Westlife have always been this blog’s nemesis, the doom encoded in its premise: however entertaining the song or era I’m writing about is, at some point I will have to deal with fourteen Westlife number ones. There have been times when I’ve wondered myself what on earth I would say, given that from a standing start I could barely remember two of them. But here we are.
Implicit in the jokes is a feeling that Westlife are different. Look at the list of the most successful Number One acts – Elvis, the Beatles, Westlife. One of these things is not like the others, apparently. The scale of Westlife’s success, more than almost any other factor, was enough to convince even sympathisers that the charts were broken, that pop was broken, a damaged transmitter no longer capable of processing the cultural signals around it.
This idea – Westlife as a sign of pop catastrophe – is a mix of the true and the false and the condescending. Westlife are a group like any other, with fans they speak to and mean a lot to, and deserve to be considered as more than just a statistical anomaly. Even so, the degree of success says very little good about how the charts were working by 1999, as a finely staged ballet of release date scheduling and fanbase priming. Westlife are the ultimate fanbase band: almost every one of their many, many hits is a one-week wonder and gets out of the Top 10 sharpish. There’s barely a sign of crossover to a wider singles-buying audience. But there’s a corollary to this: if Westlife come and go so quickly, it’s a stretch to suggest that they themselves were a ruinous force in pop music. They had very little impact on the rest of it. They were the Olestra of pop, slipping through its body undigested to leave an oily mess.
Westlife aren’t the only fanbase band: in chart terms, Blur or the Manic Street Preachers perform similar disappearing acts. But Westlife manage this again and again and again for years. To game the charts this efficiently you need two things. You need a loyal audience, which probably means one that isn’t being well served by the rest of pop music (so won’t switch to rival bands or sounds in a hurry). And you need a very good game-player. Enter Simon Cowell.
Cowell’s part in Westlife’s origins is a preview of his later household-name role: a murderer of youthful dreams. Take five lads from Sligo, schoolfriends. They can sing a bit, they’ve seen Boyzone doing well, so they get a group together. There’s Shane, Graham, Mark, Kian, Michael. Two of these men are now a hairdresser and a garda. The other three have sold forty million records. The difference is Cowell, then at record label BMG, who pronounced IOYOU – as they were – the ugliest band he’d seen in his life, and got his scalpel out. Pete Bestlife. (A sixth schoolfriend, with the rather un-boybandly name of Derek, had already been given the push by Louis Walsh. He ended up a barman, if you’re keeping score.)
Despite the personnel upheavals, there’s no great sign of creative tension in the early Westlife story. IOYOU knew what they wanted to sound line – their demo, “Together Girl Forever”, a Shane and Mark co-write, is a well-churned slow jam from the limper end of R&B. The tempo, the harmonies, the pledges of devotion: even in the Sligo classroom, the lads knew the moves well enough. It sounds like – well, it sounds like the kind of performance that gets you through Judges’ Houses on the X-Factor, and with hindsight that’s precisely what it was: you can see Simon’s appreciative half-grin as the boys’ voices combine, and his slight eyebrow-raise at a couple of the more puppyish ad libs. If Westlife knew their moves 17 years ago, the whole country knows his now.
But the transition from IOYOU to Westlife hides another shift. Boyzone’s Ronan Keating – stepping, like a midfielder nearing retirement, into a coaching role – apparently recommended the name change on the grounds that “IOYOU” sounded “too boyband”. But IOYOU were a boyband. Which suggests that Cowell, Walsh and Keating had other ideas for Westlife. And so we’re back to the question of Westlife’s audience – the other factor, apart from Cowell’s remarkable skill as a pop fixer, in their dominance. Who were they? What did they want to hear?
The signature sound of Westlife arrives fully-formed on “Swear It Again” – five voices, moving as one. That kind of ultra-close harmony is a powerful emotional tool for the group, giving everything they sing a kind of polyvocal guarantee, four or five layers of underlined sincerity. The chorus of “Swear It Again” is a blanket of it: a mantle of reassurance, piling steadily up every beat of the bar: I’M – NEVER – TREAT – BAD / I – NEVER – SEE – SAD. Any hint of sex is left for the videos: this is the ballad as an endless hug.
