Released: 20th May 2002
Writers: Brian McFadden / Chris O’Brien / Graham Murphy / Shane Filan
Peak position: #5
Chart run: 5-14-21-32-46-42-36-35-42-72
With their third album, Westlife broke with the established formula of stool-perching balladry that had become their trademark. But even so, Bop Bop Baby – while one of the group’s most entertaining releases – proved a step too far for their ardent fanbase.
There were several directions the World Of Our Own campaign could have gone following the success of the title-track. However, as is so often the case, pop fans can’t have everything. The release of Bop Bop Baby came at the expense of an incredible Swedepop song – Why Do I Love You – which Westlife had already performed on television. Perhaps there was a method behind the madness, for it would undoubtedly have seen the group revert to type and dabbling in uptempos had allowed them to exhibit more personality than we’d seen before. Bop Bop Baby was also the first single to contain songwriting credits from members of the group, so on paper at least, it presented an opportunity to exhibit further growth for Westlife.
And in many ways, it did. A frenetic, high-kicking pop track à la When You’re Looking Like That, this is not. Instead, Bop Bop Baby has a gentle, toe-tapping beat to accompany the pleasantly whimsical ruminations: “Mom always said, nothing would break me or lead me astray, who would have guessed I’d let my mind drift so far away”. Meanwhile, the instrumental sections are accompanied by a gentle electric guitar riff; this is unchallenging, uncomplicated pop music that has its sights firmly set on the commercial radio demographic.
If it all sounds a bit unremarkable, then don’t be fooled, because appearances can be deceiving. There are some tremendous hooks buried in Bop Bop Baby, most notably the pre-chorus: “When I call you at home and he answers the phone, or I get your machine and I don’t hear me; when I lie in my bed with the thoughts in my head, when we danced and we sang and we laughed all night”. It’s steeped in classic pop misery, brilliantly composed and the delivery of it – particularly by Mark during the second verse – is absolutely spot on. There’s another great moment of urgency in the middle-eight, with: “Now that we’ve gone our separate ways, I just can’t live these desperate days..”, accompanied by a stirring electric guitar melody. The pacing of the livelier parts of Bop Bop Baby are well-placed to ensure they never elevate it too much but do more than enough to keep the song interesting.
While it’s fair to say Bop Bop Baby wasn’t exactly breaking any new ground, it is nonetheless a competent – and tremendously enjoyable – pop song. It doesn’t do itself any favours though; the title is incredibly twee and suggests some sort of Motown-pastiche number, which isn’t representative of the track at all. The second verse does opt for some decidedly retro-tinged lyrics: “On a love train 20 odd years now, I got off today, but nobody said the stop that I’ve taken, was a stop too late”, but otherwise there’s no real reason for Bop Bop Baby to impose such an identity-crisis upon itself. Until this point, Westlife had carefully toed the line as a group whose material would appeal to pop fans young and old. Here, though, they slipped between the cracks of both markets, with lyrics that feel too young for an older market, but an overall sound that is too adult contemporary for a teen market. It’s still a great track, but Westlife’s first that had no discernible target audience.
Adding to the confusion was a music video that was quite unlike anything Westlife had done before. It was easily the group’s biggest production up to that point and also one of the few times that – for better or for worse – they behaved like a normal pop group. By which we mean this wasn’t just a variation on the usual trope of Westlife performing the song while gazing doe-eyed into the camera. No, for Bop Bop Baby they went full concept. Arguably a little too much, because 30 seconds of the five-minute video is spent establishing the context, as a voiceover reads from a scroll: “Once upon a time in a kingdom far far away, when men were still men, women were still virgins and sex was still sexy…”. To get to the point, Westlife are musketeers tasked with saving a fair maiden from marrying Duke Vincent (played by Vinnie Jones, no less) against her will. Alas, the group are imprisoned and must somehow break free. Considering Westlife spend three minutes of the video behind bars, it’s still not entirely clear how they escape, but it seems to involve a pigeon delivering a note to Kian and then the walls spontaneously exploding.
After a slow start, the finale is action-packed. The musketeers crash the wedding and backflip down the aisle (because, pop music), and a huge sword-fight erupts. Apparently, one would always attend a church ceremony brandishing a weapon, just in case. Duke Vincent is eventually defeated – with some help from his bride-to-be – and Westlife flee, although not before Brian violently boots him as he falls to the ground. If you’re thinking that none of this sounds as though it fits the song, you’d be right. It doesn’t. It’s almost as if someone had a great idea for a music video and decided it was going to be used regardless of what the actual single was.
This wasn’t Westlife’s first release to miss the top spot, but it was the first to do so in a normal week (lest we forget that What Makes A Man still sold 231,747 copies to debut at #2 in December 2000). In the end, Bop Bop Baby didn’t even come close to topping the chart; it debuted and peaked at #5. There were some big acts ahead of Westlife that week (Eminem, Liberty X. Atomic Kitten, Ronan Keating) and they were also fighting the law of diminishing returns with a million-selling album that had performed consistently during the previous six months. Very few pop acts could claim a top-five hit as representing a commercial slump, but there’s no doubt that it would have sent alarm bells ringing for the record label. Indeed, the World Of Our Own campaign was rapidly curtailed (depriving us of Why Do I Love You) and Westlife’s next move was to release a greatest hits compilation later that year.
However enjoyable Bop Bop Baby was, the result felt like something of a hotchpotch. None of the individual elements were bad; they just didn’t quite meld together as intended. Indeed, the lasting impact of the single was that from this point, Westlife became almost entirely risk-averse. So, in many ways, Bop Bop Baby showcases the group being as experimental as they ever were or would be again.