After spending much of the 2010’s as a self-styled music blogger, I don’t really write about music anymore. This is for a myriad of reasons, mostly related to age: I don’t at all dislike current pop music, but the last thing Dua Lipa needs is the stamp of approval from this 35-year-old suburban wife guy.
However, perhaps no reason for this change is more significant than what the shift to streaming (and taking on a desk job) did to my listening habits.
Faced with infinite choice, instead of seeking out new adventures in hi-fi, I settle for the comfortable old standbys. I have dozens of playlists built out of songs I already know for sure I like, encompassing various decades, styles, and potential occasions, from Monday mornings to afternoon workouts to quiet Sunday afternoons and candlelit dinners, mostly comprised of songs that have lived comfortably for years. In 35 years I have done a lot of legwork building my music library, and while I still become aware of something new every now and again thanks to the radio or the internet, most often I find joy and pleasure re-examining what’s been there for me all along.
Great for me to use as background music while I’m working my 9-5, not so much to write about.
Seeking a change, but not a radical one, I decided to seek out some relics from the past. I was curious about the old MuchMusic Countdowns. Specifically, I was trying to pinpoint the source of some very particular memories I have of watching it late on a Sunday evening before bed as a kid. I was a few months shy of 12 years old. My parents had split up a few months earlier, right before the holidays. I was headed toward an awkward and often melancholy adolescence. I didn’t really know music, but my dad had just flipped the radio in his 1990 Buick Century to a more modern station than I had heard him playing before, so I was starting to get more familiar with what was actually going on in pop music.
The top songs at the time were “Believe” by Cher, “When You’re Gone” by Bryan Adams and Mel C. of the Spice Girls, and “Every Morning” by Sugar Ray. In my memory, I couldn’t go to bed until I had seen them play every week. In reality, these three songs were never the top songs on the countdown in sequence, but all of them appeared consistently in the Top 10 for February into March of 1999, along with The Offspring’s “Pretty Fly (For a White Guy),” Everlast’s “What It’s Like,” Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time,” and the New Radicals’ “You Get What You Give,” among others.
The songs of our youths do tend to define us. All of these songs have stuck with me for years, whether by my personal choice or by their own pop cultural cachet. Looking through the history of the Countdown, while there are a fair number of tunes that made the top 30 but then fell into obscurity, songs that made it to the top tier of the list usually ended up being all-timers (with the caveat that Canadian artists always had a shot at accelerating up the charts due to Canadian Content laws, and they weren’t always ones that hit big internationally and thus had staying power.)
I decided I wanted to go forward on the countdown and see what may have fallen through the cracks — would I find songs I hadn’t thought about in years, lesser hits from big artists, songs and artists I never, ever knew?
All of these exist on the archives of the Muchmusic countdown, peppered in between epochal pop gems like the Backstreet Boys’ “Larger Than Life” or Lou Bega’s “Mambo No. 5.” Sometimes you’re surprised that two things overlapped, like the Spice Girls making their last run up the charts as Britney Spears (rejected by labels because groups were in and nobody was looking for a “New Madonna/Debbie Gibson”) was carving herself a pop dynasty with her first album.
Which brings me to Mel C.
Obviously I was aware of Melanie “Sporty Spice” Chisholm through the Spice Girls, who at this time were going on hiatus concurrent with various members’ pregnancies. She wasn’t the first Spice to release a solo track, but “When You’re Gone” was the first one to reach my little world. It’s an affable, fizzy bit of adult contemporary pop that I still listen to today when I’m in the mood for a throwback to my late-90s heyday, and that I still hear on the radio from time to time. It’s one of those clean-cut tunes that is very sturdily built and never seems to go out of style. I must really like it, because it completely overrides my otherwise dislike of Bryan Adams.
But despite racking up an early hit and being probably my favourite Spice Girl — her voice has a distinctive timbre to it that makes it a great addition to their group dynamic that both blends well and rises to the occasion when given her own lines — I never heard much else from her as a solo act. Never, that is, until I leafed forward a little bit in the countdown archives to late summer of 1999 and found the song “Goin’ Down.”
Released in advance of her debut album Northern Star, “Goin’ Down” is everything that a Spice Girls song, or “When You’re Gone,” wasn’t. It was harsh, it was pissed-off, it featured borderline industrial elements, it was lyrically inscrutable and had difficult-to-decipher vocals buried in the mix as if being sung through a megaphone. It seems like it must have been surprising to the masses — who would have known one of the voices that gave us “zig-a-zig ah” privately yearned to be Alanis?
