20
Jul 14

BILLIE – “Girlfriend”

Popular34 comments • 1,897 views

#804, 17th October 1998

billiegf “Because We Want To” worked by leaning on Billie Piper’s energy and nascent dramatic flair rather than her singing. For “Girlfriend” her voice is more central, which is a problem – it’s a mushy, gobstopper-mouthed instrument, prone to sliding words together so that every line sounds shrugged through. It makes “Girlfriend”’s chorus – Billie asking a guy out – sound really grudging and reluctant. The awkwardness doesn’t end with the vocals, either – like Peter Andre’s hits, “Girlfriend” is professional songwriters trying for cool and ending up with a supermarket own-brand version of R&B, clumpy and thin.

More by luck, I imagine, than judgement, those songwriters have hit on a theme which actually justifies some of this clumsiness. The song is playing with the idea of contrasting how easy romance is in your dreams and how difficult and embarrassing actually doing something about it is. There’s something authentically teenage about Billie’s yeah-whatever-doesn’t-matter-really-honestly-forget-I-said-anything diffidence here, which stops me hating the single. But it’s also just quite an unpleasant, nagging sound to be hanging around your ear.

One final thought: how much of a missed opportunity was Billie’s pop career? The next time we’ll encounter her, she’ll have a very different sound – and the record that made it inevitable she’d adopt that sound hits US radio just as “Girlfriend” begins its slide down the British charts. Listen to the earnest, gawky “Girlfriend” and the concept of Billie becoming a global success seems ridiculous. But records performed by teenagers, bought by teenagers, about the emotional and physical firepit of early teenage life are on the verge of conquering the pop world. I’m not going to talk in depth about Britney yet, or the wave of American teenpop stars that followed, but it’s worth keeping them in mind as a contrast here. The idea behind making Billie a pop star is with hindsight a canny one: the material and performer weren’t up to the job.

4

Comments

  1. 1
    Goran Ivanisevic on 20 Jul 2014 #

    Yeah, it’s not a great song this, is it? You could see Billie had the makings of a great actress as it’s a very confident, youthful anthem, but it’s a bit too needy. The chorus seems out of tune.

    I do have good memories of this song though. I was once working in a hospital and there was a man who had a psychological affliction for inserting Smarties where the sun didn’t shine. He said this song helped him through a very dark time in his life and confidence to overcome this addiction when he needed it most, as if Billie hadn’t showed up, he would have progressed onto the dreaded Dolly Mixtures.

  2. 2
    mapman132 on 20 Jul 2014 #

    Another music video I was exposed to thanks to British Airways on my Dec 98 trip to London. Two things I remember at the time: 1) she looked to me like a teenage Mariah Carey (kind of strange in retrospect, but maybe I was far back in the plane from the video screen) and 2) the song itself was kind of crap.

    Revisiting it now: 1) actually I wasn’t totally off here, and 2) oh god, that “do you have a girlfriend” chant was annoying. 3/10 and I’m being generous.

    Out of curiosity I also checked out “Honey To The Bee”. Now that’s actually a good track that would’ve been a much more deserving #1. It was even the title track of the album – wonder why it wasn’t released earlier?

  3. 3
    Tom on 20 Jul 2014 #

    “Honey To The Bee” is a lot better, I agree. It’s also a lot sexier – Billie at the point “Girlfriend” came out had just turned 16, and I wonder if putting HTTB out precisely then would have been seen as a bit sleazy by her management? Who knows. There was another single in between – “She Wants You”, which I’ve completely forgotten.

  4. 4
    Miguel Luque Muller on 20 Jul 2014 #

    Rubbish music! You people are probably all Justin Bieber and Nickelback fans! I did like that White Wedding song he did, that was a proper old school rave anthem. Bish bash bosh, little fish big fish cardboard boxLAD

  5. 5
    Ronnie on 20 Jul 2014 #

    She’s saying “ghoulfriend.” I can’t unhear it.

  6. 6
    thefatgit on 20 Jul 2014 #

    The teenage awkwardness of “I Think We’re Alone Now” is an obvious precedent. There’s plenty more examples to come. Unfortunately, Billie doesn’t come up to scratch with “Girlfriend”. The video, however is perfectly observed. There’s an aura of Bad Boy danger about those lads playing pool, while the skaters pull their stunts, not getting much attention from the girls.

