Vanilla – True To Us

Released: 11th May 1998

Writers: Richard Burton / Bob Wainwright / Didier Guinochet 

Peak position: #36

Chart run: 36-48

Vanilla’s second single should have been a clear-cut case of a joke that had gone too far. And in many respects, that is true. But against all the odds, there was a grain of potential here thanks to the early work of a critically acclaimed production team.

It’s become a widely accepted pop music folklore that Vanilla were the product of a bet. For decades, the story passed down through generations is that their debut single No Way No Way was an attempt by record label executives to create the worst song possible and see if they could get it to #1. They didn’t – the track peaked at #14 – and although the story is readily believable, it doesn’t account for the time and money they would’ve been spent putting Vanilla together and promoting them. Perhaps more importantly, considering the modest performance of No Way No Way, it doesn’t explain the existence of a second single. We may never know the truth behind the group’s existence, but whether they were a joke or not, True To Us was quite an unexpected follow-up in that it’s actually quite…good?

The song was – at least in part – created by Xenomania. Yes, that Xenomania. Officially they’re credited as providing ‘additional’ remixing and production, so don’t go into this expecting an early Girls Aloud prototype. Nevertheless, True To Us does actually attempt to function as a proper pop song and is nowhere near as bad as it could – or, allegedly, should – have been. It’s built around a fizzy hi-NRG Eurodance beat that bounces along with near-relentless energy, only ever so occasionally relenting to just a snare beat and some quirky sound effects. This isn’t necessarily the sort of thing that was routinely topping the charts. Still, it was credibly aligned to that undercurrent of music that often popped up as incidental music on teen TV shows of the era.

In terms of the vocals on True To Us, the song moves in two distinct ways, albeit both a variation on monotone. There are parts – most notably the verses – where Vanilla appear to have been directed to perform in a manner that reinforces the perception of how ‘bad’ they are. Ruminations such as: “I’m not easy but I’m worth it, if you look inside there’s more to know” are delivered with no feeling whatsoever but feel intentionally (albeit believably) flat rather than a genuine product of limitation. It’s only as True To Us moves into its pre-chorus that you start to get a sense of what Vanilla are actually capable of…or not, as the case may be. There are the makings of an actual hook here: “Physically…mentally…I need to see deep in your eyes; totally…faithfully…so I can feel you’re really mine”. Sure, the group’s voices aren’t exactly loaded with charisma, and any attempt to create an actual tune is tentative, but at least it sounds like they’re trying. And quite frankly, that’s all we ask.

By the time we reach the chorus, an odd thing happens. Although none of the group stand out vocally as individuals, put them all together and – thanks to some Xenomania trickery – they sound perfectly functional. The chorus is a breezy, frothy delight. It might not be winning any Ivor Novellos: “True to us, gotta be true to us, true to us, if you wanna have a good time…”, but punctuated with naggingly catchy “oh baby” and “ooh yeah-eah”’s, it zips along with genuine, non-ironic exhilaration. Isolate it from the rest of the track, and you wouldn’t know that anything was amiss here whatsoever. Presumably, this was entirely accidental since it goes against Vanilla’s (alleged) premise, but Xenomania don’t play those sorts of games, and they make a little go a very long way.   

In many respects, the same can be said for the music video, although perhaps not in such flattering terms. It is both reasonably consistent with the aesthetic of a budget-pop brand and yet on another level of being bafflingly, brilliantly bad. The choreography (using the term generously) resembles the sort of thing you might pull together with your mates in the school playground for a laugh. Meanwhile, Vanilla are superimposed on a series of backgrounds that look like they’ve come from one of those video editing software CD-ROMs that you could pick up for a fiver from PC World. It’s wildly entertaining for all the wrong reasons, and it’s not that we’re laughing atthe group; it’s just that there’s no coherency to the video whatsoever. One moment you’re watching Vanilla recreate some Charlie’s Angels-esque silhouette shots; next, they’re crammed onto a spinning platform bopping awkwardly on the spot, and then they’re jumping up and down in black-and-white. The frantic editing gives the visuals an air of desperate ineptitude; yet, say what you like about the visuals, it’s impossible to look away. And despite all of that, in their own way, the group were pioneers. Here, they are styled as rebellious schoolgirls with untucked shirts and ties, and this was 10 months before the arrival of …Baby One More Time. So, as it turns out, where Vanilla led, Britney Spears followed(!)

Alas, without the novelty factor driving True To Us,it peaked at #36 and effectively drew a decisive line under the group’s short foray into the charts. Despite the single arguably making more significant strides than its predecessor, evidently, it wasn’t quite enough to convince anyone that the whole thing wasn’t an in-joke that had gotten completely out of hand. Besides this, it wasn’t clear where all this was heading. An album? Putting out a few singles is one thing, but surely no one at EMI was looking to actively chuck money down the drain, presuming they weren’t already.

See, this is the thing about Vanilla. Whether the rumours of their origins are true or not, there was a vague whiff of the record label treating pop fans as idiots who would buy anything so long as it ostensibly looked the part. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. For every major act that rose to prominence during the late ‘90s/early ‘00s, there were many others who fell by the wayside. Good pop music was hard to get right; the core audience was far more discerning than they were given credit for and knew when they were being treated like mugs. Vanilla certainly weren’t the only act to go about things the wrong way (Fe-M@il, anyone?), but they were perhaps the most notoriously well-known.  

We may never know the real strategy with Vanilla. Maybe this was all intentional, and maybe it wasn’t. But either way, regardless of how good True To Us turned out to be, the only ones to sink any considerable money into the project – and thus the only ones to lose out here – were the record label themselves. Which feels like an entirely deserved, if not completely illogical, outcome.

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