the more cynical – the “versificator” in _Nineteen Eighty-Four_. Points for trying, though: SIX.

  13. 13
    Kinitawowi on 16 May 2014 #

    I quite like this (I can’t hate it, it’s just too damn fun! #5 was right – the Spice Girls had long since lost that side, although as we’ll see shortly that’s not necessarily a bad thing), although I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss it as “Spice Girls for 9 year olds” – there’s a pretty good argument to be made that Spice Girls For 9 Year Olds was in fact the Spice Girls.

    #2 watch: apart from the already discussed Horny, we’ve also got Brandy and Monica’s The Boy Is Mine. Fine tune.

  14. 14
    Rory on 16 May 2014 #

    B*witched’s album was advertised on Australian TV with the tagline “Feel the power of pop!” I remember this track from the time, but not the Riverdance instrumental break, which is hilarious. I can’t hate it, but I can’t really love it. 5.

  15. 15
    Chelovek na lune on 17 May 2014 #

    As an introduction, and statement of intent, it works well. As an enjoyable (or particularly memorable) pop song, less so. For me it attempts, not entirely successfully, to stay on the right side of the fine line between charming and irritating. They made better records (as we shall see), and far, far, worse (as we won’t), but it was painfully obvious from the start that they were closer to the Nolan Sisters (not at their peak) than the Spicers

  16. 16
    swanstep on 17 May 2014 #

    Talk of ‘new sales channels’ certainly rings true for this one: record stores in the U-district in Seattle had ‘Take 1′ boxes of the ‘C’est La Vie’ single sitting out by the door… hence CLV becomes the only ’90s boy/girl-band pop single I actually own.

    Anyhow, I remember CLV as sounding fun at the time, but I can’t for the life of me hear that now, rather it just sounds calculated to within an inch of its life, and really something that one just wants to end ASAP. Come back Mmmbop, all is forgiven:
    3

  17. 17
    wichitalineman on 17 May 2014 #

    Tom, “Some people say I look like me Dad” would be an amazing line (sort of applies to everyone in the world), but I think it’s “Some people say I dance like me Dad”.

    It’s incredibly busy, isn’t it, like the inside of a two year old’s head.

    I played this a couple of years back at a female vocals-only night in Newcastle, after Spice Up Your Life, and it not only killed the dancefloor but people were openly laughing.

    At the risk of sounding like a massive show-off, this is the second Popular entry in a row where I’ve done a songwriting session with the artist. In this instance it was Edele, post-B*Witched; we wrote the melodies and she was charged with lyric writing. All of her lyrics were Catholic guilt based, totally uncommercial, nothing about boys or dancing like your dad or anything. I think I’ve still got the demo’s on a minidisc somewhere.

    Re 14: Of all the records that “feel the power of pop!” could apply to, C’Est La Vie probably wouldn’t make my Top 5,000. But I’m looking forward to the conversations around their later Popular entries.

  18. 18
    will on 18 May 2014 #

    I always thought it was ‘some people think I fight like me’ dad’.

    Whatever, I loved this. Still do really. For me it’s the bridge that makes it, the major to minor (I’m no musician, so I’m guessing here) shift of ‘gotta let me in/ let the fun begin’. But the rest is so brimming with innocent good cheer that even the Riverdance section provokes an indulgent smile rather than a groan.

    Re 8: Personally I thought the denim look was great! Was it a coincidence their career took a sudden turn for the worse once they stopped wearing it?

  19. 19
    swanstep on 18 May 2014 #

    @17, 18. My (original) copy has very audibly ‘look like me dad’. I suppose that there might have been different intro- versions, but it seems unlikely.
    @18. Bridge is a bunch of folky seventh chords, i.e., after the I-V-IV-ism of everything else (and is very professionally handled now you point it out).

  20. 20
    Tom on 18 May 2014 #

    #18: “I fight like me Dad too” is the (muttered) punchline nearer the end!

  21. 21
    Andrew Farrell on 18 May 2014 #

    #17 it is the line, and it is amazing, though I probably prefer the last line of the song: “I fight like me Da, as well” – xp by many!

    I feel like the jig is here not so much to indicate Riverdance but to indicate Irishness, which was in an interesting state at this point. I can’t pretend to be objective about it – moved up to Dublin in late ’96 at the age of 21, got a job with a company that roared up the FTSE, absolutely a golden period in my life – but also in the country as a whole, a young technologically literate workforce (the result of considerable investment in education of the previous decade), and the possibility of a positive identity separate from England, possibly for the first time in the 60 years of the state. This song sounds more like what it felt like to be Irish in that time than the alternatives.

    It’s also of course aware of that and playing with it, but to be Irish is still to be part-Oirish, the new exciting direction only yet pointing a way out of an economy led by tourism and emigrant’s returning wages.

    In the end of course it all came tumbling down, profits frittered away rather than reinvested in the country, and an enormous property boom that burst – possibly the suited studied sincerity of the lads was pop’s dire warning.

    It’s also worth pointing out that the Irish dancing isn’t very good, roughly what you might remember from a half-dozen sessions in the local community hall growing up (and much better than I can manage! – but I’m probably 2-3 times further than those sessions than B*Witched were at this stage).

  22. 22
    wichitalineman on 18 May 2014 #

    Oh yes, clear as a bell on the intro on youtube! Pardon me.

    It’s not there on the version I have in my itunes. In fact, the version in my itunes doesn’t have ANY “like me dad” refs. That’ll learn me for quoting from memory.

    It doesn’t sound quite as busy as I remember either, less ad-libs, less quirky noises, though the one that sounds like a wood pigeon being jabbed with an electric prod stands out.

  23. 23
    PurpleKylie on 18 May 2014 #

    This is where I lose all musical credibility: I absolutely LOVED B*Witched as a kid back in the day!

    I think their album was the first one I ever owned (I didn’t buy it myself, it was a present. My first album purchase wouldn’t come until 6 years later). Although I would say that this wasn’t my favourite of their songs, my actual favourite was a future bunny.

  24. 24
    Andrew Zigmond on 18 May 2014 #

    I’ve always had a soft spot for this one and I suspect a lot of others did as well. It wound up the fifth biggest selling single of 1998 which suggests a crossover beyond its target audience and I prefer it to anything the Spice Girls or All Saints ever did.

    Is it worth mentioning this record’s forgotten star – the hapless teenage boy being terrorised by the band in the video (I know a lot of other gay men of my age who remember this song fondly because of him). I’ve sometimes wondered a) who he was and b) as he’s now probably in his mid thirties whether he owns up to his claim to fame.

  25. 25
    Paulito on 18 May 2014 #

    As a still teenaged Irish lad at the time, I remember my peers and I being fairly ‘morto’ (embarrassed) about the huge success this had, not just at home but in the UK too. To my angry young sensibilities it was Paddywhackery of the naffest sort, a twee anachronism that our more sophisticated neighbours must surely have bought just for laffs. (Yes, we still had something of a national inferiority complex, and after several years of Boyzone chart-bludgeoning, we didn’t want to be best known in Britain for producing crappy manufactured pop.)

    Looking back, although certain aspects still make me cringe a little (the spoken ad libs, the diddly-aye instrumental break), I can see the appeal in this number. It’s got plenty of ‘good clean fun’ – something which I imagine was greatly welcomed by parents of teenyboppers – and there’s a proper tune in there too. In particular (and as suggested above) the switch to a minor key for the bridge gives the song its hook, adding a nice touch of wistfulness that prevents the overall effect from being too cloying. Still wouldn’t go as high as 7 but it’s not too far off.

    (Boyzone’s stuff still sounds as shite as ever, mind.)

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