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12
Oct 14

WESTLIFE – “Swear It Again”

Popular84 comments • 3,392 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.

9
Oct 14

MARTINE McCUTCHEON – “Perfect Moment”

Popular40 comments • 1,776 views

#821, 17th April 1999

MartineM Soap star to pop star had been an effective route to fame in the late 80s: Kylie and Jason turning their next-dooriness into a ready-made pop identity, the line between their characters and their pop personas as fuzzy as SAW could make it. In the stage-school era of pop stardom you might expect that to be a template – but this is a rare sustained attempt, and it flared and faded quickly: Martine McCutcheon was dropped before her third album (songs from the shows) could come out.

She is still famous, though – no recent achievements to match her stint on Eastenders or her Number One, but none of the small humiliations of diminishing celebrity, either: no Celebrity Big Brother stints, no grisly comebacks. And the reason, I think, was also key to her acting and pop success: in her heyday there was something essentially likeable about McCutcheon – to be cynical, there was no money, or audience, in seeing her embarrassed or made to look bad. Which is not at all true of many celebrities. Bad things happening to her were another matter, though. McCutcheon’s Eastenders character, Tiffany Mitchell, became sensationally popular as a sort of modern-day Little Nell – a kindly soul plot-abused even by the fearsome standards of Walford, E20, who died in a hit-and-run at New Years’ 1998.

7
Oct 14

MR OIZO – “Flat Beat”

Popular77 comments • 2,665 views

#820, 3rd April 1999

flateric Just what we needed, another corporate puppet at Number One. To be fair to Flat Eric, he was in fact an indie puppet – if you hired French house act Mr.Oizo, the yellow flannel sidekick came as mandatory. The Eric we see in the Levis Sta-Prest ad that birthed “Flat Beat” was reworked by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, and he has that irresistible Muppety limberness. But none of Kermit’s pals were this aloof: Eric – and his pal Angel – drive around a suburb, Eric flexing and banging his head to techno. When the police pull them over they switch the music to a country crooner, and Angel complies with the cop’s request, flipping open the trunk to show immaculately folded shirts and pants. He lets them go. They put Mr Oizo back on, and the policeman glumly considers his own crumpled, suddenly uncool clothes.

3
Oct 14

B*WITCHED – “Blame It On The Weatherman”

Popular47 comments • 2,092 views

#819, 27th March 1999

weatherman Arriving a few weeks after Britney, “Blame It On The Weatherman” could be a sad afterthought, forgotten jetsam from a swept-away moment like Frank Ifield’s “I’m Confessin’”, his last number one released into the teeth of Beatlemania. Instead it’s a delightful last hurrah for the tweenpop British and Irish bubblegum of ’98: not the most exciting or best-selling record of the time, but one of the sweetest.

1
Oct 14

BOYZONE – “When The Going Gets Tough”

Popular28 comments • 1,505 views

#818, 13th March 1999

boyzggt There could be no Comic Relief without a Comic Relief single, but finding a way to do it successfully was more troublesome than it looked. Even though this is the third Comic Relief record in a row to get to the top, the last two had been a team-up of genuine pop heavyweights, and then the Spice Girls lending the charity a couple of songs they had going anyway. Neither approach seemed likely to become a formula: acts as bankable as the 1997 Spicers didn’t come along every year, and team-ups were an organisational headache. Plus, whatever else you might think of “Love Can Build A Bridge” and “Mama”, their relationship to comedy – the point of the brand – was non-existent.

29
Sep 14

BRITNEY SPEARS – “…Baby One More Time”

Popular141 comments • 6,654 views

#817, 21st February 1999

bomt How was I supposed to know that something wasn’t right?

It was a gilded age: the commercial zenith of the music industry at the end of the 20th century. In America, its apex as a money-making force came in 1999 when – adjusted for inflation – $71 per head was spent on music, a small box set for every man, woman and child in the country. Other countries hit the summit a little later, but they hit it. Did the industry see a crisis coming? Certainly – the Digital Millennium Copyright Act passed in the USA weeks after “….Baby One More Time” was released. But the biz was surely overconfident, it had seen its way through busts before. In 1981, when Britney Jean Spears was born, the industry was financially stagnant, caught in a recession-hit decline after the unsustained mini-boom of disco. It climbed back thanks to technology, and kept climbing. CD revenues rose and rose, and the machine to ensure they would not stop rising grew slicker and faster: radio, TV, promoters, manufacturers, labels, press and retailers meshing ever more efficiently in the pursuit of getting people to take home silver discs. And here we are at the top of the growth charts: peak pop.

25
Sep 14

LENNY KRAVITZ – “Fly Away”

Popular50 comments • 2,307 views

#816, 20th February 1999

kravitz To get it out of the way: a dodo, a rhea, an emu, a penguin. “Fly Away” has the same chance of getting off the ground as any of them – a stolid, earthbound tramp of a song, anchored by a riff and a groove that does too much to be actually heavy but never enough to soar. Perhaps that’s the point – flight as an impossible aspiration. If so, Lenny makes it too hard and too long. Its basic rhymes poke weakly at me – wish I could FLY so very HIGH like a dragonFLY – but Kravitz gives them a throaty push to let me know he’s shooting for passionate, meaningful even. After a bit it strikes me – this circular trudge is a shoegaze record with the effects turned off, a #nofilters snapshot of a Ride song. And who needs that?

14
Sep 14

BLONDIE – “Maria”

Popular81 comments • 3,581 views

#815, 13th February 1999

blondmaria Whatever Jimmy Destri meant when he wrote “Maria”, it isn’t a song about a woman: it’s a song about men’s reaction to women – lust, fantasy, resentment, projection and ultimately psychosis. Debbie Harry – the most gazed-upon pop star of her era – diagnoses the problem as succinctly as anyone has: “Don’t you want to break her? Don’t you want to take her home?” She sounds suitably withering, singing as someone who well knows that the two impulses are not often separable.

11
Sep 14

ARMAND VAN HELDEN – “You Don’t Know Me”

Popular20 comments • 1,590 views

#814, 6th February 1999

armand The micropolitics of “featuring” credits on dance records is a fascinating world. Duane Harden – who wrote and sang the words to “You Don’t Know Me” – gets no sleeve credit on the UK release, but did on the US. Rightly so – his angry, wounded performance gives the record most of its flavour. “You don’t even know me / You say that I’m not living right / You don’t understand me / So why do you judge my life?” – even though Van Helden was on the ascendant globally, house and garage music in New York had strong roots as a music by and for the city’s minorities, and Harden’s defiant lyrics speak to that. If the sentiment resonated with house’s black, gay and Hispanic fanbase in 1998, its appeal since has hardly narrowed: constant, public judgement is the condition of online life, and it’s a burden as unequally distributed as ever.

9
Sep 14

THE OFFSPRING – “Pretty Fly (For A White Guy)”

Popular57 comments • 3,227 views

#813, 30th January 1999

offspring Whatever else boybands call to mind, they rarely make me think of being a boy. Mostly, they are a man’s idea of a girl’s idea of boys, and sometimes – by design, or an accident of casting – some of the pungency of boydom makes it through that filter. The music young boys like and relate to is something else entirely. This song, for instance, in its yelping, jumping clatter, in its broad swings at soft targets, feels very much like being a boy felt. And in something else, too: its meanness.