Blackout and Erotica

A few years after the infamous MTV kiss with Britney Spears (poor Xtina) Madonna revealed how she had explained it to her daughter:

“I am the mommy pop star and she is the baby pop star. And I am kissing her to pass my energy on to her.”

Certainly at the time, Britney Spears was the nearest thing we had to a ‘new’ Madonna and this was reflected in her increasing involvement in her own music. 2003’s In The Zone had featured 8 Britney co-writing credits, easily the most direct creative involvement she had yet had on her albums. Appropriately enough it was also the album to feature Madonna in its lead-single, ‘Me Against the Music’. Truly there was a sense that Madonna was anointing a chosen successor.

It didn’t quite work out as planned. While Madonna rebounded quickly from the failure of 2003’s American Life, it would be four years before Britney Spears released another studio album. And what a four years they were – Britney went haywire, quickly and decisively moving from an American sweetheart to a TMZ poster child for celebrity dysfunction and drama. She went off the rails in a way Madonna never had. However in doing so (and retreating once again, no doubt due to necessity, from creative involvement in her music) she ultimately delivered the album of her career. Blackout, which is five years old this week,is an almost-perfect postmodern pop album. Yet while it is different in many ways from Madonna’s work, it’s impossible for the ‘baby’ to fully escape ‘mommy’’s influence.

Conveniently enough, the Madonna album which Blackout owes a debt to is also having a birthday this week. It’s 20 years since Erotica was released and while time and familiarity has dulled its power, even today it sounds like an odd pop album. Madonna, coming off the back of the mega-selling The Immaculate Collection and the acclaimed Blond Ambition tour, was having one of her imperial phases (as Neil Tennant so memorably called the periods when commercial success and critical acclaim align for artists). She had cuckolded Pepsi with the Like A Prayer video; she had confronted the Catholic Church when it criticised her tour; she had even made MTV look uncool and turned its ‘ban’ of the Justify My Love video into both a money-spinner and an eloquent attack on moral hypocrisy. It’s understandable that she felt untouchable – but even so, few were expecting what came next.

In retrospect, of course, it’s easy to see that having pushed the buttons of the religious establishment and the moral majority, Madonna had to tread carefully. Moving swiftly onto an album called Erotica and an accompanying coffee table book called Sex was supreme, almost reckless, hubris and it led to the biggest backlash of her career. I can remember the period well – the tabloids had anti-Madonna stories on an almost-daily basis while the publishing of a book called The ‘I Hate Madonna’ Handbook summed up the prevailing attitude. Madonna has since said that the overlooking of Erotica amidst this maelstrom of controversy and recrimination is the biggest regret of her career. 20 years later the album is not quite popularly regarded as a ‘lost classic’ but it’s certainly seen as underrated and its influence is undeniable. Few grasped it at the time but Erotica is that most cumbersome of beasts – a concept album. Understanding this goes a long way to putting its strangeness in context – and boy, it is strange. It is difficult in a way none of Madonna’s previous work had been, the pure pop moments such as Deeper and Deeper and Rain sitting alongside jazz and blues influenced excursions which offer little ‘give’ to listeners. The decision was taken to use Madonna’s heavily processed demo vocals for much of the album, causing her to sound detached – on tracks like Bye Bye Baby and Fever she sounds like a sneering impersonation of herself. These sit uncomfortably alongside much more emotionally engaging material like Bad Girl and the gay rights anthem Why’s It So Hard? It all makes for a disorienting experience. Yet it’s intentionally so – as Madonna states in the album’s opening line, “My name is Dita, I’ll be your mistress tonight”’. Shep Pettibone’s ‘Erotica Diaries’ make clear that Madonna was in creative control and the irony of an album called Erotica which deliberately pushes the listener away is a masterstroke. It underlines that the album is not only about sex – it’s fundamentally about relationships and power. Indeed, much has been written about Madonna ‘opening the door’ for subsequent artists with her use of sexual imagery. This is missing the point. Madonna was very careful not to present her sexuality as mere titillation and Erotica’s genius is that she has the bravery to make a pop record which turns expectations upside down. Rather than being a come-on to ‘fuck me’, Erotica could more appropriately be described as ‘fuck you’.

