The innocents abroad: S Club 7’s America
Michael G. Robinson
There is a long history of hyping America to Europeans as a rich and pleasant land. Of course, the early arrivals quickly found that the reality of America did not necessarily match the images of scenic beauty and opportunity sold to them in journals and stories. As the new millennium begins, the tradition continues in a form that is much less sinister to its participants. The music group S Club 7 has come, via cable television, from Britain to America in order to make their fortune. S Club 7 is not the first pop group created for and promoted by a television series, but their televised adventures offer an unusual opportunity to see contemporary America from another culture’s perspective. This opportunity is unusual because, instead of a single glimpse, there is a sustained look at America through many episodes and specials. While produced by a British company, these programs were filmed and later aired in America, thus allowing American audiences to see how others view their country. This paper investigates the physical sense of America and the cultural sense of Americans themselves that emerges from the television adventures of a prefabricated pop music group. First though, in order to develop a context for the programs, the origins of S Club 7 are described and a historical background for the program is established.
Origins of S Club 7
S Club 7 is the brainchild of Simon Fuller, former Spice Girls manager and head of the successful 19 Management. Formed in 1985, the company already had more than 100 Top 40 singles to its credit, and Fuller was looking for his first post-Spice Girls entry into the pop-dominated world he had helped to create. Seeking to develop not just another pop group but a “multi-faceted entertainment brand” (qtd. in “Hasbro”), Fuller set about auditioning for a mixed-sex group of singers, dancers, and actors from a field of 10,000 hopefuls (a process that he would later allow the public to view on TV in his hugely successful Pop Star and Pop Idol formats in the UK and American Idol in the US). While boy bands and girl groups had been popular throughout the ’90s in both the US and Britain, only Peter Waterman’s group Steps, with their ABBA-like sound and elaborate choreography, had made a success of a mixed-gender format. But while Steps had worked for nearly four years to achieve success, S Club would have a promotional advantage that practically guaranteed immediate popularity–their own TV show.
After some last-minute tweaking by Fuller, including the sacking of three original members, S Club 7 first came on the public scene in the spring of 1999 with the launch of their television show Miami 7. Featuring the performing talents of seven attractive, clean-cut, young men and women–Tina Barrett, Paul Cattermole, Jon Lee, Bradley McIntosh, Jo O’Meara, Hannah Spearritt, and Rachel Stevens–the show first premiered on April 8, 1999 on BBC1 and ran for thirteen episodes. With its exotic and sunny locale and quality production values, the show stood out instantly from almost all other children’s TV fare in Britain. By the summer it was the most watched children’s program in the UK and, within a year, the show was being watched by 90 million viewers in over 100 countries. With the success of the show came the release in June of their first single, “Bring It All Back,” which reached number one in the UK singles charts while achieving double platinum sales (as noted in “Hasbro”, the single would go on to be number one in several other countries, including New Zealand and Denmark). Their first album, S Club, debuted later that year at number two on the British charts. They have been a top ten presence in the charts ever since, with a string of hit singles including “Two in a Million” and “Natural.” In an odd way, this quick success was anticipated. Although the name “S Club 7” has no particular meaning attached to it beyond a suggestion of how many people are in the group, Rachel once suggested: “We came up with the letter S because we liked the letter for some reason. There’s loads of words you can get from that letter … ‘successful’ … ‘super'” (qtd. in Simons SL2).
Despite their success, or perhaps more likely because of the quickness of it, critics of the group abound. In a Q magazine article entitled “How Teen Pop Ate the Record Industry”, S Club 7 is described as “ruthlessly marketed” and “the pinnacle of the pop-act-as-global-brand philosophy” that threatens to destroy the pop industry. Cynics have also derided their prefabricated origins, perfect looks, and relentless cheeriness, but Fuller had made it clear from the beginning that these were strengths, not weaknesses: “Pop music is about celebrity and not just about music…. Pop stars should be icons” (qtd. in Jones and Davis). In order to achieve that iconic status, S Club 7 would have to become a truly worldwide commodity by cracking the biggest market of all–America.
Meanwhile in the US, the Family Channel was enduring yet another identity crisis. Pat Robertson’s Family Channel, known as the Christian Broadcasting Network prior to 1989, had gradually shifted from explicitly religious programming to more general family-oriented fare (Brooks and Marsh 363-64). The network’s most dramatic change occurred though when it was acquired in a cash merger between International Family Entertainment and Fox Kids Worldwide. According to the NewsCorp press release “International Family Entertainment to Be Acquired”, the deal was valued at about $1.9 billion dollars. The Family Channel officially became Fox Family on August 15, 1998. While Brooks and Marsh observe that this was a strange marriage between a Christian company and a corporation known for edgier and controversial content, the end result was not “the kind of raunchy programming critics feared” (363).
