You’ve either been hiding under a big hetero rock all week or you’re damn well aware that Steps are back with their first proper* single since the dawn of the century. Scared Of The Dark sounds like it could have been made with Clean Bandit: it’s dramatic, it’s got a killer chorus and it’s exactly the type of song that brings the quintet into 2017 without sacrificing their unpretentious roots.
I’ve always loved pop music. It’s only more recently, though, that I’ve been a bit more open about it with people who I know would disagree. But any talk of Steps – be it a fond remembrance, a light mocking or whatever – always makes me feel a bit weird. Not bad weird, not good weird, just like this gloriously ridiculous group in particular hit a really personal nerve that I can’t quite put my finger on.
It’s like, on some subliminal level, I’m a bit embarrassed to like them. As if I should whisper it, or laugh it off as a novelty or semi-jokey. But why is that? They’re just a pop band with daft costumes, endearingly dated dance routines and retrospectively problematic hair. What’s with all the angst?
The Spice Girls came out when I was 7. My cousin Zoe had their first album on CD and as a result she was cool as fuck. She also had the first All Saints album, something by Shola Ama and Disremembrance by Dannii Minogue. Her CD collection was comprehensively lit and every time I went round her house, I swear I had some kind of infant-gay awakening. She was like my dealer.
Once I was fully obsessed with Spice, I have a vivid memory of being in Woolworths with my mum and brother (almost four years younger than me), and the pair of us being given a choice: that beloved album on cassette tape, or a Darth Vader toy. And like FUCK was I letting Spice go unpurchased. “Ahh Wiz,” I suggested breezily. “Let’s get this! We can have a dance!” And I don’t remember exactly what happened next but I’m fairly certain things got intense and we left with both Spice and Darth. The signs were there. The love for pop music had started to blossom.
A year later, I would get the monumental birthday present of a CD player: Spiceworld would be my first album, and Bryan Adams/Melanie C’s When You’re Gone was my first single. I was still the wrong side of 10-years-old to fully appreciate the Spice Girls like the then-adolescent gays perhaps did, but they were certainly the group that first encouraged me to nail my pre-pubescent rainbow colours to the mast.
Then Steps arrived.
When 5,6,7,8 came out in 1997, I hated it. I was obsessed with Top Of The Pops, Now! compilations, and anything and everything to do with the charts – it wasn’t like it passed me by, it just really wound me up. The thing many pop fans will (maybe?) agree with is that out-and-out novelty singles are slightly embarrassing: they give anti-pop snobs ammunition to dismiss the entire genre as shallow, and provide an excuse to lump Robyn into the same category as, say, the Fast Food Rockers. I just wasn’t a fan. Even aged 8.
But going into 1998, at the end of which I aged into the double digits, I remember becoming more aware of them; this five-piece group with garish outfits, cheesy videos and shamelessly fun packaging. Last Thing On My Mind, One For Sorrow, the iconic double-A side of Heartbeat/Tragedy and the fucking flawless Better Best Forgotten all came out and I got more and more obsessed with every listen: soon my parents had taken us (sorry-not-sorry to my siblings) to their first big arena tour, my peak-bloke uncle had bought me a tonne of merchandise for my birthday, and I really didn’t see the problem with buying the majority of their CD singles despite already having all of the albums. I was INTO. IT.
The second record came out, and by then I was properly hooked. My dad went with me to Virgin Megastores in Norwich to buy me Steptacular (the version with the sparkly album sleeve, because why would you buy the non-sparkly one?!), and I think – one Saturday morning when my sister was having dance lessons – I bought an unofficial Steps book with sacred cash my mum had given me for a small squash. I’ve never been addicted to anything in my life but I swear to God at that point I would have traded a relative for anything relating to Steps.
But then came the tricky part.
In 2000, I finished primary school, and it wasn’t cute anymore. A little boy hooked on flamboyant pop isn’t particularly eyebrow-raising, is it? You might tease him for not fancying himself as a little Bono (fucking Bono) but you’re not gonna hold anything against him. But with secondary school came a whole new ball game, and it wouldn’t have been wise to go into it with the entire dance routine to Say You’ll Be Mine under my belt. I just wouldn’t have survived. Having a cousin with significantly more street-cred than me was only gonna shield me so much.
