I have no particular love for, or hatred of, Marina and the Diamonds. I liked a few of the songs on her debut The Family Jewels which, while not particularly original, felt self-aware and accomplished. However her second album Electra Heart was released this week and I’ve been interested in many of the responses to it.
In her ‘early’ (we’re only talking about two years ago) interviews Marina ‘admits’ to having attempted the ‘manufactured popstar’ route to fame. In at least a couple, she expresses happiness that X Factor didn’t exist when she began as she fears she would have been ensnared in it. She’s very adamant that she is in control of her career. To quote her directly:
I wanted to get the message out there that I’m not a manufactured girl popstar and I’m going to do my own thing. I knew (the single) wasn’t going to be really successful but that wasn’t the point….
…I’m a leftfield artist but I want to be really successful. You know, I think celebrity culture and sexuality in pop music is really important, but I want there to be an alternative for people.
She’s attempting what is now a pretty standard trope for new popstars, that of ‘I’m not your usual popstar, I’m creative and in control and write my own material’. It’s a balancing act between that and not seeming to have contempt for pop music – something that I’m not entirely sure she pulls off. Nevertheless, it’s nothing particularly unusual.
It got interesting with the relative failure of the album. Around the time of the final single from it (which missed the top 100 completely) she first began talking about the character of ‘Electra Heart’, a concept which she said “epitomises and embodies the lies, illusions and death of American ideologies involved in the corruption of self” and was the “antithesis of everything that I stand for”. Funnily enough, this concept coincided with a move towards a pop sound more reminiscent of the current charts. She said:
The whole idea, the whole notion of pop culture and especially pop music is ALL based on illusion. And portraying yourself as something more exciting than you are. And my heart is always against that. So that’s why I’m doing it. I’m SO against it that I almost have to play the part. Does that make sense to you?
She was ‘deconstructing’ the ‘illusion’. References to David Lynch and Bowie were dropped. The debut single, ‘Radioactive’, was again ‘the antithesis of everything I’ve done so far’ but she ‘really like(d) the song now’ and had ‘grown into it’.
It’s torturous stuff – it hardly suggests someone comfortable with what they’re doing. The interviews since have been no better. Her earlier assertions about not being manufactured were, she now claims, because she felt boxed in as ‘alternative’ and ‘unable’ to do pop:
I think with this one I just want to challenge my own point of view and just be more honest that I do want to be a pop artist,” she says emphatically, explaining that she has always been something more than a singer-songwriter. “I’m not like some, y’know, indie artist who has come from like the backwards of nowhere, musing on her guitar; it’s like that’s not me. I was auditioning for girl bands when I was 19, and the fact is that I’ve become a DIY artist and come up that way is because no one would work with me.
There’s quite a contrast between this and the earlier stance – here she was forced to do her own thing out of circumstance, it’s not expressed as a lucky escape. Yet it’s surely telling that the vehicle for her pop ambition is the Electra Heart figure which, she said last week, reflects ‘superficiality and materialism’. Interestingly enough, she also said that she took great inspiration from Britney Spears but noted that her love for Britney was ‘ironic’, as ‘you can’t admire that kind of pop icon without a touch of irony’.
Reading all of this, I’m reminded of U2’s Pop period wherein they ‘ironically’ embraced mainstream pop culture and consumerist pop music (you don’t need to have taken a course in critical thinking to be able to dissect the ‘Discotheque’ video). It was a period of relative failure for U2 as they were seen to have collapsed under the weight of an insufferable (and suffocating) irony, leading them to return three years’ later with the very self-consciously ‘sincere’ All That You Can’t Leave Behind.
For all of Bono’s praise for artists like Beyonce, Madonna and Kylie, U2 are held as totemic of an ‘authentic’ rock which is the enemy of pop music. Indeed, with Pop they were seen to be making fun of the latter. It’s curious, then, that the rhetoric around it shares so much with Electra Heart and yet the response to the latter is so different. Look at these quotes from various sites:
Marina Diamandis is far from any pop artist. Her second album Electra Heart is an ambitious concept work that manages to combine progressive and intelligent songwriting with some stone cold massive pop hits
…it’s not like (she’s) just gone in, idiot-style, and gone ‘oh I’ll just sing any old rubbish over a generic Dr Luke backing track
Marina Diamandis (better known as Marina & The Diamonds) is far more than another emerging pop princess—but if you’re trying to figure her out, that’s probably the best place to start. She winks at the genre’s commercial techniques while embracing their utter absurdity…
While U2 were widely seen as condescending in their approach to pop/Pop, Marina’s excruciating contortions provide a critical ironic distance which allows her to be elevated above other, more straightforward, popstars (a term which she apparently is not keen on to describe herself). I’m all for intelligence in pop – but sometimes the most intelligent pop is the most simple and sincere. That is what Marina doesn’t seem to understand and where she stumbles. Great pop isn’t easy yet typically appears effortless. Listening to Electra Heart , I hear someone trying far too hard and, most damning of all, nothing on it comes close to the unselfconscious joy of a brilliant Katy Perry song.
It’s interesting that many of the positive responses I’ve seen to the record have suggested that it works better if you completely ignore the conceit. That’s probably true but it’s hard to believe that many would be so kind if she was a beardy bloke with a guitar. I don’t mean to be too harsh on Marina herself – she’s clearly talented and must be under a lot of pressure to achieve. I’m certainly not surprised that she has conjured ironic reasons for ‘going pop’. Yet what is most ironic about her is her attempt to sell dismissive ‘rock’ values of pop back to a pop audience.