All I want for Christmas is a giant bedazzled green triangle
Five days before Christmas (and one day before the end of the world) I went to The Base, the mega mall on the outskirts of Hamilton that’s played a significant part in sucking the life out of downtown Hamilton, which is such a mid-20th-century thing to do. So retro.
Anyway, it was right in the middle of the pre-Christmas crazy period, when the stress starts with finding a car park and ends with wondering what sort of consolation present makes up for not being able to buy an iPad Mini as they’re all sold out. Not that such issues plagued me, but I like to empathise with the middle-classes, etc.
My issue was the music. As to be expected, Christmas songs were on high rotate. But here’s the thing – I heard four different versions of “All I Want For Christmas Is You”. At one point, I could position myself near the bath bomb selection of Lush and simultaneously hear the Michael Buble version in the store and the original Mariah version in the main mall. It even followed me outside, with a third version playing on the PA in the car park, and another one aurally ruffling me as I passed by a shop.
“All I Want For Christmas Is You” is a great song. As a gift of the ’90s, it’s a far better contribution to Christmas pop than anything the ’60s or ’70s managed. But when it’s coming at me as a quadrophonic retail extravaganza, this does not lead to a pleasing experience.
But here’s the thing. I wasn’t at the mall to buy Christmas presents, but yet I found myself getting a $2 bag of candy canes because it felt like the correct seasonal thing to do. Ach, Mariah – you’ve sucked me into your vortex of glad tidings and good pop.
For two periods in the past, Eurovision has only permitted songs to be sung in an official language of the entrant country. But since 1999, countries can enter in whatever language they feel like. Most choose English.
There’s a kind of glorious poetry to the way that some non-native speakers of English use it. Even songwriters from a country like Sweden, where 89% of the population speaks English, still have their own ways of expressing themselves.
So I present some of my favourite lyrics from this year’s Eurovision.
Would You? by Iris (Belgium)
Lyrics: Nina Sampermans, Jean Bosco Safari, Walter Mannaerts
But what would you do when my house was empty?
I will cried and was felt sad.
Lautar by Pasha Parfeny (Moldova)
Lyrics: Pasha Parfeny
You have never been at my show
You haven’t seen before how looks the trumpet
How looks it? It looks splendid!
I’m a Joker by Anri Jokhadze (Georgia)
Lyrics: Bibi Kvachadze
But the most amazing lyrics of all come from Anri Jokhadze of Georgia, with his song “I’m a Joker”. The song was originally titled “I’m a Jocker”, which seemed to be play on his surname until someone realised it wasn’t really a word.
Anri makes these claims:
I’m a joker
I’m a rocker
I’m a shocker
I’m a poker
I’m a talker
I’m a broker
I’m a slaker
And here’s the thing – all these words rhyme.
But here’s the best couplet:
I’m just a womanizer
Let me be your supervisor
Go on, then. I’ll leave my timesheet on your desk.
Post “X Factor”, they toured, released an album of covers and had a couple of hit singles. In May they represented Ireland at Eurovision with their first original song “Lipstick”. They came a very respectable eigth place, but – more importantly – had won the hearts of teen girls all over Europe.
A second album followed – this time with all original songs. In August they appeared on UK Celebrity Big Brother, and seemed to be the only housemates who were always having a good time instead of lying around smoking, moaning, paranoid.
So with this in mind, I present ten things I like about Jedward.
Note: I’ve included lots of links to videos. While they’re not terribly explicit, a couple are probably on the NSFW border. But if you do have the sort of workplace where you can watch saucy YouTube videos, call me.
1. Planet Jedward
One of the best moves – and I think this came from their management – was the concept of Planet Jedward. It’s the world that John and Edward live in, and it’s a joyous world.
Their music is full of up. Their Eurovision performance is packed with energy and exuberance, but yet everything they do is like this. There is no off switch. There is no “being on” for the crowds. Why walk when you can cartwheel?
And on Planet Jedward, the fellows are resiliant. They go with the flow, expertly absorbing all criticism and owning it. An example from their recent, hilarious stint on UK Celebrity Big Brother – after failing to clean up the kitchen after being instructed to do so by Big Brother (they slid around in olive oil instead), they were punished by having to dress up like babies, which they actually relished. Goo-goo ga-ga.
As it happens, I’m fans of another couple of musical twins – the Jarman brothers of the Cribs and the Deal sisters of the Breeders. But where Ryan and Gary and Kim and Kelley are very much their own person, the distinction between the Grimes brothers is initially less clear.
They dress identically, have the same haircut, usually styled in the same way, and at first glance, they can be pretty much indisguishable from one another.
But stick around long enough and the differences become clearer. John has a huskier voice. He’s slightly more aggressive. Edward has a softer voice and is more artistic. And they do look different from each other. The consensus amongst Jedicated fans is that John is the sexy one and Edward is the cute one.
And their twinness means they’re always playing off one another, their mutual company giving them endless excuses to muck around in the way that not many people can do on their own or even with a friend.
But the best thing – there’s two of them!
John and Edward are restless. When they’re interviewed, they talk over the top of each other, interrupting and branching off on the craziest tangents (which actually start to make sense when you’ve lived on Planet Jedward a while). It’s not uncommon for even expert interviewers to find themselves trapped in the vortex of chatter, but the best interviewers just accept that things are different on Planet Jedward. When they’re in full Jedward mode, they are joy. Here’s a brilliant interview with Alan Carr.
