How to choose a flag

I was not interested in the debate around changing the New Zealand flag during the public submissions process. Public opinion seemed to be split between people lolzing at all the badly designed attempts at flags involving jandals, sheep, and fish and chips, and people raging that the government was spending money on the bloody flag referendum instead of addressing child poverty, the TPPA and other difficult matters.

But then the long list of 40 designs was announced and I realised, yeah, I can do this. I can wade in and have opinions and put my expert analysis skillz to work.

So to save the Flag Consideration Panel further work, I shall now go through and eliminate all the unsuitable designs which will leave us with the one true flag that will guide as, as a nation, through the new millennium and beyond.


Step one: eliminate all designs that look like a civil defence tsunami warning sign

Tsunami warning sign

Korus are nice and all – and people like them because they are highly symbolic – but the ones included on the flag designs all look like the giant wave of destruction on a tsunami sign.

This will mean that if one of those flags is chosen, people will look at it and think “Arrgh! A tsunami is coming! Run to higher ground!” Or worse – they’ll see a tsunami warning sign and instead of fleeing to safety, they’ll instead feel strong patriotic pride in New Zealand, go Kiwi, etc.

So let’s cull those korus:


Step two: eliminate all designs that look like the logo of a sports funding agency and/or the basis of the national costume worn by a Miss New Zealand in the 1980s

Sport NZ logo

It’s that darn silver fern. The trouble is, people are so in love with the Canadian flag. They look at it and say, “Canadia has a leaf on their flag, so why don’t we have a leaf on ours?” Because New Zealand is not Canada. We have no obvious ties to Canada. Unless you count Céline Dion’s three No.1 albums.

1986-miss-universeAs well as being a popular symbol in the New Zealand’s sporting world, there’s a much more serious risk. If any sort of silver fern design is selected, this will also do immense retrospective damage to New Zealand in beauty pageants of the ’80s.

As I have previously examined, a popular design for the national costume section was a black gown with a silver fern motif. If this becomes the flag, then all these Miss New Zealands (and the Duchess of Cambridge!) will suddenly look like they’ve dressed up in the flag, which is about the tackiest thing ever. And prior to this there was absolutely nothing tacky about their dresses.

So let’s make like the early settlers and clear those ferns:


Step three: eliminate all designs that look inspired by the 1990 Commonwealth Games logo

1990 Commonwealth GamesSo much symbolism! It’s round which resembles a ball, which is used in a lot of games. But the round shape also resembles a globe and therefore the red stripe is the mighty British Empire. The stripe also represents a running track, which is used in a lot of other games. The four stars represent the Southern Cross because it is not possible to live in the southern hemisphere and not have strangely erotic feelings about the Southern Cross.

So anything with too much symbolism (which, let’s be fair, is a lot of the designs) and/or with more stars than Celebrity Treasure Island cannot be included. Just think of the headache.

The Games are over and so is that Southern Cross:


Step four: And that leaves us with…

I thought this elimination process would be useful, but honestly it’s turned out to be a bit of a disaster.


The circular flag design looks like a modified goatse and/or a ’90s body piercing loop. The interlocking koru is just Gordon Walters lite. That leaves us with the two triangles. One is almost a square (ugh, Switzerland!) and I find the chopped-off corners of the triangle to be geometrically distressing. I don’t like feeling geometric distress.

This leaves us with the one with the red base. It is simple and geometrically pleasing and not drowning in symbolism. I like it, but do we want it as a flag? I can see it as the emblem of the resistance movement in a dystopian kidult TV series, but I’m not sure if it would work flying from Parliament.

Step five: I don’t even know anymore

But the emoji New Zealand flag will always be there for us.

NZ flag emojiNZ flag emojiNZ flag emojiNZ flag emojiNZ flag emoji

The national costume


Oh, look. It’s Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, at the state reception held for her and her husband in Wellington. She’s wearing an elegant black gown with a silver fern motif on the shoulder, designed by UK designer Jenny Packham.

It’s been praised in the media for its referencing of New Zealand’s national emblem. But wait – it’s a strangely familiar design. Let me think…

Oh, that’s right. It’s what almost every Miss New Zealand wore in the national costume section of Miss World and Miss Universe in the 1980s.

As I discovered recently when I trawled through two decades of Miss World and Miss Universe contests, there’s a certain awkwardness and uncertainty when it comes to New Zealand’s national costume. It seems no one’s really sure what it should be, but the one thing that keeps recurring is the black frock with a silver fern.

So ok. The Duchess of Cambridge has officially made it a thing, so let’s declare it once and for all: New Zealand’s national costume is a black gown with a silver fern motif. For both men and women.

It might not be to everyone’s liking, but let’s just be thankful that the duchess didn’t take inspiration from Miss New Zealand 1985:


National costume

Part of the annual Miss World and Miss Universe beauty pageants is the parade of nations section – the first introduction to all the contestants. The format changes a lot, but one of the most consistent factors is the displays of national costume.

If you’re Miss Austria, you wear a dirndl, if you’re Miss Japan, you wear a kimono. But if you’re Miss New Zealand, you have a long hard think about national identify and the impact of colonialism.

Over the years, the not-quite-knowing-what-to-do curse has plagued Miss New Zealand. In recent years costumes have become much more extravagant, more peacocky, while Miss New Zealand has struggled with comparatively looking like a wallflower in a black frock.

I figured the way Miss New Zealand has been dressed can tell us a lot about New Zealand’s national identity, so I went through the pageants over the years and picked out the very best attempts at a national costume.

Part I: The ’80s

1980 – Miss World New Zealand Vicky Lee Hemi


The furthest back I could find was 1980, kicking off with Miss New Zealand in a very New Zealand costume. I soon discovered that if a Miss New Zealand has some Maori ancestry, chances are she’s going to given a costume inspired by traditional Maori dress. But the best thing about this – Miss New Zealand is holding a kotiate, a lethal weapon. So just look out, Miss Bermuda.

1980 – Miss Universe New Zealand Delyse Nottle


I imagine the conversation went like this: “Well, she’s Pakeha, so we can’t put her in traditional Maori dress, but what about traditional European dress? But what would that be? Oh, what about going back to first contact? Captain Cook? Captain Cook! Yeah! Sexy Captain Cook!” Ahoy?

1981 – Miss World New Zealand Raewyn Marcroft


This one follows the “sexy Captain Cook” line, but rather than having any of the Sergeant Pepper-style embellishments of 1980, this one literally just looks liked they went to a costume shop and rented an 18th century Royal Navy outfit. After the pageant she will be required to hoist the mainsail.

1983 – Miss World New Zealand Maria Sando


Of course the All Blacks had make an appearance somewhere. But it says something that the best feature of this outfit was deemed to be the pervy high-cut shorts, necessitating a view of Miss New Zealand’s bum. Evidently the footy socks and bedazzled rugger jersey really didn’t do it alone.

1983 – Miss Universe New Zealand Lorraine Downes


The jewel of the 1980s was Miss New Zealand Lorraine Downes winning the competition, the first and only New Zealander to be crowned Miss Universe. Most notably she was not wearing a crazy national costume, just an elegant evening gown. And that was all it took for this smily teen with giant hair to win.

1984 – Miss World New Zealand Barbara McDowell


Yes, that’s a pari and piupiu worn with high heels. Miss New Zealand looks like a glamorous primary school teacher who was happy to wear the costume for the school’s kapa haka festival but would not forgo her heels. But yet Miss New Zealand was the one who stood out. Oh sure, Miss Mexico had a sparkly sombrero and Miss Nigeria had yards and yards of fabric, but did either of them have poi?

1985 – Miss World New Zealand Sheri LeFleming Burrow


I love this one so much. Miss New Zealand is basically wearing a giant sheepskin, with fluffy deely bobbers on her head, like a last-minute attempt at a Lord of the Rings animal pelt costume. Actually, I think this is how people on the other side of the world imagine New Zealanders actually dress.