Blackout could be similarly described. Its opening line has obvious echoes of Erotica’s – “It’s Britney, bitch” is an uncompromising invitation – command, even – into Britney’s world. What’s fascinating, however, is that whereas Madonna invented the persona of ‘Dita’ to play with her listeners, the character here is ‘Britney’. This is the fundamental genius of Blackout. At its core is the absence of its main star. Circumstances undoubtedly dictated this yet the producers took the ‘fuck you’ template of Erotica and went crazy with it. The album makes a virtue of her lack of presence, from its ironic almost-mocking title to its production. Britney’s voice is twisted, treated, transformed though-out so that she often doesn’t sound like ‘Britney Spears’. Instead she sounds like a demented robot, another production tool in an orchestra of sonic wizardry that goes far beyond anything on any previous Britney record. If Madonna played up detachment on Erotica, here it becomes the entire focus. In that regard Blackout is also a concept album – one about modern fame and modern pop music. Its power rests almost entirely on the persona of ‘Britney Spears’, not the person. The associations of that persona feed into the music and lend it an uncomfortable power – we know that as a person she is damaged and unhappy, yet as a popstar she is all-consuming. This subverts a dominant notion in modern pop – namely that the context is irrelevant and all that matters is whether a song is any good or not. We are under no illusion that Britney Spears had anything to do with most of this record – but the album confronts that head on and makes it into a dazzling virtue. As with Erotica, there is nothing seductive about Blackout – instead its pleasures lie in the confounding of expectations and the contorting of Britney’s image. “You think Britney and her music are manufactured? Fuck you. How about this?”

The contrast to be found between Madonna’s control in Erotica and Britney’s lack of it in Blackout speaks untold volumes about the differences between them. Yet in both cases the albums use their context as a weapon and make the listener complicit in their message. This more than ever underlines the truth behind the often-trite mantra that ‘manufactured’ music can be dazzlingly brilliant and, fundamentally, speaks to the power of pop music. Perhaps, in some small way, that’s what Madonna was passing on with that kiss.

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Rebel Heart

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Madonna is a 56 year old woman. It’s important to mention this fact at the beginning because it’s the dominant prism through which her career (and indeed her life) is viewed these days. After the already infamous wardrobe malfunction at the BRIT Awards, social media was awash with terrible jokes and easy slights all premised on her being a frail elderly woman while her refusal to ‘cover up’ inevitably leads to demands that she ‘puts it away’. She is called a ‘cougar’ (a woman I was discussing Madonna with the other day disparagingly called her ‘cougaresque’ before stating with no hint of irony that she was ‘opposed’ to the ageism she faces) and mocked for her efforts to appear ‘young’ while photos where she ‘looks her age’ regularly form sneering tabloid stories. She is labelled ‘vampiric’ for daring to work with younger, on-trend producers and even ostensibly positive articles about her invariably buy into the notion that she is desperately clinging onto youth and/or relevance.

‘Desperate’ is not an adjective you will often hear thrown at legendary male musicians. When Prince, also 56, returned last year with a band made up of younger women and singing songs you could easily imagine someone half his age performing, he was met with unbridled praise. Yet the sexism behind this double standard operates in ways more subtle than the ‘mere’ fact that men face far fewer constraints on who they are expected to be as they age. If we look at Kate Bush, for example, we see a 56 year old female who is massively respected and praised; if we look at Joni Mitchell or Stevie Nicks, we see artists 10 years older who are similarly admired. The opprobrium Madonna faces, then, is not solely because she is an ageing woman but rather because she is an ageing woman making contemporary pop/dance music.

1983, when Madonna released her debut album, was “an era where disco was anathema to the mainstream pop, and she had a huge role in popularizing dance music as a popular music again”. Madonna’s roots lay in a music scene which belonged to the queers, the blacks, the latinos, the drag queens and yes, the women. The infamous ‘Disco Sucks!’ movement typifies the sexist, racist and homophobic opposition which this music met with and it was in this context Madonna released a debut where she solely wrote 5 of the 8 tracks. As Michael Rosenblatt (A&R of Sire Records at the time) puts it, even Warner Bros dismissed her as “just a little dance girl.”

