Released: 27th September 1999
Writers: Melanie Chisholm / Richard Stannard / Julian Gallagher
Peak position: #4
Chart run: 4-18-30-50-X-64-67
Of all the Spice Girls, Melanie C had become regarded as having the most credible potential to launch a music career away from the group, routinely being cited as the strongest singer. Yet, whatever people might have expected from her first (proper) solo single, Goin’ Down probably wasn’t it.
This is – and always has been – a fascinating track because almost everything about it that could be argued as a misjudgement happened with the utmost awareness and intention. Releasing a grungy rock track and cropped, bleached hair giving her a radically different image, Melanie C no longer looked or sounded like a Spice Girl. And that was the whole point. She’s since spoken candidly about this era of her career being one of rebellion, and that’s what Goin’ Down exudes more than anything else. It’s an unapologetic, caustic rejection of her bubblegum pop Sporty Spice persona, something she didn’t want to be anymore.
It’s hard to imagine a scenario where this song wouldn’t have been a drastic reinvention. However, what exacerbated that perception – somewhat detrimentally – was Melanie C’s duet with Bryan Adams. Released in 1998, When You’re Gone had been a massive success; it peaked at #3 and to date remains the best-selling solo Spice Girls single by a considerable margin (921,000 copies, including digital sales and streams). Although she appeared as a featured artist on the track, it was a radio-friendly introduction to Melanie C’s penchant for rockier music. Thus, it wasn’t entirely unreasonable to presume her own material would follow much the same path. Indeed, that’s what appeared to be happening when Ga Ga – taken from the soundtrack to the Adam Sandler movie Big Daddy – was sent to radio in mid-1999.
However, even that verged on the kind of assumption that Melanie C pushed back against. She didn’t want to be pigeonholed and have the type of music she could – or should – make dictated to her. Thus, as work began on what would become the Northern Star album, it included contributions from an eclectic mix of writers and producers. Unlike Geri Halliwell’s Schizophonic, which stuck close to the same team (Absolute) who’d been behind many of the Spice Girls’ hits, Melanie C indulged her desire to strike out from the group and explore a broader range of musical interests. Goin’ Down, therefore, isn’t necessarily representative of Northern Star as a whole, but it’s a statement of intent like no other track on the album. In that sense, it had to be the lead single.
For better or for worse, what comes across is how much of herself Melanie C has committed to the material. Goin’ Down emerged from an era where maintaining the façade of pop music was routinely prioritised above what acts might actually be feeling. But that doesn’t happen here; this track is loaded with anger. Though it could be read as a break-up anthem (“Was it just another lie, or did I just breathe a sigh, what else can I do, I was so into you”), Goin’ Down’s seething vitriol feels just as suited to a rebuttal directed at the (many) critics who’d been eager to tear the Spice Girls down: “How come I didn’t see, you were making fun of me, how dare you change the rules, you made me look a fool”. The parameters of success and failure against which Melanie C – and the rest of the group – were judged changed, particularly as they splintered off to launch solo careers. Her retort is, thus, unapologetic: “Well, now you’re gonna see, the last laugh’s not on me, what am I gonna do, to get my revenge on you?” as she came out fighting.
It’s easy to get distracted by some of the creative choices in Goin’ Down. The vocals have a heavy indie-rock filter, sounding fuzzy and distorted. While not out of place, it occasionally accentuates a harshness in Melanie C’s voice – like the aggressively shouted: “I am not a whore, I have gone hardcore” line – which isn’t particularly flattering. The use of expletives – infrequent though it is – also verges on gratuitous. Melanie C vehemently spitting out: “Now I feel no remorse, my life is back on course, from this little hitch, I have become a super bitch” certainly makes an impression. But once the novelty has worn off, it leaves a slight air of Melanie C showing off (particularly in live performances where she’d exaggeratedly clasp her hand to her mouth). The language is hardly extreme, but it’s arguably there because it can be, rather than feeling imperative to the point Goin’ Down makes so competently elsewhere.
