We examine how the upbeat, bubbly optimism of 90s music, such as S Club 7, gave way to sombre, sometimes aggressive number ones, such as Central Cee.
I didn’t realise how wrong a turn modern music had taken until I went back and listened to some classics. You know – the good stuff – Westlife and the Spice Girls, Boyzone and Bjork, and it was like being taken by a fever dream.
There’s so much fun being had in the music of the late 90s and early noughties. It’s all about having a good time. It doesn’t take itself too seriously – its videos are bright and colourful. Artists weren’t these tortured types; they were enjoying themselves, and so were we.
It was a vibe for the age, the soundtrack for our esprit de corps as we marched into a new millennium. We had this young guy named Tony Blair who swept into Downing Street on the back of D:Ream’s promise that ‘Things Can Only Get Better’. The Cold War had ended, peace was brought to Northern Ireland, and everybody became middle-class overnight.
This was a time when people were excited by questions like, ’Who shot Phil Mitchell?’, as opposed to, ’Will the Ukraine conflict escalate into thermonuclear Armageddon?’ Even the films, like Wanted, The Matrix, and Fight Club, were all about how everything was so nice and peaceful that the world had got boring. It was the ascendant age of conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones and David Ike who refused to believe the steak was real.
The year 2000 – the future – was now. History was over, and each new moment promised to be even better than the last. And it was all going well until when, on September 11th 2001, 19 hijackers commandeered passenger jets and crashed them into the World Trade Centre. All at once a tempest fell upon the world, and the winds of change ravaged every part of our lives, our finances, our films, and our music.
This week in June 1999, the UK Top 40 was topped by S Club 7’s debut single, ‘Bring It All Back’. The song bore all the hallmarks that would see the band become enduring darlings of British pop culture, and it propelled them to instant success.
S Club 7 were clean-cut and wholesome. Their music was bouncy and fun. The appeal isn’t any particular gimmick. They looked nice, sounded nice, danced nicely – they were just nice. In the video for ‘Bring It All Back’, the S Club crew are seen full of youthful energy as they dance around Miami, bombing into pools and swimming with dolphins in the cutaways. See and hear for yourself:
The lyrics are brimming with contagious hope and optimism, which can’t help but uplift even the most stoic of listeners. The first verse of S Club 7’s first song tells you all you need to know:
Don’t stop, never give up
Hold your head high and reach the top
Let the world see what you have got
Bring it all back to you
In other words: persevere, try your best, and demonstrate your quality. That message is a thread which runs through so many of S Club 7’s songs. Take ‘Reach’, popular enough for my generation to be played at my school prom as late as 2011. It’s about a future full of potential which is waiting to be seized:
Don’t believe in all that you’ve been told
The sky’s the limit; you can reach your goal
No one knows just what the future holds
There ain’t nothing you can’t be
There’s a whole world at your feet
I said reach
Comparing this to the UK number one from the same week this year is an utterly depressing exercise. Occupying the top spot at the time of writing is ‘Sprinter’ by British rappers Dave and Central Cee.
I had not heard this song until looking it up – and frankly, I had taken for granted that time – unsoiled as it was by this hideous tune. Here’s the opening verse:
The mandem too inconsiderate
Five-star hotels smoking cigarette
Mixin’ codeine up with the phenergan
She got thick but she wanna get thin again
Drinkin’ apple cider vinegar
Wearin’ Skim ’cause she wanna be Kim and ’em
I know that you’re bad, stop actin’ innocent
Mixing codeine with Phenergan is, according to NHS guidance, a big no-no. In fact, it can and has killed people by slowing their heart rate to perfect stillness. So, we’ve gone from S Club 7 telling us that our dreams can come true and that we should make the best of our lives, to Central Cee rapping about risking death for a momentary, unearned and meaningless pleasure.
It is not clear whether the mention of this concoction is a recommendation or a diss. But later on, one of the rappers – and no, I don’t know Dave from Central Cee – brags about selling drugs to students. The BBC’s music correspondent praised the duo for producing a “playful, knowing track that indulges in rap clichés while acknowledging their absurdity”, but I fear he is giving them too much credit.