The energy continues when John and Edward are alone. They make lots of little videos mucking around in hotel rooms and/or involving water (the magic of wetness!). The piece de resistance is this video which involves four minutes and 22 seconds of such activities as discussion of Emma Watson’s hair, lipsynching to Avril Lavigne’s “What the Hell”, toothbrushing, pillow-fighting, shower-dancing, and bed-jumping.
4. Sex and Sexuality
Officially John and Edward like girls, but they don’t have girlfriends because it’s hard to have a girlfriend when you’re famous. There are gay rumours, but pretty much every young-dude pop singer gets that, and some even play up to it.
The pair are famously virgins, doing an Irish-Catholic version of the Jonas Brothers’ vow of abstinence. But, you know, they’re 19-year-old guys.
Jedward’s audiences are tween and teen girls and adults, so they cleverly tread a fine line between the two audiences, both innocent and sexual; not a boy, not yet a man. In one of their YouTube clips, Edward rides a toy car, and it’s really cute. Then he looks at the camera and says, “Wanna beep my horn? You wanna beep it?” Judging by the dozens of comments, the majority of Jedward fans would very much like to beep Edward’s horn.
John and Edward have a certain kind of androgyny. They’re both beautiful boys, and that’s a look that’s always worked well in pop. The lads seem simultaenously bisexual and asexual, but are maybe more accurately Jedsexual. They can play up to the “Hey, girl/boy, maybe I can be your boyfriend” fantasy, without actually having to go there. Their total lack of self-consciousness and certain naivety means they brilliantly get away with doing heaps of cool stuff that would normally come across as really really gay. There’s no attempt to lad them up to not appear too camp. They can even pose for a devastatingly hot photo shoot for GayTimes magazine, without even having to worry about alienating their girl fans.
But even if there were some solid evidence that the pair were “straight” and/or “gay”, that still wouldn’t suddenly clear everything up. They’re still living on Planet Jedward, were sexuality doesn’t matter. It’s quite nice there.
And then there’s this clip, a fan-made compilation of various seductive glances and pouts from YouTube. Either way, the pair have got something that people dream of.
The brothers are Irish, and largely speak with Irish accents with a slight American tinge. It’s not a full-on American accent, but just a few vowels show up that aren’t Irish. And they’ll talk about their “mom”, even though they still call her Mammy.
But I think back to when I was 11 and used to do reenactments of “Entertainment This Week” with my school friends, complete with bad American accents because it sounded cool. And my inner monologue is usually American accented (or Estuary English).
When most Irish musisicians who break into the mainstream do so with a really big “I’M IRISH” flavour to their music, it’s refreshing when someone comes along who’s willing to acknowledge they’ve grown up immersed in American pop culture in suburban Dublin and not in an enchanted glade where the little people dance.
The lads have pale Irish skin – like me! And right from the get-go, manager Louis Walsh advised them to stay away from the spray tan. Fake tans are high maintenance and never quite look natural – especially on pale skin.
This makes me really happy, because over the years, I’ve had pressure from people to not have pale skin. Like there was somehow something wrong with me for not being tanned. I spent too many years as a teen attempting to tan, before I realised it was something I just couldn’t do. All-over pale is much easier. Girls Aloud popstress Nicola Roberts has taken a similar stance, celebrating the beauty of natural pale.
There’s an idea that tanned skin looks better on camera (I used to work on a TV show that had its presenters get regular spray tans), but yet the magic of natural skintones is whenever John and Edward stand next to someone with a spray tan, the other person looks orange.
But it’s not just about skin tone. It’s about, you know, being proud of who you are and what you’ve got. And, frankly, this means more to me than any no-sex/no-drugs stance.
Some people wail, “Jedward can’t siiiing!” And, well, when they were on “X Factor”, they were definitely the weakest singers. But as “X Factor” progressed, and indeed beyond it, their singing technique improved, but mainly through repetition and rehearsal. With a scarily punk attitude, they refuse to formally improve their craft.
But John and Edward’s talent – their skills that pay the bills – isn’t just singing. They’re very entertaining, with genuine stage presence and that elusive, er, X-factor that can’t be learnt.
They also have a remarkable talent as models. As well as both being absolutely beautiful (and this is a large part of their pop appeal), they can channel the malarky into suave, and actually do Blue Steel without forcing a duckface. And they can pretty much look good in anything, which is a skill that few people have.
In the UK and Ireland, the duo have a number of television projects too. And even if the whole pop star thing doesn’t work out – most pop groups get about three years of massive success, if they’re lucky – they’ve got enough going for them to stay afloat in other fields for years.
“Never heard of them,” the old person cries. “They’re just famous for being famous.”
Except there is no such thing as ‘famous for being famous’. Everyone who is famous is so for a specific feat, talent or skill. It’s just that some of these talents are things that many people don’t necessarily value in others (but would like to have themself), like being attractive, living a fabulous life, or just being a really interesting person.
The Grimes brothers have always wanted to be famous (though on their own terms), even practising signing autographs, perfecting their pop star signature. There’s a remarkable clip of the pair performing the Backstreet Boys’ song “I Want it That Way” at a high school talent show. Their voices are wobbly, they get the lyrics messed up, but by the end of it, the teen girls in the audience are screaming with delight.
Jedward have released two albums. The first, “Planet Jedward”, was their post-”X-Factor” recording, consisting purely of cover versions. There are moments of pop magic, but generally it’s not so remarkable. The production particularly disguises their individuality, but full points to the person who sneakily decided to start the cover of “Teenage Kicks” with the opening riff from “Pretty Vacant”. Oh, yeah, and they also manage to sing the “Give no head, no backstage passes” line from “Rock DJ” without it sounding like it’s about blowjobs, and yet also exactly about that.
