A few weeks ago I was at Hamilton Airport, waiting for my flight to Anywhere But Hamilton (a popular destination). I’d checked in and was waiting in the departure lounge, when I became aware of a vaguely familiar sounding song quietly playing on the airport’s PA.
I moved to a table directly under a speaker and listened. Soon the identity of the song became clear. It was “Break My Heart”, the 2001 single by En Masse.
Actually, saying “2001 single” is a bit deceptive because it implies that En Masse had singles in other years. And it implies they actually had other singles.
En Masse were an attempt at a New Zealand boyband. Eight years on they are almost ungoogable, so I’m going to have to rely on my memory.
The story goes something like this. A Christchurch businessman saw that overseas boybands such as Nsync, Backstreet Boys and Blue were rather popular, so he decided to make a local version. A group of five singers was recruited, the group formed, and they recorded “Break My Heart”. En Masse received a NZ On Air grant to make a music video, in the same funding round as “Sophie” by Goodshirt and “Bruce” by Rubicon, and the video was made.
It shows the boys dressed in nice suits (a quality product; not street), mooching around a palatial house, singing the song, while a pretty blonde woman goes about her business, oblivious to them, eventually driving off with an older white guy. The group looks tense and nervous in the video. And one of them is cross-eyed. And they can’t dance.
At the time “Break My Heart” was released, I’d returned to New Zealand after spending some time in Melbourne. I was staying at my parents’ place and spent most of my days sitting on the couch watching music videos on Juice TV. Juice always had slightly strange playlists that didn’t necessarily reflect what was popular. Somehow “Break My Heart” had ended up as a high-rotate video, so I watched it far too many times.
When you compare “Break My Heart” with the stuff that was actually popular back then – songs like Kylie’s “Can’t Get You Out of My Head”, Alicia Keys’ “Fallin'”, Blue’s “All Rise” and Afroman’s #1 hit “Because I Got High” – it’s obvious that “Break My Heart” never stood a chance.
By then the boyband phenomena had just past its peak. Nsync was soon to fracture into parts, Backstreet Boys took a hiatus but were never able to return to their former glory, and Blue also split.
And then there’s the New Zealand issue. For some reason – and I’ve been pondering this for years – New Zealanders don’t like New Zealand singers who don’t sing their own songs. We’re perfectly happy to love the Spice Girls or Westlife, but when it comes to local bands, our standards turn to those of a naive teenager. Somehow it’s not proper music unless it’s written by the person who sings it, no matter how good their voice and performance is.
If you want to see something that’s a little bit heartbreaking, watch this promo video about En Masse. The five band members and their management all talk about the future with such hope – they’re really going to be the first New Zealand boyband to be successful in Asia, Europe and America.
Back in Hamilton Airport, I’ve just had my boarding call (thank God) and “Break My Heart” is nearing its, end with the chorus repeated far too many times.
I wonder how the song came to be on the airport’s playlist of innocuous music. Perhaps it was just a result of some bulk music licensing deal. Perhaps it’s part of the general Faustian pact that Hamilton seem to have been built on. Or perhaps someone at Hamilton Airport is the one remaining En Masse fan in the world.