To chat about Reach For The Stars, 1996 – 2006: Fame, Fallout and Pop’s Final Party, journalist Michael Cragg has worn a Girls Aloud T‑shirt for the occasion, from the band’s debut 2003 album.
“It’s from Redbubble,” admits Cragg of the Sound of the Underground-branded tee. So, not an original piece of tour merch. “I’m not a huge fan of all the songs [on the album], but Brian did his best to rescue it,” he adds, the namedrop typical of Cragg’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the period.
Brian Higgins is the British mega-producer who, along with Miranda Cooper and the rest of his Kent-based pop factory Xenomania, was the brains behind some of the most celebrated, most innovative and frankly best pop tunes of the past two decades: Girls Aloud’s Biology, The Promise and the aforesaid Sound of the Underground; Sugababes’ Round Round and Hole in the Head; Rachel Stevens’ highly underrated album, Come and Get It – a commercial failure, but so good it landed on The Guardian’s list of 1000 Albums to Hear Before You Die.
This chart era, arguably modern pop’s golden era, is picked apart forensically by Cragg over 522 pages, taking us from the techno-pop line-dancing of Steps’ 5, 6, 7, 8 to the emergence and eventual chart takeover of TV talent shows, notably The X Factor. The industry’s biggest players – and some of its more interesting minnows (oi oi, Scott from 5ive) chime in, retelling anecdotes remembered from meeting rooms, Simon Cowell’s many homes, the stinking tour bus or backstage at Pop Idol or CD:UK. The result: a brick-thick, day-glo version of an OK! Magazine gossip column.
“Well, that’s why I wanted to do it as an oral history,” explains Cragg, “so that they could tell their stories and have it as a conversation between them all, even if they’re not in the same room – the stories that they probably didn’t get to tell at the time.”
The book is arguably the first comprehensive story of recent British pop music at such a crucial point: a specific, largely pre-Internet, definitely pre-Instagram period that saw the invention of the TV talent show hit factory and pumped out some of the nation’s most-loved (and hated) acts and tracks. It was fuelled by record labels at the height of their powers – cash-rich on CD sales sufficient to, in the case of short-lived band Girl Thing, close down the Eiffel Tower for a stunt to promote their debut single. And it was documented by a two-and-fro between tabloid misadventures, band in-fighting, Smash Hits! covers and a sleep-light churn-rate culture of album-promo-tour-repeat.
It’s an entirely different landscape now, of course, with musicians in much more control of their public image via social media, and when chart battles (gloves off: Victoria Beckham vs Sophie Ellis-Bextor in 2000) are a thing of the past in the streaming era. And yet it nonetheless feels like the perfect time for Reach For The Stars, when resurgent ’90s and Y2K influences are everywhere: the Destiny’s Child-tinged R&B tracks of girlband FLO, the grunge styles and sounds of Beabadoobee, or the Y2K pop sounds of Rina Sawayama’s eponymous debut LP.
For most readers (sorry, Gen Z), this will be a sugar-coated ride through their teen years. Cragg’s been a pop fanatic for as long as he could turn the radio on, and his sheer enthusiasm for the genre is one usually deployed by boring bloke journos to examine the thrusts of glam rock in the ’70s or the socio-political beginnings of Britpop.
But here, with pop music celebrated as “shiny, irony-free, edge-less”, as Cragg puts it in the book’s introduction, it holds as much value as a debate on what album officially changed the world forever. And that’s because, for the truly devotional, pop music is personal.
“I remember watching the video for Black and White on Top of the Pops,” Cragg says of Michael Jackson’s 1991 hit. “I was like: ‘Oh my God, this is amazing.’ Then, Dangerous was the first album someone bought me for Christmas, and I was obsessed with it.” So obsessed that he’d only ever play that album and make his mum and sister listen to it during long car journeys. “For a long time, I only listened to music made by people with the surname Jackson: Janet, Michael, the Jackson 5.”
