Nikki Webster’s entire career brazenly ripped off Britney Spears and nobody ever noticed

Nikki Webster returned to the forefront of the Australian public’s consciousness last week, courtesy of an inspired appearance on Sunrise atop the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The chorus of ‘Strawberry Kisses’, it turns out, still knocks.

The rediscovery of this fact prompted me (along, I can only assume, with thousands of other Australians) to re-acquaint myself with the career of Australia’s most notable post-Minogue child star. Webster’s videography, it turns out, is highly cohesive: her clips are packed with tightly-choreographed dance routines, garishly-coloured latex and bell bottom trousers. Upon review, though, these traits appear to have been shamelessly lifted again and again from the output of another iconic child star turned pop star: Britney Spears. This ongoing, blatant artistic repurposing needs to be acknowledged, so here we are.

‘Strawberry Kisses’

In 2001, Britney Spears released her second album Oops!…I Did It Again, preceded by a single of the same name. She danced in space, unwittingly flirted with an astronaut and wore a skintight red catsuit.

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In 2002, Nikki Webster did basically the same thing, translated for a Cheez TV viewership. In ‘Strawberry Kisses’ Webster wears a hot pink latex set on board a CGI dream of a space station. She has a space-based love interest of her own, too — though rather than being gifted whatever it was that the old lady dropped into the ocean in the end, Nikki receives a copy of her own CD single from her miniature beau. Adorable.

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‘Something More Beautiful’

For the lead single from her second album Bliss, Webster returned to the ‘Oops!’ clip for inspiration, basically taking the premise underwater. (Perhaps it’s the same ocean into which the old lady dropped Britney’s ‘Oops!’ gift? Meta, Webster.) She demonstrates her keen eye for detail in recreating a specific shot from ‘Oops!’: white outfit, midriff exposed, aerial angle, armography.

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’24/7 (Crazy ‘bout Your Smile)’

A teenaged girl cradles her head in her left hand and gazes pensively into the middle distance of a classroom. A large school bell rings. Dancing ensues. Am I referring to ‘…Baby One More Time’, or ’24/7 (Crazy ‘bout Your Smile)’? Yes, both — because they are pretty much EXACTLY THE SAME.

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When Nikki released ’24/7’ in 2002, the supply of original, locally-produced music video treatments was clearly running dry. As a result, Webster was forced again to default to a Spears-esque narrative — this time appropriating two Britney videos in a single clip.

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’24/7’ relies most heavily on elements previously used in‘…Baby One More Time’. There are sweatpants galore, loose-fitting school ties and synchronised dance routines in the school grounds. The only thing separating Webster from a copyright infringement lawsuit in these scenes is the square metre of white Lowes fabric that covers her stomach. (Spears famously suggested re-working the traditional school uniform to expose her naval in the ‘…Baby’ clip.)

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The climactic scene for ’24/7’ takes place in a high school hall. Here Webster once again provides a meta commentary on practices of cultural recycling by wearing the red latex catsuit Britney had previously donned in ‘Oops!’, ironically modified with a midriff cut-out and a collar. Seriously.

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‘Devilicious’

By 2005 Webster had tired of pop stardom, and retreated from the public eye. She returned in 2009, though, with a revamped image and a Zoo cover to boot. Predictably, to declare her sexual awakening Nikki took inspiration from Spears’ own era of erotic discovery — specifically the video for 2001’s ‘I’m A Slave 4 U’.

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‘Slave’ takes place in a sweaty, vaguely dystopian-looking bunker. ‘Devilicious’ looks like it was filmed in Sydney’s Carriageworks, but the vibe is pretty similar. In both clips there’s a lot of writhing and synchronised heavy breathing. People are very sweaty and limbs are akimbo.

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During her first stint in pop Webster had never adapted Spears’ Lolita-esque positioning (probably for the best, given her age at the time). This made her transition to bisexual sex fiend in ‘Devilicious’ (“all the boys wanna kiss me/and the girls can’t resist me”) fairly jarring, and the single had limited success.

Enough time has since passed, though, for Webster to gain perspective on her career. In 2015 she revealed that she had felt pressured to follow in Britney’s footsteps (no shit, Nikki). Her recent return to prominence could now spell the beginning of a new, original chapter; let’s just hope her new Creative Director has a diversity of references on hand when it comes to filming the ‘Strawberry Kisses (2017 Trop-House Remix)’ video.

