Sugababes – Red Dress

Released: 6th March 2006

Writers: Sugababes / Xenomania

Peak position: #4

Chart run: 4-7-10-16-22-25-37-53-55-67

Red Dress wasn’t merely another brilliant single from the Sugababes. It was also a masterclass in efficiently replacing a member of the group and carrying on as if nothing had happened.

There are really two aspects to this single. One is of the song itself: a collaboration between the Sugababes and Xenomania, which delivers everything you’d expect from a pairing of such calibre. The other is what it represented…and that’s slightly more complicated. Red Dress was released just over three months after Mutya Buena announced her departure from the group, which is not an entirely unreasonable length of time for them to have rallied and worked out what to do next. However, the way it happened was almost too symptomatic of a group being operated like a well-oiled machine. Even as the news broke in December 2005, it came with confirmation that a replacement would be announced within 24 hours. Given the Sugababes were only two singles into their fourth album – Taller In More Ways – and had planned touring and promotional commitments, the wheels did need to keep on turning. But any member of the group leaving at this point should have felt disruptive rather than a slight blip. Instead, as promised, Amelle Berrabah’s arrival was confirmed the following day, and she quickly began re-recording parts of the album so that the campaign could continue unabated.

As it turns out, Mutya may have felt better off out of Red Dress since she later admitted to hating the song. It was, however, a very sensible choice to help this transitionary period, drawing on a reliable partnership with Xenomania that had yielded chart-topping hits like Round Round and Hole In The Head. The track is the star of the show here, although it still provides a gentle introduction to the new Sugababes dynamic. Amelle might have taken Mutya’s place on the intro (“’Cos I’m cooler than the red dress, ‘cos I’m cooler, ‘cos I’m cooler…”) and led the chorus; but Keisha and Heidi’s presence dominates the first and second verses, grounding the song with a welcome sense of familiarity. This is a change, but it’s about as gradual as could be.

Even if it does feel that Red Dress functions primarily as a distraction from what was happening behind the scenes, that’s not an issue when the track is so good. This is three-and-a-half minutes of top-drawer Xenomania; it’s an embarrassment of riches dropping hook after hook against the backdrop of a loosely-sampled (i.e., not formally acknowledged) riff from Tony Clarke’s 1966 single Landslide and an effortlessly cool electro production that struts and bounces along relentlessly. Red Dress was always a slick, cohesive effort, but the new mix pulls everything in a little tighter and very effectively sells a notion – both musically and visually – of what this latest iteration of Sugababes could be. 

In essence, this song still captures the group’s je ne sais quoi, being both wonderfully charismatic and ever so slightly aloof. Despite the brisk tempo, the rich quality of their vocals shines through as they assert a disinterest in playing games: “I’ve played the desperate lady, jumped through all of the hoops boy; instead of constant craving, I’ll leave the chasing to you”. If there was any doubt whatsoever, then Sugababes cleanly remind everyone they are in control, with a swagger that is equally playful and disdainful: “A man’s world, but boy can’t you see, we’re pulling the strings, we’re taking the lead”. It’s a delicate balance to be assured and uncompromising without seeming entirely humourless. Still, Red Dress finds that sweet spot (“And if you don’t respect it, I’ll kick with my Jimmy Choos”) and nails it.

Yet, there is also the faintest hint of something new here as Amelle cuts through the chorus: “’Cos I’m cooler than the red dress, I’d rather catch a guy on my own, ‘cos what you see the man gets, and if he don’t I’m better off here alone”. It’s immediately clear that she’s not just here to fill the vacancy on an existing track and fully embraces the opportunity to deliver her take on the material. That isn’t necessarily easy given the type of song Red Dress is or the parts she’s singing. However, Amelle’s tone is noticeably throatier and brimming with a spiky attitude. She isn’t Mutya. She isn’t trying to be Mutya. And that alone is enough to create some anticipation – tentative though it may have been for some – of what could come next. 