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It seems fair to say that Madonna has faced variations on this attitude in her career since, whether it be accusations that she slept her way to success, assertions that her ‘real talent’ is marketing and self-promotion or the attribution of her successes to the men she has collaborated with. It’s not an accident that her most respected albums, Like A Prayer and Ray of Light, are the ones where she most ostentatiously seemed like a musical auteur while, for example, the high concept brilliance of Erotica or the cleverness of MDNA as her second divorce album were generally lost in the midst of dance beats, Sex books and Super Bowls. Over the years ‘rockism’ has, of course, been chipped away and Madonna has won a begrudging respect from many. In the past decade or so, however, she’s faced another set of prejudices under the guise of ‘poptimism’, an approach which sees the rejection of ‘authenticity’ and the ‘rock canon’ as its liberating raison d’être. This is fine up to a point but (as I’ve written about many times before) it has led to orthodoxies as facile and constraining as rockism at its worst: a fetishising of and supplication to youth; a hyper-sensitive rejection of sincerity and earnestness; a deep suspicion of ‘traditional’ markers of musical talent (ie the endless whining over guitars) and an irreverence which frequently tips over into petulance. It’s this approach which led us to the absurdity of a pop album where the ‘artist’ doesn’t necessarily even sing entire verses attributed to her: poptimism has, ironically, a contempt for pop music at its core.

Madonna, on the other hand, has always taken pop music seriously and approached it sincerely. How could she not? Disco and its aftermath wasn’t about empty, half-understood post-modernist; rather it was about life. A celebration, yes, but at its most basic level it was about the survival and defiance of those the mainstream rejected. Madonna came to music knowing that it mattered and knowing that her self-expression as a pop artist was one of the most powerful statements she could ever make. Her famous statement that she wanted ‘to rule the world’ was not (just) hubris but a statement of intent that she could make things better – not for nothing does her debut single command ‘Everybody’ to “dance and sing, get up and do your thing”.

In 2015, then, we have rockist relics forever suspicious of Madonna making pop music and poptimists who can’t understand why she should warrant any respect or even attention unless she’s delivering instant gratification. She’s at least double the age of your average pop singer on the charts yet hasn’t ‘toned it down’ and gone the route expected of her  (witness the contrasting responses to Annie Lennox’s ‘graceful’ ageing at the Grammys vs Madonna’s ass-baring.) She is quite unique in being a middle-aged female pop artist who refuses to go quietly into the night or become her own tribute act, a move which I’m certain would quickly gratify her to many detractors who want little more than nostalgia from their ageing musicians.

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This latter approach was exactly the one taken David Bowie in 2002 with Heathen (when he was 55), and by Bob Dylan in 1997 with Time Out of Mind (when he was 57). Both, of course, tick a lot more of the boxes warranting ‘respect’ than Madonna but by recording albums which harked back to their heydays, firmly met expectations of what they should be doing and nodded towards the fact of their ageing, they were greeted by an avalanche of acclaim. Madonna’s not an idiot. Coming from the commercial disappointment of MDNA (though two million sales these days is nothing to be sniffed at) and facing an uphill battle to ever have a hit single again, she surely knows that if she were to reunite with, say, Pat Leonard, dye her hair black, put on some conservative clothes and sing some ballads about how awful it was getting old before knocking around singing Like A Prayer, she’d have a much easier time of it. Yet Rebel Heart is, in its way, as much a restatement of values as Time Out of Mind or Heather were. It is also just as much about ageing.

Ever since Madonna stridently sang “Unlike the others I’d do anything, I’m not the same, I have no shame” on Burning Up, she’s done a good line in ‘nothing’s gonna stop me!” songs. Yet given Madonna’s current position there’s something poignant in hearing her sing ‘Now that it’s over/I’m gonna carry on’ over a throwback 90s house track in Rebel Heart’s opener Living For Love. The proposed concept of Rebel Heart, abandoned after leakageddon, was apparently a double-album comprised of two ‘sides’: rebel and heart. This isn’t particularly different from the stated theme of Hard Candy, which was to juxtapose Madonna’s toughness with her ‘soft centre’ and, like HC, Rebel Heart is an album which looks backwards a lot. Yet while Hard Candy sonically revisited the r&b-inflected pop of Madonna’s early years (her debut was allegedly the template), Rebel Heart is possibly the most musically diverse album she’s ever released. It’s also one very much about taking stock and moving onwards into an uncertain future.

