12
Oct 14

WESTLIFE – “Swear It Again”

Popular86 comments • 6,201 views

#822, 1st May 1999

westlife swear 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.

4

Comments

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  1. 31
    katstevens on 13 Oct 2014 #

    #30: You’re right, watching it back they are much more cheerful than I remembered.

  2. 32
    Rory on 13 Oct 2014 #

    I don’t know any of the Westlife number ones apart from their 2005 paean to yeast, so this was novel, at least. But I’d rather listen to at least two of Boyzone’s number ones than this (which is to say: hardly at all). And you all reckon they get worse?

    It isn’t the smooth production or the homogenized harmonies that annoy me most here, it’s that I still can’t remember the tune after listening to it twice. Swanstep’s Air Supply comparison is apt, but at least I can hum a few bars of their big hits without a quick refresher at YouTube.

    2.

    (Great review though, Tom. Seconding the motion to make some of the later reviews one or two words long, if only to spare your sanity. Haiku, perhaps?)

  3. 33
    Tom on 13 Oct 2014 #

    #30 it isn’t even that Bryan is in the top half, it’s that he was SPECIALLY RECRUITED as a handsome replacement for the two who got the shove. Igor and Otto Sump, on this reckoning.

    (I have consulted ACTUAL MULTIPLE SOURCES, not just Wikipedia, on the Night Of The West Knives and there are ambiguous areas – supposedly Simon’s main concern was Shane, but he kept him in and fired Graham instead – who was kept on as road manager for a bit, another piece of 60s-esque cruelty)

    #32 I dare say I’ll be applying a number of reviewing strategies to the Westlife canon.

  4. 34
    punctum on 13 Oct 2014 #

    When in Glasgow recently, I witnessed a small slice of the horrors that constitute daytime TV, and Mr McFadden is currently hosting something called Who’s Doing The Dishes? The premise? A “celebrity” cooks a meal for a panel of contestants and they have to guess – with the help of some blindingly obvious clues – who cooked it. If their guess is right, the celebrity has to wash up after them, but if it is wrong, they have to do their own washing up. Of the two episodes which I partly watched, they guessed Bucks Fizz star Cheryl Baker but not former England rugby international Martin Offiah. McFadden looked glassily as though of hemlock he wished he had drunk.

  5. 35
    stpw on 13 Oct 2014 #

    #17/18
    Always taken the ‘West’ element to be the West of Ireland – the Sligo/Mayo roots (particularly vs the Dublin Boyzone).

  6. 36
    punctum on 13 Oct 2014 #

    Did I say eight number one albums? I double checked and actually they’ve only had seven #1 albums in the UK. Savour the painful irony of that “only.”

  7. 37
    swanstep on 13 Oct 2014 #

    @rory, 32. I agree that Air Supply’s big hits were and are serious earworms in a way that SIA isn’t. Checking youtube I found that Westlife together w/ Aussie sweetheart Delta Goodrem did a pretty solid Air Supply cover on X-factor (of course they did!). I guess it’ll be interesting to hear through Popular whether W can originate a track that hooky and that shows off their voices (& Ms Goodrem’s) that well.

  8. 38
    iconoclast on 13 Oct 2014 #

    There’s plenty to say, virtually all of which has already been said, about this record as a pop-cultural signifier/phenomenon/whatever. As an actual piece of music, by contrast there’s very little to say: it’s a formulaic ballad, formulaically (*) written and produced, passionately sung, which does its job efficiently and makes no pretentions to anything else. That doesn’t actually make it *good*, mind, and I wouldn’t want to listen to it again, but it’s not an out-and-out trainwreck either. I agree with Tom here, for once: FOUR.

    (*) Is this an actual word?

  9. 39
    enitharmon on 13 Oct 2014 #

    @35 For some reason I’ve always referred to them as Pondlife. Well they (or Mr Cowell) walked into that one.

  10. 40
    Andrew Farrell on 13 Oct 2014 #

    #23 a) careful with the bunny! b) but these aren’t the bunnies you’re looking for…

    #25 I think it’s always possible to be offensively non-corrupting – even a straight forward harking-back band can have a different cultural charge than what they’re harking back to (are they even attempting the edge of the Rat Pack?), because it’s in a different context. I can imagine getting offended at a wildly popular group of Boyz regurgitating 50s attitudes in the modern world…

    … er, if I actually knew what any of the songs were about, which I don’t. There could be a cover of Under My Thumb, or The Boiler for that matter, as far as I know. I suspect that there is yet to be published a feminist appraisal of Westlife’s #1 singles, just because you’d have to listen to 14 of the bloody things.

    #27: Think how Tom felt, at about the same time.

    #33: Expecting one of the later reviews to be a Vine of yourself, a crossbow, and some paint-filled balloons with the lad’s faces on.

  11. 41
    katstevens on 13 Oct 2014 #

    And you all reckon they get worse?

    Not at all! However some of their best singles didn’t actually get to #1 so you lot will NEVER KNOW.

  12. 42
    punctum on 13 Oct 2014 #

    They don’t get worse.

    However, they don’t get better either.

    I know everything, me.

