Review of ‘Reach for the Stars’ by Michael Cragg

Late 90s and early 2000s British pop music gets an on-trend reappraisal in this entertaining, meticulous read, subtitled Fame, Fallout and Pop’s Final Party. If you’re in your thirties, this is probably the music in the charts when you were growing up, so there is a definite nostalgia market for this book. It’s not exactly light reading, however, going deep into the music industry of the era, with just as many interviews with songwriters, journalists and A & R people as with the pop stars themselves. The format is an oral history, with an impressive array of contributors and occasional commentary from the author to link the themes together. The author looks at what made certain bands successful and what it was really like to be a pop songwriter, or to be a pop star with a relentless schedule and little protection from media scrutiny. What surprised me was how nearly all of the bands featured were kids themselves, really, often under eighteen when they first started out. To me, at the time, they looked like adults and I never realised how young they were.

Reach for the Stars by Michael Cragg

Broadly chronological, the book spans ten years. It begins with the Spice Girls in 1996, ending in 2006 with the demise of three major media sources for pop music – Smash Hits magazine, Top of the Pops magazine, CD:UK on TV. 2006 marked the end of an era for myself also, as this is when I stopped following the charts, having become disenchanted with the manufactured sounds of pop music and taking an interest in music I considered more authentic and complex. I wasn’t so familiar with the music discussed towards the end of the book, particularly the acts resulting from TV talent shows, which I’ve never watched. Most of the featured acts I remembered very well, however. I liked the chapter on Girls Aloud because of their strong personalities, even though I was never a fan of the music. I especially enjoyed the chapters about 5ive and S Club 7, my two favourites. Sadly, Paul Cattermole of S Club 7 died a week after the publication of this book.

When reading this book, you’re likely to vanish down a YouTube wormhole, revisiting forgotten gems or favourite songs from the likes of A1, Billie Piper, Sugababes and Steps, or discovering that the music of certain groups still sounds awful more than twenty years later (Atomic Kitten…) I should note that it’s not exhaustive, which is OK as the book is long enough without going into even further detail. The focus is on Britain, with occasional references to Irish groups popular in Britain, but not much context outside of this, or else we would certainly be hearing about Aqua, who were massively popular. Perhaps the British band Scooch could have had a mention, as they did moderately well in the early 2000s. I would’ve appreciated a little more about B*Witched, as the way I remember it, they were almost as popular as the Spice Girls. Regarding the Spices, the chapter would’ve have more appeal if I hadn’t recently read Melanie C’s memoir, which more or less covers the same territory.

In summary, a recommended read if you want to delve behind the scenes of pop music from 1996 – 2006.

Published in 2023 by Nine Eight Books.

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