1986 – Miss World New Zealand Linda McClannis


This costume is to fashion what “Sailing Away” is to pop music. The 1986 Miss World pageant was held in November, amid New Zealand’s early successes in the 1986 Louis Vuitton Cup. So hey, guess what – New Zealand is a brand new world yachting superpower so let’s dress up Miss New Zealand like a sailor! Yo ho ho, etc!

1986 – Miss Universe New Zealand Chris Atkinson


If there’s a defacto national costume, it’s a black dress embellished with silver ferns. This one, with shoulder pads of the era, treads a fine line between “elegant evening wear” and “logo of a sports funding agency”. Also note the earrings that look like the skeletal remains of a seahorse.

1988 – Miss Universe New Zealand Lana Coc-Kroft


It’s another variant on the All Blacks uniform, but this time it looks more like a grey romper suit. Lana is also holding a silver rugby ball (which literally looks like a rugby ball that’s been spray-painted silver). I feel this silver rugby ball should be used as part of the induction ceremony for new All Blacks.

Part II: The ’90s and beyond

1993 – Miss Universe New Zealand Karly Kinnaird


It was bound to happen sooner or later. If you use enough of New Zealand’s national colour, eventually the wearer turns into a goth. While I like to see my people represented on the world stage, I feel that the goth look would have been more successful about 15 years later, at the peak of Twilight mania.

1994 – Miss World New Zealand Shelley Edwards


Doesn’t Miss New Zealand look so joyfully happy, like the Teletubbies sun? Yeah, her dress looks like a giant scenic New Zealand souvenir tea towel, but she looks utterly delighted to be wearing it, as she should be, for it is amazing. Also, let’s redesign the flag to have the beaming face of Miss New Zealand 1994 on it.

1994 – Miss Universe New Zealand Nicola Brighty


Well, I like to call this one “Rihanna at the beach”. Yes, New Zealand is an outdoor, beachy kind of place, but togs and a towel as national costume? It’s not even a glamorous bikini – just a utilitarian two-piece. Just to be clear – this was the national costume section, not the swimsuit section.

1994 – Miss Universe USA


For some contrast, here’s the most amazing costume I came across while trawling though 20 years of parades of nations. It’s Miss USA in a NASA astronaut suit to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the moon landing. At first it seems a bit weird (especially with the sash), but the NASA suit is, after all, an iconic piece of 20th century Americana. And also it’s quite good to celebrate women in space as well as the men.

2006 – Miss Universe New Zealand Elizabeth Gray


This dress was designed by Lindah Lepou, but the overall styling makes Miss New Zealand look like Betty Draper (so we shall call her Betty Gray-per) if she was stranded on a desert island and had fashioned a stylish frock using available materials, determined to still be elegant. Don Draper is played by a smily face drawn on a martini glass.

2008 – Miss Universe New Zealand Samantha Powell


Fierce. The costume incorporates elements of Maori and Pacific design, but the overall styling takes it to a whole ‘nother level with the Sharpie ta moko. The gestures are Scary Spice crossed with the Flight of the Conchords “Fashion is Danger” song. Miss New Zealand don’t need no kotiate; she will murder you with her stare.

2009 – Miss Universe New Zealand Katie Taylor


It’s not too hard to figure out that this gown was based on a tui, but there’s more to it than that. It’s actually an entry from the 2005 World of Wearable Art, by Tracey Smith and titled “In-Tui-Tion” (WoW loves a pun). This screen grab doesn’t do it justice, but Lucire has a good photo. It’s a fab dress, but somehow it makes Miss New Zealand look like a Dalek when she walks.

2012 – Miss Universe New Zealand Talia Bennett


It’s hard to see it in these photos, but this costume has giant wobbling metal fern wings. And as the show commentators tell us, the fern is New Zealand’s “national plant”. While it’s crazy and extravagant, it’s not crazy and extravagant enough. It looks more like a reality TV star’s wedding dress than something worthy of Miss Universe.

The 2013 Miss New Zealand just went for a black evening gown, but next year I want to see the crazy turned up to 11. New Zealand turned wearable art into a legit artform, so there’s actually no excuse for Miss New Zealand to show up in just a black frock. Warm up the hot glue guns.


2014 – Miss Universe New Zealand Rachel Millns


I was hoping for some madness with 2014, but there was Miss New Zealand dressed as Elsa from Frozen.

2015 – Miss Universe New Zealand Samantha McClung

Samantha McClung, Miss New Zealand 2015New Zealand really has no idea how to do this. The national costumes of 2015 are bolder and bigger and brighter than ever – think mardi gras – but Miss New Zealand comes along wearing a black dress. With ferns on it.

And it’s not like, oh, she’s standing out by being different. Because she’s not standing out. She’s practically blending into the grey background – the neutral toned background designed to let the colourful costumes stand out.

Maybe this is actually all New Zealand can manage. Maybe we as a national are so racked with self-consciousness that we absolutely could not deal with Miss New Zealand wearing anything extravagant. Maybe we are quite happy for Miss New Zealand to be almost invisible on stage.

A journey through saxophone in New Zealand pop in the 1980s

Jerry Rafferty's sax man Raphael Ravenscroft defines the template on "Baker Street
Jerry Rafferty’s sax man Raphael Ravenscroft defines the template on “Baker Street

In 2011, American popstress Lady Gaga released “Edge of Glory” which was notable for its saxophone solo by Bruce Springsteen’s legendary sax man Clarence Clemons. “The sax solo is back,” declared the world of music. Except that didn’t happen. (Or maybe Lady Gaga was so ahead of her time that it’s taking everyone else a while to catch up.)

But this brief rebirth of the sax solo is a good enough excuse to look back at the history of the sax in pop. Patient zero was Jerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” whose 1978 hit found a new place for the sax solo in popular music.

This kicked off a decade-long trend for sax in pop. Notable works included “Who Can It Be Now” by Men At Work (1981), the sun, surf and sax of Duran Duran’s “Rio” (1983), the smooth sax of George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” (1984), through to INXS’s epic “Never Tear Us Apart” (1988).

Coinciding with the rise of the music video, I can’t help think that the popularity of the saxophone was in part due to how cool it looked. It was not uncommon for the sax player being the only musician shown playing his instrument in a video. The sax is a great big shiny brass instrument that is played with full body emotion. Put the saxophonist in a jacket with the sleeves pushed up and you’ve got instant cool.

But what of the sax in New Zealand pop? Were the musicians of Aotearoa immune from such trends? Of course not. So to celebrate this bold, brassy period, here is a history of the saxophone in New Zealand pop videos of the 1980s.

Jon Stevens “Montego Bay” (1980)


When the saxophonist only plays on a small part of the song, what do you do with him for the rest of the video? Jon Stevens’ band solves this problem by putting the sax man on cow bell duty, before he stealthily ditches it and lets loose on his sax for the second chorus. Also, the sax cuts a better silhouette than the cardboard palm trees.
NZ On Screen

Screaming Meemees “Stars In My Eyes” (1982)


The Screaming Meemees were the most indie of all the acts to succumb to the lure of the sax, so it’s not your typical sax appearance. “Stars In My Eyes” has more of a funk brass thing going on, but the video goes all out with this silhouette of the double sax attack. See how the saxes tower over the trumpet, asserting their superiority.