  13. 43
    Izzy on 13 Oct 2014 #

    Well here’s a surprise – this is a pretty good record. Which is largely down to the songwriting I feel – I’m highly sceptical of the claims not to be able to remember this once it’s stopped playing, as there are plenty of hooks here. The messing with tempo-via-metre around “I’m glad we’re on this one-way-street … just you & I” (0:45) is very pleasing, but there are others.

    The lift into the chorus is nice; the key change at 3:04 not so much. It’s good that they put something startling in there, I just wish it had been through making the instrumentation less safe. It’s not lazy as such, because it sounds properly lush rather than pro-forma, it’s just a bit pedestrian.

    Overall it leaves the vocals slightly too much to do. As others have noted, they’re fine, but they lack that bit of character or sass that’d push this into the higher marks. The production does do a very good job on them though, with odd lines and emphases jumping out here & there – the ‘denied’ at 2:14 – but ultimately it’s not because of great singing, which is what you’d be hearing if this were, say, Boyz II Men getting their hands on it.

    Whether that’d necessarily have made for a better record I’m not sure. But this is fine – good, getting towards very good. (7)

  14. 44
    Tom on 13 Oct 2014 #

    My actual least favourite – from imperfect memory – Westlife single didn’t get to #1, but I think I will be mentioning it in an effort to pad out an entry that did (also very bad), so I will leave you in a state of ‘suspense’.

    This is at the high end of Westlife quality, I’m pretty sure. I dunno if “got worse” is exactly the problem – in some ways they widened their range and got a bit more ambitious, but they just were never very good at doing things other than ‘being Westlife’. But at the same time the songs on which they were just ‘being Westlife’ got rapidly familiar. There is more variation in Westlife material than they are given credit for, but not as much as you’d hope for if you were to do something idiotic like write about them 14 times.

  15. 45
    chelovek na lune on 13 Oct 2014 #

    #41 Hmm, I don’t claim to recall all of their singles, but just looking through the list I see that two that I dismissed as being, even for Westlife, particularly unpleasant “only” got to nos 5 and 4, respectively. I fear we may still be getting the cream of the crap here….

  16. 46
    flahr on 13 Oct 2014 #

    For some reason I listened to and wrote about the album this is from, way back when (but not quite as way back when as 1999) – I reproduce the interesting parts in confidence that no-one will think Punctum’s future take on same is rendered superfluous by it:

    “my favourite aspect of this album was the drums. I assume they were using a drum machine with three buttons on it: ON/OFF, PLAY, and BIG DRAMATIC THUDTHUDTHUD A LA “I WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU”, an effect I always descend into giggles at… The only thing after [track 11] I can remember is that one song forwent conventional music in favour of a noise like a herd of wildebeest in C major sweeping past the microphone at more or less random intervals… The perfect Christmas gift for someone you don’t like much.”

    I don’t think I specifically mentioned “Swear It Again”, unless that was either track 11 or sounded like wildebeest. Given my past reaction to their music, though, I think it would be politic not to listen again and find out.

  17. 47
    JLucas on 13 Oct 2014 #

    I prefer early Westlife to mid-late Westlife (anything after the second album essentially) just because like Boyzone, once they’d established a formula that worked they essentially became a covers act – at least in terms of their singles.

    There’s decent pop songcraft to this early stuff even if it does become very samey very quickly. That said, one of their early cover hits is my favourite Westlife song just because it’s so bizarre. But we’ll come to that…

  18. 48
    Nixon on 13 Oct 2014 #

    #42 Chin up, Marcello, at least you don’t have to navigate the (apparently Robbie Williams-inspired) Sinatra tribute LP, “Allow Us To Be Frank”, whose title is either groansomely awful or genius, I can’t decide.

  19. 49
    JoeWiz on 13 Oct 2014 #

    This all seemed rather sweet at the time didn’t it? Pleasant song, friendly lads with Ronan as ‘manager’ a quick fire number one easily achieved. There’s NOTHING on this song or video which suggesta the all conquering behemoth which Westlife would pretty easily become.
    My main problem was that it lacked even the mildest of thrils, there was never even a suggestion or a twitch of innovation. Many of their songs were good in their own way, many were also heart breakingly poor but literally none of them made you question what you were hearing.
    Why did no one stop them? TT were gone, as were Boyzone pretty much by now – where was the polar opposite competition? An East 17 bad boy type thing? It takes us another 2 years to get to a bunnied colour based boyband and by that point, Westlife were long gone into the distance…
    3. Just.

  20. 50
    Tom on 13 Oct 2014 #

    #49 competition to Westlife – well, my theory is that the specific audience for Westlife (call it soft rock, schlager, mum-pop, whatever) is buying them because they’re dependable – this is why they had to be launched as Boyzone 2.0 rather than as a totally new thing – which meant that the standard “good boy/bad boy” balancing act wouldn’t work. In marketing, when you’re selling on safety and reliability, excitement and unreliability don’t really work to win people over: the main competitive strategy would be to get people to take reliability for granted and sell them in on other neighbouring attributes – premium-ness, engagement, personalisation, authenticity, etc. So ultimately their competition are things like reality TV stars (more of a personal stake), Il Divo (a bit more premium), Michael Buble (a bit less manufactured) etc. Boybands don’t get a look in.