  7. 7
    Tom Baker on 20 Jul 2014 #

    This is a good record but I think Billie should have incorporated more Germanic industrial elements into her music. Specifically Front 242, Nitzer Ebb and Skinny Puppy (apologies if any of these acts are bunnied.)

  8. 8
    lonepilgrim on 20 Jul 2014 #

    I could barely remember this until the chorus popped up – I don’t mind it if I’m not paying too much attention but there’s little to love – 3 or 4

  9. 9
    chelovek na lune on 20 Jul 2014 #

    Not a patch on the sparkling pop of “Because We Want To”, this is another coat-tails effect no 1. The video definitely works in the song’s favour, but authentic expression of teenage awkwardness, this doesn’t progress sufficiently far beyond being too heavily dependent upon a mildly irritating chant to be wholly welcome listening (the contrast with its predecessor is instructive – BWWT also had an irritating chant as its chorus, but the verses, middle 8s and tune all provided counterpoints of interest and appeal, which “Girlfriend” largely lacks. 4 (Positively. – this is High art and à thing of beauty and subtlety in comparison with the similarly themed track, a few years later, by Avril Lavigne. Thankful for small mercies and all that)

  10. 10
    AMZ1981 on 21 Jul 2014 #

    I had my little blast of vitriol against Because We Want To (trust me, I’d been saving that one up) and can now approach this one more objectively. At the time I thought this was better, if only by comparison, but having listened to it again it now sounds ridiculously thin and dated.

    Interestingly the first week sales of Girlfriend were quite a bit higher than BWWT. Also of the six acts who managed two or more number ones in 1998 Billie was the only one to place none of them in the end of year top forty.

    Despite only getting to number four Honey To The Bee might well be Billie’s most enduring song. I think I might be the first to mention her third hit, the now forgotten She Wants You (number three) which is no classic but a hell of a lot better than her two chart toppers.

  11. 11
    mapman132 on 21 Jul 2014 #

    #3 Good point. Another reason Billie’s record company was probably kicking themselves when you-know-who showed up a couple months later.

  12. 12
    alexcornetto on 21 Jul 2014 #

    Glad everyone is so retrospectively fond of HTTB – it was an incredible single that, as had been mentioned, deserved a far better chart fate than it had.

    Also, if Luke Haines’ second autobiography is to be believed, it was also a direct influence on Black Box Recorder’s ‘The Facts of Life’, which is a song I wish Tom had the chance to write about. Now THAT would have made for a great number one…

    As for Girlfriend…meh. 4

  13. 13
    JLucas on 21 Jul 2014 #

    Can only echo what a shame it is that ‘Honey To The Bee’ wasn’t a number one. A truly wonderful pop single.

    This on the other hand never rises above mildly irritating. The chorus feels like it could almost be the basis for an entertainingly obnoxious Daphne & Celeste-esque novelty single, but Billie doesn’t rise to the occasion vocally, and as Tom notes the production makes the fatal mistake of trying to be vaguely cool. (Or ‘KEWWWWL’ as Billie would have it).

    She Wants You was better than this, but still fairly nondescript. I had the album (bought on the strength of ‘Honey…’), but aside from the singles I have no memory of it which makes me think it was probably filler city.

  14. 14
    AMZ1981 on 21 Jul 2014 #

    Firstly just correcting my error earlier Honey To The Bee made number three, not number four. It was probably a bit unfortunate to be released in a reasonably strong sales week – Witch Doctor by the Cartoons was garbage but was picking up the airplay at the time and we’ll get to the French puppet carrying all before him that week in due course.

  15. 15
    James BC on 21 Jul 2014 #

    #5 The weird way she says “girlfriend” always bothered me too. Score-wise I might stretch to a 5 for being mildly enjoyable filler, but I can’t imagine anyone loving it.

  16. 16
    iconoclast on 21 Jul 2014 #

    Pleasant-ish in places, but gets boring and ends up forgettable. FIVE.

  17. 17
    wichitalineman on 21 Jul 2014 #

    A solid 5 from me too.

    Measuring her hits on the Osmondometer, Billie’s first two hits have been pitched at the level of Jimmy (Because We Want To), and Donny (Girlfriend), but once she turns 16 she’s onto the sliding Cassidy scale. Playground melodies are ditched. She Wants You is quite fun, sounds a lot like an updated PWL song/prodn, and by now Billie apparently knows “instinctively” what a “man” wants; Honey To The Bee is just great, blatantly saucy, and the only thing that bugged me at the time was its similarity to Never Ever.