Monte Video and the Cassettes “Shoop Shoop Diddy Wop Cumma Cumma Wang Dang” (1982)


Neither the innuendo-laden song nor the video includes a saxophone, but the video is set at a bar that features a neon saxophone light. Proof that by the early ’80s, the sax was a visual icon of cool. You can’t quite see it in this shot, but there are musical notes coming out of the sax.
NZ On Screen

Sharon O’Neill “Maxine” (1983)


This is almost as classic as a 1980s video sax solo gets. But as the vid is all about Sharon (and Maxine), the video isn’t interested in who the saxophonist is. We never see his head, only his hands and his sax, playing in a dark bar. (And we know it’s a bar because there is a neon sign reading “BAR”.) This is cut with footage of Shaz looking sensually relaxed, no doubt being soothed by the sax.
NZ On Screen

Tim Finn “Fraction Too Much Friction” (1983)


The song is full of sax, but I initially thought the video had taken the bold step of being saxless, instead just focusing on Tim strutting his stuff while holding a ghettoblaster. But the lure of the sax was too strong. While the rest of the band might remain invisible, the video can’t resist a few shots of the saxophonist overlaid with smoky, sparkling fireworks.
NZ On Screen

DD Smash “Outlook For Thursday” (1983)


DD Smash have a lot of fun with the ridiculousness of the sax, using it as both a tool of good and evil. So powerful is the DD Smash brass section that it mortally wounds Dave Dobbyn. Later in the video, we see the gentle side of the brass, gently soothing the hottie drummer as he relaxes in the sun. Perhaps he and Sharon can compare notes on the power of sax relax.
NZ On Screen

Peking Man “Room That Echoes” (1985)


A saxophone features in this alternate video for “Room That Echoes”, but here’s the kicker: no one plays it. It just rests on its stand at the back of the room (that echoes), looking all cool while the Urlich siblings dance around it. It’s almost like some sort of pagan ritual, in which the god of ’80s cool is invoked. And for a song that is more about style over substance, that’s a perfectly logical and successful choice.

Left, Right and Centre “Don’t Go” (1985)


When the sax is joined by another member of the brass family, it’s usually a trumpet. But not when Don McGlashan is involved. This protest song against the planned 1985 All Black tour of South Africa features Don on his euphonium and Rick Bryant on sax. In any other video, this might be enough to stand out, but the joyous heart of the “Don’t Go” video is Chris Knox with a giant mullet and denim cut-offs.
NZ On Screen

Netherworld Dancing Toys “For Today” (1985)


For a song that’s jam-packed full of brass, the “For Today” video exercises great restraint, with only a few brief shots of the brass section. Even during the big climatic build-up, the brass players are seen in the background cautiously jumping around with their instruments. The focus is wisely given to the stars of the video – Annie Crummer and the Interislander ferry.
NZ On Screen

Sonny Day “Savin’ Up” (1985)


“Savin’ Up” was a cover of a Bruce Springsteen song originally recorded by his (and Lady Gaga’s) saxophonist Clarence Clemons, so it’s no wonder that the sax player in the video gets the star treatment. Sonny Day’s line-up of backing singers (including Annie Crummer) parts and the tight-trousered saxophonist steps forward to deliver his bitchin’ solo, accentuating the piece with strategic hip thrusts. The backing singers are so impressed they give him jazz hands.
NZ On Screen

Peking Man “Good Luck to You” (1986)



This pouty, urban love letter to pre-crash Auckland begins with an amazing shot. Margaret Urlich sits in the window of the much loved cafe DKD. Below her at the cafe’s entrance, the saxophonist poses in the doorway, while playing the song’s introduction. Despite the bitter lyrics of the song, there’s something rather romantic about this shot.
NZ On Screen

Tex Pistol “The Game of Love” (1987)


I’m not sure, but the brass on this synth-heavy song also sounds electronic, so it’s further testament to visual power of the sax that it was included in the video. The slick, minimalist video keeps it simple with Ian Morris and Callie Blood having a side-on his-n-hers brass-off (that’s a showbiz term) on the wet, black set.
NZ On Screen

Herbs “Sensitive to a Smile” (1987)


“Sensitive to a Smile” is largely a tribute to the people and environment of Ruatoria. But even the old kuias, the cheeky kids and the dreadlocked bros must step aside for a while to let the sax man have his moment of glory.
NZ On Screen

80 in the Shade “Heatwave” (1987)


This all-star pop extravaganza came together not for charity but to make an ad for L&P with a scorching cover of the Martha and the Vandellas hit. There’s sax all through it, but the saxophonist appears just once near the end. I suspect this is partly because sax was become a bit uncool, and partly because the sax player wasn’t anyone famous, so they drafted in a model to play the part.

When the Cat’s Away “Melting Pot” (1988)


By the late ’80s, the pop sax was on its last legs, with the instrument instead lurking in the background, underscoring the other instruments. But the visual lure of sax was still strong. Near the end of the video, the Cats are seen with three saxophones and two trumpets, showing a much bigger brass sound than what is actually heard. They’re clearly having a ball mucking around with the instruments, which makes me wonder what it would have sounded like during the video shoot.
NZ On Screen

Dave Dobbyn “Love You Like I Should” (1988)


Margaret Urlich makes yet another appearance, this time shimmying around Dave Dobbyn in a midriff exposing bolero jacket. But lurking in the background behind Marg and Dave are two sax dudes, playing the bass honks on cue. They are given a couple of shots early on, but the video’s focus is on Urlich and Dobbyn’s folk dancing.
NZ On Screen

Holidaymakers “Sweet Lovers” (1988)


By the time I came to watch this video, I’d developed an instinct for sax spotting. I didn’t remember there being a saxophonist in this video, but something told me otherwise. And there it was – less than a minute before the song’s end, the fellow who had previously been shaking some maracas suddenly appears with a sax and squeezes out some barely audible notes. By this stage it seems like the sax was well on its way out, being kept in only for its strong visual appeal.
NZ On Screen

Maybe the sax was part of the bright, exciting, affluent part of the ’80s that started to wither with the 1987 stockmarket crash. It’s not so economical to have a band member who spends a lot of the time standing around, swaying from side to side, waiting for his few seconds of glory. The economical grunge era had no room for such excesses.

The sax didn’t totally die out, but rather than being the cool thing that everyone did, it was left to acts who understood the power of the sax and could harness its power. It lived on in the kids of the ’80s who grew up immersed in the sax pop. Acts like the effervescent Supergroove, jazz master Nathan Haines, and genre mixers Fat Freddys Drop all found a place for sax.

So while the full-on sax solo may have tooted its last toot, that bold brass instrument will always have a place in the world of New Zealand pop. *Honk*


Nick Cave dolls

I was in Wellington, my first time back since I left in April, and I was furiously catching up on things. I got the bus out to the Hutt and visited the Dowse Art Museum.

It was choice, but as I left the gallery, I spied something much more intriguing across the square. Over at the Horticultural Hall, a banner advertised a show of the Wellington Porcelain Dollmakers Club. A doll show!

I’ve always wanted to go to a doll show, that secret world of ladies and fake babies, so I excitedly went inside. The lady at the door looked at me like she knew I was an outsider, a person without dolls. But my money was still good. She took my $5 and I entered the world of dolls.


I was expecting one specific thing – uncanny valley baby dolls. The show did not let me down. There’d been a competition so the best baby dolls of the region were on display. Some looked impressively real, though with an eerie stillness; others looked a bit odd. I mean, if an infant doll looks more like the Dowager Countess of Grantham, something hasn’t quite gone right.

There were also people selling old dolls, the sort of dreadlocked orphans that normally languish in the 50c bin of an op shop. But unlike the op shop dolls, these ones won’t end up part of an art student’s subversive recontexualising of women’s roles in society. The doll show is an irony-free zone. Dolls are just dolls and if one has chipped face paint, you skilfully repaint it. If the hair is matted, you replaced it with silken locks.

But there was a strangely gothic feeling to it all. I came to realise this when found an actual goth doll, “Rose Red: a gothic ballerina”. Somehow this dramatic pale-skinned, eyeliner-wearing young lady seemed more ordinary and lively than the corpse-like baby dolls.

This is a subculture that specialises in taking arms and legs and scalps and eyeballs and putting them all together to make a baby, a girl or a woman. It’s way more goth than anything a black-clad suburban teen could come up with for their art portfolio.


Back in the city, I stopped by Deluxe cafe. Deluxe is a cute little cafe that has been around since the late ’80s. It hasn’t changed much and is oddly starting to feel like a ’90s theme cafe.