In truth, though, what the future held for Sugababes wasn’t really for now. Not when Red Dress thunders along with such thundering tenacity. From subtle flourishes – like the matter-of-fact: “Give me credit” and: “Don’t forget it” interjections or Heidi’s teasingly hypnotic: “To you…” prelude to her verse – through to the tour de force of a double-chorus: “Woah-woah, woah-woah, woah-woah-WOAH, done the candlelight to make you stay over, I’m giving it UP now…baby, if that’s what I gotta do just to own you, I’m giving it up now…maybe”, Red Dress is irresistibly fun. And sure, it’s pretty frivolous by the Sugababes’ standards; but where Xenomania was involved, that never amounted to being throwaway or lightweight. There’s not much to over-think here, which is precisely what the group needed when they were seeing out an album campaign that started under very different circumstances.

As a musical evolution, Red Dress is relatively minimal. But visually, it’s an entirely different story. There is nothing about the music video that the previous line-up couldn’t have done, but at the same time, it feels very intentionally something they probably wouldn’t have done. Inevitably, some aspects of the styling write themselves. It surely came as no surprise to anyone that there are sequences where the Sugababes catwalk strut along a corridor wearing red dresses. The group’s overall presentation is also a little more stylish and glamorous; the colour palette favours black, with intense neon blue lighting and some extreme, posed close-ups. A similar style was used again for Easy several months later (Tim Royes directed both videos) and certainly seems to be a conscious attempt to spin the Sugababes aesthetic in a whole new direction. When it works, it does so incredibly well: the shots of Heidi sitting in a giant hoop – as per the metaphorical ones she’s jumped through in the lyrics – and rolling a mirror ball around with her high heel are beyond fabulous.

There is a catch here, because Red Dress frequently has to balance what it wants to do with what it is contractually obliged to do. Before Amelle’s arrival, the group had signed a deal with Pretty Polly tights, although many of the promotional shoots completed with Mutya were presumably unusable after she left. Thus, the video makes an almost apologetic gesture of goodwill to the company by featuring cutaways of the Sugababes rolling around on soft furnishings while kicking their legs about so that thigh-length hosiery is firmly in view. There’s nothing wrong with the soft pastel pink and blue colour scheme, but that’s a jarring transition from everything else. It does look like an advertising campaign has quite literally been shoehorned into the middle of the video, though.

Red Dress peaked at #4 in the UK, continuing a run of remarkable success for Sugababes. The single itself was a modest seller in their catalogue – the group’s 14th biggest, overall – but nothing about its reception felt like a consequence of the line-up change, for better or for worse. Far more telling of how they were weathering the storm was the continued chart presence of Taller In More Ways. Few (if any) pop acts defied the mid-’00s sales slump and showed as much staying power as Sugababes; this became their third album in a row to sell more than 800,000 copies. Even more unusual is that it was three months after Mutya’s departure until a partly re-recorded version of Taller In More Ways was released, featuring four tracks with Amelle’s vocals. Yet, in the meantime, people continued to buy what was ostensibly an out-of-date album, and it didn’t once leave the top 40. Subsequently, the special edition saw Taller In More Ways achieve its highest peak for three months, climbing to #16. The apparent ease with which Mutya was replaced may have raised eyebrows, but in terms of continuing the Sugababes’ momentum, this was very much a mission accomplished.

Further evidence of how well the group were positioned in a market notoriously hostile towards pop music could be found on the B-side to Red Dress: a riotous cover of the Arctic Monkeys’ I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor. Taking a recent critically and commercially acclaimed indie-rock hit and then brazenly adding distorted vocals to it should – by rights – have had ‘real music’ fans up in arms. And though only a select demographic of fans will (rightly) recognise theirs as the superior version, they still managed to pull it off and came out the other side completely unscathed. 

Oddly, the faultless logic applied to Red Dress – which was expertly handled in facilitating Sugababes to burst out of the gate and deftly overcome their first hurdle together – quickly seemed to evaporate. There were limited options for another single from Taller In More Ways since only three tracks now remained with Amelle’s vocals. And, for some reason, none of them was Ace Reject (another Xenomania composition and perennial fan favourite) which would have been a solid choice. So instead, the group went into the summer, releasing a tender ballad with lyrics co-written by Mutya about her newborn daughter…!

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