The pair’s second album, “Victory”, is a million times better. They have good songwriters on board, and good production that brings out John and Edward’s different voices. The album is full of pop gems. It reminds me of being 12, and how a good pop song can make you feel like everything is wonderful.
Four songs on “Victory” deal with themes of love and fame, both from the perspective of being a fan of a celebrity, and also falling in love with a civilian. The brothers’ number one crush is Britney Spears, so I figure she’s a inspiration behind all of these tunes.
But the songs I like are the sexxxier tunes with killer choruses like “DISTortion“, upcoming single “Wow Oh Wow“, the horribly named but totally brilliant “Techno Girl” and the sheer genius of “Pop Rocket“, a song that is either about sex or music, depending on what takes your fancy.
“Victory” reminds me of the joy of pop, albums with photos of the artist on the cover, that are structured around singles, and have filler tracks.
10. Social Media
I recently attended a mini music conference called Going Global, where music industry people from overseas gave New Zealand musicians advice on getting bigger. One thing that kept coming up was the need to engage with fans via social media, and examples were given of various buzz bands who do relevant tweets. Apparently some musicians are reluctant to do social media; they want to focus on their art and not have to interact with their audiences, dammit.
Well, this is what Jedward do. They have a Twitter account, @planetjedward. They mention their Twitter account in virtually all interviews they do, even on media like the BBC that doesn’t really approve of plugging. On Twitter, they post updates from their travels, photos, news and make brilliant tweets like this:
Hi, we are Jedward. We can make your girlfriend scream louder than anyone can just by hitting her follow button on Twitter
That’s true, you know.
John and Edward will spend an hour doing an entertaining live broadcast showing them opening fan mail, lipsyncing or seeing how many pieces of chewing gum they can stuff in their mouth. There’s no manager standing over their shoulder telling them what to do or say or to call it a night. It feels like they have a genuine connection with their fans, and really enjoy doing stuff for them and with them.
This is the really great bit: when the lads reach milestones in Twitter followers, they post videos to celebrate and reward. The 200,000 follower mark got a video of Edward frolicking in the ocean, while 300,000 followers got the bros dancing to their song “Pop Rocket”… in their underwear. OMJ! They’ve recently hit 400,000 and the fandom is buzzing with anticipation as to what that video will be.
See, beardy indie bands. That’s how you do social media.
So, I celebrate the joy of Jedward. Two dudes working hard, making money, having a ton of fun along the way, and making the girls scream.
Need a little achh! in your step? Try this on for size. It’s Pop and it tastes great and it makes you feel kinda funny. Not here [points to head], not down there [points downwards], but all up in this area [gestures to the general chest region]. And coming July 24th 2001, Jumbo Pop!
That’s the intro of ‘N Sync’s “Pop” video, where a Max Headroom-esque Justin Timberlake suddenly appears on the flatscreen TV in a cereal-eating sassy girl’s living room. The Pop in question is an orange fizzy beverage presented in a round-bottom flask. But the pop is also the music on ‘N Sync’s third and final studio album “Celebrity” which was indeed released on Tuesday 24 July 2001.
It went five times platinum in the US. That sounds impressive, but ‘N Sync’s previous album “No Strings Attached” went 11x platinum, and their debut album (which wasn’t even all that good) went 10x platinum.
But it sales aside, it’s a good place to draw a line. It was released only a few months before 9/11, and it also seemed to represent the last gasp of the millennium giddiness, before we all had to settle down and get a bit serious for the next decade. How did this final album of Justin, JC, Joey, Lance and Chris hold up over the passing decade?
And “Celebrity” is one of my fave albums, and it got my through some tough times, man. So as it’s the 10th anniversary of the album, I though it was about time to look back and do a track-by-track.
In which ‘N Sync want some respect.
First, it’s not just pop, it’s dirty pop. ‘N Sync are quick to establish that they aren’t the squeaky clean teen pop idols of 1998. They’re not talking the NKOTB route and dressing up in leather, trying to pretend they’re street hoodlums. No, ‘N Sync still fully own that they are a vocal harmony band with fresh dance moves. But they’d just like a little respect, ok?
The chorus triumphantly unites:
Do you ever wonder why this music gets you high?
It takes you on a ride.
You feel it when your body starts to rock, and, baby, you can’t stop.
When the music’s all you got, this must be pop.
That’s what it is. When you listen to pop because a good pop song feels good. It is better than sex, better than drugs and better than rock ‘n’ roll.
But then the song hits the breaks and Justin says, “Man, I’m tired of singing.” This was originally just the intro for – gasp – Justin’s beatbox solo, but now it takes on another meaning. Because Justin is tired of singing. His last solo album was released in 2006, and he’s now moved on to acting.
If you want to look for other signs of impending doom, they’re there. “The thing you got to realise, what we’re doing is not a trend. We got the gift of melody, we’re gonna bring it till the end.” No, Justin, what you were doing was just a trend. Though it is true that ‘N Sync brought it till the end. “Celebrity” had only a couple of dud tracks, and is a fine album to unintentionally go out with.
And then there’s the other sign of doom – it’s a Justin and JC sung track, written by Justin and his Australian choreographer. It’s produced to let Justin and JC’s voices stand out, with the rest of the group sounding more like session singers brought in for a few oohs.
But here’s the thing, despite all that has happened since, it’s still a great pop track. It’s danceable and uplifting and full of slices of club music and other bits of the late ’90s that didn’t usually make it to the top of the charts. And it’s a great opening track for the album.
