Released: 15th September 2003
Writers: Cathy Dennis / Christian Karlsson / Henrik Jonback / Pontus Winnberg
Peak position: #2
Chart run: 2-3-2-4-10-16-25-35-46-69
Say what you like about ‘90s pop stars, but no-one could deny their work ethic. S Club 7 – or, by that point, just S Club – released their final single in June of 2003. Only three months later Rachel Stevens emerged with her first solo single, the curiously titled Sweet Dreams My L.A. Ex.
Rachel Stevens was, at that time, in a relationship with former Hollyoaks heartthrob Jeremy Edwards. Famously he was not from L.A., and neither at that point was he Rachel’s ex. The track was notably penned by Cathy Dennis and initially intended for Britney Spears as a response to Justin Timberlake’s Cry Me A River, which had lyrically and visually made some fairly blunt accusations about her behaviour during their relationship. In that context, the subject of the song is suddenly much less abstract. But Britney was having none of it; unbeknownst to us at the time, she had her own response in mind, the much humbler Everytime. That is presumably the downside of writing a song with a specific artist in mind, and it left Cathy Dennis in a bind; what on earth do you do with it when the intended act turns it down? Step forward, Rachel Stevens. It wasn’t such a surprising move since Cathy Dennis had worked closely with S Club 7 for the duration of their career so there was always a strong possibility that she’d have a hand in Rachel Stevens’ debut album. Sweet Dreams My L.A. Ex was, as it turns out, a coup. It’s perhaps because the song was written with another act in mind that it has its own identity and doesn’t just sound like an S Club song with six fewer voices.
The plucked guitar chord loop that opens the track remains immediately recognisable and distinctive of that early ‘00s period where pop music was reinventing itself. Indeed, Sweet Dreams My L.A. Ex is an excellent example of how production values were shifting away from the bombastic bubblegum pop of the ‘90s. Helmed by Bloodshy & Avant, their attention is instead focused on creating an altogether more nuanced, subtle affair. It’s much less about the individual components (some of which were sometimes so modest they went mostly unnoticed) and more about the end composition. Take, for example, the vibraslap sound effect (there was always at least one of these instruments in every primary school music class, despite it serving no purpose whatsoever) or the middle-eight brass stabs. Neither are particularly notable in isolation (although now we’ve pointed them out, you’ll never be able to un-notice them), but they are nonetheless essential in creating a rich tapestry of production upon which the vocals lie. In hindsight, it’s easy to look at Sweet Dreams My L.A. Ex now and conclude it doesn’t sound all that unusual for a pop song. But back in 2003 – and certainly, by comparison to tracks like Don’t Stop Movin’ – it felt positively anaemic. However, the depth of the production lies in how carefully and imaginatively the song is realised, rather than adding layers of bass into the mix to create a bigger sound.
When we consider Sweet Dreams My L.A. Ex from a lyrical perspective, it starts to become evident why Britney Spears may have rejected the track. It’s a smartly written comeback, for sure, but never to the point of providing any real exposition. A few years earlier and a veiled response record may well have been the preferred route for Britney to take. But at this point, she was working on In The Zone and fully embracing the opportunity to be more open and honest than she had been before. It would also have been incredibly risky to take a potshot back at Justin Timberlake considering Cry Me A River was such a huge hit. The commercial momentum was on his side and Britney choosing to tell her own story – rather than respond to Justin’s – was a very sensible option. If not, at that point, the only one she had. That said, Sweet Dreams My L.A. Ex still has a dismissive bite to it; lyrics like: “Hey, hang your red gloves up baby, no one cares but you” and: “Does it make you feel a man, pointing the finger because you can” would have been an absolute serve. Thankfully for Rachel Stevens, thematically the track is never so specific as to leave the listener wondering why on earth she’s singing about Justin Timberlake.
If I were in your shoes
I’d whisper before I shout
Can’t you stop playing that record again
Find somebody else to talk about
Given the context, Rachel Stevens could easily have ended up as a passenger in a song intended for someone else. But Sweet Dreams My L.A. Ex succeeds in establishing her as a competent solo artisté and allows her to carve out an identity for herself. Is it done tentatively? Absolutely. The track starts to coyly introduce some slightly more adult themes to Rachel’s oeuvre: “D’you think that I’m the fairer (S-E-X)”. But as casual brush-offs go; the song never really amounts to being anything other than incredibly polite. Then again, what were we expecting? Polite objection from a mildly irked (at worst) Rachel Stevens was very much her raison d ‘être. Although that didn’t stop people urging her to be something she very evidently wasn’t for the majority of her short – yet fruitful – solo career.
The music video for Sweet Dreams My L.A. Ex primarily uses Rachel Stevens’ newfound status as a solo act to achieve things visually that would have been difficult – if not impossible – with S Club 7. The ribbon choreography, in particular, is something that just wouldn’t have worked, and it winds up giving the video a striking visual centrepiece. Elsewhere, Sweet Dreams My L.A. Ex starts to portray Rachel Stevens in a slightly more knowingly sexual way; having twice been voted the second sexiest woman in the world by the discerning readers of FHM, she was now able to do more than be ogled from afar. In the video, Rachel writhes around in a perspex box (a fitting metaphor), and dances seductively (but always very politely) as a concealed figure watches on from the shadows. You sense a vague attempt to suggest that she’s claiming her sexuality; thus, it’s a bit of a shame then that the scenes of her trapped in the box and dancing in front of a shady character weren’t taken a bit further to give her absolute ownership. The overall effect is – unfortunately – still one of objectification just now in a slightly more gratuitously titillating manner.
Sweet Dreams My L.A. Ex was a considerable chart success; it debuted at #2 during a fairly busy week and managed to outpace new releases from Westlife, Louise, Nickelback, Jamelia and – ironically – Justin Timberlake. The track peaked at #2 twice; both times it was held off the top spot by Black Eyed Peas with Where Is The Love (and yes, it is with further irony that Justin Timberlake was an uncredited guest vocalist on that track). And Rachel Stevens certainly wasn’t hanging around; if it had seemed a quick turnaround for her debut single then just a few weeks later her debut album, Funky Dory arrived. It was a risky strategy; there was momentum around Rachel as a solo artisté, and there was unlikely to be another hit on the album as big as Sweet Dreams My L.A. Ex. But S Club weren’t a consistent album selling act, as their final studio effort Seeing Double had proven when it entered the chart at #17. Funky Dory made a slight improvement at least, peaking at #9. But already there was the sense that a follow-up single may prove challenging based on what was available.
And of course, you may wonder whatever happened to Britney Spears in all of this. Well, funnily enough, Cathy Dennis and Bloodshy & Avant had another song up their sleeve for her – a niche number called Toxic – and this time she would record it.