Maybe it was the pressure of reality TV pop, which plastinated the process of hitmaking and made it part of the show, but there’s a deliberate self-awareness creeping into pop around this point: a cluster of hit songs about stardom, the biz, the radio, or just the song itself. The best of these was the nastiest – Rachel Stevens’ No. 2 hit “Some Girls”, in the charts a month before “These Words”, about a wannabe coerced into trading sex for hits that never come.

“These Words” is its flipside, as wholesome as “Some Girls” is sordid, a song in which Natasha Bedingfield tries to write the song she’s writing, is sure she can’t, and then finds – golly gosh! – that by speaking from the heart she has written it. It’s cutely done, tied up in a bow like a story with a moral – Bedingfield’s songwriting experience to this point was writing for Christian pop musicals – and is 100% committed to its idea, performed with brisk conviction. If you’ve bought into the rest of it, the calm-after-the-storm humility of the ending – “I love you, is that OK?” – is probably very sweet.

As the cynical tone of that paragraph indicates, I haven’t quite bought into it. Natasha Bedingfield has written a meta-pop single which borrows across genres and makes inspo-speak soar in ways that melt my hardened heart… but it’s not this one. It’s the much better “Unwritten”, whose mix of “Thank U”-era Alanis, sunshine pop and a final-third tilt into gospel gels where “These Words” is clumsy and self-conscious.

But then the self-consciousness is the point. “These Words” is in the tradition – an undeniably successful tradition – of Elton John’s “Your Song” and Adrian Gurvitz’ “Classic”, and a host of romantic poetry before that. Songs which are about juxtaposing the artificial, frail act of composition and the deeper, more profound feelings or states of being the composition strives to capture. As in “These Words” the division is often between the fancy and the straightforward – the dead poets and drum machines versus a simple declaration of love. And of course, the song must contain both, embedding that simplicity as the payload of artifice, embracing and rejecting its own cleverness.

The technique invites smugness and demands a lot from its singer, who has to be able to sell sincerity while impressing you with artifice. Decades of talent-show contestants stumbling through “Your Song” has taught us all how difficult that is, despite how easy Elton made it seem. Natasha Bedingfield is still finding her voice – her throaty register here reminds me of Nelly Furtado, whose “I’m Like A Bird” is a cousin of “These Words” in how it builds to launch a front-loaded chorus. But she’s not quite a skilled enough performer to land some of the ambitious lyrics she’s set herself – the mispronounced “hyperbole” only the most glaring sign of that – or a soulful enough one to make her “I love you”s feel like the liberation the song needs.

As I say a lot on Popular, and about much worse songs than “These Words”, it’s a lot better for a pop song to be ambitious than to be dull. 2004 has been full of songs that try and do interesting things and don’t quite work, but that’s a lot better than the grey functionality of the Cowell school. Natasha Bedingfield’s song comes from an honest place, a genuine frustration and fear that a mechanised industry won’t let her write something true. And there’s a lot to like in “These Words” – the way she shouts and soars over the clunking, ersatz-rap beat, and her general enthusiasm, which comes close to blasting the song past my cynicism. Close, but not enough: I’m still left feeling “These Words” collapses under the weight of its own ideas. If I was less jaded – but then again, no.

Score: 5

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