In which ‘N Sync grow weary of this world.
“Write what you know,” they say. So Robyn writes about ‘N Sync and ‘N Sync write about being celebrities.
It’s hard out there when you’re a famous pop star and your girlfriend isn’t. Although, it’s a Justin-penned track and at the time he was very famously in relationship with Britney Spears, who enjoyed equal levels of celebrity to her fellow ex-Mouseketeer.
If I wasn’t a celebrity would you be so nice to me?
If I didn’t have cheese, like, every day, would you still wanna be with me?
The first time I heard this song, I didn’t know that cheese was slang for money, so I imagined ‘N Sync were talking about actual cheese. I imagine Lance frolicking with a giant wheel of gouda, when suddenly hordes of screaming teens run after him, making him frantically roll the cheese wheel down the street to make getaway.
Like in “Pop”, Justin takes the first verse and JC takes the second one. But JC gets the best bit – “See, it would be different if you had something, maybe like a J-O-B”. Only the “J-O-B” bit is sung a cappella with the full group harmonising on it. Because that is their J-O-B.
The song sounds quite bitter, with the protagonist vowing to leave Ms Golddigger and find someone who will “love me for me”. The song is a little bit of a middle finger to all of ‘N Sync’s nutso fans, who blindly vow their love for the band, but it also reveals a weak point of self-esteem among the lads. What if the girl answered, “Yes, I’d still want to be with you because you’re not a horrible person and I enjoy being with you”?
3. The Game Is Over
In which ‘N Sync do not achieve the high score.
“The Game Is Over” is a JC song, so he also gets to sing lead vocal first. But that’s not the best thing. The song is super cool because it samples bits of the Pacman theme. It’s chipcore years before all the cool kids were into it. (But, ok, Yellow Magic Orchestra fully got there first back in 1978 with “Computer Games“.)
And the video game samples are effective. ‘N Sync are the generation who grew up playing spacies. It makes perfect sense to extend the “game over” of a false-hearted lover’s betrayal into the same sense of loss one feels when the ghosts get Pacman.
“The Game Is Over” also works as a counterpoint to JC’s other technology-themed song “Digital Getdown” from ‘N Sync’s previous album “No Strings Attached”. “Digital Get Down” was a celebration of cyber sex, which was a fairly awesome thing for a pop group to be singing about in 2000.
But “The Game Is Over” is angry. “How could you think that you could do me like that,” JC spits, and his posse is right behind him. “You played yourself!”
If one wants to get Freudian here, one can look at the sexual parallels of the coin in the video game slot. In ‘N Sync’s live tour, they dressed up Tron-style versus an army of fembot types. But in reality, it’s more about a lone dude in a T-shirt and Levis, angrily battling away at a video game cos he’s just found out his girlfriend’s been rooting around.
In which ‘N Sync try to peer pressure you in to being their girlfriend.
Why don’t you be my girlfriend?
I’ll treat you good.
I know you hear your friends when they say you should.
Every girl wants to be wanted, and this song is the voice of a guy who wants a girl. Let’s take a moment to luxuriate in the fantasy of “Girlfriend”. Let’s say you’re a girl and you have a crush on Justin or JC (or Joey, Chris or even Lance). You know realistically there’s no way that Mr Timberlake will be your boyfriend, but maybe if you got to meet him backstage at an ‘N Sync concert you could convince him.
“Girlfriend” turns it around. Rather than you having to seduce/beguile/drug your favourite ‘N Sync into loving you, there he is trying to convince you to be his girlfriend with song.
The song is written by the Neptunes, with plenty of their trademark staccato sound. Kids, that was back when the Neptunes wrote and produced songs, rather than Pharrell making Qream, that weird low-calorie cream liqueur for the ladies.
There’s a slightly sexed-up remix of the song, with Nelly showing up for a guest rap. That and the video (gangs, drag races, go Greased Lightning) show that ‘N Sync were continuing with the slightly toughed-up image.
“Girlfriend” was their final single off “Celebrity”, and it was the first single released after 9/11, five months after the event. It makes sense that in the confused post-9/11 world, they’d want to harden up a little.
But sometimes you just want a boy to want you to be his girlfriend.
5. The Two of Us
In which ‘N Sync just can’t get you out of their head.
Romantic obsession, it’s quite fun, yeah? The song starts with some sweet harpsichord-style keyboard, not unlike that of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, before stuttering to life with some tasty beats.
The song treads a fine line between the romantic and the sexual. The song works as the story of a man waiting for his new girlfriend to come home so they can stay up late watching DVDs and eating chips or he’s waiting for his girl to come home to they can have sex all night long.
“I always wanted to tell you,” Justin sings, “but I was so afraid.” Now he’s made that big step, he’s confessed his feelings and now things are going to get better.
But there’s a little self doubt. “Baby, I wonder if you feel the same as I do.” In the back of his mind, there’s the very real possibility that the girl might not be as into him as he’s into her. She might just be using him for sex. Or chips.
But there is hope in my heart. I think the girl will be into him and will want to do more than just watch DVDs.
In which ‘N Sync struggle with loss.
Was this song, the second single off “Celebrity”, the straw that broke the ‘N Sync camel’s back? (And is there a Backstreet Boys dromedary?) Written by Justin and his Australian choreographer, and with Justin on all the lead vocals, it might as well have been credited to “Justin Timberlake and the ‘N Syncs”.
It’s a sad song, chronicling the aching loss that comes with a breakup. Following the two previous tracks at the hopeful beginning stages of a relationship, the sting of “Gone” is even stronger.