Overly Familia?

I do not, I am vaguely embarrassed to admit, own a copy of Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s most recent album. Nor do I own the one that preceded it. The last time I purchased an Ellis-Bextor LP was in 2011 or 2012, and I have never seen her play live.

It would be inaccurate, then, for me to claim to be a very dedicated fan. Even so, I have been fond of Sophie since ‘Murder On The Dancefloor’ launched her onto the Video Hits playlist in 2002, a vision in green eyeshadow and red lipstick.

As Sophie’s career entered its troubled second act, characterised by middlingly-received Eurodance features and increasingly cringeworthy endorsements, I willed her back to success from afar. Eventually her career renaissance became a reality, courtesy of a stint on Strictly Come Dancing and a transition to folk music.

I enjoy Ellis-Bextor’s new, comparatively stripped-back style, but have not felt compelled to invest in it beyond a couple of singles. Still, I like to keep track of her goings-on. So, hour and location aside, it is not odd that I find myself browsing a pop music forum’s Sophie-specific thread at two o’clock in the morning in a Berlin airport terminal, killing time before an early flight to London. There’s a link in the thread to a Q&A event occurring later that same day, not far from my Camden hostel. The company hosting the event is calling for audience members and I have no firm plans, so I send off an application form.

Twelve hours later I am standing on a sidewalk in a short line of people. We are waiting to enter an office building where Sophie will soon answer some questions and pose for some pictures. People who work in the building hurry in and out, some of them casting glances of pity and distaste at us as they stride towards the nearest Pret A Manger.

A man with a lanyard and a clipboard makes his way down the queue, checking each person’s name against his list of registered audience members. This task does not take long, and when he’s finished he strikes up conversation with those in the line he already knows — serial seat-fillers. They drop names, trade anecdotes about past tapings and complain about poorly-heated studio sets. These people are not here because they want to hear Sophie speak, particularly. They’re here because they have nothing else to do.

A lanyard-wearing woman emerges from the building and asks whether any of us would be willing to ask Sophie a pre-written question. I volunteer. My question, written in texta on a scrap of paper, is passed to me as we’re led inside the building and into a room on the ground floor. I read the question, cringe and take my appointed seat in the second row.

Most of the seats are filled by people who work in the building. They tap out emails and chat with one another, ignoring our arrival while songs from Familia, Sophie’s most recent album, play over a stereo system. We, the externals, are conspicuous for our coats, which are shoved under and thrown over the backs of chairs.

The music is paused briefly to allow an American MC to introduce himself. He takes to the stage (a raised platform flanked by large cameras) and explains how the interview will work. It’s being streamed live on a Facebook page, and will, he claims, be watched by millions from around the world. The MC uses phrases like “lots of energy!” and “let’s get excited, everyone!”, and repeatedly pronounces ‘Bextor’ as ‘Baxtor’.

A few minutes later ‘Murder On The Dancefloor’ is playing and people are gathering at the doorway. The song fades out and the MC returns. There’s a countdown, the MC whips up some applause and cheering from the crowd and the stream goes live. Sophie and her interviewer (a London fitness blogger and would-be media personality) totter onto the stage and greet the audience, hoisting themselves onto high director’s chairs.

Sophie sits poised with her (very long, black stockinged) legs crossed, and is silent while the interviewer rattles off an introductory spiel that sounds like a barely-modified press release for Familia. Then the questions begin. They’re lines of enquiry that Sophie has surely been led down dozens of times, covering parenthood, social media, reality TV, her locally-famous mother and the duration of her career. There’s some brief discussion of Sophie’s music, but a transcript of the interview would fit best in the Lifestyle section of a Sunday paper’s glossy liftout.

Sophie is serene and collected — a good sport. She answers the questions with ease, charm and good humour, and the crowd laughs dutifully at her jokes. The interviewer blasts through her list of questions within 15 minutes before throwing to the crowd. There are four pre-written questions still to be asked. We cover cooking (Sophie enjoys preparing fish dishes) and alter egos (Sophie does not have a Sasha Fierce equivalent) before my turn comes up. I embellish my question slightly in the hope that it might seem less forced, and just about manage to get the words out without flubbing them, but the query written on that scrap of paper remains unavoidably dull:

“I know you have four sons, what’s it like living in such a male-heavy household?”