As I sat with my lunch, I realised that a Nick Cave CD was playing (I googled it – it was the 1998 best-of.) And I sat there thinking that in the ’90s, this would have been a very cool experience. Sitting in a cafe, listening to Nick Cave, drinking spirulina smoothies or mochaccinos, feeling cool.

But things are different now. I’ve been to the doll show. I’ve seen the dark side. I’ve seen the scalps, the arms, the torsos. I have seen the baby with scraggly orange fluffy hair pulled into two pigtails, in an attempt to make the hair look cute and not like a Scotsman’s pubes.

Maybe the goth pop of Nick Cave has to exist to have something that’s obviously dark and alternative. Something that exists so that the ladies painting eyeballs in their spare rooms don’t feel like weirdos. Something that makes a lady in her 30s sitting in a coffee bar feel edgy and cool.


Why I still don’t drink coffee

One of the earliest things I wrote online was a piece called “Why I don’t drink coffee“, a bold declaration against the bitter brown beverage being in my life. But it was less about coffee and more a rage against social culture of Hamilton in the mid 1990s. People kept offering me Nescafe; I didn’t like Nescafe. And what about my friends who were obsessed with “caffeeeeeine!!!!”? And why were people so fixated on having a “hot drink”? So many questions. So much confusion. I was only 21.

But perhaps that piece should have been titled “Why I don’t drink coffee yet“, because within a couple of years, I had become a coffee drinker. One of those people.

I was one of those people who took photos of swirly latte patterns

The blame lies firmly with Starbucks. One day after work in 1998, my friend Dylan and I ventured into deepest darkest Parnell to check out the fancy new American cafe that served coffee in those white paper cups, just like in the movies. I ordered a grande decaf non-fat latte with hazelnut syrup. Grande because it was the biggest size, decaf because I had to get up early in the morning, non-fat because I was a girl, and hazelnut syrup because I was even more of a girl.

Starbucks was the gateway drug. Soon I’d pared down my beverage of choice to just a latte, and got it from better cafes than Starbucks. It felt good to go to the cafe around the corner from work, get a coffee and mooch around with the cup. Yeah, I’m a grown-up. Glad you noticed. I have a job *and* a cup of coffee, which I am drinking. Because I’m a grown-up.

I was addicted to caffeine. I figured this out when I started getting headaches if I stayed in bed for too long on the weekends. A few times I tried to stop drinking coffee but the resulting headache felt like someone was kicking my skull from the inside. I couldn’t handle that. Once I had to leave a party because the withdrawal headache had turned me into a vile whingebag. Or at least that’s what I blamed it on.

I got to know baristas at the local cafes and coffee carts that I’d go to. They’d remember my order, and we’d chat about the news of the day. My favourite barista was a fellow who worked at the Wellington railway station coffee cart. One day he mentioned he’d been working out with a new personal trainer and he was really seeing some definition coming through in his abs. He lifted up his t-shirt to demonstrate this. Oh, yes. You just don’t get that level of service at Starbucks.

I was right into the power combo of iPhone and coffee – taking photos in cafes. Oh look, the barista has swirled a heart shape on the top of my latte. I will take a photo, whack a vintage filter on it and call it art. Even a provincial cafe with a name like Aromas looks good with an Instagram filter.

I became a little obsessed with brewing methods, enough so to start reading (but not posting – I wasn’t that obsessed). I would visit local cafes that brewed coffee using devices like a syphon, the Chemex, or the fancy one that uses a gold filter. And none of these coffees were served in a takeaway cup, so it would force me to sit down and contemplate life, watch the world passing by, maybe write some poetry… only to get bored and just end up mucking around on my iPhone.

I'm not sure what to do with these now

Then a funny thing happened: I stopped drinking coffee.

When I came back from Japan in March, I stayed at my parents’ place for a couple of weeks. Initially I’d go down to a local cafe for a coffee, but one day I couldn’t be bothered. I accidentally went cold turkey.

The familiar headache came and went within a couple of days. I was feeling pretty pleased with myself for sticking it out, but then the awfulness came. I felt so ill. It was the classic “flu-like symptoms”. I was tired all the time, I couldn’t sleep when I wanted to, I was achy and just generally felt like the undead.

But that passed. I hauled myself off to Napier for a few days, got back into a regular sleep pattern and realised I’d finally made it out the other side. And I was surprised at how normal I felt in the post-caffeine world.

It was almost disappointingly normal. I felt a little bit let down because things generally didn’t feel any different to how they had felt on coffee. While I didn’t get the dramatic highs and lows of alertness any more and I could stay in bed on weekends for as long as I liked, everything else just felt normal.

But worse, being caffeine-free ushered in a whole new level of social awkwardness. If someone nicely offers to buy me a coffee, I can’t just say “No thanks”. I feel like I have to explain that I’m not deliberately rejecting their kind hospitality. And I probably explain too much, leaving the person wishing they’d never said anything in the first place. I’ll still meet someone “for a coffee”, though. It’s a useful shorthand.

Peppermint tea: it's ok

As yet, I don’t have a substitute drink to enjoy in a cafe. I once tried decaf but it tasted empty, and I have mixed feelings about herbal tea. Peppermint and camomile are ok, but everything else usually tastes like twigs dipped in Fanta. Coffee is so tied up with cafe culture (after all, café is the French word for coffee) that it seems completely wrong not to have a coffee in a cafe.

Because coffee is such an adult beverage, I feel like I’ve taken a step away from adult life, like someone’s who’s quit their job to pursue a career in clowning, crossed with someone doing a weird restrictive diet. Yeah, giving up coffee = Chuckles the Gluten-free Clown. It’s like I’m missing out on the secret fun adult coffee society, and I’m due to be exiled to the kids’ corner along with schoolgirls clutching giant hot chocolates and four-year-olds getting fluffies all over their face.

So now I’m left feeling like I have a coffee-flavoured void in my life that I need to fill. But with what? Reality TV? Nail polish? Ponies? I’m sure I’ll figure it out soon enough, but whatever it is, it will have to look good in Instagram photos.

A cafe, in happier times

What kind of man reads Playboy?

I’ve always had an interest in the mojo of Playboy magazine. Not really the magazine itself, with its nude ladies and the all-important articles, but more the cultural icon that Playboy has become.

I wrote about Playboy back in 1997. Back then I’d got hold of a copy of the magazine itself, and ended up somewhat disappointed that it didn’t live up to the exotic reputation it had held years earlier amongst my friends at primary school.

But since then Playboy has changed. The magazine still exists, but the iconic bunny logo has totally gone mainstream, having been licensed for all sorts of products related to the Playboy lifestyle. But it’s moved from representing a sophsticated, sexual thing for adult men to being a crazy fun thing for younger men and women who just want something that says, “Hey! Sometimes I have sex! I might have sex with you! Waaaagh!”

The old ads asked “What sort of man reads Playboy?“, with the answer being a worldly, wealthy, jetset, scotch-drinking kind of man. But what kind of person buys products with the Playboy bunny logo? I’ve started noting products that have licensed the bunny, in an attempt to gain insight into the new consumer of the Playboy brand.

Flannelette sheets

Flannelette Playboy sheets

One would think, maybe, that the beds at the Playboy Mansion would be made with satin sheets, perhaps in a deep burgandy colour. But what’s in stock at Briscoes? Playboy flannelette sheets.

The perfect bedding for the playboy who lives in an uninsulated, unheated flat, who wants to ensure he (or she) can put on their jimjams and snuggle down with a mug of Milo into a nice warm bed in winter, but also wants to ensure their image as a sexy person is maintained year-round.

Duvet cover

40% off

If the pattern of the flannelette sheets was too subtle, how about a giant screen-print of the logo on a red duvet cover? This duvet is for those mornings when you don’t want to go to work because you have a performance review at work and you just know your manager is going to say something about that box of black marker pens you took that one time. So you call in sick and then start to actually feel a bit sick and spend the rest of the day eating two-minute noodles and watching “Titanic” on your HP laptop. Also: 40% off! Yay!