The album is littered with obvious references to Madonna’s past – the Vogue sample on Holy Water, the Justify My Love lyrics on Best Night, the cavalcade of song titles which make up Veni Vidi Vici; the title track’s moving reflection on her life; it’s also packed with allusions to Madonna’s status as an ageing pop icon. On electro-folk tour de force Devil Prey she sings “Holding on, but I’m getting weaker/watch me disappear.” Ghosttown, a Ryan Tedder-esque anthem which is probably the album’s best chance of a hit, depicts a barren post-apocalyptic world and finds Madonna musing that “Everything’s bound to break sooner or later.” In the gorgeous Joan of Arc she sings “Even when the world turns its back on me/There could be a war, but I’m not going down.” Album closer (standard version) Wash All Over Me is an elegiac ballad which seems self-explanatory given what I’ve written above:

In a world that’s changing
I’m a stranger in a strange land
There’s a contradiction
And I’m stuck here in between
Life is like a desert
An oasis to confuse me
So I walk this razor’s edge
Will I stand or will I fall?
…If this is the end then let it come
Let it come
Let it rain
…Gonna watch the sun going down
I’m not gonna run from all this sadness

I remember reading a review of Bedtime Stories in Q Magazine which ended by posing the question “Is it too soon to say that it was fun while it lasted?” Now, over 20 years later, Madonna seems to be posing the question to herself. The most fascinating song in this regard is, ironically, one which seems to have been removed from the track listing at the last minute: Queen is an astounding dirge quite unlike anything she’s ever recorded before and finds the Queen of Pop addressing indirectly addressing her listeners:

We’re at the end of days
For heaven’s sake
The queen’s been slain
She’ll never rule again
…Black parade, motorcade
Destiny sings farewell, church bells
Is anyone listening?
…Who will take her place?
Its written on everyone’s face
The truth is slowly dawning
I hear tomorrow calling
Some things can’t be replaced
The realization of a new generation
On the eve of imitation
All gone, overthrown

She is, in effect, saying ‘you fuckers will miss me when I’m gone’. In fact, ‘some things can’t be replaced’ could fairly be described as the over-arching theme of the album or, to put it another way – Bitch I’m Madonna. The ‘rebel’ songs are less concerned with considering Madonna’s demise (metaphorical or otherwise) than with reminding us that she can do thrilling pop in her sleep. Given her origins and the more subtle versions of ‘Disco Sucks!’ which she’s faced throughout her career, it’s quite apropos that it’s the adventurous, brash and fun electronic pop of Bitch I’m Madonna, Unapologetic Bitch and Holy Water which have been vexing the straight white male critics. Indeed, the fact that Madonna had to point out that the latter song, with lyrics like “Kiss it better, kiss it better (don’t it taste like holy water)”, was meant to be funny speaks volumes about how some perceive her. The heart songs let us know that she’s perfectly self-aware regarding her age and her position – the rebel songs tell us she’s not our bitch, don’t hang our shit on her. She’ll be singing songs like S.E.X. (featuring a ‘lesson in sexology’ which includes “chopsticks, underwear, barber soap, dental chair, fish nets, satin sheets, garter belt, raw meat” – it’s like she felt sorry for the Daily Mail) as long as people keep telling her to stop and tossing off the kind of mercurial melodies found in Hold Tight and Inside Out while her detractors scramble around blowing up photos of her hands. As she puts it in Borrowed Time, she wants to ‘live each moment like our time is only borrowed’.

Taken in one go the ‘Super Deluxe’ version is certainly too long (23 songs, if Queen is indeed missing) but this largely seems to reflect a) the changed nature of ‘albums’ in an mp3/Spotify world and b) the need to get fans to buy multiple copies to shore up Madonna’s commercial fortunes. Presumably because the leaks meant that the songs finished at the time were rush-released, the pacing is a bit off too. Nonetheless this is certainly Madonna’s best album since Confessions On A Dance Floor and, as her public appearances have underlined, she seems more engaged in the music than she has done in a while.

For all the reasons discussed above, Madonna isn’t going to be respected as the preternaturally brilliant talent she is any time soon. The criticism isn’t going to stop being about the same superficial things it’s always about (as opposed to serious discussion of her sometimes problematic and sometimes plain godawful politics.)We’ll do this all again in a few years when she’s 60 and pissing even more people off by showing her ass but, by God, she’s right about one thing:

We’ll miss her when she’s gone.

Singles of 2014

Playlist here.