Sophie has probably performed her answer to this question more times than she’s sung some of the songs from Familia. Even so she manages to eke out an interesting response, speaking about how she avoids imposing gender on her sons.

Then the interview moves on. There’s one more question from the audience; this one’s about Sophie’s music taste. Someone near the back of the room snorts in apparent disbelief when Sophie says she likes Tame Impala, and not long afterwards the interview is wrapped up with another round of applause. We’re kept in our seats while Sophie and her interviewer pose for a waiting photographer, and then the American MC issues instructions for the non-employees to be escorted from the building. We’re led back past reception and through the front door.

Standing on the sidewalk, coat zipped up, I’m bewildered at how quickly the whole thing has finished. The other audience members disperse; some of them double back to join a newly-formed queue for the next celebrity interview. Sophie, I assume, will soon slide into a car with tinted windows to be driven through an underground carpark and back home, where she will bake some salmon fillets and supervise an hour of gender-neutral, pre-dinner playtime.

I cross the road and stop on the corner, unsure of where to go from here. The building’s WiFi network extends to where I’m standing, so I post a picture of Sophie to Instagram (since deleted) with a vaguely sour, regrettable caption alluding in part to the jarring speed with which we were escorted from the premises.

Five or 10 minutes pass. I’m about to skulk away when Sophie’s interviewer emerges onto the sidewalk from the building’s main door, escorted by the American MC. Sophie follows them soon after, now wrapped up in a quilted coat and with a woman I assume is her assistant in tow. As Sophie heads down the street, catching the attention of the next batch of seat-fillers, I dodge around a stationary delivery van and reach her side.

I say hello and immediately launch into a mumbled apology for my banal question, explaining that it was given to me by the segment’s producer. She shrugs this off, then waits politely while I struggle to articulate my affection for a nine-year-old album track and compliment Sophie on her most recent single. She thanks me for my support, and then her companion offers to take a picture of us. After this I say goodbye and we part ways; I walk up the street as Sophie enters the back seat of a waiting car (the windows are indeed tinted).

At the end of the road I turn right onto the high street, and so does Sophie’s car. This being London, the traffic is heavy; my walking easily keeps pace with the vehicle, and then surpasses it. As I pull ahead I fish my earphones out of my jacket pocket, plug them into my iPod and give ‘Murder On The Dancefloor’ a spin.

November 8, November 9

On my last night in Berlin I drink a half-litre of beer and do my best to finish a pork knuckle that is larger than my two fists with their knuckles interlocked. The pork knuckle sits on a bed of sauerkraut, guarded by a moat of gravy and two large potato dumplings. The date is November 8.

Half-drunk, I listen to This American Life on the way back to my hostel. Ira Glass, the podcast’s host, is clearly very concerned about the election. I’m not worried — common sense, I’m sure, will prevail, and there’s no way the pundits in the US will be as inaccurate in their predictions as their UK counterparts were in the run-up to the Brexit vote.

A scroll through my social feeds relaxes me further. Instagram is full of declarations of solidarity with Hillary, many of which are posted by highly-influential female artists: Madonna, Katy Perry, Beyonce, J. Lo, Lady Gaga, Rihanna. Although I’m aware that most of these women appeal chiefly to liberal-minded audiences, I’m confident that a star responsible for hits as blandly palatable as ‘Roar’ and ‘Firework’ will sway any undecided voters from Middle America on election day. (Love you still, KP!)

Taylor Swift, I notice, is one of the only American pop stars I follow who does not claim overt support for Clinton. (Britney Spears doesn’t mention politics at all on election day, but does post a stock photo of strawberry ice cream and a video of her son’s interception during a recent soccer match.) Swift’s post features an American flag emoji, but no indication of a political leaning.

This reminds me of Glastonbury. In the wake of the Brexit verdict, announced during the festival, many vocalists alluded to (“a lot of us are concerned about the events of the last couple of days…”) or directly addressed (“Brexit is fucked”) UK voters’ choice to leave the EU. These mini-speeches were met with cheers by Guardian-buying crowds up to their shins in mud— myself included.

Some artists, though, failed to mention or only skirted around the topic. Among them was Adele. My memories of her set are entirely absent of Brexit commentary, though a Google search now indicates that she did refer to the vote vaguely, saying “it’s a bit weird, the stuff that’s going on at the moment.”

