Popular galloped through 1997 in just over two months, which is some sort of track record. I wasn’t expecting to like as many of the year’s UK number ones as I did—over half of them, in the end. Here are my more substantial comments on the year’s closing hits.

Elton John, “Candle in the Wind ’97”/“Something About the Way You Look Tonight”, 20 September 1997

I count myself lucky to have been able to vote for a republic two years after Princess Diana’s death (our side lost), and wasn’t drawn into the mass grieving; it affected me in the same way as that of any other inoffensive celebrity, although the nature and timing of it were a shock. But I can’t bring myself to impugn her memory. She was privileged by birth, but we can’t choose our birth; she chose to marry into royalty, but I can only imagine how hard it would be to turn down a proposal from the heir apparent at the age of 19 when you’d grown up in that world (and were, presumably, in love—whatever love means). She was, to mid-’90s me, effectively one of those celebrities who were famous for being famous, rather than for doing or creating anything especially laudable, but she was hardly alone in that. The one I always remember being perplexed by as a kid was Zsa Zsa Gabor: such a ubiquitous presence, for no reason that I could fathom. At least with Diana, the reason for her prominence was obvious.

The 1973 “Candle in the Wind” isn’t a song I particularly venerate. I’d probably give it a 6; the guitars, missing in the ’97 version, are a key attraction. (The ’87 Live in Australia version now sounds like a staging post between the ’73 and ’97: Elton’s voice still hadn’t dropped as it was just before his throat surgery, but the guitars were replaced by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.) It’s eye-opening to learn that the original, or at least its parent album, was one of Diana’s teen cast-offs. Is this the exact opposite of having one of your favourite songs played at your funeral?

After listening to them back-to-back, it’s amazing how much it loses by being sung in 1997 Elton’s lower register. There’s a lightness to the earlier version that suits the wistfulness of its “I was just a kid” line, i.e. I was too young to know of you as a fan living in your moment, and am sorry it can only ever be retrospective. I’ve talked before about how my Beatles fandom was shaped by being a latecomer, and I’m sure that this is more and more something that new music fans have to deal with, as the legacy of All Recorded Music grows ever larger; we’ve all missed any number of boats. Here it was expressed within a cultural artifact itself, which in turn became the object of others’ fandom—the original “Candle” was a steady radio presence when I was a teenager in the 1980s.

None of which remotely applies to “Candle in the Wind ’97”: Diana and Elton were actual friends, and so all that stuff has been excised. The wistfulness of the tune is instead put to a purpose that I’m sure was affecting for many at the time (well, obviously) but now sounds unbearably sentimental. “Wings of compassion”, “stars spell out your name”—this isn’t Saint Diana, this is the Archangel Diana. With friends like these, who needs votaries.

The ’97 single spent six weeks at number one in Australia. I wasn’t there, though. This being one of those “you always remember where you were when you heard the news” events, I know I was standing on the corner of Montana Avenue in Christchurch, a mercifully long way away from the subsequent mountains of flowers and teddy bears.

I figured I’d better listen to the other A side before deciding on a score. It’s unremarkable, a 4 or 5, so I’ll give the whole package 3.

Spice Girls, “Spice Up Your Life”, 25 October 1997

Another first-listen-ever for this Spice neophyte, and I quite like it; but I fell for Latin noises around this time, via the late ’90s lounge music revival, so I can get on-board with a pastiche of them. I appreciate its three-minute running time, especially after our recent encounters with Oasis and the Verve, and it’s a nice Blade Runner spoof in the video. I could see giving this a 5 or even a 6.

The visual joke about Starbucks is intriguing, as 1997 was the year before they had opened any stores in the UK, and I wonder how many UK viewers would have got the reference (a sign of the Spice Girls’ global target audience, I assume). J. and I visited the west coast of the States a few times in 1997-99 and got a taste for Starbucks, which lingered for a while even after we realised that it was just a big chain, and I remember us laughing loudly at a joke in the second Austin Powers movie about Doctor Evil using Starbucks as a front—but being the only people in the cinema who did (Starbucks didn’t open any branches in Australia until after The Spy Who Shagged Me came out).

Aqua, “Barbie Girl”, 1 November 1997

I had somehow missed this song’s growing reputation as the Worst Ever, although remembering its late-1990s reception it shouldn’t surprise me. I might have been tempted to think that myself, given my musical proclivities, if not for the fact that J. loved it, and Aquarium was rarely off our CD player at one point. Aquarium has a fair claim to being the Europop album of the 1990s (but as time shall eventually reveal, only my second-favourite Europop album of the decade): looking at its Wikipedia entry I see that seven of its eleven tracks were singles, which isn’t that surprising—the surprise is that some of the remaining tracks didn’t form an eighth or ninth. I’ve just relistened to it, and only one track (“Be a Man”) strikes me as a weak single prospect, which is pretty incredible.