No particular order here though Ghost is easily my most played single released this year. My most played song is the demo of Rebel Heart by Madonna, which will shock precisely no-one. The Kira Isabella song was a great discovery – definitely an artist to get excited about. And it’s amazing to have a properly brilliant Smashing Pumpkins song again. If it was on Spotify I’d have had Morrissey’s Istanbul too.

Ghost – Ella Henderson
Take Me To Church – Hozier
Ghosttown – Madonna
Crying for No Reason – Katy B
Wrong Or Right – Kwabs
Seasons (Waiting On You) – Future Islands
Quarterback – Kira Isabella
Say Something – A Great Big World & Christina Aguilera
Dark Sunglasses – Chrissie Hynde
Uptown Funk – Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars
Love Never Felt So Good – Michael Jackson
High Society – Betty Who (from Worlds Apart EP)
Solo Dancing – Indiana
Yellow Flicker Beat – Lorde
Walk Me to the Bridge – Manic Street Preachers
Going Out – Dinner
If It Wasn’t True – Shamir
A Sky Full of Stars – Coldplay
Living – Adna
Being Beige – Smashing Pumpkins
Falling Short – Lapsley
B a noBody – SOAK
Queen – Perfume Genius
Disclosed – Call Me
Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) – David Bowie

And not on Spotify, the first EP from Alphabetical Order Orchestra:

1989 and Pop in 2014

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So Taylor Swift is a pop star now – it’s true, she said it herself. 1989 is her ‘first documented official pop album’, a pretty bizarre description which has nonetheless pretty much been taken at face value. She may previously have had record-breaking albums, multi-platinum singles and arena-filling tours but this was…something else. Something not pop. Something to do with guitars.

1989 has been greeted with the kind of hysterial, ostentious hyperbole which characterises poptimism, with lots of CAPITAL LETTERS about SQUEEING and imagined ‘real music’ snobs who are gnashing their teeth at her popularity (hello, NME). I’ve written about this kind of thing many times previously – about how it stems from a patronising, insecure relationship with pop where there’s an implicit sense that this stuff is actually beneath the person SQUEEING. They write in the persona of what they imagine a pop fan to be – an over-enthusiastic child. They think they’re being transgressive in liking the most popular act on the planet, simply because it’s ‘pop’.

One of the central tenets of this approach is an opposition to any serious consideration of what they’re professing to love: see the big push-back against critical discussion of Swift’s Shake It Off video. This stuff is just fun! It’s just silly! Don’t take it seriously! SQUEE! So the critics don’t actually perform any criticism. Yet the concept and execution of 1989 says some rather interesting things about modern pop. The fact that it was signposted very explicitly as Swift’s first pop album is fascinating enough in itself, given that she’d sold over 100 million units prior to its release. Yet the signposting did its job, with pop audiences previously ambivalent to Swift jumping on board and delivering her biggest first week album sales to date.

Swift is clearly a canny operator but I think both this and the Red campaigns have marked her out as an artist with an enormously perceptive appreciation of how pop music currently works. Previously viewed as a ‘country’ star, with Red she made a real push to broaden her already massive audience. This happened most obviously with the choice of Max Martin as a collaborator but there were more subtle aspects too. The lead single features that line about her douchebag boyfriend listening to ‘some indie record that’s much cooler than mine’ while third single 22 features ‘cool kids’ scoffing at her (“Who is Taylor Swift anyway?!”) as she sings of dressing up ‘like hipsters’. I didn’t see a single review which grasped just how clever this was in positioning the enormously popular, all-American Swift as some outsider artist who wasn’t taken seriously by ‘music snobs’ (as opposed to being a multi-Grammy Award winner who’d performed with very-credible-indeed artists like Stevie Nicks, the Rolling Stones and The Civil Wars). Swift got the poptimism which dominates the current music scene and was tickling its tummy with an imagined victimhood. Suffice to say, it worked a charm.

With 1989, it was pushed further. Signifer was heaped upon signifer to let everyone know that Swift had ditched those boring, ‘authentic’ guitars and was now FULL-BLOWN FUN POP YAY! Yet, again, I’ve not seen any review which has grasped this as a marketing approach above all else (and I’m not particularly saying that as a criticism). Swift understood perfectly that this was the route to the hearts (and more importantly, the wallets) of listeners turned off by the ‘rockist’ trappings of the country-pop she’d previously been associated with. So in comes more Max Martin and also the equally ubiquitous Ryan Tedder. The first single, Shake It Off, was a self-conscious statement of intent which went out of its way to sound like it could have been from a heap of other current pop acts. As it happened, most of the rest of the album wasn’t particularly different from what she’d done previously in terms of the actual songs – but the production (synths over guitars) and the framing concept were more than enough to turn this into a sense of some dramatic transformation.