This new channel was not the success that the Fox Entertainment Group hoped it would be. As Forkan notes, after the acquisition, the network’s identity still did not stabilize: ” … after two consecutive fall seasons of programming makeovers, the channel is still not quite one big happy family.” In a 1999 press release noting the increased revenues for the group overall, Fox Entertainment had to admit:
Losses at Fox Family Worldwide increased to $7 million from $3
million in the second quarter last year. This is primarily due to
additional costs associated with the re-launch of the Fox Family
Channel and start-up losses for Fox Kids International. While
initial ratings of the Fox Family Channel were below expectations,
recent schedule changes have led to an improvement in ratings.
In general, these shifts in scheduling can be seen as a move by Fox Family to position itself as a network for families, intent on drawing both parents and children to a new range of programming.
Of course, deciding in practice what exactly this means is another matter for the network. Both Matthews and Forkan describe how Fox Family has had considerable problems bridging the gaps between the daytime programming targeted to children and teens and the prime-time programming looking to include more adults. Matthews and Pennington each point out the particular difficulty of linking Pat Robertson’s conservative, religious program The 700 Club, a show Fox Family was contractually obligated to carry after acquiring the network, to the children’s fare. The S Club 7 programs are emblematic of Fox Family’s attempt to address those problems. There are differing opinions about Fox Family’s effectiveness as a venue for the show. McLeod, a critic for Village Voice, referred to S Club 7 being stuck “in the Fox Family ghetto.” According to Matthews, Fox Family CEO Rich Cronin had high hopes for the show, even predicting that the S Club 7 shows would draw in older audiences nostalgic for The Monkees. Fuller remained optimistic as well, seeing the relationship with Fox Family as: “a good way to let the kids discover them [S Club 7] without feeling that the group is being rammed down their throats” (qtd. in Matthews).
Characters, series, and context
This analysis concentrates on S Club 7’s fictional adventures across America as chronicled in the first two seasons of thirteen half-hour episodes and three hour-long specials. The shows are produced by a number of professional writers and sitcom veterans under the direction of Kim Fuller (Simon Fuller’s brother, a long-established comedy sketch writer and the scribe behind the Spice Girls’ 1997 movie Spiceworld). The first S Club 7 program, S Club 7 in Miami, debuted in America on November 6, 1999. Miami brings the group to Florida on what is supposed to be their first big break as performers. To their surprise, they find themselves trapped in a tyrannical contract that forces them to perform exclusively and work excessively at a small-time Miami hotel. There they thwart their boss’s schemes to use them as cheap labor while finding ways to have fun on the beach and pursue their musical goals. After getting free of their contract in the final episode, the group drives across America in a custom convertible in search of Los Angeles. In the first linking special, Back to the 50s, a fantastic conjunction of events propels the group back in time to a small southwestern town in the 1950s, where they help the residents resolve a problem with local bullies. Returned to their normal place in the space-time continuum, the group weathers a potential breakup caused by long-distance relationship woes and helps a trailer park family in the second special, Birthdays and Boyfriends.
Although titled S Club 7 in L.A., the second series begins with the group’s quest for Hollywood still unfulfilled. The program debuted in the States on June 3, 2000. As the series begins, S Club 7 makes it the rest of the way to the city, only to find that achieving fame is a bit more difficult than they thought. In L.A., S Club 7’s search for the big break is interwoven with comic adventures of trying to find jobs to pay the rent. Although they seem to leave L.A. at the end of the series, car troubles in the beginning of the last linking special, Artistic Differences, keeps the group in Hollywood, where the group again weathers a potential breakup.
In these programs, the line between fiction and reality is often blurred in order to give the appearance of real performers struggling to make it in the industry. Thus, at first it seems strange to think of the seven members of S Club as “characters.” There is an implicit suggestion throughout the show that this is how the group members really are together, that we are seeing adventures they really might have. This is, of course, a calculation. While the members of the group may very well be that way, it is important to remember that the series gives representations of them only. The general sense of that representation is a group of fun-loving kids that will be nonthreatening to adults and, more importantly, will attract young viewers.
The goal is to create identification. As Barber notes, Fuller is a long-time advocate of this kind of teen, and even preteen, branding. Fuller states: “I think older kids will like them because they’re cool and they’re talented. And I think young kids will like them because they want to be them” (qtd. in Carman E8). This aim is also re-enforced through the group’s music and dance performances. Each episode contains at least one major music number. The music is pure pop of the late 1990s’ vein, catchy hooks with a strong dance beat. All of the group members sing, but typically Jo, or sometimes Rachel, takes the lead vocal with the others supporting. Bradley takes over when raps are necessary. The easily learned lyrics promote themes like fun, romance, and good self-esteem:
“S Club/Gonna show you how/Everybody get down tonight/S Club/Gonna
take you high/ Shake your body from side to side.” (“S Club Party”)
“We are two in a million/We’ve got all the luck we could be given/
If the world should stop we’ll still have each other/And no matter
what we’ll be together as one.” (“Two in a Million”)
“Don’t stop, never give up/ Hold your head high and reach the top/
Let the world see what you have got/ Bring it all back to you.”