My theory here is that both Adele and Swifty — artists whose careers are built in the middle of the road, on the support of the general public — are shrewd in their political silence. I can only assume that Adele’s audience skews older than that of Rihanna’s, and is thus more conservative. A significant portion of Swift’s success, rooted in her early country sound, is attributable to listeners whose parents are likely, I’d think, to vote Republican; listeners whose parents may have supported the burning of the Dixie Chicks in effigy after that band’s lead singer criticised George W. Bush in 2003. So it makes sense for both women to be noncomittal, for fear of pissing anyone off — even if it’s not a moral position I’d advocate.

Pop conspiracies forgotten and election hopes confirmed, I watch an episode of Brideshead Revisited and go to bed. Tomorrow, I am sure, will be a good day.

***

I am the only person staying in an eight bed dorm, so when I wake on the morning of November 9 it’s just me, my laptop and seven empty bed frames. The red strip at the right hand side of The Guardian’s live infographic of electoral votes reaches further and further left, towards the 270 cutoff point. I skip breakfast and spend the morning on my laptop. CNN calls it.

I pack my things distractedly, soundtracked by Trump’s flaccid acceptance speech. My absentmindedness becomes obvious once I check out of the hostel: I’ve left my padlock somewhere on the dorm’s floor, I’ve forgotten to fill up my water bottle, and I fail to board the first S-Bahn train that arrives in front of me at Görlitzer Bahnhof, passing five minutes in the bracing cold until the next one arrives.

Waiting for my connecting train to Dresden, I hear what I think are American accents. A youngish couple near me are discussing what to eat; they eventually settle on chicken nuggets and coffee from McDonalds. Despite my best efforts at eavesdropping, I hear no mention of the election. The couple are instead preoccupied by a 15-minute delay to our train’s arrival.

It’s only when the train is about to pull in that I hear them reference Trump’s win, as footage of his speech plays on a large screen opposite the platform. “Just goes to show how much people dislike her,” the man says.

“She’s a liar,” his wife replies.

“He’s a nightmare.”

***

A few hours later I sit in a cafe in Dresden, spooning the froth from my cappuccino. I read a long think-piece about the media’s failure to take Trump seriously and struggle to digest voting statistics as they continue to roll in.

That evening I watch Clinton’s concession speech (are we calling it that?) at a wooden table in my new hostel’s dormitory. Three two-litre bottles of Pepsi sit on the table behind my laptop. A little later, midway through Obama’s address, three men enter the dorm. None of them pause to watch or comment on the President’s words. They grab the Pepsi bottles and a box of wine, and return from whence they came.

Djemaa el Fna

“Mon ami! Eh, monsieur! Where are you from, my friend?”

Friendships are forged quickly in the Djemaa el Fna, Marrakech’s main square. The proffering of a laminated A4 menu — whether freshly coated in plastic, or crinkled and floppy through repeated handling — is one symbol of amicable intentions. An invitation into a food stall (perhaps with free bread and mint tea) is another.

On my first night in Marrakech I make many friends. Every few metres I’m engaged in conversation by a young man seeking my patronage at his family’s food stall. My Australianness is always met with the same response: gday, mate! Kangaroos! Hamish and Andy! Lookamoi, lookamoi.

The friends whose establishments I choose not to dine in are, for the most part, stoic. They wave me on, instructing me to remember their stall’s number for the following night. There are rows and rows of near-identical stalls, all covered with tarpaulins and packed with wooden benches. Helpfully, some of my friends give me business cards to jog my memory.

It’s a boring choice, but I eventually settle on the stall numbered 1. It’s one of the busiest outfits in the square, and its chief salesperson is a woman. Wearing a leopard-printed garment that I can only describe as the intersection of a dress, a onesie and a dressing gown, she stands with her hands on her hips in front of the stall. Her selling voice carries. She seeks testimonials from current diners, and greets returning patrons with hugs and kisses.

I order a tagine with almonds and prunes, and a vegetable couscous. The square is filled with noise: conversation, salespersons’ showmanship, the sizzling of meat and vegetables, distant music. Still, the leopard print woman’s voice stands out. She brings in diners with ease and charm, and the stall’s other salespeople (as well as a few patrons) applaud each time she does so.