You can definitely move your body to it, but I wouldn’t characterize it as “dance” music. Calling it hard rock or punk would be giving it too much credit in those arenas, although it’s considerably less safe and toothless than, say, your average “rocker” that appears on American Idol, which makes me think it was not some kind of cynical cash-in designed to cross over to the alt rock market, just a specific statement Ms. Chisholm had wanted to make. If it were just an affectation nobody was meant to take seriously, she wouldn’t have had to go quite so hard. It’s a beguiling song that seems to have some real venom in it, actively shunning pop convention by departing from the safe confines of Spiceworld with a heavy pulsing beat and discordant sound effects, and obscuring its singer’s voice, which would theoretically be the main selling point beyond her pre-existing stardom.
In an industry that desperately needs you to stay in your lane, to be something easily understood and sold from the day they first meet you until you flame out in your thirties, it takes real chutzpah to defy that and head in the other direction with your first public statement of solo artistry. I’m reminded how impressed I was by Harry Styles’ early post-OneDirection output. Nowadays we’re more used to the idea of even popstars changing gears once in a while, ever since Miley first danced with Molly.
Compare it, though, to Geri Halliwell’s first solo statement, the hip-swiveling burlesque number “Look at Me,” which was everything one would expect from a former pop group member looking to break out, and you can see why I was so taken aback when I heard this song for the first time this year.
“Goin’ Down” is curious. Who is Mel supposed to be so pissed at? An ex-boyfriend? Her bandmates, Geri Halliwell? Management, the media, the fans, the very notion of fame? It’s hard to tell just by listening, but when your ear catches decidedly un-Spicelike snippets like “I’ve become a super-bitch” the thing goes from gimmick to genuine, or at least demonstrates great commitment to a bit.
The single was actually a top 5 hit in the UK, as was the album that it came from, but since I wasn’t paying attention to the UK charts (or really any charts) in mid-late 1999, I would need the song to have had significant staying power to remember it. I’ve never heard of it before now, perhaps because it was such a strange diversion from an artist people thought they understood that after its initial success it got tucked away in the recesses of pop history’s broom closet. Being that it was an angsty song that wasn’t quite Limp Bizkit, and a pop song that was nevertheless quite twisted, it committed the worst move you can make in pop music by being neither fish nor fowl.
The thundering production courtesy of Madonna producer Marius de Vries, Mel’s hellion-diva-through-static delivery and the shock of lyrical subject matter after years of Spice and Bryan Adams duets make the song a standout in any context, whether being situated on a MuchMusic countdown next to Smash Mouth’s “All Star,” or on the album itself. As a full CD, Northern Star is a something-for-everyone affair where this girl-rage track shares space with ballads (the title track and the Left Eye-featuring R&B of “Never Be the Same Again”), Ray of Light-inspired dance (“I Turn to You”) and otherwise capable millennial pop with a few interesting but unsurprising moments (I’d comfortably recommend “Ga Ga”).
Nothing else on the set comes across as shocking as “Goin’ Down,” making the whole exercise a strange one-and-done, an odd choice for a leadoff single that gets weirder the more you think about it. If she wasn’t figuring to fully transform herself into the edgy, righteously pissed off soon-to-be-former Spice Girl, and she was just going to follow it up with business-as-usual professional pop fluff, why come out swinging like that?
If the song isn’t for Spice Girls fans or rock fans, one wonders who it actually is for, and the answer is… me. I only first heard the song four days ago and I keep coming back to it. It’s refreshing both in the context of other retro songs I enjoy, and as a respite from whatever else is going on in the world right now, no matter what, ultimately, is the inspiration, motivation or intention behind it back in 1999. And as much as I love listening to it, I’m mostly just happy it exists, a curious little piece of work created by a major artist who could clearly have worked to extend her winning streak by adhering to the formula, but had something in her that she needed out. I’m here for it. I support you, Melanie. Sorry I’m two decades late.
If I had to be late to the party, then the timing for my discovery couldn’t be better since Chisholm has a memoir out this week. Perhaps there, she discusses some of her stylistic influences (according to Wikipedia, she wanted her solo album to reflect her interest in Britpop rock like Oasis and Blur, none of which accounts for “Goin’ Down” anyway,) and she was also rumored to be dating the Red Hot Chili Peppers frontman Anthony Kiedis, which is closer, and worked with legendary rap and rock producer Rick Rubin. But part of me doesn’t even want any insight into it, I’m just glad it happened.
This is what I like to call a “New Old Favourite.” Something from a bygone era that one discovers and enjoys in the present, completely divorced from any kind of nostalgia (like my appreciation for “When You’re Gone,” which will always be linked to those early days.) My personal discovery of “Goin’ Down” is inspiring to me and pressing me to keep excavating old pop charts in case I can unearth another rare gem in there. Make no mistake — I know a lot of songs, and it often feels like I’m never going to hear something that I don’t already like again in my life, whether new or old. In an era where someone out there is thinking about everything, it’s rare to come across something you’ve never known before and all the less, actually enjoy.