With the girl out of his life, what does Justin miss? “I’ve drove myself insane wishing I could touch your face, but the truth remains – you’re gone”. It’s simple, tender and the lack of face-touching, it hurts so much.
The song functions as a showcase for Justin. As well as the getting all the lead vocals, the song also affords him a bare a cappella break down, just to prove he’s got the skills that pay the bills. This is what it sounds like when a boyband splinters, when a guy goes solo.
And so the song takes on a double meaning. Now it’s not just about a guy missing his girlfriend. Justin is singing the loss that his group will soon feel when he sidesteps away from them, and the group’s theoretical hiatus becomes a permanent breakup.
7. Tell Me, Tell Me…Baby
In which the big guns are brought out.
The Swedes are back. There’s always a moment of tension when one hears that a pop artist has started writing their own songs. Sometimes it works, other times it’s terrible. In the case of ‘N Sync, the songs co-written by Justin and JC were perfectly good pop songs, but it took the Swedish pop production house of Cheiron to really bring the power pop. On this song, it’s Max and Rami from Cheiron.
The first sign that something great is happening is the ellipses in the song title. You know what other song used that? “…Baby One More Time” is what.
The song starts with perfectly adequate beats and “oh ohs”, before one of the ‘N Syncs stops things and says, “Hold it, can we back it up just a little bit?” The song rewinds and starts over with a sonic explosion of shattering glass and snippets of Cheiron’s previous hits with ‘N Sync. Take that, Justin and his choreographer!
The song also features that hallmark of the Cheiron/Jive Records oeuvre – the pronunciation of ‘me’ as ‘maaayyee”, which nicely rhymes with ‘baby’.
Like “Gone”, it’s a cry for a relationship that’s fallen apart. But unlike “Gone”, there’s hope that things can be mended. It’s more of a group song, with a united boyband sound. It’s the hope that ‘N Sync can stay together, forever. Maybe they just need Cheiron to work some more magic.
At this point I was going to come to the defence of professional songwriters and pop production houses. But if it’s not Cheiron (which closed in 2001), it’s Tamla Motown or the Brill Building. And it’s the same old criticism that come up again and again, only to go away when the songs are a few decades old and are recognised as gems. Really, if a single sounds amazing, why is it a bad thing that the person who wrote it is different to the person who sings it?
8. Up Against the Wall
In which ‘N Sync enjoy a good humping.
I love this song because it’s about humping. It’s a collaboration between Justin and JC (hot), and is self-consciously full of two-step beats. Yeah, take that, Craig David.
She took my hand.
We never said a word at all.
We starting grinding.
Shorty had me up against the wall.
You could choose to think of it as a dance style like jacking or daggering, but there’s also the possibility that it’s just about an attractive young couple, high on who knows what, who’ve spotted each other across a crowded room but just don’t have time to deal with the hassle of removing clothes.
The action takes place in a disco, where the protagonist spots a fine young lady who then proceeds to come over and hump him. This is top quality humping, because it takes the fellow away from all his cares. “Ask me about tomorrow – you know that I don’t care at all. I just got caught up when she had me up against the wall.”
But what happens tomorrow? Does he wake up with the fly honey in bed with him, realising he has to go through an awkward morning-after conversation? Or does he wake up alone, wondering what happened to his leather trousers at the club?
9. See Right Through You
In which ‘N Sync shed an angry tear.
Things are bitter. A moment of clarity hits ‘N Sync. That girl, the one they loved, she ain’t nothing but a cheating ho.
Covering similar territory to Alanis Morrisette’s “You Oughta Know”, the song is the voice of cheated-on lover angrily dealing with the aftermath of that discovery. But where as Alanis bluntly asks, “Would she go down on you in a theatre,” ‘N Sync get more euphemistic, asking, “Does he freak you the way that I do?”
‘N Sync move into slightly sweary territory with the line “These games they’ve gotta stop. About to get pissed off.” It’s also remarkable that it’s “pissed off”, which is more British than the American “pissed”. I think this may be a contribution of Justin’s Australian choreographer.
The song is angry, but it doesn’t quite seem to have the real anger of being dicked over. Later, when Justin’s girlfriend rooted his Australian choreographer, he wrote the bitter epic “Cry Me a River“.
Yeah, write what you know.
In which ‘N Sync cater to the all-important newlyweds demographic.
There are two dud songs on “Celebrity”, which was the same miss rate on “No Strings Attached”. But while the two songs on ‘N Sync’s previous album were written by Richard Marx and Diane Warren (yeah….), this time around the lads managed to write the songs themselves. The first is a JC song.
I used to tolerate this song, but now it annoys me. “Selfish” sounds like an ’80s slow jam, with strings, mellow keyboard and key changes. Lyrically it’s a boring declaration of love. It’s a mature grown-up boring kind of love, not the fun sexy kind of love.
I have this idea that every ‘N Sync album has to have a “wedding song” – a slow-dance declaration of love for the bride and groom to take their first steps as husband and wife. But this song makes me feel ill. It makes me not want to get married, ever, if that means avoiding ever having to hear this song again.
11. Just Don’t Tell Me That
In which ‘N Sync ain’t sayin’ she’s a golddigger.
Another Cheiron production, this time by songwriters Andreas, Kristian and Jack. “Just Don’t Tell Me That” works on the same theme as “Celebrity” – a fame-hungry, gold-digging girl is given her marching orders.
Predicting the popular rise of Playboy in the coming decade, the song opens with, “You’ve got to be seen at every party at the Playboy Mansion”. The girl is revealed to be camera whore, who enjoys the lifestyle to which ‘N Sync have treated her. But, of course, she’s a fake so she needs to hit the road.