The meal is, of course, delicious. It is also very large, and my shovelling is punctuated by conversation with a Swiss woman seated next to me. We finish eating around the same time and the leopard print woman adds up our respective bills, scribbling on the paper tablecloth (slightly dirtied on my end) that we have shared.

Ever the salesperson, she informs my dining companion that her sister does beautiful henna for great prices. The Swiss woman declines the offer of some discounted work, citing her regrettable allergy to henna.

Leopard print woman is persistent and polite, even at a dead end. “Maybe next time,” she says.

Conscious of the improbability of her allergy fading, the Swiss woman bats back: “maybe next life!”

“Inshallah!” shouts leopard print woman, her face spreading into a large grin. We all laugh.

***

Djemaa el Fna is covered with a layer of smoke. It hangs over the square’s large block of food stalls, a by-product of the grills that cook, burn and char for six hours every night.

Keen to preface tonight’s dinner with a show, I bypass the rows of eateries, dodging would-be friends and the menus they thrust towards me. I emerge into relatively open space and relatively smoke-free air. In front of me, set against the illuminated tower of the Koutoubia mosque, are circles of people.

The largest, densest circles are centred around Halaiqis — Moroccan storytellers relaying traditional tales and legends. The Halaiqis speak only in Arabic, and their largely-male audiences pay close attention, arms folded and brows furrowed.

Other groups are much smaller. Audiences wander between displays of drumming and dancing, and women in twos and threes sit on low plastic stools around the edges of the Djemma el Fna. Some of these women talk amongst themselves, but others are curved over, carefully applying henna to tourists’ hands.

I wander from one group to the next, but actively avoid the men carrying vest-wearing monkeys on their shoulders. The animals are all leashed and some of them are fitted with nappies. (By this hour the snakes and their charmers have disappeared — I guess they’re too difficult to observe in near-darkness.)

Amidst the sound and movement, my eye is caught by a comparatively static display. Two-litre bottles of Fanta, Coke and Sprite are arranged in rows that converge at a kerosene lamp. People standing just beyond the outer rim of soft drink bottles hold long red rods fitted with strings and hooks. They dangle the rods with concentration, fishing for a sugary catch.

The scene is oddly picturesque — the kerosene lamp casts a dull yellow glow that bounces off the plastic bottles and illuminates the faces of their would-be retrievers. I pick my camera from out my bag and take a couple of photos. Seconds later, a young man arrives at my side and demands money in return for a retrospective photographer’s permit. The price he sets is 200 dirham — the equivalent of about $30. I scoff. He halves his asking price and I scoff again. I explain my ignorance of any photographer’s fee, turn my heels and start walking back towards the food stalls. He follows alongside me.

The man’s asking price drops and his insistence rises, but I don’t acquiesce. As I near the food stalls, smoke looming overhead once more, the man makes a last-ditch attempt, shouting that I must pay for the photos I took. I tell him I won’t.

“Juif,” he spits. “Fuck you.”

***

Marrakech is quiet. Salesmen are at various stages of opening their shops for the day, hoisting up roller blinds and shifting over-sized ceramics to the sidewalk. Those few men whose shops are already open for business sit outside, smoking idly.

The luggage I wheel towards the Djemaa el Fna signifies me as a lost cause to the traders. Now, rather than trying to coax me into their stalls as they have done so persistently over the last few days, they wish me “bon voyage”. I smile, thank them and wheel away.

When I reach the Djemma el Fna it’s as close to deserted as I’ve seen it. The food stalls are empty and partially dismantled. Men and women dressed in fluorescent yellow and blue vests sweep up the dust that blows endlessly into the square, their mouths and noses covered by strips of cloth.

Peace in the square is broken by a taxi driver who skims alongside me. He extends his neck and shouts through his window: am I going to the airport? He offers me a ride for what he promises is a very cheap price — 70 dirhams. I’m en route to a bus that’ll take me to the terminal for far less, so I decline his offer. His vehicle continues to crawls alongside me and he tries again, reducing his asking price from 70 dirhams to 40.

I politely refuse and he swerves away from me, circling back around a row of stands that sell orange and pomegranate juice. I keep walking and wheeling towards the bus stop. In the distance, a snake charmer begins his first trills of the day.