The power of pop is undeniably in its escapism. And, as in Cragg’s case, for gay kids, pop was a technicoloured alt-universe far removed from being young, confused and living in a grey town. Heroes were found in the high-gloss music videos of tight abs, synchronised choreography and high street wardrobes, not to mention in flirtatious interviews that had us pledging our allegiance with posters stuck to our bedroom walls (which Blue boy are you, Duncan or Simon?). For many a gay kid, that love of pop music was a secret from our straight peers.
“I was moving into my teenage years when the Spice Girls started, and so I was trying to work out who I was. But I was also trying to sort of hide who I was, and it was too revealing to talk about pop music. It was too revealing to say that you were a fan of Girls Aloud, even, when they first started. And so I wouldn’t.” Even at uni, Cragg would pretend to like Radiohead (“I kind of did… for a bit”), while he was working out his sexuality and identity. “I didn’t really talk about [pop music] – I didn’t say that I liked it.”
Beyond the stories of fame, fortune and turning up to the CD:UK studios still pissed from the night before, Reach… finds itself in some pretty dark places. The music industry was far less monitored than it is now, with conversations about mental health, racism and misogyny barely audible within the four walls of the music industry, let alone in the tabloids.
Startlingly young pop stars, like then-15-year-old Sean Conlon from Five, were subject to exhaustion and depression brought on by gruelling schedules and a lack of mental care. H from Steps was often left uncomfortable in interviews, asked if he “fancied Britney Spears” while the media speculated unrelentingly about his sexuality.
Black artists were unfairly grouped together in the “Best Urban Act” category at the Brits, with Jamelia recounting how “at the time ‘urban’ translated as ‘Black’. So anybody doing any type of music that had a Black person singing was thrown in the urban category.” Meanwhile women were constantly scrutinised in the media, usually for their looks. Sugababes’ Mutya Buena recounts the papers not only making digs at her appearance, but constantly getting her Filipino ethnicity wrong. “It was hard back then because everyone looked at me like I was an alien,” she says in the book.
“They had to have this veneer of happy, sunny, shiny popstar,” notes Cragg. “It was hard for them to say anything back or push it too far. The job was to just present a smile and carry on. That changed as it went on – I don’t think Girls Aloud were quite as willing to play that particular game, or to take everything that came at them.”
“It shifted a bit but then, obviously, The X Factor came along,” he continues. “And that machine was so big and so powerful that you then did have to sort of take what was going on. It was a real rollercoaster, as they say, of people not being able to say what they wanted. Or if you did, you were branded a bitch, or difficult, or rude.”
The conversation, of course, is much wider now, not to mention more inclusive, tolerant and understanding. In the past three weeks alone Channel 4 has aired documentaries on the homophobic scrutiny George Michael faced and, the toxic sexism thrown at presenter and author Paula Yates. In the last couple of years, the #FreeBritney movement brought the media’s terrible treatment of the singer – during her mental breakdown – to the fore, while past iffy interviews and cringe journalist missteps are often repurposed on Twitter, awaiting a battering from its fans. These days, musicians are more likely to speak out on bad behaviour within the music industry, while much of the public simply won’t accept a lack of diversity anymore.
But for all the darkness lurking in Cragg’s poptastic decade, British pop music from 1996 to 2006 has endured, along with an undeniable legacy of optimism, influence and questionable outfits. It was a period that felt as if anything was possible, when chart positions really were make or break. While artists these days are pick’n’mixing the best bits to form their own sounds, we’ll never really go back to those glory days. TikTok can make a star overnight, telly shows like Top of the Pops aren’t necessary, and the cheese of a band like Steps wouldn’t go down quite so well with Gen‑Z’s highly-curated image.
We have been missing a great girlband for a while, though, haven’t we? One with the characters of the Spice Girls, the too-cool-to-care attitude of Sugbabes, exceptionally bonkers production of Girls Aloud, or the catchy, radio-friendly anthems of Little Mix. Luckily, thinks Cragg, the cavalry are coming.
“FLO are great, and that feels more exciting than any girl band that has been launched more recently,” he says. “I also think they look great, and their voices are amazing. And I love that it’s three women – quite Sugababes. I’m here for it!”