Thinking on it now, I realise that I’ve always grouped Aqua in my mind with No Doubt, with “Just a Girl” and “Barbie Girl” as the mission-statement hits, and parallels in their subsequent singles as well. The cover of Tragic Kingdom also has echoes of what Aqua did with theirs, all bright and cartoony. The strong Aquarium brand replaced a couple of more literal single covers for their first two Danish singles (photos of the band visiting an aquarium), and feels like a master-stroke of marketing. It’s hard, too, to imagine them doing as well with their original band-name of Joyspeed, although it does suit their music. (If you’re curious to hear what proto-Aqua sounds like, YouTube provides. Of course it would be a nursery rhyme. Not only that, but my daughter’s favourite nursery rhyme. I’ll have to try the rap section on her.)

I don’t remember ever doubting the subversive stance of “Barbie Girl”, or thinking that it was a simple celebration of the toy. Some of that must be down to J., whose ingrained feminism wouldn’t have let her enjoy any sort of uncritical celebration of Barbie, not even ironically. But the clues aren’t exactly hidden. “Life in plastic, it’s fantastic” was obviously not to be taken at face-value in the late 1990s, when “plastic” had long been a byword for fakery and cheapness, not to mention its reputation as an environmental menace and symbol of overconsumption. (I read this fascinating history of it around that time, which gave me a better appreciation of the much-maligned stuff, but there was no doubting its popular reputation.)

I’m amazed to see “Barbie Girl” described (on the blurb at the top of its Deezer page) as “one of those inexplicable pop culture phenomena”: what’s inexplicable about a song crammed with hooks which can be enjoyed on multiple levels becoming a hit? I wouldn’t dismiss those who hate “Barbie Girl”—if you don’t like Europop you’re gonna hate this, and even if you do this could irritate in other ways—but there’s no way I can give one of the key songs of the ’90s anything less than 8.

Various Artists, “Perfect Day”, 29 November 1997

I hadn’t heard this version until all the Lou Reed obits last year, and haven’t listened to it more than a few times, but it has one big thing going for it: it lets you imagine, in the space of four minutes, something like thirty different cover versions of a very fine original, saving almost two hours of listening time. Which you can then use to listen to Transformer three more times, or watch Trainspotting again.

Some of those imagined cover versions I would happily hear in full, especially Brett Anderson’s (but also Bono’s, Bowie’s, Suzanne Vega’s... quite a few of them, actually), and a few I’d skip (Joan Armatrading was surprisingly subdued), but in most cases the singers’ readings of one or two lines are enough to evoke the whole, and render full versions unnecessary. Not many tracks capture that sense of hours of music within a single song. The obvious multi-artist charity comparisons, Band Aid, USA for Africa, “Sun City”, don’t give the same sense of hidden vistas, because they were originals. The closest comparison that comes to my mind is Stairways to Heaven, an album collecting covers of the Led Zeppelin song performed as a running gag on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s comedy talk-show The Money or the Gun (which the UK knew for Rolf Harris’s contribution, an out-of-context novelty hit here). But that was a compilation album, not a single song. A compilation song, that’s what this is: the Various Artists moniker feels entirely appropriate.

We’ve talked before at Popular about charity records as protest records: “Sun City”, definitely; the Dunblane single; Band Aid could be considered a political record as well as a charitable one; and even “Candle in the Wind ’97” qualifies in a certain light. This record, too, was a protest of sorts: a preemptive protest against changes to the TV licence fee. A lobbying effort, effectively, by a government body and aimed at ministers, MPs and the wider public. It seems pretty unlikely that such an effort would result in a listenable record, let alone a number one.

I like it for its source, its witty juxtapositions (Shane MacGowan, especially), the shamelessness of its chanted “reap”s, and the fact that it wasn’t conceived as a charity single and released as “Artists United for Auntie Beeb”. There’s certainly enough entertainment here to justify a 6.

Teletubbies, “Teletubbies Say ‘Eh-oh!’”, 13 December 1997

If I’d become a father at the same age that my own did, this could have been my toddler children’s theme song. But I didn’t, and mine were born into the In the Night Garden era. The Night Garden is a less manic version of the Teletubbies world, with a theme tune that’s much gentler (and kinder on parents’ ears), but I can’t help thinking that the Teletubbies capture the entire range of toddler emotions and fascinations better. That doesn’t mean I have to like this expression of them, though. Kudos to the architects of a landmark of children’s television, and I fully recognise that this single wasn’t made for me, but if I never hear it again I would consider that a gain. 2.

11 April 2014 · Music