Billie Piper – Misfocusing
I do love a pop star who says “enough!” and decides to stop it and go and do something less boring instead – which in this case was becoming one of our greatest stage and screen actresses, well on her way to a Damehood (due in about 2042 I reckon). Yes, it can only be Billie Piper.
These days of course we’re all quite used to using her full name, but from 1998 until the spring of 2000 she was just Billie to us. But when Day and Night, the incredible first single from her second and final album Walk of Life – which to this day still sends hordes of men of a certain persuasion hurtling to the dancefloor the second it starts – was released, she was officially Billie Piper. This, naturally, set off alarm bells in my head – not least because it presented something of a dilemma for those of us who made up the header boards in record shops. Do you make separate sections for both albums or not? Are people most likely to search for her under B or P? What if a less experienced shop assistant doesn’t know about the name change and erroneously tells a customer we don’t have Walk of Life in stock because they only looked under B? What a faff.
In the end of course it didn’t really matter because nobody ever asked for Walk of Life, but I solved the theoretical problem by putting a “Please see under Piper” strip on the Billie card, resisting the temptation to add “…because she is now a serious proposition” underneath. And therein lies the main problem with the name upgrade – it signalled that Billie was becoming a Grown Up Artist. And that, if you ask me, set the doomsday clock ticking for this particular pop career.
In some ways it’s amazing Billie even bothered making a second album, given how much stick she got. Loathed by Ritchie Neville from-out-of-Five fans and reduced to tears at the Smash Hits Poll Winners Party by co-ordinated booing from the militant wing of that bunch, Billie did not have an easy ride of it. She was ridiculed, stalked and threatened, and not just at a distance – in those days trolling involved a lot more than a badly spelled 140 character insult.
When she did return, it was as a sort of one woman Backstreet Boys – a rather fabulous concept if you ask me – and this beefed up, tougher version of Billie was to my mind a rather effective “don’t f**k with me” designed to make her detractors think twice about squaring up for a fight again. Day and Night deservedly landed straight at the top of the chart, and the follow up, Something Deep Inside – despite featuring some unpleasant auto-tuning and making me giggle every time I hear her say “remix” at the start – went top five. After these two very ‘Billie’ tracks, it was time for some ‘Billie Piper’ to make itself known with third single Walk of Life, and that – of course – is precisely when everyone lost interest. It’s actually quite a lovely song, but it wasn’t helped by a video which saw Billie and chums on a coach, looking for all the world like they were on their way to their third year at Hogwarts having missed the train after spending too long browsing in Accessorize. Clearly it was all too much of a change, and it stopped at no.25 in the UK chart – and that, ladies and gentlemen, was it for Billie Piper, pop star. There had been tentative plans to release The Tide is High as the fourth single (her loss was Atomic Kitten’s gain, which in turn was our loss), but a court case relating to a stalker convinced her to call time on her music career. In doing so she spared herself the kind of agony I imagine Pixie Lott is probably experiencing right about now, so all things considered I’d say it was a very smart move.
Could things have been different? Let’s be honest, probably not – but imagine for a second that we had embraced slightly-more-mature-sounding-Billie and made Walk of Life a big hit. There might then have been a convincing argument for putting out the album’s closing (and in some ways best) track as a single – the gorgeous Misfocusing.
Misfocusing is an intriguing glimpse at what Billie Piper, pop star, could have become had we shown the slightest flicker of interest in this new direction. It pitches her somewhere between Madonna circa Drowned World/Substitute for Love and All Saints circa Black Coffee, which in 2000 was not a bad place to be. For a record which has the not easily achievable task of saying “leave me alone” at the same time as “look at me!”, Billie pulls it off brilliantly – and despite having enormous potential to do so, it never once descends into self-pity. What I like most – apart from how well sung it is – is that the production has a dreamy, slightly altered-state quality to it which makes the song sound so very…peaceful. It sounds, in short, like the work of someone who has already made the decision to quit and is quite happy with it.
Consider for a moment the journey from the youthful cockiness of Because We Want To (“don’t try to tell me what I already know / don’t criticise me ’cause I’m running the show” to Misfocusing (“coming home is always the best / but a smile can hide a deadly weapon / and a friend you thought you could rely on”). I mean, BLOODY HELL. Somehow, just two years’ worth of a pop career turned a carefree fifteen year old girl into a world weary woman who was ready to retire before she’d even hit her third decade. Of course you can achieve this in a day in a call centre, but even for pop that’s quite a quick transformation. Luckily – and as Misfocusing itself hints at – Billie was made of far stronger stuff than any of us realised at the time.
While her pop reign may have been brief, it was largely glorious and it does have a happy ending – hooray! Rather wonderfully, I served Billie in a record shop last Christmas – and by served I mean I elbowed every other member of staff out of the way to get to her while hissing “she’s mine!” – and she was absolutely lovely, even when faced with a trying-to-remain-cool-but-obviously-hyperventilating superfan. It may interest you to know that she purchased Get Weird by Little Mix, but she could not be talked into the deluxe edition.
Billie Piper – knows the value of pound, still does what she wants to. Amazing.
Entered chart: was not released
Who could sing this today and have a hit? In today’s world? Just about anyone willing to stick their head above the parapet and launch a pop career.