Throw cushions

Bunny cushion

How about a throw pillow to add some colour to either your flannelette sheet set or giant red duvet cover? There’s a black pillow with little bunny hearts (yay, love!) but more demanding of your love and attention is the giant bunny-shaped pillow.

While technically it is a pillow, it is also secretly a cuddly animal toy. If you feel that you’re too old for Mrs Panda and Colonel Teddy, the Playboy bunny cushion gives you a nice animal friend to snuggle up with when you’re feeling a bit lonely. No one ever need know. They will see the pillow and just think you are edgy, cool and sexual.


Gift suggestion

Oh, hey, merry Christmas! It’s a couple of days late, but your boyfriend’s dad and his stepmum are giving you their present. You guess that’s some sort of perfume gift pack – fingers crossed it’s the new Britney one! But, oh, it’s a Playboy perfume and moisturiser pack.

Your boyfriend’s stepmum immediately demands that you put some of the perfume on. She grabs the tube of moisturiser and starts smearing the cream all over your hands, insisting you deserve “a bit of pampering”. It smells like Ribena and curry. Your boyfriend looks ill.

Body spray

Discarded at a train station

Playboy body spray exists for the young man who has a busy life – too busy for daily showering or the regular laundering of clothes. It’s ideal for those situations when Work Corey has to quickly transform into Date Corey before the train arrives.

Just grab that can of Playboy body spray in the Miami fragrance (this guy on Facebook says it’s the strongest), shove the can up your shirt and spray liberally. Remember not to squirt it down your trousers, but you may wish to give your area a little spray just to be safe.

Car seat covers

Flammable, like my love for you.

Cars – they’re a bit boring. It’s nice to individualise one’s automobile and there’s no better way to do that with some fluffy sex dice and some plush Playboy car seat covers. This is the kind of car that starts out with the formal nickname of Bertha, but ends up being called the Shaggin’ Wagon, much to the owner’s disappointment, but with the reluctant acceptance that it is sort of true, especially after that one time down by the river. But the good thing is the Playboy car seat covers are fully washable, so if you spill some banana Primo on it, you can easily clean it off.


Bedazzling, the ancient art of sticking studs, rhinestones and other dazzling accoutrements onto clothes, wavers in and out of fashion. While there are those who would argue that adorning one’s jean jacket with sparking faux gems never goes out of fashion, it cannot be denied that there is currently an increase in popularity around the world of bedazzling.

Specifically, this is due to the innovation of vajazzling, the application of stick-on gems to the lady area, and its male counterpart, the pajazzle.

So that got me thinking – why stop at clothing and genitals? Why not extend the bedazzling principle to other things? So I picked up a few sheets of stunning stick-on gems and got to work turning some boring objects into breathtaking works of bedazzled beauty.

First of all I started with something really basic – a ’90s-era Sony microcassette recorder. I figured I could bedazzle it and then take it along to an important media event and make all the real journalists jealous.

Well, this was a bit of a disaster. The bedazzling on the speaker area blocked the sound from playing back, and the bedazzled micro cassette tape wouldn’t fit back inside the slot.

I was pretty upset at this and had a good cry.


I reached for some tissues to dry my tears, when suddenly inspiration struck me. Tissues are really boring, with their plain white fibres. I reached for my bedazzling kit and soon turned the dull tissues into stunning, fashionable bedazzled tissues.


Feeling buoyed and much more chipper by this breakthrough, I decided to go shopping for some vitamins. I was planning to take the bus into town, so before I left the house, I bedazzled my Snapper bus card.

The Snapper card has the cool fish design, but it’s a bit boring and not very fashionable. I soon bedazzled it up, emphasising the fish logo, but adding stylish new bedazzled dimensions.


Down at my local chemist, I picked up some women’s multivitamins. As I looked at the bottle, I couldn’t help feel that it was not very stylish or fashionable and could actually do with some bedazzling.

Out came my kit and I got to work on it, making sure to add a wee diamond to each pill in the bottle. I was pretty impressed with my ability to transform a boring old bottle of vitamins into a stunning, trendy bedazzled masterpiece.


But then I went to take a vitamin and came to a horrible realisation: I could not swallow the pill if it had a bedazzle stuck to it.

I looked at what I’d been doing and I felt like a bit of a dick. Bedazzling vitamins? What had I been thinking? I slumped into my La-Z-Boy recliner and discovered I was all cried out. There was only one thing for it. I needed to drown my sorrows in another kind of bottle.


‘N Sync’s “Celebrity” – 10 years later

Hey, you!

What, me?

Yeah, I’m talking to you, sassy girl.”


Need a little achh! in your step? Try this on for size. It’s Pop and it tastes great and it makes you feel kinda funny. Not here [points to head], not down there [points downwards], but all up in this area [gestures to the general chest region]. And coming July 24th 2001, Jumbo Pop!

That’s the intro of ‘N Sync’s “Pop” video, where a Max Headroom-esque Justin Timberlake suddenly appears on the flatscreen TV in a cereal-eating sassy girl’s living room. The Pop in question is an orange fizzy beverage presented in a round-bottom flask. But the pop is also the music on ‘N Sync’s third and final studio album “Celebrity” which was indeed released on Tuesday 24 July 2001.

It went five times platinum in the US. That sounds impressive, but ‘N Sync’s previous album “No Strings Attached” went 11x platinum, and their debut album (which wasn’t even all that good) went 10x platinum.

But it sales aside, it’s a good place to draw a line. It was released only a few months before 9/11, and it also seemed to represent the last gasp of the millennium giddiness, before we all had to settle down and get a bit serious for the next decade. How did this final album of Justin, JC, Joey, Lance and Chris hold up over the passing decade?

And “Celebrity” is one of my fave albums, and it got my through some tough times, man. So as it’s the 10th anniversary of the album, I though it was about time to look back and do a track-by-track.

1. Pop

In which ‘N Sync want some respect.

First, it’s not just pop, it’s dirty pop. ‘N Sync are quick to establish that they aren’t the squeaky clean teen pop idols of 1998. They’re not talking the NKOTB route and dressing up in leather, trying to pretend they’re street hoodlums. No, ‘N Sync still fully own that they are a vocal harmony band with fresh dance moves. But they’d just like a little respect, ok?

The chorus triumphantly unites:

Do you ever wonder why this music gets you high?
It takes you on a ride.
You feel it when your body starts to rock, and, baby, you can’t stop.
When the music’s all you got, this must be pop.

That’s what it is. When you listen to pop because a good pop song feels good. It is better than sex, better than drugs and better than rock ‘n’ roll.

But then the song hits the breaks and Justin says, “Man, I’m tired of singing.” This was originally just the intro for – gasp – Justin’s beatbox solo, but now it takes on another meaning. Because Justin is tired of singing. His last solo album was released in 2006, and he’s now moved on to acting.

If you want to look for other signs of impending doom, they’re there. “The thing you got to realise, what we’re doing is not a trend. We got the gift of melody, we’re gonna bring it till the end.” No, Justin, what you were doing was just a trend. Though it is true that ‘N Sync brought it till the end. “Celebrity” had only a couple of dud tracks, and is a fine album to unintentionally go out with.

And then there’s the other sign of doom – it’s a Justin and JC sung track, written by Justin and his Australian choreographer. It’s produced to let Justin and JC’s voices stand out, with the rest of the group sounding more like session singers brought in for a few oohs.

But here’s the thing, despite all that has happened since, it’s still a great pop track. It’s danceable and uplifting and full of slices of club music and other bits of the late ’90s that didn’t usually make it to the top of the charts. And it’s a great opening track for the album.

2. Celebrity

In which ‘N Sync grow weary of this world.

“Write what you know,” they say. So Robyn writes about ‘N Sync and ‘N Sync write about being celebrities.

