Released: 22nd September 2003
Writers: Tom Nichols
Peak position: #21
Chart run: 21-37-52
There was a degree of inevitability with which acts from Popstars: The Rivals flooded the charts after the series concluded. Success was no longer reserved solely for the victors and Download It marked Clea’s attempt to emerge from the towering shadow of Girls Aloud.
The first series of Popstars had established that it was entirely possible to blur the lines between winner and loser when it came to the subsequent chart success of the acts they created. In theory, there was no reason that Popstars: The Rivals couldn’t yield the same opportunity for those who failed to make it into the winning groups. But it was never quite so easy to apply that principle in practice. If Girls Aloud and One True Voice inherited the roles previously occupied by Hear’Say and Liberty X, then how much further could the concept of the ‘runner-up’ be extrapolated? Well, we’d soon find out.
Clea – that’s Chloe, Lynsey, Emma and Aimee (see what they did there?) – formed as a quartet after Javine, having controversially missed out on a place in Girls Aloud, opted to try her luck as a solo artist. Download It was their debut single, and it was a smart move for Clea in terms of finding an angle for their launch. The song itself has absolutely nothing to do with downloading music, but it arrived at a time when the concept was entering into the common vernacular. Back in 2003, physical sales of singles were starting to decline due to the increasing popularity of peer-to-peer file-sharing software like Napster, Limewire and KaZaA. So, releasing a single called Download It created the impression that Clea had their finger on the pulse.
And if it wasn’t on the pulse, then it was definitely on something judging by the affirmation: “Yes I like to touch, you know I like to taste, but without you it’s never quite the same”. The track fully invests in thrusting the group in a more mature direction – explicitly so – than the other graduates from Popstars: The Rivals. There’s always a degree with which technology-based pop songs inevitably show their age, and Download It is no different. Lyrics like: “So we’ll boot it up and I’ll wait for the sign, it’s telling me, babe, we’re online” and “Come round, you’re gone, screen saver’s on” may evoke images of Windows 98, dial-up internet and MSN Messenger, but most crushingly depressing is that the whole practise of downloading in itself now something of an antiquated practice.
Fortunately, the lyrics during the verses are never really an issue because of the way the song veers wildly in the way it’s performed. The chorus is a huge, hook-laden affair: “Download it, download it, next best thing to reality, if you download it, download it, I’ll be safe in the arms of love”. If there’s one part of the track that’s going to jump out and stick in your head, then this is it. If you remember nothing else about Clea, then you’re unlikely to forget the name of this song, such is the relentless ferocity and merciless catchiness with which it hammers its title into your brain. The verses, on the other hand, are almost the complete opposite; they’re so slight that they’re barely there, with vocals that are mumbled with almost incomprehensible subtlety.
Presumably, the reason for such minimalism is that what Download It really wants to be is a sultry slow-jam, something that it exceeds in achieving for the most part. The verses are accompanied by an intense, throbbing bassline that gradually incorporates stabbing synths during the pre-chorus. But there’s a lot more going on besides that; the track flirts with elements of electro-pop long before it had been established as a commercially viable genre for a new group to dabble in. The mid-section is punctuated with dramatic strings while a clipped sample of: “I’ll be safe in the arms of love” reverberates around the track. Download It is loaded with atmosphere from start to finish, right through to the melancholy of the futuristic outro. The production was never so in-your-face as Girls Aloud (what was?), but the quality here is top-drawer and woefully overlooked.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that Download It was a bit too on-the-ball; while topical, it also referred to an activity that was – on the whole – still illegal. Paid downloads were in their infancy and definitely not the first thing that sprang to mind. Either way, as a form of music consumption, it was something that was still getting a lot of pushback from labels and retailers desperate to keep the physical medium alive. That created a degree of moral ambiguity around Download It; how likely is it that the track would be supported by traditional media outlets when it was ostensibly advocating an activity that was perceived as threatening the foundations of the music industry.
Considering Clea were not on a major label, the music video for Download It is impressive in its appearance, even if it falls victim to its own ambition. This is an extravagant affair, with a series of smoulderingly intense shots of the group in a plush mansion, accompanied by impressive hologram effects where they keep fading in and out of the shot. It’s never, ever established why Aimee is writhing around in a vat of black liquid other than presumably because it’s supposed to be sexy in a risqué, fetish way. There’s a moody, aloof atmosphere to the whole thing, and it’s incredibly dark. As in literally dark, to the point where you have to squint to see what’s going on in some of the shots. This wasn’t uncommon as an aesthetic style at the time (see also: Britney Spears’ My Prerogative), but it’s a world away from the typically vibrant presentation of pop music. However, the significant issue here is in how the video sells Clea as a collective. Or how it doesn’t. Central to the appeal of many successful girl groups – particularly on TV talent shows – is how they project the image of sisterhood and friendship. But there is none of that here at all. And this seems like something that should be really fundamental for Clea when they were known to the audience as individual auditionees. Yet, you’d be forgiven for wondering if they’d ever met at all based on what we see in Download It.
Expectations were reasonably high for this single, if only for the fact that Girls Aloud, Javine and The Cheeky Girls had all scored top-five hits off the back of Popstars: The Rivals. But Clea didn’t fare quite so well; the track peaked at #21 in the UK. It was reasonable to conclude that we had just reached saturation point with the number of acts that could conceivably be spun from one series of a TV talent show, but that point was disproven the following month when Phixx released their debut single and reached the top ten. A more likely reason for the modest chart debut of Download It is that Girls Aloud never experienced a dip in popularity that Clea could take advantage of. That – coupled with the fact that the audience had been able to form the winning act this time – put them in the unenviable position of trying to secure a breakthrough when television viewers had already shunned them.
As ever with groups who emerged from TV talent shows, there are far more factors to consider than merely the quality of their material. If it were that easy, Download It would have been a much bigger success, for this is a cleverly written and boldly delivered debut single that has aged surprisingly well. At least, musically if not lyrically.