‘The Spirit Indestructible’ and the courage to fail

I have banged on about Poptimism and its ultimate position as a snobbery every bit as tedious and shallow as Rockism far too often. Yet pieces like this recent, pointless attack on Dylan, every bit as predictable and depressing in its way as a Kerrang! column attacking Britney Spears, make me weep. They reduce music to a lifestyle signifier and are far more about how the author wants to be seen than about the music itself. The endless cry from many pop fans is that the best of ‘their’ music is just as worthy of attention and respect as the established canon of greats. This is of course true. However the intention must surely be other than to build a new, separate canon with which to beat the other ‘tribe’ – knee-jerk dismissal of Bob Dylan and praise of Ellen Allien seems no better to me than the converse. Positively revelling in disliking music which you feel you are expected to like seems to be an attitude we should aim to leave behind with our teens. Worse than that, it can prove rather limiting to the pop we profess to love.

The rock/pop divide came to mind today as I read about the fate of two albums released this week. Both The Killers and Nelly Furtado previously released their third (English) studio albums in 2008 and the intervening four years have seen curios – a live album and a couple of solo projects from The Killers, a Spanish album and a barely promoted Greatest Hits from Furtado. Curiously, both have returned to their second albums in 2012 – the sweeping Americana of Sam’s Town is the clear precursor to Battle Born while Furtado’s The Spirit Indestructible updates the eclectic folk and experimentation of Folklore, still her bravest and best album. Clearly the two artists have few similarities, yet they both straddle genres – The Killers flirt with electronic music, perform with Pet Shop Boys and receive dancefloor-friendly remixes from Stuart Price; Furtado, meanwhile, liberally mixes club-oriented beats with those most authentic of genres, folk and world music. Broadly speaking, however, I think it’s fair to say that The Killers are seen as a rock act while Nelly Furtado is seen as pop.

It’s difficult not to think of the differing contexts offered by these definitions while looking at the fate of the records. Both had under-performing lead singles but, looking at the charts available today (Amazon, iTunes, HMV) it seems that Battle Born is cruising towards the number one spot while The Spirit Indestructible will struggle to enter the top 30 (perhaps even the top 40). Crudely speaking, I think Furtado having to compete in the pop arena makes things that much more difficult for her. If we look at the acts who could be considered peers of The Killers – Coldplay, Kings of Leon, Green Day, Arctic Monkeys – it’s common for them to disappear from view for two, three years at a time between albums. The pressure isn’t quite there for them to be in the charts constantly and their records can breathe as a result. Yet if you look at the dominant pop acts of the moment – Gaga, Rihanna, Katy Perry – they have barely been ‘away’ in the past few years. They’ve released albums, re-issued albums, released EPs, performed on other people’s songs. Rihanna is rumoured to be about to release her 7th album in 7 years, while Lady Gaga is gearing up to release her 4th in 4. It seems almost that our modern popstars are increasingly terrified of ‘going away’ for too long lest they be forgotten. Whether it’s being a judge on ‘The Voice’ or ‘American Idol’, making guest appearances on other artists’ songs or being a staple of the gossip columns, modern pop stars seem to be on a gruelling treadmill to stay ‘relevant’. Whitney Houston 4 massive albums in the span of 1985-1998 or Michael Jackson’s 5 from 1979-1995 look like a Kate Bush-esque work rate by comparison. Indeed, it’s inconceivable to think now that Warner Bros had massive issues with Prince wanting to release an album every year. Nonetheless, when artists like Prince, Stevie Wonder or David Bowie had periods of prodigious prolificness you got the sense of an intense creativity at work; with Rihanna (however good the results sometimes are) it feels like a mix of fear and having nothing better to do.

The idea still remains that albums are by and large a ‘rock’ thing while singles are a pop thing. Witness, for example, the argument that Madonna had become a ‘classic rock’ act when MDNA did decent business despite the failure of its singles. Perhaps this has much to do with the genesis of the album as the pinnacle of popular music being tied up with artists like Dylan and The Beatles. Despite strings of classic singles (and in the case of The Beatles, enormously successful ones) they have become totemic of Rockism, associated with rock bores who think everything after 1980 is dreadful. Whatever the reason, it seems reasonable to argue that this is why a rock band can disappear for a decent amount of time and still sell albums once they return while current pop acts feel the need to throw everything they have and hope something sticks. If anything this seems counter-productive in terms of great pop music: Rated R is undoubtedly Rihanna’s greatest album and one which has artistic merit, yet its relative commercial failure has seen her pull back from the potential it realised to become a one-woman Now! compilation. Since P!nk’s Try This underperformed she has released three variations on Missundazstood while Christina Aguilera has become the latest in a long list of pop stars to go down the Max Martin route after the failure that was Bionic. Heck, even Taylor Swift at the peak of her career has just released a Max Martin single which you could easily imagine being performed by P!nk/Kelly Clarkson.

Furtado’s The Spirit Indestructible really doesn’t fit against this backdrop of homogeneity, which is perhaps surprising given the involvement of Darkchild. As the title suggests it’s a testament to the human spirit, to hope, and it has an identifiable ideology and cohesiveness. It struck me while listening to it that major pop albums which show such a messy but clear artistic impulse seem to be getting rarer. Given the almost certain commercial failure of the record, we can perhaps expect Furtado to rush into the arms of Dr Luke in 6 months’ time. 

The point of all this rambling? We should worry less about which side we’re on in the rock/pop divide and try to support artists who are trying to do something interesting/different. Artists who have an identifiable voice and who provide that little bit more than a catchy song. Ultimately it seems that this is the only way we’ll get big pop artists taking creative risks again at a time when the big trend is towards uniformity. We need to give pop artists room to breathe, the courage to fail and, more than ever, the strength to know that we don’t need them throwing another Max Martin/RedOne/Dr Luke song at us every 3 months.

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