The music video contains no dancing, just Dave and Central Cee monologuing passive-aggressively into the camera and occasionally waving their arm past it to flash a watch or a tattoo sleeve. It neither uplifts nor delights, although, in fairness, it doesn’t mean to.
Now let us return to June 1999, when number two in the charts was Madonna’s ‘Beautiful Stranger’. This song was made for the second Austin Powers film, The Spy Who Shagged Me. It is playful and cheeky, with Mike Myers starring in the video alongside the queen of pop.
For her part, Madonna is – surprisingly – amply clothed, wearing trousers and a top. She’s trying to seduce a campy Myers with an ostentatious display of hip thrusting as he throws out all his best groovy moves in turn. It’s full of colour and life, it hasn’t been washed out by some sepia filter, and the video ends with Myers driving off with Madonna, cheesy grin flashing all wide – it’s good to be me – he says with a purr.
READ MORE: The Joy of 90s Feel-Good Movies
Today the second spot is occupied by ‘Miracle’, by Calvin Harris and Ellie Golding. Interestingly, ‘Miracle’ is an attempt to ape the feel of 90s dance music and wouldn’t sound out of place on NOW 44. Clean vocals carry the song through the bridge and into the drop. It’s trancey and has those soft piano notes we all remember. A far cry from Central Cee’s verbose beat.
But it’s still not fun. There’s a bit of a gloomy edge to it. It’s hard to put your finger on the why of it until you see the video where its star, Golding, is dressed variously as a Satanic acolyte and the vampire priestess from Dusk Till Dawn. Golding stands before apocalyptic hellscapes and above the backing dancers. She barely moves her body, except for her arms which command the hooded dancers into animation, giving us the impression that she is something between a Roman emperor at the Colosseum and a necromancer.
Taking each of today’s top 40 tracks in turn, they vary in genre and style but are united by a common lack – fun. From Post Malone to Lewis Capaldi and Jazzy, there is an air of melancholy, or at best, a stoicism and cold sense of seriousness about them. There is very little to no dancing in their music videos – these songs don’t move us in any sense.
That ubiquity suggests that the awful truth might be that the state of our music, or indeed the world, isn’t actually Dave and Central Cee’s fault; they’re just byproducts of the machine. Because we look around and see that while we weren’t paying attention, someone sucked the fun out of everything.
You may remember that McDonald’s used to be a place for families and children to have fun. But long gone are the play areas, statues of Ronald McDonald and the vibrant decor. Now it is some grey cube shovelling out fodder to pissheads at all hours.
But it’s not just McDonald’s. Even our own homes have been sucked dry of their vibrancy. The colour and quirk of 90s decor have given way to a minimalism so all-pervasive it almost feels enforced. Against the tyrant of brown leather sofas and magnolia walls, the hippy girl with her psychedelic mandala stands as the last bastion of resistance.
But here’s the ultimate proof we’re all along for the ride. Check out this Scientology advert from the 90s:
Its central character is a volcano erupting with pure potential. Crowds clap like happy North Koreans. The advert is relentlessly, crushingly positive. Then compare it to the group’s 2023 advert, which they ran during the Superbowl:
Scientology, in our time, takes aim at the lost, the hopeless and the broken. This isn’t a clarion call to the high flying and the successful. Although it makes the same old promises of a bright future, this time, it begins with the assumption that the now is anything but. It plays to a pitch-perfect pastiche that great 2020s trope of lonely people in dark rooms standing as numbed posts looking out through their windows and into the grey world beyond.
All of us, the musicians, McDonald’s, and even the Scientologists, have walked along the same aesthetic road to nowhere. Clearly, we might not be the masters of our own destiny. It could be that any attempt to revive that 90s optimism in our music, or in any other place, is forlorn.
However uncanny that optimism might feel now, it reflected an authentic feeling at a particular moment in time, over-the-top though it was. S Club 7 were as much a mirror of their time as today’s top 40 hits are of today. On close inspection, these new mirrors reveal to us a visage as sickly as it is grey.
As much as it might be nice to bring it back – it’s hard to imagine today’s teens playing that from their car stereos. It would be fundamentally inauthentic. And for all that could be said about the state of contemporary music, it does, at least, say something about the contemporary.