  21. 51
    punctum on 13 Oct 2014 #

    #48: Probably not as good as Nik Kershaw’s 2001 album To Be Frank (which isn’t that good).

  22. 52
    Rory on 13 Oct 2014 #

    Izzy @43: Highly skeptical? Well, I genuinely have listened to this only twice (once on Friday, and once today), and several hours after the second listen I really am struggling to remember the tune. I remember they sing “swear it all over again” rather than the song’s actual title, and there’s a lurch into a higher register towards the end, and that’s about it. Any attempt to bring more to mind gets sidetracked by the chorus of their 2005 bunny. I’m not about to listen to it a third time to search for those elusive hooks.

    Meanwhile, Boyzone’s “A Different Beat” and “No Matter What” spring to mind unbidden, damn them.

  23. 53
    chelovek na lune on 13 Oct 2014 #

    @52 I find (and have always found) this eminently forgettable, for what it’s worth, which maybe contributes to my sense that it lacks unpleasantness, compared with several bunnies yet to come

  24. 54
    AMZ1981 on 14 Oct 2014 #

    #49 I’d quibble that slightly – Boyzone were putting on a unified front at the time, they have got a bunny in the bag and it wasn’t until the next year they quietly slipped into hiatus. Obviously (bunnying again) Ronan Keating had one eye on the solo career and at the time he would have been the cash cow rather than Westlife.

    Speaking of Keating, for all that he was supposedly their co manager I’d be surprised if he really had any real imput. He may have thrown in the odd idea but I always saw it as a publicity stunt – Smash Hits got a good photo shoot of them doing a teacher/ class act.

  25. 55
    Mark G on 14 Oct 2014 #

    It wasn’t until Peter Cushing named them as his favourite musical group that the penny dropped: Boyband be blowed, this is the new MOR!

  26. 56
    Matthew K on 14 Oct 2014 #

    LOVED this entry, a prime piece of analysis which reminds me why I keep coming back to Popular (I think I’ve been reading at least 8 years).
    Dispiriting stuff in discussion, although a brief moment of joy when I mentally substituted the other meaning of “stool” for no good reason.

  27. 57
    James Silkstone on 14 Oct 2014 #

    And enter, the worst part of my childhood existence. Still, I do remember the fuss there was around Westlife in my primary school for about three or four years and they were truly, annoyingly omnipresent if you were a child during this time – I actually had a conversation with my elder cousin about this once, he was a teenager in ’99 and managed to avoid Westlife as well as he could and from all accounts he did a decent job of it not hearing one of their songs until “Uptown Girl” in 2001. I had no such look, being hooked on Saturday morning television probably meant I was going to be fighting a losing battle from the start because even 5-year old James already despised this band. I just didn’t get them. I didn’t get why my sister and female cousins were so bothered, nor the girls at school when that came around, I just didn’t get it. They were so boring.

    I don’t even hate boybands, I actually quite like some. Backstreet Boys & NSYNC released some very good pop around this era, and after a shaky start A1 managed to push out some decent tunes as well. Blue were a favourite of mine for a while, and I wasn’t opposed to Busted or McFly either. I even quite like One Direction nowadays.

    Over the years, loathed as I am to admit it, I’ve warmed to them. When they turned up the tempo a little bit, they could be surprisingly un-shit (I’d actually highly recommend 2006’s “Amazing” – unfortunately not one of their three bearable songs actually reached the number one spit) but those instances were few and far between and if there’s one thing I can say about early Westlife; it’s that at least they were releasing mostly original songs which they seemed to stop producing around the time of Brian McFadden’s departure (that day was like a damn greek tragedy at my school). As an individual record, ‘Swear It Again’ in hindsight isn’t too bad. I mean, there’s something in it pushing it. There’s a driving force present unlike in a lot of their other ballads but it’s in no way great. Just eh. 1999 needs to pick its socks up a little

    3

  28. 58
    James BC on 14 Oct 2014 #

    The olestra of pop – yuck!

    I never understood. I get that they sold to romantic-minded, pleasant people who probably don’t buy much music – the Daniel O’Donnell market. But how do you get that fanbase to (1) buy singles and (2) all buy them in the same week? Did a bat signal go out through some communication channel unmonitored by me (daytime TV? local radio? posters??) or was it simply by putting them next to the supermarket checkout? Was there a corresponding drop in sales of Galaxy Minstrels in the weeks when Westlife had a single out?

    I do think Westlife should have been reprimanded for breaking one of the cardinal rules of boybands (and soaps) and having a member with the same name as another member of an existing boyband. I’m pretty sure there was no precedent for that nefarious move.

    As for the song, well it’s not my thing.

  29. 59
    Cumbrian on 14 Oct 2014 #

    Mundane Pointless Thing I Must Share: It has just struck me Brian McFadden looks an awful lot like a male version of Kerry Katona on the sleeve of this – or at least to my eyes he does anyway.

  30. 60
    Mark G on 14 Oct 2014 #

    #58 I think that rule is that you’re not allowed to have the same name as someone else in the same boyband.

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