This song is a bit of a litmus test for the listener. Either the girl thinks, “Well, I deserve the fancy car and to be seen on your arm at the VIP events, so if you can’t treat me right and give me what I need, then I will find someone who can, like Hef.” Or she thinks, “Yay! JC is ditching his no-good girlfriend. I am pure-hearted so now we can be together!”
But neither of these types have a place in the real world of ‘N Sync.
12. Something Like You
In which ‘N Sync pray just to make it today.
The second dud song is a Justin song, co-written with his old vocal coach Robin Wiley. But what makes it even worse – it features guest harmonica from Stevie Wonder. No! What? Stevie?! Yes, further evidence that everything Stevie Wonder has done since the ’80s has been a bit rubbish.
It’s not quite a wedding song, with the relationship in its early stages. It’s the blossoming of a serious, adult relationship. This is a song to be sung dressed in baggy white linen suits, seated on stools.
It’s the most religious song, with Justin’s prayers to “the Lord above” and asking, “Is this what God has meant for me?” The next step after this is not to get involved in some sweaty humping in a crowded night club. It’s to don a chastity ring and wait until marriage before doing anything else.
I also think songs like this exist to give the lads a bit of a breather during their hectic live shows. But for the listener, it’s much more enjoyable to skip to the next track.
13. That Girl (Will Never Be Mine)
In which ‘N Sync reach for the top.
The trio of Swedish power pop is rounded out with “That Girl (Will Never Be Mine)”, which was also the theme song of Lance and Joey’s romantic comedy movie “On The Line”, back when Lance was heterosexual.
Like other Cheiron productions, there’s a unified group vibe, Justin and JC’s lead vocals supported by the rest.
The song starts with a very brief burst of 1950s-style vocal harmony, before bursting into some fresh ’00s pop. The lyrics examine a case of unrequited love. Sometimes in the world of ‘N Sync a crush suggests it will lead to a lifetime of happiness, but in this case, it’s nothing put trouble.
The girl in question is some sort of celebrity, “tearing up the big screen”, but “she’s in a different league.” A reminder that while ‘N Sync are famous enough to write about the perils of fame, there are others who are more famous, who might sneer at these pop wannabes.
There is determination in the lyrics, “She will be mine!” I like to think this song is about Madonna, the culmination of which was the epic, next-level “4 Minutes“.
In which ‘N Sync let the short one have a go.
This song comes close to making it a trilogy of songs that I don’t like (it has a ‘truck driver’s gear change’ key change!), but there’s something strangely appealing about this cheesy ballad.
It’s the only song on the album written by ‘N Sync member Chris, who sings the high parts. It starts with some moody electric guitar, not unlike that of Bryan Adam’s “Run to You”, and expertly builds to a dramatic chorus. It feels like a really well constructed song. It’s nothing amazing, but has a nice comfortable feeling to it.
Like the Cheiron songs, “Falling” also feels like a good group song. ‘N Sync’s strength as a vocal harmony group is put to good use, with lush layers of harmony. And Chris has even thrown in a few high bits for himself.
If this was all ‘N Sync were capable of, they’d have been a perfectly adequate footnote in the history of late ’90s, early ’00s pop, but the fact that there are so many better song on the album make it just all that much more thrilling.
15. Do Your Thing
In which ‘N Sync are doing their thing and doing it well.
The album ends with a question: Are you doing your thing and doing it well? It’s a simple song about pursuing one’s goals, about staying focused on being the best.
If ‘N Sync were to ask themselves that question, the answer would be yes, and the song amply demonstrates their talent. But then where do you go? If all your dreams have come true, what is there left to achieve?
So it seems inevitable that ‘N Sync broke up. They could have easily made another album, but instead they took the hard road. Joey became a father, Lance came out, Chris went on a reality TV show, JC put out a bunchofkillersingles that didn’t get enough attention, and Justin had a very successfully solo career that he put on hold to move into the harder world of acting.
Are you doing your thing and doing it well? Yes? So then what? You move on to the next thing.
22 February 1990. The 1990 Grammy Awards, recognising the musical output of 1989. Young MC and Kris Kristofferson present the Grammy for Best New Artist. “This year, the nominees for Best New Artist are making all kinds of music,” the bespectacled author of Keep It In Your Pants says. “And each one of them expresses himself in a unique way that commands attention,” Young’s elder co-presenter concludes.
The nominees are announced, along with a video clip of a respresentative song. There’s Neneh Cherry, rippin’ shit up with Buffalo Stance; the Indigo Girls belting out some harmonious acoustic pop on Closer To Fine. So far the applause is polite and appreciative.
Then comes Milli Vanilii’s nomination, along with the braided pair singing, “Girl you know it’s true. Ooh, ooh, ooh, I love you.” And dancing. And staring with those needy eyes. The audience breaks out into screaming and rapturous applause. Yes, yes, Rob and Fab!
The winner is announced. Milli Vanilli. The room erupts with screams. Yay!
Rob and Fab receive their award, and Rob makes this speech:
“We wanna say thank you very much, but we wanna say there are a lot of artists here in this room, there are a lot of artists outside in the world, who could achieve the same award that we achieved today. And it’s an award for all artists in the world. Thank you very much.”
That night, all the artists in the world gave silent thanks to Milli Vanilli.