It’s hard out there when you’re a famous pop star and your girlfriend isn’t. Although, it’s a Justin-penned track and at the time he was very famously in relationship with Britney Spears, who enjoyed equal levels of celebrity to her fellow ex-Mouseketeer.

If I wasn’t a celebrity would you be so nice to me?
If I didn’t have cheese, like, every day, would you still wanna be with me?

The first time I heard this song, I didn’t know that cheese was slang for money, so I imagined ‘N Sync were talking about actual cheese. I imagine Lance frolicking with a giant wheel of gouda, when suddenly hordes of screaming teens run after him, making him frantically roll the cheese wheel down the street to make getaway.

Like in “Pop”, Justin takes the first verse and JC takes the second one. But JC gets the best bit – “See, it would be different if you had something, maybe like a J-O-B”. Only the “J-O-B” bit is sung a cappella with the full group harmonising on it. Because that is their J-O-B.

The song sounds quite bitter, with the protagonist vowing to leave Ms Golddigger and find someone who will “love me for me”. The song is a little bit of a middle finger to all of ‘N Sync’s nutso fans, who blindly vow their love for the band, but it also reveals a weak point of self-esteem among the lads. What if the girl answered, “Yes, I’d still want to be with you because you’re not a horrible person and I enjoy being with you”?

3. The Game Is Over

In which ‘N Sync do not achieve the high score.

“The Game Is Over” is a JC song, so he also gets to sing lead vocal first. But that’s not the best thing. The song is super cool because it samples bits of the Pacman theme. It’s chipcore years before all the cool kids were into it. (But, ok, Yellow Magic Orchestra fully got there first back in 1978 with “Computer Games“.)

And the video game samples are effective. ‘N Sync are the generation who grew up playing spacies. It makes perfect sense to extend the “game over” of a false-hearted lover’s betrayal into the same sense of loss one feels when the ghosts get Pacman.

“The Game Is Over” also works as a counterpoint to JC’s other technology-themed song “Digital Getdown” from ‘N Sync’s previous album “No Strings Attached”. “Digital Get Down” was a celebration of cyber sex, which was a fairly awesome thing for a pop group to be singing about in 2000.

But “The Game Is Over” is angry. “How could you think that you could do me like that,” JC spits, and his posse is right behind him. “You played yourself!”

If one wants to get Freudian here, one can look at the sexual parallels of the coin in the video game slot. In ‘N Sync’s live tour, they dressed up Tron-style versus an army of fembot types. But in reality, it’s more about a lone dude in a T-shirt and Levis, angrily battling away at a video game cos he’s just found out his girlfriend’s been rooting around.

4. Girlfriend

In which ‘N Sync try to peer pressure you in to being their girlfriend.

Why don’t you be my girlfriend?
I’ll treat you good.
I know you hear your friends when they say you should.

Every girl wants to be wanted, and this song is the voice of a guy who wants a girl. Let’s take a moment to luxuriate in the fantasy of “Girlfriend”. Let’s say you’re a girl and you have a crush on Justin or JC (or Joey, Chris or even Lance). You know realistically there’s no way that Mr Timberlake will be your boyfriend, but maybe if you got to meet him backstage at an ‘N Sync concert you could convince him.

“Girlfriend” turns it around. Rather than you having to seduce/beguile/drug your favourite ‘N Sync into loving you, there he is trying to convince you to be his girlfriend with song.

The song is written by the Neptunes, with plenty of their trademark staccato sound. Kids, that was back when the Neptunes wrote and produced songs, rather than Pharrell making Qream, that weird low-calorie cream liqueur for the ladies.

There’s a slightly sexed-up remix of the song, with Nelly showing up for a guest rap. That and the video (gangs, drag races, go Greased Lightning) show that ‘N Sync were continuing with the slightly toughed-up image.

“Girlfriend” was their final single off “Celebrity”, and it was the first single released after 9/11, five months after the event. It makes sense that in the confused post-9/11 world, they’d want to harden up a little.

But sometimes you just want a boy to want you to be his girlfriend.

5. The Two of Us

In which ‘N Sync just can’t get you out of their head.

Romantic obsession, it’s quite fun, yeah? The song starts with some sweet harpsichord-style keyboard, not unlike that of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, before stuttering to life with some tasty beats.

The song treads a fine line between the romantic and the sexual. The song works as the story of a man waiting for his new girlfriend to come home so they can stay up late watching DVDs and eating chips or he’s waiting for his girl to come home to they can have sex all night long.

“I always wanted to tell you,” Justin sings, “but I was so afraid.” Now he’s made that big step, he’s confessed his feelings and now things are going to get better.

But there’s a little self doubt. “Baby, I wonder if you feel the same as I do.” In the back of his mind, there’s the very real possibility that the girl might not be as into him as he’s into her. She might just be using him for sex. Or chips.

But there is hope in my heart. I think the girl will be into him and will want to do more than just watch DVDs.

6. Gone

In which ‘N Sync struggle with loss.

Was this song, the second single off “Celebrity”, the straw that broke the ‘N Sync camel’s back? (And is there a Backstreet Boys dromedary?) Written by Justin and his Australian choreographer, and with Justin on all the lead vocals, it might as well have been credited to “Justin Timberlake and the ‘N Syncs”.

It’s a sad song, chronicling the aching loss that comes with a breakup. Following the two previous tracks at the hopeful beginning stages of a relationship, the sting of “Gone” is even stronger.

With the girl out of his life, what does Justin miss? “I’ve drove myself insane wishing I could touch your face, but the truth remains – you’re gone”. It’s simple, tender and the lack of face-touching, it hurts so much.

The song functions as a showcase for Justin. As well as the getting all the lead vocals, the song also affords him a bare a cappella break down, just to prove he’s got the skills that pay the bills. This is what it sounds like when a boyband splinters, when a guy goes solo.

And so the song takes on a double meaning. Now it’s not just about a guy missing his girlfriend. Justin is singing the loss that his group will soon feel when he sidesteps away from them, and the group’s theoretical hiatus becomes a permanent breakup.

7. Tell Me, Tell Me…Baby

In which the big guns are brought out.

The Swedes are back. There’s always a moment of tension when one hears that a pop artist has started writing their own songs. Sometimes it works, other times it’s terrible. In the case of ‘N Sync, the songs co-written by Justin and JC were perfectly good pop songs, but it took the Swedish pop production house of Cheiron to really bring the power pop. On this song, it’s Max and Rami from Cheiron.

The first sign that something great is happening is the ellipses in the song title. You know what other song used that? “…Baby One More Time” is what.

The song starts with perfectly adequate beats and “oh ohs”, before one of the ‘N Syncs stops things and says, “Hold it, can we back it up just a little bit?” The song rewinds and starts over with a sonic explosion of shattering glass and snippets of Cheiron’s previous hits with ‘N Sync. Take that, Justin and his choreographer!

The song also features that hallmark of the Cheiron/Jive Records oeuvre – the pronunciation of ‘me’ as ‘maaayyee”, which nicely rhymes with ‘baby’.

Like “Gone”, it’s a cry for a relationship that’s fallen apart. But unlike “Gone”, there’s hope that things can be mended. It’s more of a group song, with a united boyband sound. It’s the hope that ‘N Sync can stay together, forever. Maybe they just need Cheiron to work some more magic.

At this point I was going to come to the defence of professional songwriters and pop production houses. But if it’s not Cheiron (which closed in 2001), it’s Tamla Motown or the Brill Building. And it’s the same old criticism that come up again and again, only to go away when the songs are a few decades old and are recognised as gems. Really, if a single sounds amazing, why is it a bad thing that the person who wrote it is different to the person who sings it?

8. Up Against the Wall

In which ‘N Sync enjoy a good humping.

I love this song because it’s about humping. It’s a collaboration between Justin and JC (hot), and is self-consciously full of two-step beats. Yeah, take that, Craig David.