(“Bring it All Back”)
These songs are mixed with simple, repeated dance choreography. This combination ensures that children as young as six can learn both words and dance moves over (hopefully) repeated viewings, thus physically reinforcing the imagined connection between the young viewer and their onscreen favorites. The “young kids” who “want to be them” are provided with a mnemonic template to ensure that the desired identification is further solidified.
While largely respectful of valid authority, all of the members are independent, and it is generally suggested that within the totality of the group there are the resources to solve any problem that faces them. As a mixed group, S Club 7 is not quite as rigidly formulaic as most boys- or girls-only bands. Although they are like most popular music groups in that all of the members are young, active, attractive, and fashionable, each member has a fairly distinctive personality when compared with other groups. These are not the most complicated characters in the history of fiction by any means, but they are a step above the usual single attribute images of pop group members. Bradley is the living id of the group. While definitely constrained within the squeaky-clean ethos of pop band reality, Bradley is the hedonist. He enthusiastically, but safely, revels in eating, sleeping, and dating. Although not quite on the level of Bradley, Paul is also subject to capricious whims, particularly where food is concerned. While bright, Paul often makes unintentional mistakes on account of a lack of careful thinking or, conversely, too much planning. Finally, Jon is the relatively quiet member of the group, particularly when compared with the other male members. He is also the smart and sensitive one, often demonstrating a certain degree of intellectualism, or as much as any member of a pop band is allowed to anyway. Perhaps because of these character traits, Jon is the boy member most concerned in finding a love interest.
The women of S Club 7 are also distinct personalities. Hannah is the sweetheart of the group. While not separated from reality, she sometimes demonstrates ethereal and empathic abilities in lightly fantastic ways. For example, Hannah is clearly able to communicate telepathically with dolphins in one episode. By contrast, Jo is the ultimate pragmatist of the group. Fiercely realistic, Jo will usually cut through the clutter to the root of the matter. She comes closest to the internationally recognized “Cockney” stereotype, complete with a penchant for fixing motors and a father flogging tapes at the Romford market. Tina also cuts to the root of the matter, but while Jo is brash, Tina deploys dry wit or sarcasm to the situations she encounters. While she is always up for fun and can be distracted as much as most of members of the group, Tina is also the benign taskmaster. Viewing the world from the perspective of fashion and deathly afraid of creepy crawlies, Rachel could appear, at first, to be the most stereotypically feminine member of the group. In the world of S Club 7, though, fashion is an expertise as technical as Jo’s mastery of mechanics. More expert in rather than slave to fashion, Rachel is sensitive and caring. Rachel is also the member of the group mostly likely to get homesick.
There is also a recurring set of supporting characters for each of the main series. In Miami, S Club has a regular antagonist in Howard Borlotti, the hotel owner with a loud personality and even louder shirts. Although not necessarily evil or dangerous, Howard is unscrupulous and cheap to a fault and he uses S Club’s contract to exploit their labor and cut costs at the hotel. Howard is assisted by his neurotic, sycophantic brother Marvin. A generally good-natured person who just wants to avoid conflict, Marvin is a fan of S Club but he lacks the fiber to stand up to Howard’s comic tirades directly. Rather than a nemesis, in L.A. S Club has a benign, if befuddled, benefactor in Joni. A subscriber to all trendy Californian beliefs, Joni is the group’s landlord. Unlucky at love, a little too giving, and sometimes rather spacey, Joni’s help can sometimes lead to more trouble.
The members of S Club 7 are presented as a tight-knit group. They interact well and enjoy each other’s company. Marchand is wrong when he calls the show “a Saved By The Bell-like series.” Although there may be some surface similarities, the members of S Club 7–unlike Zak, Slater, Screech, Kelly, Jessie, and the other characters of Bayside High–are not about ruthlessly enforcing social differences. Bayside is a world where the popular rule and the nerds are prey. No episode of Saved goes by without several supposedly comedic put downs of Screech and continued reinforcement of his status as nerd and outsider. The members of S Club do put each other down sometimes, but the humor is always gentler. The comedy functions more as teasing, a bonding activity within the group, than as a wall between social striations. Bayside is also a place where dating seems to be more about accomplishment than relationship. It is a hunt, a game where an imaginary score seems to be kept and marked by the canned “woos” of an audience track. The members of S Club 7 are certainly looking for love, but their attempts again seem to be more benign. They are not keeping score with one another. Thus, in regard to its main characters, Saved is about differences: male versus female, nerd versus prep, etc. The S Club programs are more about togetherness.