Indeed, 1989 was presented by Swift as an homage to an era of ambitious pop when artists like Madonna, the Eurythmics and Phil Collins (all name-checked by her) were making “the most incredible, bold, risky decisions as far as pop music goes”. Again, this has largely passed without comment. Yet if you look at the execution of Swift’s vision it’s surely a testament to just how moribund pop is right now? If we look to Swift’s apparent inspirations, they had little in common beyond being popular. In fact, if you look at the big pop acts of 1989 it’s pretty remarkable just how diverse they are and, not uncoincidentally, how little overlap there is in their collaborators. Swift, in contrast, has ‘gone pop’ by working with the same writers/producers as Katy Perry, Britney Spears, P!nk, Beyonce, Kelly Clarkson, Avril Lavigne, Jessie J, Jennifer Lopez…I could go on. Far from being ‘incredible, bold, risky’, Swift has again managed to package a pretty conservative move as something transgressive.

Now this isn’t to say that Swift doesn’t stamp herself over 1989 creatively or even that it’s a bad record – at times it’s a very good record. Nonetheless, it seems sad that that rather than being perceived as previously delivering her own unique take on pop, Swift has to be incredibly obvious and aim for homogeneity in order to be widely received as a ‘pop artist’. It’s even sadder that few amongst the folk who are supposed to love this music the most have bothered to take it seriously enough to move beyond patronising stock responses.

One such stock response is the accusation of ‘nostalgia’ when contrasting the present with the past. Yet if Swift calls on the spirit of 1989 to frame her record, it seems fair enough to look at how pop and its appreciation has changed in that time. There may undeniably be much brilliant music being made now but there’s a real sense that the possibilities for pop music have narrowed. I thought about this while reading a compelling piece on ‘the scourge of relatability‘ which argues that the criteria for judging art, and how we approach it, has been changing:

…to demand that a work be “relatable” expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.

Now certainly that’s pushing all the buttons that will lead to accusations of ‘snobbery’ and the rest, but it’s difficult not to look at 1989 and its reception without thinking that we do indeed ‘expect the work to be done for us’. People had to be told that Swift was now pop and, for a great many, that meant it was now okay to like her. It’s ‘ambitious pop’ as something dreamt up in focus groups rather than as a dazzling ferocity which demands to be noticed, which shakes things up, which does something different. I think today’s pop scene is starved of this – it’s why there was such an enormous response to Beyonce’s audacious album release, something which seemed to belong to another age of other-wordly superstars (even if it still featured people like Tedder, Pharrell and Sia). 1989, then, is a perfect album for our modern pop age – but that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Kylie

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My photos and videos of Kylie at the O2 last night are here.

For reasons I’m not entirely sure of, Q Magazine’s review of Madonna’s Bedtime Stories in 1994 has always stuck in my memory. Its final line was “Is it too soon to say that it was fun while it lasted?”

It’s no secret (hey!) that I’ve been immensely frustrated by Kylie for a while now. If I can be awful enough to quote myself (I can be):

Kylie has willingly placed herself into the nostalgia circuit. With her previous few albums clearly struggling to sell outside of her fan-base, it’s difficult to see this changing…if we approach pop as merely fronting persuasive hits, Kylie’s age is clearly against her and she begins to seem increasingly irrelevant.  What’s the point of a blank slate for Calvin Harris when you have Rihanna, for example? I don’t think you have to be too concerned with ‘rockist’ notions to believe that delivering further albums of off-the-shelf electro-pop can only offer diminishing returns, both commercially and critically.

Despite some glimmers of hope that something interesting was stirring (the Anti-Tour, the Abbey Road album which had an air of putting the past to bed, the jump to Roc Nation) the resulting relaunch, Kiss Me Once, was an immense disappointment. It also bombed – the last time I checked, long after its speedy exit from most of the world’s charts, it had sold around 200,000 copies worldwide (2010’s Aphrodite was certified Platinum for shipping 300,000 copies in the UK alone). An artistic risk which doesn’t sell can be a noble failure; a commercial smash which treads water could be said to be giving the fans what they want. The stars don’t always align. With Kiss Me Once, however, the stars weren’t even visible.

