Pop-Eye, 28th April 2002

Truly dreadful No.1 hits are rarer than you’d think – leaving out charity singles and Westlife’s perennially useless stool-pop, I can’t think of a really ghastly, what-has-gone-wrong-with-our-species turn-it-off-NOW chart-topper since Oasis‘s “All Around The World”. But mediocre No.1s are another matter, and 2002 has seen a bunch of them. “Hero” followed by “Evergreen” followed by “Unchained Melody” – the top of the UK charts has rarely been drearier. Oasis’ new hit last week didn’t exactly offer a striking alternative – a Xerox of a memory of a trace of long-ago energy. I’m sure their fans, if they care about chart positions at all, rejoiced at last week’s triumph of rock over pop, but I can’t see much of a difference – this week’s chart battle was a lot more significant, and the right side won. Oh, and people with an aversion to the idea of marketing in music should stop reading now.

Modern-day marketing is largely a question of branding. Successful brands need to differentiate themselves in order to attract a loyal audience, but conventional wisdom says that too much differentiation makes the brand breach the core promises of its product category (or “genre”). So for instance Walkers crisps have a loyal audience, but if they launch a chocolate flavour crisp it will be breaking the promise ‘crisps’ in general make of being a savoury snack food that goes well with a beer. But brands need to innovate in order to maintain differentiation and increase their audience.

So if you have a successful brand, what can you do to keep it interesting? One option is to extend the brand, for instance by putting its logo onto other products – so Microsoft makes PCs but also now games consoles. In pop music, brand extension tends to involve solo careers, but here there’s a category-specific problem – the original brand becomes compromised. Boyzone splits up when Ronan makes it big solo. (If pop stars were the mannequins myth demands, this wouldn’t happen of course – but in reality they have egos and workplace tensions too.) Pop Idol solved this problem neatly by creating a series of solo artists with no original band to split from. S Club Juniors however is a more radical solution – a ‘next generation’ group to inoculate the S Club brand against split-ups, break-ups, drug busts and intra-band lusts.

Bands have often replaced members with younger blood, but this two-tier system is new. S Club Juniors‘ bump-and-grinding 11-year-olds kind of disturb me, but anyone in their agegroup won’t be remotely fazed (last time I saw my 9-year-old cousin she was incessantly playing and singing along to Janet Jackson’s cutie-filthy “All For You” and nobody batted a heavily-mascara’d eyelid) and the song is gummy enough to get everybody buying. A marketing coup and a definite No.1, surely?

Except by a thousand or so sales the top selling record this week is “Freak Like Me” by the Sugababes. It is a fucking magnificent single, but it’s also another, possibly consequential, lesson in marketing. Say you have a brand that isn’t particularly successful – it’s had niche appeal but its credibility’s been dented and it’s never had a big market presence. What do you do?

In pop, the options are to abandon the brand entirely – bye bye Scooch! – or relaunch it. The recent model for a band/brand relaunch is Atomic Kitten – a new look, a big traditional single, and then suddenly a higher audience share. The Sugababes could easily have gone this route – when they replaced Siobhan with Heidi Range (an ex-Kitten herself) it looked inevitable, actually. Their big selling point – songwriting credibility and a certain surly realness – was shot cleanly out of the water with the split: they couldn’t build on that, so imitating another group and trying to piggyback its audience was the obvious option.

After all, the only other thing a brand relaunching itself can do is to try to create a new audience – find a gap in the market and tumble through it. This is enormously difficult. It’s also how pop stars are born. Think of Robbie Williams, suddenly twigging that the way to bounce into contention as a solo act wasn’t to “mature” but to regress, fuck up, act the brat, get messy – and discover the millions of pop buyers who wanted a naughty boy. Think of Adam Ant, flailing around after punk and pulling out the props chest, tapping into a whole strata of fans who wanted glam back, but with its gender dress-ups replaced by punky class-based costume-play.

And now think of the Sugababes, soulful cred in tatters, adrift on the choppy seas of early-00s pop. In a field where careers span months and where band members and songs are interchangeable, they’ve tapped into – what, exactly? “Freak Like Me” is a cover of an illegal mix of an old synthpop track and a half-forgotten soul hit, performed by a band too young to care much about either, who lost their record deal and got a member they don’t even know bolted on. And everyone in Britain seems to love it – when was the last time a single got mentions in Smash Hits, Q, NME and The Wire?

But my God, what a single it is! The bootleg backstory is the least important thing about “Freak Like Me”, and not just because most of the buyers won’t know or care about it. Producer Richard X has distorted the Numan backing and added supercrunchy new drums, so the thing feels like a cover version with a well-chosen sample. In fact the only bootleg-ish thing about the track now is how it’s been produced to sound just like a low-kbps MP3 download, all clattering tinny sharpness and sounds made rough at the edges.

This is a shock, and a thrill, after a period when most of the best singles have sounded so poised and expensive – “Freak Like Me” presents a template for a fuzzed-up R&B/pop noise, crude as fuck but still excitingly android. (Think of the Neptunes in a garage, building Robot Wars monsters out of loose wires and power tools). It’s also the most rhythmically brutish R&B production in ages, a stomp’n’smack forward march owing more to Glam than Timbaland. You might argue this isn’t R&B at all, but the girls’ voices tell a different, sexier, story.

It’s also the biggest neo-80s hit yet (and if a single drenching Gary Numan in cyberphlegm isn’t electroclash I’ve no idea what could be!) – so the Sugababes are at the nexus of three emergent trends. The culture-wide ‘eighties revival’; the chart-wide return to raw, underproduced sounds; the just-gone-overground bootleg thing – by luck, charisma and someone’s good judgement, all of these have met up in a teenage pop record. The new audience the Sugababes may have happened onto is a mix of the people who don’t want the fast-fading late 90s pop moment to end, the people who want something a little cheaper and nastier, and the people whose native distrust of pop has been gradually eroded by the last few years’ procession of undeniably blockbusting tunes. This cross-market crew is the chart-topping reality behind sarky phrases like “the pop group it’s OK to like”.

So the brand is successfully relaunched: champagne all round. Does this new audience really exist, and can it hold together? Perhaps not for the Sugababes, whose new album is not going to be full of similarly electroplated pop (though you never know). But the principle of artist interchangeability still holds in pop, raw sounds or no – and this is why I said this week’s chart clash was significant.

S Club Juniors represent a pop music safely confined within its demographic and genre, a guarantee to every 10-year old now and forever that there will always be an S Club. Whereas Sugababes I think aren’t just appealing to their old ‘pop’ audience, but have hooked onto a bigger, less obvious market, and have done so not by an appeal to authenticity but by making – or at least breaking – a unhealthily fresh noise. And next? Canny pop producers will have spotted an opportunity, a risk – even if it turns out not to be Sugababes’ to take.

I could be entirely wrong. But meanwhile we have “Freak Like Me”, the best single to top the chart for a long time. I’d played the initial Girls on Top bootleg to exhaustion and I wasn’t expecting to fall for the same song twice – but I did, and it’s still maybe every tenth tune I play. Great number ones are rare too.

I bought the single before I took the bus back to Oxford last Monday morning. Every time the song hit its climax – “It’s all good for ME!” – I looked out the window and saw houses, tower blocks, shopping centers, and imagined the same song playing on the radios in them all. That feeling of community, the idea that I can have something glorious in common with people I’ve never met, is an illusion, maybe, but it’s one of the best feelings I know – it shapes what I write, what I listen to, how I vote. Some records spark it off more than others, and for a week or two at least this is one of them.

Tom Ewing, April 2002