Nothing too novel about that, perhaps. But the framing of this devotion is quite interesting – on the verses, Shane dismisses the idea that “everything must have its place in time”, and laments how “all of the people that we used to know” are giving up on love. And the chorus ends “I swore to share your joy and your pain, and I’ll swear it all over again”. Sure, this could be the hyperbolic language of teenage infatuation, and it’s been carefully crafted to speak to a young audience too, but its aim is wider. “Swore to share your joy and your pain” feels more like a marriage vow, and the rest of the lyric also seems to have the longer term in mind. This is a pop song not about falling in love, not even about marriage, but primarily about renewal of vows – an answer record, three decades on but in the same style and with the same appeal, to Englebert Humperdinck’s divorce ballad “Release Me”.
Kat Stevens, in her very entertaining Westlife tumblr Blogging Without Wings, calls the band “mum-pop”, which implies an equivalent force to the ossified poses and throwback grunts of Dadrock. Both Dadrock and Mumpop are intentionally crass, stereotyping names, because both describe music that was marketed in a crude and populist way, dog-whistle appeals to a mistily conservative idea of what rock or pop might be. If critics nod approvingly when rock appeals to the nostalgic instincts of middle-aged blokes, and recoil when pop does the same thing to middle-aged women – well, that’s a symptom of a wider problem, but it doesn’t mean there’s a fundamental difference between this record and Lenny Kravitz.
Of course younger women bought masses of Westlife CDs (and I’m sure a good few men did) – but Keating’s instincts were right: this is no boyband. This is a group designed to build a pan-generation romantic coalition, and tap an audience lost to pop, but opened up again by the widening of record distribution. It’s no coincidence that Westlife’s reign aligns with the peak of CD sales in supermarkets and Woolworths. And if Westlife are essentially a ‘boyband for grownups’, it explains their most distinctive feature – their infuriating dependability: the suits, the stools, the rivers of mid-tempo treacle. (“Swear It Again” is one of the finer examples, though – Mark’s yearning middle eight is a decent piece of work that resolves the song’s emotional struggle and earns the inevitable key shift. This is a lot better, for me, than any of the Boyzone records we’ve seen, and its weightiness is part of the reason.)
Cowell had gone this route before, with Robson And Jerome, but there are obvious limitations to using actors: they have other commitments, and they’re harder to control. Cowell, you feel, was happy enough to be parasitic on a successful show in his early career, but needed to own more and more of the process. A band that mixed Robson And Jerome and Boyzone was a logical step.
Still, there was something about TV and the eyeballs it brought in. You don’t need to rely on lyrical analysis to suggest Westlife had a distinctive fanbase: you could also point to their dominant showing at ITV’s Record Of The Year awards. This show – brainchild of another proud pop game-player, Jonathan King – had a simple format: a tinselly celebration of the year’s big singles, with the winner crowned by a Eurovision-style phone vote. In sales terms, Westlife barely figured on the end-of-year charts. At Record Of The Year, in the phone vote, they cleaned up. It seemed the singles-buying tip of Westlife fans concealed a larger iceberg: a family TV audience who really glommed onto them but had zero interest in the rest of music. Further evidence, though, that Westlife’s fanbase was something unusual.
So let’s go back to that initial, absurd, comparison: Elvis, The Beatles, and Westlife. It turns out they do have something in common: all three of them succeeded by creating a new audience. The difference is that the new audiences of Elvis and the Beatles woke hungry for new records, more records that could keep tapping the feelings those artists did. So their energies fed back into pop. But Westlife inspired few imitators: even other boybands mostly stayed away from the wholesale commitment to steadiness Westlife’s music implied. But that didn’t mean there weren’t ways of tapping – and broadening – Westlife’s newly potent audience. There’s a sense with hindsight of a jigsaw here whose pieces aren’t quite fitting. Simon Cowell. A bunch of singers. A family audience. A national phone vote. Just as Boyzone were the caterpillar for Westlife, so Westlife themselves look like a chrysalis stage for something yet vaster.