    I’m guessing her videos are still very popular, as you have to sit through full 30-sec ads to get to any of them.

  18. 18
    Tom on 21 Jul 2014 #

    A dim memory that surfaced last night – an end-of-year round-up in Mojo with Paddy McAloon (!) singling this song out as an excellent piece of pop craftsmanship? Did this happen? Did I hallucinate it?

  19. 19
    thefatgit on 21 Jul 2014 #

    #15 You can’t really put it down to a Swindon accent either, as most Wiltshire folk will probably attest, the Wiltshire accent is stronger around Salisbury, southwards towards Dorset and westwards towards Somerset. Swindon being too close to Oxford and Reading to really have any Westcountry-by-association characteristics on the whole, but right next door to Cotswolds/South Midlands “last bastions of RP/neutral” . There could possibly be an argument for “M4 Corridor/Thames Valley” accent which is hybrid of “Greater London”/Westcountry accent. Or I could be making all this up.

  20. 20
    Chris Retro on 21 Jul 2014 #

    In 1998, ‘pop’ (following on from Spice-mania) seemed to suddenly become this frothy product designed for and marketed at children – quite unlike the pop I’d embraced in the past which, even if aimed at ‘younger viewers’ was nearly always something that could cross the boundaries of appeal. In 1988 as a 14 year old I could never muster much enthusiasm for the likes of Tiffany & Debbie Gibson – at 24 in 1998 this kind of thing just felt alien to me.
    It doesn’t help that the music and songs were very much secondary to the ‘package’ and written to order by committees, but Billie was originally so contrived as an ‘act’ – even down to that ghastly ‘logo’ on the sleeve.
    I was still listening with an open mind and not dismissing singles out of hand, but ‘Girlfriend’ was so slight and forgettable.
    But at least it wasn’t Westlife or Boyzone, and in comparison to the pop of the past 7 years not completely charmless either.

  21. 21
    Brendan F on 21 Jul 2014 #

    #19 – You are right that the West country accent continues into the more southerly regions – even as far as my dad’s family’s home in the Southampton/Portsmouth area there is still a definite trace of it, e.g. oi for I. Though, of course, Billie went to stage school, presumably in London. I remember her making an early appearance on Never Mind the Buzzcocks where Mark Lamarr treated her fondly as a fellow Swindonian (?) and he certainly had that West country twang.

  22. 22
    Brendan F on 21 Jul 2014 #

    #19 – You are right about the West country accent being stronger in more southern regions, even as far as my dad’s family’s home in the Southampton/Portsmouth region where it’s easy to hear e.g. oi for I. But didn’t Billie go to stage school (presumably in London) which would account for her not having the accent which her fellow Swindonian (?) Mark Lamarr has quite strongly.

  23. 23
    thefatgit on 21 Jul 2014 #

    Also Andy Partridge (another Swindonian) could turn on the Mockney (Sgt. Rock) when he wanted to, but there definitely was a certain subtle twang in some of his vocal performances (Dear God). None of this explains Billie P, though.

  24. 24
    Another Pete on 21 Jul 2014 #

    Thanks to the posts about the Swindon accent I’ve got Pam Ayres singing ‘Honey to the bee’ in my head now.

  25. 25
    Brendan F on 21 Jul 2014 #

    sorry about repeating myself – the gremlins on this site mean I still can’t see my posts go up and I still can’t see the scores or give a score myself

  26. 26
    Stuart Webb on 21 Jul 2014 #

    My main memory of this is Live and Kicking, as part of their (IIRC, the name changed a few times) Cloud 9 feature, arranged Billie to come sing this at a surprise birthday bash for a small boy.

    As he was too young to appreciate the idea of having Billie Piper in his living room he spent the whole VT looking mortified that all his friends were going to see him having this music that only yucky girls could possibly like being mimed badly at him on national television.

  27. 27
    Vanja on 21 Jul 2014 #

    This reminds me so much of Robyn’s first hit (Do You Really Want Me – not sure if it was ever big outside of Sweden though). They were both destined for greatness, just not when they were 16!

  28. 28
    Steve Williams on 22 Jul 2014 #

    Thrilled at the reception Honey To The Bee is getting here, I think it’s a brilliant song. She Wants You suffered from coming out too close to Christmas when there were loads of other records vying for attention, plus also Billie had rather alienated the more rabid parts of her fanbase by going out with Richie from Five, to much jealousy, which also saw her booed at the Smash Hits Awards.

