“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.