Haircut in Lisbon

I’ve had two haircuts in the last four months. The first, on a sweaty afternoon in Padova, was briefed in through a muddle of would-be sign language and pictorial references in lieu of a common language. The second was easier to transact — a receptionist skilled in English acted as an interpreter between myself and the hairdresser in a central Budapest salon.

My third haircut takes place on my final day in Lisbon. It’s raining and I’ve sight-seen to my heart’s content, so I ask the hostel receptionist to direct me to a barber and set off, tracing her map scribbles as best I can.

Lisbon is slippery when wet. The city’s centuries-old cobblestones, laid in black and white waves, have been smoothed by foot traffic, and rainfall drives elderly people to any and all available railings. I move gingerly until I reach my destination, signalled by an overhanging sign emblazoned with a moustache.

At the entrance to the shop I’m met by a man smoking. We exchange greetings. He grinds out his cigarette and directs me to one of four or five chairs in the barbershop, throwing a grey covering cloth over my body. When he asks me for guidance on how to cut my hair I’m absentminded and non-specific, but we settle on a short back and sides arrangement that I’m sure will do.

Sitting in front of a full-length mirror, I’m able to take in my surrounds. The usual barbershop clutter is scattered around the room: bottles and tubes of product, magazines unevenly fanned across a table, razors and scissors collected on a stand. Far more eyecatching is a triple-lifesize portrait of Jesus hanging directly behind me. Below this is a bombastic shrine to Christ and the Virgin, with a dozen or more wooden and stone statuettes of various sizes clustered around a single glowing red candle.

Complementing the shrine, a sequence of old-time, African American gospel songs are piped through the room from my left. (It’s the sort of music I imagine emanating from a record player but I’m unable, mid-cut, to turn my head and check for the medium of the message.) The only song I recognise is ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’, but every other number features regular appeals to Jesus and The Big Man and lots of call and response.

The barber and I are alone in the shop, so I make some effort at conversation (though the gospel vocals fill what might otherwise be an awkward silence). He tells me he’s owned the barbershop for a year, and before that worked in just about every other outfit in Lisbon.

Aged in his 30s, the barber is dressed to the nines, with his baby pink laces matched to his baby pink socks. His shirtsleeves are rolled up past his elbows, and there’s a geisha tattoo on one of his arms. He wears suede shoes and pressed trousers, a vest and a patterned purple cravat. Like any other barber he squints and crouches as he trims. I’m only vaguely aware of tufts of thin hair falling from my head, concentrating instead on his choices in wardrobe and interior design.

Midway through my haircut a group of tourists stop and peer into the shop’s front window. I stare into the mirror and avoid their eye contact while the barber keeps up his work. His shop is on a street that runs parallel to one of Lisbon’s most-photographed tram inclines, and before long the tourists continue on their way. The barber dusts the back of my neck with baby powder.

There’s a lot of razor-switching going on, and the end result is a fade slightly more dramatic than what I’m used to. The barber finishes the job by using his index fingers to check the evenness of my sideburns, shortening the right slightly so it matches the left.

While gospel continues to sound from my left, I pay the barber and take my leave. The rain has stopped so I’m able to move with less caution, half-strutting to an hours-long disco mix on my iPod. My hair’s whipability is temporarily curtailed — it no longer bobs as I bop — but the short back and sides should see me through to December.

Flamenco x 2

Saturday night: even with my maps app open, our route to the flamenco bar is confused. We cross the Guadalquivir river, moving away from the Alcazar and the souvenir shops, down a boulevard lined with bars and then left, taking a dusty side street in near-darkness.

When we arrive it’s a quarter to midnight and the nondescript bar is less than half full. A middle-aged woman with dangling earrings, perfectly coiffured blonde hair, and a sleeveless black and white dress hemmed just below the knee escorts us to our table.

Wooden furniture is clustered around a small empty space in the bar’s centre. As midnight approaches and our drinks arrive, the bar fills up. Ours is the only English I hear spoken. There’s one long table of 15 or 20 people, but everyone else is in small groups.

The hum of conversation dissipates quickly when the woman who greeted us sits at a bench on the edge of the empty space and starts a chorus of “sssssss” through her teeth, signalling a need for silence. To her left are two other women and a man with a guitar.

