Released: 6th April 1998
Writers: Max Martin / Jake Schulze
Peak position: #16
Chart run: 16-35-61
In the late ‘90s, somewhere between Wannabe and …Baby One More Time was a period where pop music spent a little time finessing itself; it wasn’t entirely evident at the time, but such is the blessing of hindsight. One act caught up in this – although no-one really knew it at the time – was Solid HarmoniE.
Masterminded by Lou Pearlman, Solid HarmoniE (why the capital ‘E’ you ask? So that the initials of the group spelled SHE, of course) were formed as a female complement to *NSYNC and the stable of boybands infiltrating the charts. Unfortunately, the rules for girl groups were a little different thanks to the strong sense of identity and character that propelled the Spice Girls as a vital part of their success – none of which was present in Solid HarmoniE. What they did have, however, was some key songwriting talent in their corner; step forward Max Martin.
Yes, at a time when the man was casually throwing out bangers like Everybody (Backstreet’s Back) and shortly before he penned …Baby One More Time, Max Martin wound up working with Solid HarmoniE, contributing four songs to their debut album. A year later this probably would’ve been a really big deal, but at the time it barely raised an eyebrow.
Everybody knows that I need you
There ain’t nothing in the world I wouldn’t do
Tell me now
Am I the only baby
I Want You To Want Me certainly has a lighter production than the rockier, squelchier beats associated with Max Martin and Cheiron. The shimmering intro sets the song up as a much less dramatic affair, nonetheless it does still launch into a bouncy, synth-laced beat that isn’t dissimilar to early *NSYNC and Backstreet Boys material. Indeed, listen carefully during the transition into the first verse and there are even chord progressions strikingly similar to the iconic …Baby One More Time intro.
The production might be breezier, but there is absolutely no sacrifice on the hooks. Oh, the hooks. They are unmistakeably Max Martin through and through. The glorious pre-chorus (“We’ve got to stop this game, tell me do you feel the same?”) is arguably the highlight of the song. It’s an effortless snapshot of pop music at its most uplifting and sunniest – the fact that Max Martin was able to catch that lightning in a bottle and sprinkle it so generously over much of his work was absolutely key in his developing pop music with an identity. His style was becoming ever more apparent and thus, the other element of I Want You To Want Me that feels immediately recognisable is the dramatic middle-eight where the production and tempo are swapped for a looming backing track and swirling, shimmering sound effects – before gradually building and launching back into the climax of the song.
Despite successfully pulling on a number of key elements, I Want You To Want Me definitely feels more like a stepping stone on the road to greatness, rather than the final destination. If we’re being really tough then we wouldn’t say the song’s chorus goes off as much as it could have; it’s still a bop, make no mistake, but it never quite delivers a killer blow. And therein is the root cause of the issue with Solid HarmoniE and their association with Max Martin. Without any real understanding or appreciation of the trump card in their hands, the group don’t really do anything with the song. There’s no attack in the delivery and no attempt to draw out the song’s hooks and imbue them with a bit of attitude and personality. It feels unfair to say Solid HarmoniE squandered the song – it’s not quite that bad – but their performance feels pleasant at best; it’s a mechanical delivery that follows the melody but lacks the ambition to make the song any bigger. If this had been 12 months later in a post-Britney ‘90s there is no way that Solid HarmoniE – a relatively low-key act – would have delivered I Want You To Want Me in such an uncharacteristic manner.
We would extend that same consideration to the music video; truly a moment where Swede-pop met budget British pop – and a director with a fetish for jump cuts. There are a number of interesting visuals employed – such as the section where the group are walking around what looks like a deconstructed Rubik’s cube, or the tunnel lined with what looks like strips of tin foil (it could be posh lighting – or even ice – but without the assistance of HD, all we can do is squint and take a guess). There’s never really any time to properly digest anything though, because the video moves at such a rapid pace; the individual members never really get the chance to own the screen for more than a few seconds at a time and there’s similarly little time spent on any meaningful group interaction. Coming in the aftermath of the Spice Girls, this felt a little unforgivable and again signposts us back to the fact that there was a lack of insight as to how to best utilise the assets available.
I Want You To Want Me peaked at #16 – which actually feels fair considering the way in which the single feels almost blindly assembled. Nonetheless, it’s quite a nice tonic to its early boyband counterparts – and the classic Max Martin hooks are undeniable. More than anything, I Want You To Want Me is an interesting (and oft-overlooked) curio that unbeknownst at the time, was pointing us in the direction that pop music was moving. It’s not a bad song by any stretch, but it was laying the foundations for things to be done much bigger and much better.