April 27, 2034
“Come here, my little comes. Gather around and I’ll tell you why we used to like the Milli Vanillis in the olden days. Oh, they were so pretty. It was like if you got Justin Beiber, made him brown, cloned him, gave him too many hair extensions, and dressed him in lycra bike pants, a jacket with giant shoulder pads and clompy boots. And how they could dance! They used to do this thing where they would jump up and spin around and their dreadlocks and braids flew about gaily. And that Rob, he had the most beautiful eyes.”
“Who’s Justin Bieber?”
November 16 1990. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences withdraws Milli Vanilli’s Grammy for Best New Artist.
The main point comes down to that the vocal credit on the album specifically named Rob and Fab.
But the awarded recordings themself hadn’t changed. Milli Vanilli hadn’t changed. It was just that the two fellows on the album cover and in the music videos and dancing on stage were different from the men who sang on the record.
But somehow that affected the recording.
It’s a bit like Schrödinger’s Cat. It’s not until you lift the lid on the album that you can form an opinion on the music. If the cat is alive, there’s a couple of handsome singers on the album and it’s a great album; if the cat is dead, it’s ordinary looking session singers on the album and it’s a terrible album.
January 1990. Happy new decade. I had a $15 record voucher from either my recent 15th birthday present and/or Christmas the week before. I’d recently purchased De La Soul’s debut album Three Feet High and Rising and was really enjoying it. Yeah, soundtrack of summer.
So I was feeling a bit adventurous. I wanted something a bit urban, a bit gritty. Something that would keep reminding me of my summer holiday in Auckland and not the impending return to rural Hamilton.
I looked around a forgettable record shop (remember, kids, this was the early ’90s, when record shops were all over the place and could easily be forgettable), but couldn’t find anything that took my fancy.
Then I saw something on the top 20 rack of tapes. It was Milli Vanilli’s All or Nothing (US Remix Album). I’d heard their songs. They were ok. I bought the tape, listened to it a few times but it wasn’t very captivating.
One of the album tracks was Girl You Know It’s True (NY Subway Mix). This suggests someone has taken the original Girl You Know It’s True and remixed it to reflect the gritty urban beat of New York’s public transport system.
In reality it’s like someone’s heard MARRS’s groundbreaking samplefest Pump Up the Volume and decided to apply a similar style to Milli Vanilli. But instead of using an experienced DJ, it sounds like they gave the work-experience kid a Fairlight and some Grace Jones, Sly and Robbie, Michael Jackson, and Deep Purple singles and let them have at it. With disastrous results.
If I really want to feel a stab of regret, I can remind myself that at the time, The Stone Roses album would have been out there on the shelves for me to buy.
April 2 1998. Let’s try not to think of Rob Pilatus’ final night on earth, alone in a hotel room in Hamburg, an accidental overdose. Let’s try not to think of the drug rehab and the assault charges and the relapsing and the neediness and the depression. Let’s try to remember the good things.
After it was revealed that Rob and Fab were not the people singing on the Milli Vanilli records or dancing in their videos, the public outrage made it clear – there is no room for lack of authenticity in pop music.
Yet, surprisingly, the Indigo Girls did not see their sales go through the roof in response to this newfound desire for musical authenticity.
A lesson was learned – cheat, just don’t get caught. Today no one’s quite so bold as to hire pretty frontmen for frumpy singers. But there’s Auto-Tune to tidy up messy singers. Or what about getting a great singer to record the demo, which the mediocre singer memorises, right down to the quirky phrasing. And the potential that ProTools offers for chopping and layering to disguise flaws.
But why are we still obsessed with authenticity in music? Why is it ok for some types of art to be polished to an artifical state of perfection, but not ok for others.
We hide our love for Milli Vanilli. We disguise it as contempt for the ’90s, beecause the ’90s were awful. At the moment, at least.
Milli Vanilli gets filed away with Crystal Pepsi, biker shorts and giant hair – pop culture anomalies that will never happen again.
Because the past was awful and the present is better. Apart from the bits of the past that were golden. We cherish those.
But that’s not the Milli Vanilli bit. That’s the bit where we pretend we never bought a Milli Vanilli album. Or if we did, we thought it was awful.
We don’t remember all the songs that went to number one all over the world, or the joy people got from dancing to Baby Don’t Forget My Number (NY Subway Mix).
Perhaps that actually happened in a parallel universe, where Al Gore was president and the World Trade Center still stands.
Q. Do you like Milli Vanilli?
A. No, I do not like Milli Vanilli because I think that they are crap!!!! I mean, they don’t even write their own songs or sing on their records and they have those braids which look really STUPID. Also, they do those dumb dances where they go from side to side, which look really LAME. Plus they wear really weird clothes with giant shoulder pads. Shoulder pads are so mental. I like proper singers who are actually talented, like Margaret Urlich, Jamie J Morgan, Ngaire and Madonna.
I mean, it’s not like they were the only ones doing it. Technotronic had blue-lipped fashion model Felly lip-syncing in their Pump Up the Jam video; petit Zelma Davis stood in for plus-size Martha Walsh in C+C Music Factory’s Gonna Make You Sweat video; and it was shockingly revealed that Paula Abdul’s singing partner MC Skat Kat was not actually a streetwise cat, but was, in fact, two human males.
Rob did the grunty singing and Fab did the rapping, but there always seemed to be a few more male voices in there too. And maybe there was even a voice of caution from the future.
It’s a tragedy for me to see the dream is over.
And I never will forget the day we met.
[Multi-platinum pop career], I’m gonna miss you.