With so much else to digest at the time regarding what this version of Melanie C represented, some of Goin’ Down’s strengths may have been overlooked. Yet, there is much to appreciate here; the track does far more right than it ostensibly does wrong. The pre-chorus: “You’re goin’ down…goin’ down…goin’ down” with its juddering, thrashing guitars and descending whirs wouldn’t sound remotely out of place in a sweaty indie club. Meanwhile, the chorus itself: “I’m singin’ it loud, and I don’t care; I’m singin’ it proud, everywhere” – flanked by wailing rock riffs – shows that regardless of what else is happening in Goin’ Down, Melanie C’s ear for a mean hook hadn’t diminished. It’s realised differently from the bombastic pop for which she was most associated up to this point but still feels like a moment of triumphant clarity for what the song represents in Melanie C breaking out – both figuratively in the lyrics and literally as a solo artist – on her own terms.
Despite the Northern Star album being founded on Melanie C’s willingness to diversify, one of the biggest surprises about Goin’ Down is that it’s co-written by Richard ‘ Biff’ Stannard. He’s credited on some of the Spice Girls’ biggest hits – including Wannabe, 2 Become 1, Spice Up Your Life and Viva Forever – yet there’s little, if any, obvious link to them whatsoever. In some respects, that makes the song being such an authentic departure all the more impressive because it shows the propensity to create music like this had been there all along.
The video for Goin’ Down is notable, though mainly as a formal introduction to Melanie C’s new image – which inevitably garnered interest – than for anything specifically that happens. It’s set at a crowded warehouse party where the track is performed while the police surround the building, seemingly unable to get in. There is a scale to the visuals; Melanie C is jostled by enough extras to make it look convincingly like hundreds of people are at the party, while the Los Angeles location allows for some gorgeous dusky-twilight shots, which are an effective contrast to the dark, dingy interior of the warehouse. Aesthetically and conceptually, this immediately creates distance from the Spice Girls’ visuals.
As does the styling. It’s not outrageous; Melanie C wears a black vest top and a tartan skirt. However, it shows just how ingrained the Spice Girls’ image had become that even if what they wore wasn’t themed directly to their nickname personas, each member of the group had a prescribed ‘look’ and certain items of clothing that didn’t fit that. Thus, a tartan skirt would never have featured in Sporty Spice’s wardrobe, let alone her having a short, spiky hairdo. That, though, is precisely the sort of conditioning Melanie C wanted to challenge, and while it was taken to an extreme, in all likelihood, anything less wouldn’t have worked. Goin’ Down had to cut all ties with what came before to be judged on its own merit, however much that was ever possible for any of the Spice Girls.
If the circumstances were different, Melanie C debuting at #4 behind a top three unchanged from the previous week might have been disappointing. But in truth, Goin Down’ never seemed destined to top the chart; if anything, it probably got a boost from the residual support of Spice Girls fans who mightn’t otherwise have purchased a song like this. Indeed, the track had little staying power, spending a modest six weeks in the top 75 and achieving total sales of 90,400 copies (the 179th biggest seller of the year). It’s possible that listing Ga Ga – included on all formats of the single – as a double-A side might have helped Goin’ Down fare better, but that, again, would have been Melanie C conceding to commercial expectations.
Northern Star was released several weeks later and debuted at #10. The album arrived to a slew of above-average reviews, although in hindsight, it’s generally regarded far more positively, certainly by fans if not critics. After just three weeks, Northern Star fell out of the top 40. However, that’s not wholly surprising off the back of one divisive single (in any case, none of the Spice Girls got a free pass with their albums; all of them had to promote extensively for often comparatively small returns). Virgin Records, however, moved quickly to limit a potential freefall from which Northern Star might find it difficult to recover. They released the title track just two months later, which stabilised the album and helped start to turn the campaign around.
While leading with Goin’ Down can be justified to an extent, it doesn’t change that the initial response to the single and album left something to be desired commercially. Melanie C’s ambition to break free of the Spice Girls phenomenon came across as a bit too abrasive. In some ways, it felt like she was pushing her fans away as much as anyone else. While that’s presumably not the intention, the pent-up frustration fuelling Goin’ Down is expressed uncompromisingly, seemingly directed at everything and everyone around her. Retrospectively, it’s easier to frame Goin’ Down within the wider context of the Northern Star campaign and Melanie C needing – for her own sake – to take back some control. At the time, though, there wasn’t much for audiences to connect with, hence a somewhat trepidatious start that was slowly smoothed over as time passed.
What Goin’ Down did was to make it unambiguously clear that Melanie C had no intention of her solo career being defined by chasing #1 singles. Her approach might have left people a little flummoxed about whether she wanted to be a pop star, a rock singer or a punk rebel…but it quickly became apparent she could be all of them and much more besides.