Reach for the Stars by Michael Cragg review – bubblegum pop’s finest hour
Cases are regularly made for this or that period of pop history to be recognised as a “golden era”, and random chunks of the 1950s to the 1990s have been widely exalted. It is to Michael Cragg’s great credit that his new book, a thoroughgoing oral history, focuses on a period until now almost entirely shunned by critics: British millennial bubblegum.
It was an era created by the Spice Girls, who had been a much-needed breath of fresh air when Britpop started to go stale in 1996. “Friendship never ends” sang the Beatles of the late 90s, and Emma Bunton shares stories of their domestic situation: “Mel B used to cook corned beef and rice, which was a step up from my beans on toast. We used to make Victoria clean the bathroom.” Their success was so sudden and all-consuming, with three No 1s by Christmas 1996, that a UK music industry geared to guitars and pale boy bands had to build rivals from scratch. That took time. The Spice Girls had 1997 to themselves and would scoop three more No 1s before that year was out.
Most of the acts Cragg covers straddle the years either side of the millennium, and many burst through in 1998: Steps were a five-piece made up of would-be children’s TV presenters with a yen to sound like a Home Counties Abba; the laddy Five were launched on the TV show Neighbours from Hell; the charismatic, 15-year-old Sylvia Young student Billie Piper went straight in at No 1 with Because We Want To, a single that was pure Grange Hill; Irish four-piece B*witched were formed with the terrible idea of marrying the Spice Girls’ brightness and energy to another contemporary craze, Michael Flatley’s Riverdance. Such was the appetite for bubblicious teen pop that B*witched scored four consecutive No 1s in a matter of seven months.
Beneath the shiny exterior is the treatment of S Club 7 as chattels or the racism suffered by Jamelia and Mis-Teeq
Beneath the shiny exterior, however, there is a rumbling story of control and abuse, whether it’s the treatment of S Club 7 as chattels or the music industry racism suffered by Jamelia, Mis-Teeq and Mutya Buena. “The hours are brutal and schedules are like no others,” says Myleene Klass, who adds that Hear’Say were “constantly heckled and criticised for our weight and our looks”.
We also discover how Sugababes and Girls Aloud producer Brian Higgins hated the sound of S Club 7 and Steps: “I couldn’t stand it. I detested it. I started to really analyse these records just to hone my dislike of them.” Peter Robinson, editor of the music website Popjustice, claims TV series Pop Idol “put in motion the decimation of pop music”. Yet the likes of Higgins, Robinson and producer Richard X (who recorded the bona fide classics Sweet Dreams My LA Ex and Some Girls with S Club 7’s Rachel Stevens) would go on to make the mid to late 00s a safe place for “poptimists” who aimed to wrestle pop back from Simon Cowell’s grip.
The most remarkable thing about this pre-social media age is how far away it now seems, with attitudes closer to the 70s or even the 50s than the present day – magazine covers with no black faces, singers with No 1 hits being put on a weekly wage by management. The rise of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, together with the success of UK garage and grime, would eventually cool the public’s ardour for British bubblegum. Yet whether you like the music of Sugababes, Five and Blue or not, Reach for the Stars comes over as a terrific piece of social history. Self-reliant artists like Adele and Charli XCX now hark back to the era with great fondness, and Cragg has captured its essence.
• Reach for the Stars by Michael Cragg is published by Bonnier (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.