She took my hand.
We never said a word at all.
We starting grinding.
Shorty had me up against the wall.

You could choose to think of it as a dance style like jacking or daggering, but there’s also the possibility that it’s just about an attractive young couple, high on who knows what, who’ve spotted each other across a crowded room but just don’t have time to deal with the hassle of removing clothes.

The action takes place in a disco, where the protagonist spots a fine young lady who then proceeds to come over and hump him. This is top quality humping, because it takes the fellow away from all his cares. “Ask me about tomorrow – you know that I don’t care at all. I just got caught up when she had me up against the wall.”

But what happens tomorrow? Does he wake up with the fly honey in bed with him, realising he has to go through an awkward morning-after conversation? Or does he wake up alone, wondering what happened to his leather trousers at the club?

9. See Right Through You

In which ‘N Sync shed an angry tear.

Things are bitter. A moment of clarity hits ‘N Sync. That girl, the one they loved, she ain’t nothing but a cheating ho.

Covering similar territory to Alanis Morrisette’s “You Oughta Know”, the song is the voice of cheated-on lover angrily dealing with the aftermath of that discovery. But where as Alanis bluntly asks, “Would she go down on you in a theatre,” ‘N Sync get more euphemistic, asking, “Does he freak you the way that I do?”

‘N Sync move into slightly sweary territory with the line “These games they’ve gotta stop. About to get pissed off.” It’s also remarkable that it’s “pissed off”, which is more British than the American “pissed”. I think this may be a contribution of Justin’s Australian choreographer.

The song is angry, but it doesn’t quite seem to have the real anger of being dicked over. Later, when Justin’s girlfriend rooted his Australian choreographer, he wrote the bitter epic “Cry Me a River“.

Yeah, write what you know.

10. Selfish

In which ‘N Sync cater to the all-important newlyweds demographic.

There are two dud songs on “Celebrity”, which was the same miss rate on “No Strings Attached”. But while the two songs on ‘N Sync’s previous album were written by Richard Marx and Diane Warren (yeah….), this time around the lads managed to write the songs themselves. The first is a JC song.

I used to tolerate this song, but now it annoys me. “Selfish” sounds like an ’80s slow jam, with strings, mellow keyboard and key changes. Lyrically it’s a boring declaration of love. It’s a mature grown-up boring kind of love, not the fun sexy kind of love.

I have this idea that every ‘N Sync album has to have a “wedding song” – a slow-dance declaration of love for the bride and groom to take their first steps as husband and wife. But this song makes me feel ill. It makes me not want to get married, ever, if that means avoiding ever having to hear this song again.

11. Just Don’t Tell Me That

In which ‘N Sync ain’t sayin’ she’s a golddigger.

Another Cheiron production, this time by songwriters Andreas, Kristian and Jack. “Just Don’t Tell Me That” works on the same theme as “Celebrity” – a fame-hungry, gold-digging girl is given her marching orders.

Predicting the popular rise of Playboy in the coming decade, the song opens with, “You’ve got to be seen at every party at the Playboy Mansion”. The girl is revealed to be camera whore, who enjoys the lifestyle to which ‘N Sync have treated her. But, of course, she’s a fake so she needs to hit the road.

This song is a bit of a litmus test for the listener. Either the girl thinks, “Well, I deserve the fancy car and to be seen on your arm at the VIP events, so if you can’t treat me right and give me what I need, then I will find someone who can, like Hef.” Or she thinks, “Yay! JC is ditching his no-good girlfriend. I am pure-hearted so now we can be together!”

But neither of these types have a place in the real world of ‘N Sync.

12. Something Like You

In which ‘N Sync pray just to make it today.

The second dud song is a Justin song, co-written with his old vocal coach Robin Wiley. But what makes it even worse – it features guest harmonica from Stevie Wonder. No! What? Stevie?! Yes, further evidence that everything Stevie Wonder has done since the ’80s has been a bit rubbish.

It’s not quite a wedding song, with the relationship in its early stages. It’s the blossoming of a serious, adult relationship. This is a song to be sung dressed in baggy white linen suits, seated on stools.

It’s the most religious song, with Justin’s prayers to “the Lord above” and asking, “Is this what God has meant for me?” The next step after this is not to get involved in some sweaty humping in a crowded night club. It’s to don a chastity ring and wait until marriage before doing anything else.

I also think songs like this exist to give the lads a bit of a breather during their hectic live shows. But for the listener, it’s much more enjoyable to skip to the next track.

13. That Girl (Will Never Be Mine)

In which ‘N Sync reach for the top.

The trio of Swedish power pop is rounded out with “That Girl (Will Never Be Mine)”, which was also the theme song of Lance and Joey’s romantic comedy movie “On The Line”, back when Lance was heterosexual.

Like other Cheiron productions, there’s a unified group vibe, Justin and JC’s lead vocals supported by the rest.

The song starts with a very brief burst of 1950s-style vocal harmony, before bursting into some fresh ’00s pop. The lyrics examine a case of unrequited love. Sometimes in the world of ‘N Sync a crush suggests it will lead to a lifetime of happiness, but in this case, it’s nothing put trouble.

The girl in question is some sort of celebrity, “tearing up the big screen”, but “she’s in a different league.” A reminder that while ‘N Sync are famous enough to write about the perils of fame, there are others who are more famous, who might sneer at these pop wannabes.

There is determination in the lyrics, “She will be mine!” I like to think this song is about Madonna, the culmination of which was the epic, next-level “4 Minutes“.

14. Falling

In which ‘N Sync let the short one have a go.

This song comes close to making it a trilogy of songs that I don’t like (it has a ‘truck driver’s gear change’ key change!), but there’s something strangely appealing about this cheesy ballad.

It’s the only song on the album written by ‘N Sync member Chris, who sings the high parts. It starts with some moody electric guitar, not unlike that of Bryan Adam’s “Run to You”, and expertly builds to a dramatic chorus. It feels like a really well constructed song. It’s nothing amazing, but has a nice comfortable feeling to it.

Like the Cheiron songs, “Falling” also feels like a good group song. ‘N Sync’s strength as a vocal harmony group is put to good use, with lush layers of harmony. And Chris has even thrown in a few high bits for himself.

If this was all ‘N Sync were capable of, they’d have been a perfectly adequate footnote in the history of late ’90s, early ’00s pop, but the fact that there are so many better song on the album make it just all that much more thrilling.

15. Do Your Thing

In which ‘N Sync are doing their thing and doing it well.

The album ends with a question: Are you doing your thing and doing it well? It’s a simple song about pursuing one’s goals, about staying focused on being the best.

If ‘N Sync were to ask themselves that question, the answer would be yes, and the song amply demonstrates their talent. But then where do you go? If all your dreams have come true, what is there left to achieve?

So it seems inevitable that ‘N Sync broke up. They could have easily made another album, but instead they took the hard road. Joey became a father, Lance came out, Chris went on a reality TV show, JC put out a bunch of killer singles that didn’t get enough attention, and Justin had a very successfully solo career that he put on hold to move into the harder world of acting.

Are you doing your thing and doing it well? Yes? So then what? You move on to the next thing.

Key learnings from watching every Madonna video

Last year I set myself the challenge of watching every Madonna video – all 68 of them. I generally enjoy Madge’s oeuvre, and she is indeed noteworthy not just as a pop singer but also as a video artist. She helped shape the emerging art of the music video.

But yet I was pretty sure I hadn’t seen every one of her music videos, particularly that period in the late ’90s when I’d sort of gone off her for a bit. Details of my Madonna-watching journey can be found over on Tumblr, but here I present my key findings.

Madonna has a reputation as a constant reinventor of her look, but when it comes to fashion, she’s actually a bit more conservative than you’d think. Madonna knows that certain shapes flatter her more than others, and she largely sticks with those.

