Holly Valance – Down Boy

Released: 30th September 2002

Writers: Rob Davis

Peak position: #2

Chart run: 2-7-14-19-29-44-55-55-47-52-63-X-66-69-74

Holly Valance as a popstar was an exciting – and sometimes challenging – concept. Having served the obligatory three-year contract served to aspiring young actors on Neighbours, she wanted to spread her wings. And there is undoubtedly a star quality about her that meant she was never at risk of fading immediately into obscurity. Yet, it often seemed that she’d fallen into the music industry because it was an established career trajectory for teen soap stars. Holly Valance, by her own admission, didn’t necessarily have a burning desire to be a musician, nor did she express any unrealistic claims about her vocal talent. Even if she didn’t necessarily want to be a singer, what rapidly became clear was that Holly Valance was a bloody good pop star, regardless.

Of course, that was evident to some extent from Kiss Kiss. But the track – an English-language version of Tarkan’s Şımarık – was arguably destined to be a hit regardless of who fronted it. There were no such guarantees with the follow-up, and thus Down Boy was a significant moment in establishing what sort of artist Holly Valance was going to be. The title alone more or less confirmed exactly what route she was taking, and a glimpse at the tracklist of her debut album – featuring titles like Tuck Your Shirt In and Harder They Come – put things beyond any doubt. Holly Valance was in full-on smut territory. Fortunately, her record label had the good sense to back it up with some decent tunes.

To that end, there’s nothing remotely flaccid about Down Boy. True, compared to Kiss Kiss, it was initially a bit of a grower. But the track has strong credentials behind it, having been produced by Nellee Hooper. He isn’t necessarily a name you’d immediately link with an act like Holly Valance; but having notably contributed to albums by Madonna, Massive Attack and Bjork in the past, his presence indeed lent some credibility to her endeavours. Around that time, he was also working on No Doubt’s Rock Steady album, which gives quite a good indication of the direction that Down Boy took. Indeed, there are vague parallels to be drawn with Hella Good, if not melodically, then certainly in the way they present themselves.

One of the most immediately striking things about this track is how claustrophobic it feels; there’s a closeness about the production that is almost stifling at times. It retains the same Middle Eastern flavour as Kiss Kiss, but it’s an altogether darker, broodier affair. Holly Valance’s vocal is worked into the song so that her voice sounds inextricably part of the pounding beat and pulsing synths, rather than a separate entity. She’s never at risk of being drowned out, but there are times when her vocal merges into the production. Most notably during the second verse: “I know how much you need me, just want to get it up”, where it descends into electrical distortion. Holly Valance completely gets what she’s there to do. Her performance oozes teasing sexuality from the first purred: “Doooown boy, keep you doooown boy” intro. Even the audible mouth clicks feel intensely alluring, particularly with the heavy production magnifying their presence. In many ways, those are the most sensual aspects of the track, more so than the huffing, puffing and panting that punctuates it.

Where Down Boy deviates from the usual pop music formula, though, is towards the very end. After the final chorus, there’s a half-minute instrumental coda. It doesn’t add anything new to the melody but merely provides the opportunity to soak in the galloping production and synth stabs with minimal distraction. Holly Valance isn’t wholly absent; as the track closes, she gives a wry chuckle, which very neatly bookends either side of Down Boy.

When it came to the music video, there was – on paper, at least – a bit of a problem; Holly Valance had already bared all for her previous single (ostensibly so; it was the ever-reliable flesh-coloured bikini, a ’90s and ‘00s pop staple), which left limited options for upping the ante. The approach was actually to rewind a bit and create a more suggestive visual that enhanced the song by drawing on its dark, brooding sound. There are some great aesthetics in the video; particularly the shadowy, neon-drenched motel exterior, which feels almost Blackout-esque in its realisation. Holly Valance is stunning in the shots where she’s looking in the mirror and running her hands through her bouffant hair.

And, of course, not to forget the styling during the dance choreography: a zip-up hoodie, red short shorts, white sweatbands and an afro is a bold statement. Only the shots where Holly Valance is lying on a bed surrounded by men and women having what looks like a fully clothed orgy (consisting of little more than heavy petting and prick-teasing lesbianism) feel unnecessary. It’s clear why they’re included in terms of titillating a heterosexual male audience that likely wasn’t there for the music, but it lacks the cool, edgy mise en scène of the other visuals, coming across instead as a bit tawdry.

Down Boy peaked at #2 in the UK, and although it spent only five weeks in the top 40, the single stabilised in the lower reaches of the chart, eventually totalling three and half months in the top 75 and selling 92,000 copies (the 113th biggest-seller of 2003). Likely contributing to the track’s initial decline was the arrival of Holly Valance’s debut album: Footprints, which became a modest success, peaking at #9. In hindsight, neither of the singles released beforehand jumped out as album-sellers, regardless of how good and/or successful they were. But there was still a degree of momentum from Kiss Kiss that was unlikely to be equalled by any other track on Footprints, so it would be hard to argue that there was a better time to release the album, or that it was ever likely to perform better than it did.  

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