  29. 29
    ciaran on 24 Jul 2014 #

    I cant say i’m that fond of HTTB really. The interest in Stage 1 of Billle had waned considerably by then. Had a similar vibe to Your Still The One by Shania Twain for some reason and was sick of that by early 99.

    Girlfriend was a disappointent after the joyful BWWT. An R+B like sound but like Another level before them not really convincing. 4

    The video for this is just pure 1998 though. Combats, warehouse setting, trainers, skateboarding, vests. Probably the nearest thing to it by some amazing coincidence is Slam Dunk (Da Funk) by Five! At least here Billie looks a lot more sophisticated than in the video for BWWT.

  30. 30
    punctum on 25 Jul 2014 #

    Once again proving that where the boys who try sprightly midtempo R&B rarely end up as men – Peter Andre and Another Level sound so damned earnest, so desperate for credibility, that it undoes them – the girls just smile to themselves and each other and get on with it, “Girlfriend” is an exuberant sparkle of hopeful commitment or just the hope for communication. Around twinkling contours of scratches and distorted samples – mainly Billie on the other end of the ‘phone asking “Are you all alone?” – “Girlfriend” lights up like a well-funded Christmas church on the first Sunday in December, Billie’s surface confidence convinces herself enough to think that she has already won him over (“So I told my friends that I found a man”), and after hearing “you’re claiming you’re a certified man” – followed by a savour of her lips around the concept of “certified” – she skips into a bright, modified call-and-response children’s chorus: “Do you have a girlfriend?/You’re looking real cool/Can I have your number?” Her fantasy stops just short of sinister – “But I pictured us alone/And you’re kissing me in ways I can’t tell,” which she answers with an already-halfway-to-orgasm extended “no” (question mark optional) – but she betrays little doubt that she will win him; observe that emphatic, prematurely triumphant snarl of “You’re the one” halfway through. Feisty in a way which makes me think of Feist rather than bad ITV drama characters, “Girlfriend” bounces, scrapes, kisses and swings in a manner which confirms that the girls will rule; and in 1998, they certainly did. 7

  31. 31
    C on 27 Jul 2014 #

    “Honey to be Bee” was wonderful. Made my old band cover it.

    Met Billie once.
    1999 or 2000 or so, I think, when I was invited along to a Robbie Williams event in Boston (this was his big push in the States). Was chatting with her and she was talking about how she had just gotten a guitar (i think. maybe piano?) and wanted to write more for her next album. I was like “do it! how could that be a bad idea?”. haha
    As we’re talking, all of these super bright tv cams start closing in. Turns out they’re dragging Robbie over to meet her (was apparently their first meeting. IMPORTANT STUFF). They start interviewing the two of them, with me standing between… with me quickly realizing how unwanted I was in this footage.
    Ever so slowly, I shuffled away.
    Like I had something better to do.

  32. 32
    Rory on 31 Jul 2014 #

    The video for this at least minimises the feeling that we’re watching Billie Piper’s Doctor Who audition, unlike its predecessor; but I can’t say I like the song as much as BWWT, and I wasn’t a huge fan of that. 4.

    “Honey to the Bee”, though, is good stuff.

  33. 33
    Weej on 6 Aug 2014 #

    It’s funny how I never noticed Billie’s accent until reading this thread, and now I can’t un-notice it. There’ something very Wiltshire-Hampshire (where I was living in 1998) about the way she says “they’re” and “girlfriend” and the combination with the occasional faux-americanism “…ways I can’t tewwl” grates a bit. This sort of light entertainment hip-hop never really worked, especially when there’s a playground chant where the chorus should be.

    As for Honey To The Bee, yeah, it’s not bad, but I’ve never been able to fathom why it’s *quite* so well-regarded – it’s lovely enough, but ultimately just a bit too slight to leave much of a lasting impression, and some of her vocal tics are present there too – “a looove that’s mine” for example.

  34. 34
    Ronnie on 11 Aug 2014 #

    Count me in with Punctum on this one. Four weeks later, I find that this is one of the favorite songs I’ve discovered through Popular — this is actually really great, if admittedly undercut from some clumsy vocals from Billie which Tom accurately diagnosed.

    Wish I could say the same for “Honey for the Bee” but after the effervescence of “Because We Want To” and “Girlfriend,” can’t say it strikes me as anything but a horrible disappointment. Girl is not remotely convincing on that song.

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