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.