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23 March 2023

How Busted defined the moody teen pop of the Noughties

The manufactured-yet-rebellious boyband exemplify the accelerated highs and personal lows of British music between the Millennium Bug and the smartphone.

By Fergal Kinney

The angsty teen pop music of the early millennium years has undergone a reappraisal. Once derided for perceived inauthenticity, the bubblegum grunge of Avril Lavigne and the spikily melodramatic pop-punk of Paramore has become a dominant influence on contemporary pop, from Olivia Rodrigo to Billie Eilish. Intelligent indie acts such as Black Country, New Road have mined key emo tropes and juxtaposed them with post-rock or folk.

Busted, however, does not fit into this cultural conversation – at least not yet. The Essex three-piece, who this week announced a 15-date 20th-anniversary arena tour, remain on the outside of popular taste and reappraisal. At a moment when the group are banking on their audience’s nostalgia, and critics are gaining a new perspective on the early Noughties moment from which the group originated, few acts embody the accelerated highs and personal lows of British music between the Millennium Bug and the smartphone more than Busted.

Understanding Busted means understanding the CD single. By 2000, more than 30 million of the slither-thin plastic units were shifted in the UK annually. Creating an industry boom, it also allowed the CD single to become a “pester product” in the same way that children ask their parents for chocolate bars during the supermarket run. The boyband was a potent engine behind this, and Busted were an engineered variant on the Westlife, Boyzone and 5ive model. The plan? London-based Prestige Management, with strong links to Island Records, would cultivate an “authentic” counterpart to the era’s dominant television talent-show pop.

[See also: The Britpop nostalgia complex]

Auditions were held in 2000, selecting teenagers James Bourne, Matt Willis and Charlie Simpson. Busted’s key dividing line was that they had guitars, as well as a strong line in achievable teen and pre-teen rebellion – vacant John Lydon stares, school uniforms worn with irreverence and blond-highlighted hair for those with particularly liberal parents. This carefully cultivated image masked how the group’s three musicians did in fact take pride in playing their instruments and writing – or at least co-writing – their songs. This afforded their bratty, heavily compressed sound a proximity to the raw id of their teen audience’s tastes and desires.

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The 2002 roll-out of Busted’s debut single “What I Go to School For” remains a gold standard for the effective launch of pop product. The three-piece were introduced to UK audiences in a Smash Hits cover feature that promised, with customary Y2K media cruelty, that the group would be “bigger than Rik Waller!” (the previous year’s plus-sized Pop Idol contestant). “I don’t think you could even make something like ‘What I Go to School For’,” provoked the novelist Bret Easton Ellis in a 2019 interview. “It would be considered in this #MeToo movement a little too raunchy, there’s a little too much of the male gaze going on”. Though the single is part of a lineage that includes Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” – fizzing pop rebellion aimed at a specifically school-age market – “What I Go to School For” is now better remembered for its sharply problematic endorsement of a secondary school pupil being groomed by their teacher. The legal restrictions on classroom relationships of course predate the culture shocks of the past half decade – but try telling that to early millennial Britain.

Busted became part of pop’s grandest lineage; that of young people barely experiencing an exhausted nightmare while being assured that they were living every teen’s dream. “Every day at work, I was in a fucked-up situation,” explained Simpson to the Guardian one year after Busted’s split. “I was in a music career, which was amazing, and I hated it because it wasn’t fulfilling me in any sense of the word. I kept thinking, imagine if this was a band I really liked, I’d be loving it. It was like torture.” Busted achieved the rare distinction of winning Best Breakthrough Act at the Brit Awards in what would be their final year. This is a shame. With hindsight Busted’s moodier singles like “Sleeping with the Light On” and “3AM” from the triple-platinum album A Present for Everyone (so-named “because”, said Willis at the time of its release ahead of Christmas in 2003, “it is actually a present for everyone”) could have developed into a maturity for which their US counterparts have been better remembered.

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[See also: The magic of a Self Esteem concert]

In 2005, Simpson seceded from Busted – breaking up the group at the very height of their commercial powers – to form Fightstar. To their credit, with the help of Kerrang magazine’s serious endorsement, Fightstar were able to gain bona fide alternative rock credibility. Perhaps this is a journey that much of Busted’s audience went on together; guitar sales reportedly boomed during those years as a result of “the Busted effect”.

In the years since, the individual members of Busted have grappled with the Dorian Gray contradictions of life after giant pop success. In coalition with members of McFly, two Busted members reformed as McBusted for a commercial blockbuster 2014 tour. In 2015, the original Busted trio reformed for the first time. Since then, they have struggled to get a jukebox musical off the ground and released two albums of mawkish, synth-led arena rock doomed to soundtrack audience bar and toilet breaks at arena shows such as those announced this week. The promise of Busted’s Greatest Hits tour is one of pure and unfiltered nostalgia.

Nostalgia for the early Noughties is not just evident in the Busted arena tour. This month, the uneven Meet Me in the Bathroom documentary on the Strokes’ NYC indie-rock boom hit cinemas. Michael Cragg’s book Reach for the Stars – released next week – is an outstanding catalogue of oral testimonies from major and minor players in UK pop in the decade before the financial crash. Since then, the top tier of the British music industry has been dominated by artists who align with what Peter Robinson in 2011 termed the New Boring – the reliably bankable middlebrow of Adele, Ed Sheeran and Harry Styles, artists who were themselves a commercial reaction to the brisk death of the CD single boom. Busted, and their strange afterlife, prove it was not always so.

[See also: How Robbie Williams became the ultimate British pop star]

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