The typical S Club adventure varies slightly by series, but in general the stories feature the group trying to have fun while attempting to further their recording careers. In Miami, successful pursuit of these goals means overcoming Howard’s machinations. So, for example, in “Volleyball,” S Club 7 is drawn into a volleyball competition with the staff of the hotel owned by Howard’s cousin. Thanks to a quick learning montage set to one of their songs, the group masters the sport enough to win the game, thus spoiling Howard’s plan to clean up by secretly betting against them. Meanwhile, Hannah meets a nice guy and Jon, worried about never meeting someone, gets to meet a nice girl thanks to an injury he sustains in the big match.
In L.A., these adventures are complicated by the more mundane demands of earning cash to pay the rent. After their combined use of electronics fries the entire house’s electrical system in “Working,” the group must raise the extra cash to pay for the repairs before Joni finds out. This results in, among other things, Rachel working as both a dog walker and an aging superhero actor’s sidekick at public appearances, Jon and Jo subverting the programming at a classical station and Bradley working as a nude model in an art class. All of this winds together in a conclusion of almost Seinfeldian interconnectivity. While there are occasional melodramatic moments, such as when the band is in danger of splitting up or when some dating situation causes heartache, the bad feelings never last long. S Club 7’s adventures are light, humorous, and cheery. On either series, any given adventure leaves room for a musical performance by the group or a montage sequence of activity set to one of their songs.
Although the adventures are set in realistic situations, some adventures also incorporate an element of fantasy. Unlike programs such as Buffy, the Vampire Slayer or Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, where the fantastic is a central element in the lives of the teen protagonists, the fantasy in the S Club 7 series is not the primary thrust of the series. Rather, these moments provide light humor and wonder. Occasionally, the fantastic manifests in changes to setting so that the characters can interact with people of a different time period. The most typical example of fantasy in the series is the tendency for a burst of energy to appear whenever the band members unite hands. Less a superpower and more a symbolic expression of their unity, this fantasy element is also kept light by a self-referential quality. So, for example, when the team unites in “Volleyball” and the expected flash does not occur, Paul looks skyward and pointedly repeats the key phrase “United we stand…. “The flash occurs and Paul says “thank you,” not as if he were speaking to a divine figure but rather as if he had reminded the special effects department to do its job. Most of the fantastic elements disappear after the early episodes of L.A., although there is the occasional awareness that the group is in a television series.
In “Reprise,” a clips show in which the group reminiscences before leaving L.A., after one montage Jo asks if the group has just been through a fantasy sequence.
While the S Club programs have a style unto themselves, they are not by any means completely unique programming. The shows have kinship with many other television series. The most obvious antecedent is The Monkees, a show to which writers and critics often compare the S Club 7 programs. Simons, for example, calls the program “a lightweight pop confection whipped up from the Monkees mix, with a little Spice thrown in” (SL2). “Spice” here refers to creator Fuller’s previous role in the creation of the Spice Girls. The original prefabricated television pop group, the Monkees were brought together, according to Brooks and Marsh, after about 500 people auditioned, and their adventures ran on NBC for two seasons from 1966 to 1968. While there was always contention about the legitimacy of their rock music because of their prefab roots, the Monkees enjoyed a successful music career as well. Another early television relative was The Partridge Family, which ran on ABC for four seasons from 1970 to 1974. Loosely based on the Cowsills, The Partridge Family focused on the lives of a family that was also a rock band (Brooks and Marsh). Much like the Monkees before them, the Partridges enjoyed commercial success through airplay and album sales. Finally, the S Club 7 shows have a certain kinship with the many music groups that populated the Saturday morning block in the late 1960s and early 1970s, from the live-action Sid & Marty Krofft series The Bugaloos, to the animated capers of Josie and the Pussycats.
There is no reason to separate the S Club 7 programs from this genre of programming, but it is important to consider that there are differences between these shows. The Monkees had a counterculture vibe. The adventures of the group often bordered on the surreal and the show’s use of fast and unusual editing techniques gave aesthetic premonitions of the MTV styles to come. While S Club 7 is not a visually plain show, it is also not cutting edge for its time. Although S Club 7 is certainly a willful bunch of singers who have comic clashes with people like Howard, they are not by any means the kind of authority challengers that the Monkees were. The Partridges were not by any means radical either, but, unlike S Club, family bonds linked the Partridges and their adventures rarely departed from the norm of sitcom programs of the time.
The Bugaloos and Josie and the Pussycats were, on the other hand, more fantastic programs. Like most other Krofft shows, The Bugaloos takes place in a fantasy world. Although British and clean cut like the S Club members, the Bugaloos were bug-costumed performers struggling against an evil witchlike villain, Benita Bizarre, and her costumed or puppet minions in a gigantic garden world. Josie and the Pussycats initially were not this surreal, but their capers often found them confronting parodic villains of a James Bond vein. Of course, in their second set of TV adventures, the Pussycats ended up in outer space. All of this is a far cry from S Club’s occasional time travel or burst of synergistic energy.