I first got into Justin Timberlake when I got into Nsync back in 2001, and that was sparked by seeing the Nsync IMAX concert film “Bigger Than Live”. So when I heard that Mr JT was coming to Aotearoa,… um… I was kind of indifferent to it all. I couldn’t be bothered to go and see him live.
But then on Thursday, on the eve of his first show, I was at the pub with my old NZmusic.com-ettes, Joanna, Martina and Heather, and they were like, “Why aren’t you going!?” Good seats were still available, so I bought a ticket ($140?!) and got my arse along to Vector Arena for the last of his three Auckland shows.
As I entered the arena, Nine Inch Nails’ family fun-time singalong tune “Closer” was playing. “I wanna fuck you like an animal,” Trent Reznor snarled. This is not the result of someone’s iPod being put on random. Justin wanted us to hear it.
I was pleased to discover that I had an aisle seat, one row from the front and about two-thirds of the way down from the stage. Next to me were two girls working their way through eight cups of bourbon and Coke.
So, there was a whole lot of smoke and lights and the band started playing familiar fragments, and the audience screamed and cheered, and finally the bits and pieces suddenly exploded into “FutureSex / LoveSound”. A shadowy figure on stage was revealed to be Justin and it was really awesome. “You know what you want, and that makes you just like me,” he sang, and it was true.
Over in L91, I was dancing my arse off, and back on stage Justin was running through the best bits off his two albums. “Like I Love You”, “What Goes Around”, “My Love”.
Justin then had a quiet word with the audience. He loves Noo Zealand. Scream. It’s better than Australia. Scream. Noo Zealanders are so crazy, he wants some of what we’re smoking. Scream. In fact, he loves Noo Zealand so much, he might even move here. Screeeeam.
Which leads us to the Kaipara Bait ‘n’ Switch. I heard that on Friday Justin went ballooning over Helensville. It was a nice sunny day that day. A few years ago, Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers also visited the Kaipara area on a nice sunny day and was so impressed he bought a house there. But he soon discovered that nice sunny days are an anomaly and it’s usually a nice rainy day there. So, Justin, be warned.
Two girls in the row in front me told me there was a spare seat next to them, so I moved down into the front row. Nice one. But I discovered that the bourbon and Coke girls had spilt some on the floor, getting my hoodie all wet. Ugh. But it’s OK cos Justin was there.
I can only conclude that Justin Timberlake is a huge nerd. I mean, you don’t get to be a good singer, dancer, co-songwriter and entertainer without spending hours and hours and years and years practising. It’s kind of the Madonna template (she is a huge nerd too) – you just work your arse off at the art of being a pop star. And this also involves being too busy working to flash your cooter all over town.
There was a no-camera rule, but everyone these days has cameraphones, so the audience was dotted with the glowing screens of people holding up their cellphones, taking photos and jittery 30-second movie clips to stick on YouTube.
The question is, does Justin have enough songs to fill out a two-hour show? Well, not quite. There were a few dull patches. I could have done without “Sexy Ladies”. But the worst bit was the horrible ballad “Losing My Way”, which is about a guy called Bob (who has a job) and smokes the P. A mini gospel choir showed up for that one.
But the best was saved for last, with the bombastic “SexyBack” finale. It was all smoke and lights and it was like a funky sexy alien mothership was landing (hey…). I’m not sure, but I think it’s possible that Justin literally brought sexy back.
After that he came back on stage and just walked around, while the audience screamed at him. You’d have to be really well adjusted to be able to elicit that sort of reaction and be able to both accept it and not let it mess with your ego. Bags not.
He sat down at a piano and did one more song (during which heaps of lame-arses went home), before taking a final bow and disappearing into the stage. The audience was seen out with The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony”. (Another mid-’90s tune. Hmm…)
As I left, reeking of someone else’s bourbon and Coke, I had strangely mixed emotions about my first stadium extravaganza. I’d just seen Justin Timberlake live and it was a great experience, but I think I’ve had better times at the King’s Arms.
Currently the number one song in New Zealand is a cover version of The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me”. The group who have covered is a five-piece male pop group called BOYBAND.
BOYBAND are the deliberately cynical, tongue-in-cheek, ratings-week-focused creation of a radio station. They advertised for five guys who would be “Gay Boy, Hot Boy, Bad Boy, Mummy’s Boy and Fat Boy”, and promised that the winners would get “no big prize, major recording deal or guarantee of fame, just the chance to record a hit single, $500 cash, a 5th share in a 1994 Mazda Bongo van and enjoy a fleeting moment in the ‘pop music’ limelight.”
See, the thing is, New Zealanders are very serious about music. We like people who can play guitars and write their own songs; we like bands who come together because they were flatmates or went to school together, not because they replied to an ad or entered a competition. Even though “Popstars” originated in New Zealand, we generally ain’t got no time for “manufactured” pop acts because, um, well, just because.
So because of this, a normal local pop group wouldn’t have much luck unless they had a signed certificate saying they could all play instruments and had known each other since kindergarten.
But because BOYBAND is a big fat joke, it’s OK for people to like them. Their built-in obsolescence means that there’s no risk that they are going to dominate the charts forever, depriving proper, serious, grown-up artists, such as Bic Runga and Dave Dobbyn, of their rightful place in the pop charts.
The song itself is fairly unremarkable (YouTube). It’s got a bit of rock guitar with some mixed-up DJing and – of course – a rap in the middle. None of them are great singers – they could never ever handle performing anything this majestic.
It’s kind of sad that New Zealand can’t do fluffy pop properly. It’s either the aforementioned serious guitar pop or this entertaining yet cynical comedy.
Where is some sweet, locally made ear candy when you need it?