I don’t want to sound like I went through secondary school hiding my love of pop. By Year 10 I was trading Hilary Duff albums with a girl in my form, and I think in Year 11 I waltzed in with my CD Walkman listening to Ashlee Simpson. I used Evanescence to pretend I was also into rock, for fuck’s sake; that’s like watching The Simpsons’ Halloween specials and saying your specialty genre is horror.
But still, something about Steps seemed off-limits, especially in those pivotal pre-teen years. They were too unashamedly poppy – their songs were bangers but their packaging was too squeaky. Even in the videos to tracks with depressing lyrics, they looked like they were off to entertain at a problematic pre-school disco. I loved them to pieces, but it was clear that if I wanted to stand any chance of fitting in, I had to hold it back.
On Boxing Day 2001, they split. That was perfect timing for me. I was out of the woods. It may have been a raging dumpster inferno for them, but for me it was a big favour.
Now this is deep. This a massive reach. This is me doing the absolute most to make a serious point out of something quite basic but BEAR. WITH. ME.
Back in 2000, when I realised I had to oppress The Steps Thing, I think that was when I started to actually, properly oppress myself, and my inherent gayness.
I DID WARN YOU IT WAS A MASSIVE REACH.
Again, I don’t wanna make it sound like I was living a tortured teenage life on the school football team, secretly lusting after the D. I wasn’t – in fact I was kicked out of my friendship group in Year 11 for ostensibly being too camp and bitchy**. But the fact is that I’ve always kept a stern eye on myself. Less so nowadays, but still a little bit.
It’s like a self-preservation thing; a way of keeping my head down and avoiding humiliation – or rather humiliating myself before anyone else can get there first. If I talk about music with an acquaintance whose favourite band is, say, the Stereophonics, I will openly joke about my own taste being shite. If I’m on the DLR near a group of lads, I’ll try and look as blandly masculine as possible. If I’m in WH Smith and fancy a copy of Attitude, I’ll buy another magazine as well so I have something to hide it behind when I go to the checkout. I’ll wait until my grandparents bring up my boyfriend; I won’t mention him first. And like fuck am I ever brave enough to show affection to him in public; as if that’s even anything that should require bravery in the first place.
Of course none of this is a direct consequence of pretending to be unmoved by Steps’ cover of Chain Reaction, but what I guess I’m getting at is that trying to stop myself from publicly loving pop music as I was growing up was the first of many instances of me Reigning Myself In. Steps were at the front of that, and I think that’s why I feel so… weird whenever they reform. As if it’s still a love I should keep secret. When their new single came out today, I had a weird moment of thinking “shit… I can actually be quite loud and obnoxious about liking them now!” And I’m not kidding, I will gladly put together a jukebox musical based on their greatest hits. Let’s be real, it would be STUPENDOUS.
Pop means a lot to me, and I think more than any other mainstream genre, it’s very hard to explain to people who Just Don’t Get It. It’s an accessible, unpretentious release. To go back to Steps (and why not), my least favourite songs of theirs are their most popular party hits: Stomp, Tragedy, fucking 5,6,7,8. I love a track about being #onthefloor as much as the next gay, but more than that I like angst-pop, sad-pop, love-pop, euphori-pop… Feelings you can dance to. Feelings that make you want to put your hands in the air; feelings that make your stomach do backflips. My two favourite songs of all time, for context, are Teenage Dream and My Life Would Suck Without You. It’s not just cheese for me. It’s often great fun and, granted, it is occasionally cynical; but considering how basic its technical composition is, it can shapeshift into a lot of different things and create a lot of different responses.
And in defense of Steps, Deeper Shade Of Blue isn’t a favourite of mine but look at the lyrics! Considering they’re often talked about in the same category as Scooch’s Flying The Flag, these are quite dark, no?!:
And snowball on top of that the sweeping It’s The Way You Make Me Feel, the joyful Love’s Got A Hold On My Heart, the really – when you properly look at it – quite sad One For Sorrow… When I was young and unsure where the hell I was supposed to fit in in the world, these were special songs. The band have a reputation for being extremely cheesy (and they were – look at the state of the DSOB video, look at the Cheshire cat smiles when they sing about having your heart ripped into seven) but if you take away the presentation and look solely at the tunes, there’s nothing that different to the more straight-faced popstars of today. They just took themselves much, much less seriously and embraced the fact that they were never going to be ~cool.
Maybe now I’m 28, I should start doing the same.
* I’m not counting this. This does not deserve to be counted.
** To be fair, I was pretty bitchy.