The most interesting difference, of course, is in the origin of the series and its setting. While they enjoyed some level of international syndication success, all of the shows previously mentioned were made by Americans for an American audience. The S Club 7 series are imports, made for British television by British production companies and originally intended for British audiences. Typically, British shows are “translated” for American audiences, with significant changes to character, dialogue, and setting. Sitcoms such as Sanford and Son, All in the Family, and Cosby, are just a few shows that have been American refits of British television favorites. Unusually, S Club 7 has been transferred whole cloth to the US market without any conceptual reworking or translation, putting it in a more select category.
However, the shows are certainly not the first British series to be sold in the United States. American Public Broadcasting stations have featured British programs for decades either by running the shows themselves or by using British shows as source material for anthology programs like Masterpiece Theater or Mystery. Today, a number of British comedies, or “britcoms,” are featured on special programming blocks in many markets. Some imports have achieved impressive success in the States. In 1978, for example, Doctor Who received a major launch in America. Although, as Haining notes, the initial debut was not impressive, the British science fiction series soon found a loyal audience on PBS stations across the country. By 1979, the American fan audience had become so alluring that series producer John Nathan-Turner arranged for many of the series stars to appear at American science fiction conventions, so much so that writers Howe, Stammers, and Walker suggest that British conventions had trouble booking guests associated with the series. Most recently, game shows like The Weakest Link and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire have achieved US ratings success after being transferred nearly intact in their formats from across the Atlantic.
Setting makes the S Club 7 programs stand apart from these British imports. The programs take place almost entirely in America. This is indeed a rarity. In its entire 26-season run, for example, Doctor Who stories were only set in America twice. Although the Doctor’s TARDIS can travel anywhere in time and space, he and his companions only made it to the top of the Empire State Building briefly in an episode of “The Chase” and for a whole four-part story to participate in the gunfight at the OK Corral in “The Gunfighters.” Even the Doctor’s American companion, Peri, was not taken to America. It was not until the 1996 attempt to relaunch the series in cooperation with FOX that the Doctor revisited a roughly contemporary America (San Francisco, just in time for the millennium).
By virtue of all this, what the S Club 7 programs offer American viewers is a sustained look at contemporary America from another culture’s viewpoint. As further discussion will demonstrate, this is by no means a critical take. S Club 7’s America is an ideal backdrop, a land of opportunity for fun, romance, adventure, and success.
S Club 7’s America
Rainy days are few and far between in S Club 7’s America. For both Miami and L.A., the predominant image is America as a lush coastline. There the sun shines and only the crisp skies rival the blue seas and rolling waves. The beaches are clean, long stretches of sand interrupted only by the expected lifeguard stand, volleyball net, or row of tanning chairs. These beaches are populated, but not overly so. There is plenty of room between the beach umbrellas and blankets. Commerce extends to the edge of the sandy strip without intrusion, providing the needed services of a hotdog stand tucked among the palm trees rather than the crass commercialism of cheap beach shops every few feet. Even Howard’s Florida Paradise hotel, strangely not as loud and obnoxious as its owner, does not break the seamless serenity of the American coast.
Fiske has argued that the beach is a place of semiotic contention where human meaning struggles against nature and different groups vie for a stake in public space. None of that complexity is evident here in S Club 7’s America. On the shows, beaches mean freedom and fun. In this way, the programs are somewhat reminiscent of the beach movies of the 1960s. Although they disagree over how to interpret the way these films subvert adult authority, both Morris and Rutsky have described how beach films posit the beach as an idealized place for safe, teen activities. Unlike these movies though, the S Club 7 programs are concerned with both coasts, even though in many ways there’s very little physical difference between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts in the two series. They are distinguished most by the inclusion of L.A.’s beach sidewalks. While the coasts loom large in the visual environment of the programs, they do not feature significantly in the S Club music itself. As Carney noted, a number of geographic factors helped to produce the sound, form, and topics of Southern California’s surfer rock in the 1960s. S Club’s work does not emerge directly from the regions in this way. Rather, like the group itself, these songs are brought over and placed onto the setting.
The S Club programs also differ from beach movies by featuring areas away from the coasts. Inland, Miami and Los Angeles are slightly different, of course, although they are again idealized as urban areas without sprawl, [TEXT UNREADABLE IN ORIGINAL SOURCE.] decay. Miami is a land of swimming pools, neon nightclub or [TEXT UNREADABLE IN ORIGINAL SOURCE.] and streets ideal for cruising [TEXT UNREADABLE IN ORIGINAL SOURCE.] and Hollywood landmarks [TEXT UNREADABLE IN ORIGINAL SOURCE.] and the stars on the Walk of Fame. For this reason, Los Angeles comes [TEXT UNREADABLE IN ORIGINAL SOURCE.] more than Miami does, devoid as it is such easily recognized iconography.