Silence established, the first song begins. There’s no dancing — just the guitarist, the singer next to him, her clapping hands, and a sporadic shout of “ole!” from an admiring audience member or fellow performer.

After a few songs, choreography is introduced. Each woman moves differently as she sings: one has a fluid, twisting style, while another takes smaller steps back and forth across the space. The lyrics they sing are, to me, indecipherable, but body language gives clues as to the songs’ content: heartbreak, wrongdoing, revenge imagined. At particularly dramatic moments words are half-shouted, half-sung. (Without fail, these climaxes elicit “ole!” from multiple corners of the room.)

Next to our table are two couples. The men wear lots of hair product and suits without ties. The women are also dressed up: one wears a halterneck LBD, the other trousers and a large yellow shawl, her hair pulled into a high ponytail. The women’s black stilettos are impossibly high — a wardrobe choice that becomes all the more impressive when they take on dancing duties for one song. They circle around one another, rotating their wrists and curving their arms. Despite the presumably morose subject matter of the song, they flash grins at one another throughout.

Later in the set, the oldest of the three singers greets another regular with a kiss on each cheek and an invitation to dance. As the next song starts said regular arches his back, raising his arms as the singer does the same. His un-tailored suit jacket hangs off his slight frame, but he moves with an ease and grace that bely his apparent age.

Between songs the audience breaks into conversation, with greeting kisses exchanged between friends at different tables. A “sssssss” is employed to re-establish silence before the music resumes, but the convivial atmosphere remains. During one refrain the audience bursts into collective song. We seem to be the only patrons who don’t know the words or melody, but we clap along.

***

Monday night: three or four beers in, we make our way to a bar near the hostel. We take up residence at a long wooden table, and order the first of several jugs of sangria.

A station at the far end of the room sells hot dogs and plates of cheese and cured meat. The flamenco dancer at this bar is backlit by the food preparation area; customers dart across the floor to fetch their food between songs.

The dancer wears a chemise the colour of an Aperol spritz, and a purple skirt. She stamps loudly as she moves. Her hair, adorned with flowers, is subdivided into segments that form a tight ponytail.

Vocal duties are assumed by a man who occasionally stands as he sings, revealing a bald spot when he turns in a circle. The guitarist remains seated. Costume changes are dotted throughout the set; the swathes of fabric that form billowing shirtsleeves, floral cuffs and ankle-length skirts are sent into motion when the dancer swivels.

An artist at the edge of the room paints flamenco scenes in the same vivid colours as the dancer’s costumes, selling them to patrons. There’s no “sssssss”-ing here, but we do muster the occasional “ole!”.

The music is soothing

It starts with a sniffle. By the time I arrive in Valencia my cold has well and truly set in, despite the 30°C heat. I rifle through my bag, searching for packets of tissues consigned to a forgotten pocket months ago.

On Sunday in Valencia the neon crosses that usually glow green on every street corner are switched off. I ration my way through half a card of orange Strepsils, and plan to visit a pharmacy and replenish my paracetamol supplies first thing on Monday.

Instead of ordering beer and wine to accompany menus del dia and tapas over the coming days I opt for soft drink. My consumption of Coke reaches heights reminiscent of my early teens, when it was my social lubricant of choice (post-cordial, pre-cider). Its effectiveness in this regard, I soon learn, is now much diminished, but its healing powers outstrip that of booze.

I become lazy in Cordoba. This isn’t really in my nature; having down time requires an ironic, concerted mental effort and constant self-reassurance that it’s ok to rest. But still, I pull it off: I doze in the early afternoon, get a massage, write a letter on my hostel’s terrace while the sun warms the back of my neck. One night after an early dinner I lie in bed and watch Absolutely Fabulous on my laptop, slurping black tea from a soup bowl.

I begin to feel better after four or five days, but retain the same relaxed pace. I linger in cafes and skip cathedrals in two non-consecutive towns. I listen to ‘Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love)’ a dozen times, if not two dozen, as I recover: at the beach in Valencia, in the shower, meandering around Granada’s cobbled streets in my ugly grey thongs. Despite the song’s ever-riding hi-hat, it provides a laid-back soundtrack to my recovery. Wistful but disinterested, Sophie Ellis Bextor’s vocal beckons me back to full health in my own time. While I am moving the music is soothing. Sophie tells me everything’s going to be fine, and so it comes to pass.