1990s screen saver styles in "Love Profusion"
1990s screen saver styles in "Love Profusion"

1940s-style dresses and suits pop up a lot. One first appeared in “Live to Tell”, and I can’t help get the feeling that this was the start of Madonna’s campaign to be cast as Eva Peron in “Evita”. In fact, the video to “Take a Bow” was especially styled like that as an unsolicited audition. But even after “Evita”, Madonna stuck with the look, donning a 1940s floral frock in “Love Profusion”, which seemed to attract a swarm of popstar-eating CGI fairies.

Toned arms and boofy hair in "Papa Don't Preach"
Toned arms and boofy hair in "Papa Don't Preach"

The corset top is another fave. When it first appeared in “Papa Don’t Preach”, Madonna had been working out and had ditched the baggier boytoy-era clothes. The corset top was perfect for showing off her toned arms and leaner figure. Sometimes it’s part of a dress, like in “Like a Prayer”, and it fit right in with her pervy Madonna phase. And the biggest advantage – after having a couple of kids and getting older, a corset top is just right for holding everything in, like when she’s prancing about with Justin Timberlake in “4 Seconds”.

A monocle, a mansuit and a crotch-grab in "Express Yourself"
A monocle, a mansuit and a crotch-grab in "Express Yourself"

Then there’s the mansuit. You know Madonna – she’s so confident with her sexuality as a woman that she can dress like a man. Madonna dressed liked a boy in “Open Your Heart” and “Who’s That Girl”, but it wasn’t until the power video of “Express Yourself” where she got in full mansuit mode. But it’s a mansuit that always has a bra underneath it, as if to prove she’s still got the lady skills under that big old suit.

Madonna appears in cartoon form in three music videos. In “Who’s That Girl”, Human Madonna (dressed as a boy) sees a fortune teller who shows her Cartoon Madonna, a likeness of Madonna’s “Who’s That Girl” film character, Nikki Finn. Wait, what? It seems a elaborate way for Madonna-the-popstar to distance herself from Madonna-the-actress.

Gap-toothed cartoon Madge in "Music"
Gap-toothed cartoon Madge in "Music"

“Dear Jessie” was only released as a single in Europe and Australasia, so Madonna didn’t participate in the music video. Instead she’s animated as a twee fairy, flying about, being all delightful and shit.

And animated Madonna appears for the third time in “Music”. Human Madge is out on the town with her girls, when Cartoon Madge appears on a TV. A superhero, she flies around a city, kicking arse, knocking about neon signs of her old song titles, hits the dancefloor, before falling to earth. Why is that part done as a cartoon? Did the video’s CGI budget not stretch that far?

Madonna has done a lot of songs for film soundtracks. She had a small role as a nightclub singer in “Vision Quest”, a romantic drama which also explores the serious issue of manorexia. She contributed two songs to the soundtrack – “Crazy For You” and “Gambler”. Unfortunately “Gambler” is not a cover of the Kenny Rodgers classic.

Madonna makes a poor lifestyle choice in "Into The Groove"
Madonna makes a poor lifestyle choice in "Into The Groove"

Madonna’s feature debut is the ace feminist caper flick “Desperately Seeking Susan”, for which she also contributed the perfect pop of “Into The Groove”. The video of this solely consists of footage from the film, but cleverly edited to thematically match the lyrics.

There’s also “Vogue”, which was on the “Dick Tracy” soundtrack but didn’t actually feature in the film. The music video only vaguely alludes to 1930s style. Nonetheless, it’s one of her strongest, most evocative songs and is great to dance to.

Madonna gives Madonna the bash in "Die Another Day"
Madonna gives Madonna the bash in "Die Another Day"

What, you think achievement hound Madonna would pass up the opportunity to sing the theme tune for a James Bond film? With the legendary John Barry long retired from Bond composing duties, Madonna teamed up with a French progressive-electronica producer and made something that sounds like a battle between a robot and ’80s Madonna. The video is bombastic, with Good Madonna battling Evil Madonna. “Sigmund Freud,” she murmurs, “analyse this.” Better than the actual Bond film? Take that, Lee Tamahori.

And you know what else has to be mentioned? Evita. The only original music video is for “You Must Love Me”, probably because the film performance was sung live with Eva on her deathbed. That video features Madonna singing the song behind a grand piano, trying to not look heavy with child. The other two videos – “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” and “Another Suitcase in Another Hall” were montages from the film, most likely due to Madonna having just given birth to babby Lourdes.

Well ahead of the furry trend in "Like a Virgin"
Well ahead of the furry trend in "Like a Virgin"

Rewatching all the old Madonna videos reminded me of the period when Madonna was controversial. Moral groups and the Vatican seemed to perpetually condemn her for all the sensual writhing she did in videos, and the power combo of religious icons with lady bits. Not the mention the alarming “Like a Virgin” video, in which Madonna is far ahead of the curve with furry love.

I was at exactly the right (wrong) age when parents were concerned that Madonna smoking in “Desperately Seeking Susan” (and indeed the “Into the Groove” video) would influence young girls. But it didn’t make me want to smoke. It made me want to live in a grungy Manhattan loft with a boyfriend who looked like Aidan Quinn. Neither of these futures happened.

I was surprised to discover the very clear distinction made between Madonna and the characters she plays in the videos. In “Material Girl”, the Marilyn Monroe-esque Madonna is set up as a character played by the down-to-earth Actor Madonna. In “Like a Prayer”, the video ends with the cast taking a bow as the curtain falls on their dramatic performance. Yeah, that time when Madonna kissed the black Jesus? That was just a character she was playing.

If you were to plot the moral tone of Madonna’s videos on a graph, it would look like a sine wave, a gentle flow between moral and immoral and back again.

Madonna is also ahead of the loldogs trend in "Human Nature"
Madonna is also ahead of the loldogs trend in "Human Nature"

This is how to seems to work – Madonna pushes the envelope as far as she can go, but as soon as things start to get too outrageous, she’ll bring out something sweet and lovely. When I say outrageous, it’s not just stuff like the Vatican condemning a particular song, but when album sales suffer from songs being a bit too pervy.

So you’ve got the race-and-religion shocker of “Like a Prayer” and the in-your-faceness of “Express Yourself” followed by the sweet, mermaidy “Cherish” and the maternal “Dear Jessie”. And the sexual fantasies of “Justify My Love” and whips-n-chains seriousness of “Erotica” are followed by the repentant “Bad Girl” (“I’m not happy when I act this way”). But pervy Madonna keeps surfacing. Even the real-life phase of being a nice English mum was soon enough followed by 51-year-old divorced Madonna grinding up against Jesus, her hot 23-year-old model boyfriend in the “Celebration” video, and look – Madonna’s doing some freaky yoga moves in the “Sorry” vid. You can’t keep the old girl down.

Madonna still has it in "Sorry"
Madonna still has it in "Sorry"

My top 10 fave Madonna videos

  • Burning Up (1983) – Crazy postmodern imagery and Madonna’s clearly in charge.
  • Material Girl (1985) – The boytoy look takes a break for Hollywood glam and, why, hello Mr Carradine.
  • Papa Don’t Preach (1986) – The first 16 seconds are perfect, the rest is a swell melodrama.
  • Express Yourself (1989) – Inspired by the groundbreaking “Metropolis”, directed by David Fincher, it’s a stylish masterwork.
  • Justify My Love (1990) – Madonna at her perviest, but keeping it cool by bursting out with laughter at the nutsness of it all.
  • Deeper and Deeper (1992) – A bangin’ house track given an arty video with Madonna playing a rather young woman with a thing for older men.
  • Rain (1993) – Directed by Mark Romanek and starring Marc Newson’s Lockheed Lounge chair, every frame is beautiful.
  • Don’t Tell Me (2000) – Cowgirl Madonna kicks up her heels with some cowboys, subverting the cheapie greenscreen video.
  • Hung Up (2005) – Madonna dances, the kids on the street dance, then she goes to a club and shows the DDR game how to dance.
  • 4 Minutes (2008) – Giant black screen terrorises Madge and Mr JT!