Released: 14th December 2002
Writers: Grant Black / Cozi Costi / Deborah Ffrench / Brio Taliaferro
Peak position: #16
Chart run: 16-25-22-22-30-42-50-51-58
Holly Valance wasn’t afraid to shock. And there was a certain degree of inevitability when it came to her debut album campaign. Having built her brand on outwardly suggestive pop music, you could almost scan the tracklist of Footprints and pick out the singles based solely on their titles. However, the biggest surprise with Naughty Girl is that while most definitely on-brand, it is far more than a titillating piece of fluff.
During the promotion of Footprints, it seemed as though the next release from Holly Valance was likely to be Tuck Your Shirt In. Sonically it was more consistent with the middle-Eastern sound of the first two singles and had been performed several times, complete with a dance routine which saw Holly Valance fall out of her jacket and wander the stage in her bra (much to the delight of the audience). Yet, despite debuting at #9 in the UK, Footprints was heading in the wrong direction and had already left the Top 75 after just five weeks. If ever there was a time to re-think the strategy, then this was it. Naughty Girl is probably not what people expected from Holly Valance, but it was a smart move. It straddles the line quite nicely between the mellower moments from the album, without ever being sedate enough to be considered a true ballad/mid-tempo.
Undeniably Naughty Girl is more downtempo, but thanks to a subtle radio remix, the background production is amplified a little and quickly establishes the track as a total mood. Taking the vocals out of the equation completely, the instrumental track alone is deliciously atmospheric. It’s a busy production, with a relentless driving tempo that is occasionally peppered with thumping beats and shredding synths that bookmark Naughty Girl’s segue from verse to chorus. It’s juxtaposed against Holly Valance’s vocals, which are delivered at a gentler pace. Her performance is an interesting one; it initially sounds fairly aloof, which was a quality she often brought to the very notion of being a pop star. Yet her disinterest – intentional or otherwise – plays perfectly into the lyrics during the verses. On Naughty Girl, Holly Valance sounds emotionally drained and bleary-eyed as she sings: “It’s after twelve, can’t face the day yet; reminds me how hard it can be, to forget” with a morning-after-the-night-before regret in her voice. This is pop music that feels a little more adult and offers up a knowing authenticity in its delivery.
Indeed, there’s a lot of nuance and grey contained within Naughty Girl. This feels like Holly Valance stepping back from her sex-kitten persona and indulging in a moment of self-reflection. At times it veers close to a plea of redemption: “Can’t take the sadness from your eyes, can’t put the truth back in my lies”. But with refreshing honesty, ultimately this is the bittersweet tale of a singer who is deeply affected by flaws, but unable – or perhaps unwilling – to change, as stated quite frankly during the middle-eight: “Won’t stop and try to turn the clock back, I won’t beg I’m no good at that, too late to start and act like a saint, can’t be something that I ain’t”. The narrative in Naughty Girl ties very nicely into what we knew of Felicity Scully in Neighbours and starts to unpick where the character traits end and the real Holly Valance begins. The track offers a fascinatingly complex insight into its singer, albeit one that might have come a bit late in the day with so much of the marketing around Footprints up until that point having been based on suggestive prick-teasing.
Of course, that aspect of Holly Valance’s persona isn’t completely abandoned; the single is called Naughty Girl after all. And it’s during the chorus that she regains a cheeky glint in her eye, albeit while grappling with an incredibly clunky pop lyric which sounds like a disapproving nanna wrote it: “Been a naughty girl, a real bad so and so, done too many things a girl shouldn’t know”. For an artist who was marketed as fairly street-smart, Holly Valance was lumbered with some lyrical howlers on Footprints (if you haven’t already, then please familiarise yourselves with City Ain’t Big Enough). And you know what? We wouldn’t change a single one! Even now, the endearingly quaint lexicon never fails to raise a smile.
The music video for Naughty Girl – like the single itself – perches on the fence between artistic and suggestive. Although we’re rather pleased that overall, it leans far more into being aesthetically stylish than it does overtly sexual. Predominantly, it sees Holly Valance as a model, plastered over billboards and signage in a busy city. What is immediately evident is how much this looks like a big-budget production; even if the concept is simple, the execution is striking and captures the mood of the song. The opening shots of Holly Valance pressed against a rain-soaked window lit with the red of the city below perfectly accentuate the musicality of Naughty Girl. There’s a lot to soak in during the music video, and for the most part, it’s a visual feast that constructs a new, almost avant-garde, identity around Holly Valance.
However, it also seems unable to resist being coquettish in the way she’s framed within some of the shots. The black-and-white scenes are generally quite stunning. But the upskirt shots where she’s essentially squatting over the camera feel gratuitous; indeed, while Holly Valance usually owned her sexuality, there are moments where she pulls down on her skirt as if slightly uncomfortable with the leery camera angle. It’s a similar story during the sequence where she’s perched atop a radiator before moving her hand between her thighs; the camera is focused entirely upon her crotch. You don’t see anything (obviously), but such shots add absolutely nothing to the music video that isn’t achieved perfectly well with the camera at a neutral, less intrusive angle.
Naughty Girl wound up peaking at #16 in the UK, which is a huge shame. Yet, at the same time, it wasn’t a huge surprise. Footprints probably hadn’t shifted enough for us to blame the law of diminishing returns. Instead, we would conclude it was probably because the single was trying to be too many different things at once. Superficially, it continued the theme of suggestive innuendo, but musically and aesthetically, didn’t follow through with the goods. And we wonder whether the two previous singles – plus the additional promotion of Tuck Your Shirt In – might have painted Holly Valance into a corner that had dried up any significant interest in her persona. The latter issue would arguably prove to be a sticking point during the next album as well, which was frustrating because it quickly became clear that Holly Valance was a very astute pop star who sought to play the game on her terms. In hindsight, Naughty Girl started to lay the foundations for that evolution but equally was an early indication that it was going to be an uphill struggle. It wasn’t a complete disaster; despite a mid-Top 20 peak, the single still spent over a month in the Top 40 and did revive interest in the parent album. Albeit, the record label clearly didn’t feel there was enough of an impact because the planned release of Tuck Your Shirt In as the fourth single was cancelled.
Nonetheless, Naughty Girl deserves to be remembered as a worthy effort that was much better than its legacy suggests. This is quite probably the best single from Footprints. Indeed, if it catches you in the right mood, then – whisper it – it might even be Holly Valance’s best single overall.