Cities become backdrops for their series, expressions of the overall mood of their programs. S Club 7’s Los Angeles is the bright sunny twin of the Los Angeles shown, for example, in Angel. In a land of dark-lit canyons beneath neon towers where undead prey and people’s faces are etched with despair, S Club 7 would be in terrible danger if it had to survive on the mean streets of Angel’s L.A. Likewise, the troubled vampire protagonist Angel would burst into flames if he could not make it to the rare bits of shade on S Club 7’s tourist friendly beaches. The S Club 7 programs reflect back an image of America that America itself has fired around the world. Minus the danger of the occasional drowning or boating accident, there is not much difference between the beaches seen in the series and the beaches America exported to the world in the international success story that was Baywatch.
Unlike many American shows themselves, though, the S Club 7 series are aware that an America exists between the two coasts. In the specials Back to the 50s and Birthdays and Boyfriends and the first few episodes of L.A., S Club 7 travels across the country from Miami to Los Angeles. Although obviously missing the visual splendor of the water, Middle America seems just as pleasant as the coast in its own way. The days still manage to be clear and sunny, the perfect atmosphere for driving with the convertible top down. Although Back to the 50s is supposedly set somewhere that is 2,541 miles from Los Angeles, this episode is obviously taking advantage of the classic American television trick of having parts of California double for the rest of the country. There is a stark beauty to the desert terrain that the group visits on their trip back in time to 1959. By comparison, the towns of Middle America are not as visually stimulating. Still, the camera does not disparage them either. Even the last-chance trailer park that the financially strapped group ends up in for Birthdays and Boyfriends tends to be rather nice. And, although the park seems to be located in the heartland of America, amidst fields of sunflowers, the ubiquitous beach is within walking distance, providing S Club with ready access to their most natural habitat. Only the town visited when the group travels back in time seems slightly unpleasant, but this is mostly a setup to suggest a town in trouble that needs the help of our heroes. When the group returns to the present day after resolving the problems, the town has more going for it (after all, the diner is named after the S Club!). Perhaps the only scary part of America that S Club 7 encounters is a massive forest in the first episode of L.A. Lost and once again out of gas, the group is stuck in the woods for a Blair Witch parody. In the end, of course, the only danger comes from their own imaginations.
The smaller locales in S Club 7’s America are also pleasant. Miami and Los Angeles are chock with poolside clubs and cafes, the ideal places to have a concert. As mentioned earlier, even Howard’s hotel is not nearly as miserable as its owner. In fact, the only bad part of the hotel seems to be the rooms that the S Club 7 members have to share. Set up like a dorm for each gender, the rooms have bunk beds and their own bathrooms. Their main negative feature is their rather spartan furnishings. While one episode does tell us (but, curiously does not show us) there are roaches in the hotel, this room could have been a lot worse. By contrast, when the rollerblading Joni literally bumps into the group in L.A. and rents them an apartment after she thinks she has injured Bradley, the group finds themselves in enviable quarters. Bright and roomy, Joni’s two-level apartment has three separate bedrooms and a view of the ocean. Like many American television homes before it, the apartment is expansive enough to accommodate seven with more togetherness than crowding.
Physically then, S Club 7’s America is a pleasant land bordered by oceanic splendor. America is a place without danger but with plenty of opportunity for fun. This is both at odds and in harmony with Britain’s antithetical image of America as a nation beset with the dangers of guns and violence and as a fun and sunny holiday destination. While American programs aimed at kids and teens might deal with everyday pitfalls like drug addiction or peer pressure, S Club shows display little that would upset their idyllic American utopia. This image is also at odds with bands’ own views. In an interview with pop music magazine Smash Hits, Jon admitted he didn’t really like LA, saying it had “a weird vibe” and “no atmosphere,” while Paul described Miami as “an absolute hole.” Jon went on to say, “I don’t like America to be honest, it’s not home” (qtd. in “S Club Will Hit Hollywood” 54). But unlike the real band, the audience sees only the sunny side of the States, and more troubling issues are left to one side. As one might expect from a postcard, the show gives us images largely of America at its imagined best. That pleasant space, in turn, produces quite pleasant inhabitants.
S Club 7’s Americans
The overall stance on Americans taken by the programs is, at best, loving and, at worst, patient with their faults. In S Club 7’s America, there are no truly evil or dangerous people. Consider, for example, the worst American encountered on any of the shows, Howard. As noted earlier, Howard is a tyrant, but his tyranny is cut from the familiar cloth of sitcom antagonists past. Cartoonish in his appearance–indeed when the group is mysteriously transported back in time in “Bermuda Triangle” to 1975, Jon remarks of the young Howard, “He’s the only person I ever met who actually looked better in the 70s’–Howard is a comical collection of foibles. He cannot remember the names of the group members. He owns an alligator as a pet. More annoyance than threat, Howard is so out of step that upon first featuring the group as performers, he insists that they sing “Tie A Yellow Ribbon.” In the end, Howard’s faults are forgivable. As the group leaves Miami, Howard’s bluster breaks and, through Marvin’s coaxing, we learn that he likes the band members and what they’ve added to his life. A final hug with the band even produces a flash of unity energy, leading Marvin and Howard to speculate that they’ve become part of S Club 7. In the end, Howard is not so much villain as eccentric, whose bark is far worse than his bite.
