It had been thirteen months since Billie Piper’s last single. It might as well have been a hundred and thirteen: “Day And Night” was part of a standard pop career cycle, but the world of pop had upended itself, and the hesitant returns of the class of ‘98 underlined that – second albums that suddenly felt like desperate comeback attempts. The chunky sound of post-Spice British bubblegum – good-natured, amateurish, playground-ready – stood no chance against the all-conquering Cheiron sound, which powered not just Britney but the three biggest boybands in the world.
For Billie, B*Witched, Five, and the Spicers themselves, this was an existential crisis. We’ve seen, in sometimes gruesome detail, the solo Spice Girls try to find a viable sound, and their difficulties were mirrored across British pop, which suddenly found itself sidelined and playing catch-up. Anything was worth a try – country, UK garage, vocodered disco-house, R&B, indie rock… in the face of such panic, some decided just to swim with the tide. If Cheiron were unavailable – or unaffordable – perhaps there were other songwriting and production teams lurking in darkest Scandinavia?
So “Day And Night” is a slightly inauspicious debut for Stargate, a production get-up Popular will be meeting a lot. Their glory years are well ahead of them: in May 2000, the nearest thing they’ll have to a muse is twelve, selling clothes on a Barbadian market stall with her crack addict Dad. But early Stargate sets the tone for later Stargate: they are – to be polite – chameleonic, rarely trendsetters or experimenters, with few obvious dots you can join between their many hits. On “Day And Night” they go for a shameless lift of Max Martin’s style: galumphing chords all over the place, Billie tasked with Britney-esque redlined melodrama, and an overall vibe not far from “Backstreet’s Back”.
It’s not a perfect match – “Day And Night” front-loads its pleasures instead of building to them, so it wears out its welcome far faster – but it’s effective enough that I feel bad for not liking it more. Behind the mechanoid production fireworks this is a very traditional pop song, with a sweet lyrical turn (”The only time I think of you / Is every day and all night through”) you could imagine on a hit at any time in the 20th century. The problem, I think, is Billie. Never a strong singer, she muddled through on cheek on “Because We Want To”, but “Day And Night” asks her to be more of a powerhouse than she can manage, and her performance sounds frayed and shrill.
Pop had been a mixed experience for Piper. Booed at awards ceremonies for the crime of dating a boyband member, a regular star of the Popbitch gossip email, stalked by an obsessed fan she’d later see in court – she was miserable, and the relative flop of her second album came as a blessing. Probably several of her peers were miserable too: we know more about the labour of pop in Billie’s case because she got famous enough doing something else to write about it. For other British pop performers, the treadmill – or the dream – continued. There would always be a need for domestic stars, no matter how globalised the business got – but only a few years after the Spice Girls, “Day And Night” suggested theirs might be a second-rate existence: the 00s as a re-run of the 1950s, with British pop producing cheerily clunky remakes of the market leaders.