S Club 7’s America has many eccentrics. We meet, just to name a few, an actor obsessed with his former role as superhero, surfer dudes, a stuffy highbrow type fixated on classical music, and even a news anchor who runs her life as if it were a news report. These are people who, at worst, earn a knowing wink between the S Club members and the audience. They are simply quirky, reflective of entrenched stereotypes of Americans that American popular culture exports have rooted in Britain’s (and the world’s) consciousness. The vast majority of Americans are good people ready to enjoy music concerts, no matter how impromptu. Americans also dance and cheer pop music wherever and whenever it may occur. In “Court in the Act,” for example, Howard attempts to circumvent labor laws by having the band act as his entire staff while pretending to be American. Caught and brought into court, Jon quickly develops a somewhat spurious defense that, as a band, the members of S Club 7 are citizens of the world. Asked to prove this by the judge, S Club 7 breaks into a musical number that soon has the entire courtroom, including the formerly stem judge, dancing along.
This positive slant on Americans is so great that it even works retroactively. Despite the fact that rock and roll is not even a decade old when S Club 7 travels back in time to the 1950s, the residents of the town quickly take to the S Club sound of the future. Presumably the group has brought back a CD player with them and the plug is adaptable, because every song sounds modern and is accomplished, as always, without the S Club members playing any instruments. The only nod the group makes to the time period is that during one performance to save a diner, the group wears ’50s-style food-service outfits. One might think that, thanks to the vagaries of time travel, the British invasion has come a decade early, but these moments do not carry a spirit of invasion. Rather, they suggest a kind of unity, that young Americans, across time and space, want a good time with fun music.
Even the social mores and problems of the past are ignored. In the same ’50s town, nobody remarks on the fashion differences. While the male S Club members are notably out of synch with the clothing of the ’50s, all of the female S Club members are wearing what would be quite scandalously tight and revealing outfits. This draws no criticism, even from a very stereotypically suspicious yet dim police officer. Like many other countries, including Britain, America has endured its share of racial division, particularly over the past few decades. Yet none of these issues is evident either. In fact, Bradley, who is black, encounters no negative consequences as a result of his ethnicity in the small ’50s town. When Bradley flirts with and eventually kisses a white girl, the main complication is a result of the fact that the girl used to date one of the juvenile delinquents in town and not the fact that Bradley has violated a social taboo of the time. Sadly, in the real time and place, that kiss may have had far more dire consequences for Bradley.
Still, the S Club programs are not perfect with their regard to these issues and the show fails to include some groups of Americans. Although it is unfair to assail any given text for missing every potential viewpoint, the S Club programs have missed one particular perspective integral to their settings. While Miami and Los Angeles are cultural centers for America’s Latino communities, Latinos are largely absent from the program. When Latinos do appear, it is in the background, particularly when the show is using footage shot in the natural environs of the cities themselves. Unfortunately, the only noticeable Latino character in either series is a physically vile hotel manager that S Club 7 encounters on their first night in L.A. The primary point of the character is to provide a source of gross-out humor, as the group reacts to his slovenly appearance and phlegmy cough. It is regrettable that this character, which did not have to be Latino, was used in this fashion.
S Club’s future in America
Ultimately, what is “American” on the S Club shows is a set of differences from what is “British.” These are not extreme or alienating differences. Rather, they are differences that can be playfully tried on at times. In “Court in the Act,” when the [TEXT UNREADABLE IN ORIGINAL SOURCE.] pretend to be American in order to fool the labor inspector, they apply their usual zest to the problem. Eventually, though, they all make some mistakes. Tina is stuck in a stereotypical cowboy outfit, for example. Bradley, called on his erroneous claim that he had been in ‘Nam, suggests that he “must have been in the sequel.” The telling point comes earlier. Gathered on the beach to tighten their performance as Americans, Tina lectures on linguistic differences (braces are suspenders, elevators are lifts, and, the punch line, Hanson is talented). The floor is then given over to Paul who enthusiastically announces: “All right, you’ve all seen Friends and you all know what to do.” The S Club 7 programs have sent back to America, at least partly, the very positive image that America has sent out to the rest of the world, and they have taken to heart the lessons conveyed through the American media abroad.
The question of what to make of this echo remains. If there are innocents abroad in the S Club universe, then we Americans are those innocents and we live in a pleasant, innocent land of fun. Texts that appear simple on the surface often hide complexities of meaning in their depths. The disagreement between Morris and Rutsky over the meanings of beach films demonstrates how another seemingly innocent set of texts is often difficult to interpret definitively. Morris saw the innocence of the beach and its teen paradise as a projection of cultural desire. Their popularity, he suggested, revealed that Americans of the 1960s were yearning for a simpler, safer place, a kind of suburban backyard of teen conformity extended out onto the shoreline. Frankie and Annette become role models, ideal teens in an ideal place. Rutsky disagreed, arguing that Morris had simplified the textual features of the program and dismissed potential critical capacities of the audience. Rutsky maintained that, while beach films do argue for a case where the beach is a safe, teen paradise, the movies do so inherently by arguing against other representations. In other words, the films prove the safety of the beach only by presenting the other and nullifying or weakening it. Frankie and Annette are only innocent by comparison and this comparison exposes America to the other.
This is a classic problem for criticism in any medium. Is the text closed or open? Disputing the notion of television as a vast wasteland or an ideologically closed project, Newcomb and Hirsch argued that the television text was a forum rather than a fixed artifact. As such, it offered an opportunity to see cultural meanings at play. From this perspective, texts are not ideologically closed but rather they become sites for the cultural contest of meaning. Newcomb would later go on to call this the “dialogic” aspect of mass communication because texts became locations for a kind of cultural dialogue.
Seen from this perspective, the S Club 7 programs reveal an interesting conversation, a reply to the image of itself that America has sent around the planet. On the face of it, there is something quite refreshing about this portrayal of America. It counters the “ugly American” stereotype and suggests that perhaps Britain really does like America after all. Of course, one wouldn’t expect a commercial product to rail against its potential audience. Within and without the narrative confines of the show, S Club 7 wants to succeed in the US. This reply therefore sells America back to itself, uniting the continents in the breezy fun of pop music.
S Club 7 continued to succeed in America in 2001. Their song “Never Had a Dream Come True” enjoyed much airplay in the spring and summer. There were no lasting negative repercussions in America when on March 20, 2001, Paul, Jon, and Bradley received a warning from British police officers for possessing marijuana. The group immediately apologized to its fans. Although Gentile reported that Disney had acquired Fox Family Worldwide Inc. for $3 billion in cash and an additional assumption of the network’s $2.3 billion debt on July 23, the change in ownership did not affect a new season of S Club 7 adventures. On September 15, 2001, S Club 7 in Hollywood debuted on Fox Family and ran for all thirteen episodes. This series was slightly different because for the first time in their television adventures the group experienced some of its own real success. Thanks to their new manager Dean, played by Brady Bunch veteran Barry Williams, S Club 7 had to handle such issues as money, fame, and business. The group did not change much in the face of this newfound success. They were still fun-loving. They still worried about clothes and dating. Their friendships were the solution to any adversity celebrity thrust upon them. The depiction of America and Americans did not change and obviously the group was still in the same part of the country, a place where many quirky, fun, music-loving Americans could await the next S Club 7 performance on the sunny coastline.
The year 2002 brought some challenges for S Club 7. The S Club brand grew stronger. Although there have been few spin-off products in the States, a wide variety of associated products may be found in British family stores such as Woolworth’s and WH Smith. S Club Style magazine and S Club makeup kits are simply the latest efforts. Still, a great surprise came when Paul announced in the spring that he was leaving the group to pursue his own career. The response from the rest of the group was, at least officially, reminiscent of their series’ characters. They were supportive of the decision and were careful to remind the audience that everyone was still friends. The group decided not to find a replacement and simply shortened their name to S Club (“What Are S Club Going to Do?”). This does not mean the end of the S Club television experience. Paul also promised to complete the filming of the groups’ fourth television series (“S Club Shock: Paul Is Leaving”). Yet, even if something should happen to the original S Club itself, the future has been somewhat assured. On November 27, 2001, the S Club members handpicked their successors from the finalists in a massive talent search to be the next generation, which would follow them on tour (“S Club Junior Reach for the Stars”). As reported in the article “S Club Juniors Release First Single,” eight youngsters between the ages of 11 and 14 were selected from among an initial group of 10,000 auditioners to become the S Club Juniors. Stacey, Calvin, Frankie, Jay, Rochelle, Hannah, Aaron, and Daisy are carrying on in the S Club tradition with their first single, “One Step Closer,” released on April 22, 2002. Thus, it is really just a question of when, not if, some form of S Club or another will once again visit America.
The authors thank Simon Rogers of Smash Hits for his assistance.
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Michael G. Robinson is an assistant professor of Communication Studies at Lynchburg College. He received his doctorate in American Culture Studies from Bowling Green State University in 2000. He enjoys teaching and studying many aspects of popular culture, particularly media criticism, media history, genre, and audience studies.
Timothy K. Winkle has lived and worked in London for five years. He received an MA in Popular Culture Studies from Bowling Green State University and an MA in Museum Studies from University College London. He is currently working the museum field with a focus on popular collecting and collecting in the community.
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