Still, live is where Kylie has always truly excelled, right? There’s no doubt that she remains a hugely charismatic performer – and she deserves eternal credit for her live vocals which invariably knock it out of the park. Yet the infuriating, aimless, conservatism which marked Kiss Me Once (and has arguably characterised much of her career in the past decade) carries over into this tour. The show is overwhelmingly familiar – with over 40 top twenty hits in the UK and 12 albums to her name, do we really need all of the big Parlophone singles wheeled out yet again? Do we need performances of Sexy Love/Wow/Love At First Sight, three diminishing return rewrites of the same song? Do we need yet another PWL medley (as fun as it was)? There were the usual semi-naked male dancers, the same old ‘ad-libs’, the standard ‘impromptu’ rendition of an old hit. It was Kylie-by-numbers. There were nods to progression with interludes featuring the Garibay songs she surprise-released the other week but what would Kylie have to lose in performing some of these live? They are the most interesting, if half-sketched, songs she’s released in ages. Lest we forget, she debuted Can’t Get You Out Of My Head on tour back in 2001 while KylieX2008 featured two completely new songs.

In the Kiss Me Once show, however, we find a Kylie who seems hesitant and cowed. Perhaps the underperformance of the album meant she felt the need to ‘deliver the hits’ – but anyone around her with the slightest insight would understand that the vast majority of people (hello, gay men over the age of 30) attending a Kylie show in 2014 would go along for the ride, wherever it took them. The ‘casual’ fans have been drifting away for a while now, underlined by the fact that last night’s third evening at the O2 featured a curtained-off top section:

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Les Folies tour had 5 dates at the O2. KylieX2008 had 7. Are we seeing a trend here?

To go back to the quote at the beginning, I of course don’t think that Kylie’s career is over. Yet it’s conceivable that her time as a relevant concern is at an end and, on the basis of both KMO album and tour, she could be in Cher territory: release a ‘will this do?’ album for the faithful then go out on tour with essentially the same show as you always do. And we shouldn’t be in any doubt that a significant number of her fans would be absolutely fine with this – it’s all they want from her. My frustration, as always, stems from the fact that I know she is capable of so much more than that. I’ve been saying that she has nothing to lose for years – now we’re at the stage where surely even she must be aware of her decline. I think this could be her last chance to do something daring, as she has done before, to win over new hearts and minds. Alternatively, we’ll rendezvous in a few years for her three dates at Brixton Academy, marketed as an ‘intimate’ show but with a telling smattering of empty seats.

Pop Deserves the ‘Social Justice Warriors’

taylor-swift-shake-it-off-video-3-2014-billboard-650Don’t worry, I’m not really going to write about the racism/appropriation in the new Taylor Swift video. This widely shared post says most of what there is to say (and, importantly, what needed to be said). Instead I want to write briefly another aspect of this mini storm.

Being a Taylor Swift fan (maybe not for much longer considering how things are going) I actually watched her Yahoo live announcement thingy…live. It was painful. Jesus Christ it was painful. Taylor was doing her ‘I’m just a normal gal and we’re all hanging out!’ schtick in front of an audience seemingly made-up of people who had been pumped full of uppers prior to broadcast. Her every utterance was greeted with hysteria. I don’t cope well with over-the-top “I like this more than anyone else ever and I’m going to prove it by screaming the most” displays of fandom (watching the Doctor Who 50th special in the cinema last year was hellish for this very reason). It did not put me in a good place, people. Then she debuted the song and this also did not put me in a good place. It’s a very on-trend Max Martin number which you could easily imagine being released by Little Mix or Cheryl Cole or Cher Lloyd or countless other current pop stars. Sure, it’s efficient enough at what it does but I’m not sure anyone particularly needs it (and if it wasn’t by the already-massively popular Swift, I’m not sure many would particularly pay attention to it). Given the really rather interesting and even astonishing places Swift has been taking her music, it’s a crushing disappointment to see her cheerfully announcing that she’s gone ‘pop’ and offering up generic pop hit no. 5694. You were already pop, Taylor, and you were doing it in a way no other major pop artist was. There’s always the possibility that the album will be more interesting but given the apparent presence of Max Martin on most tracks, I’m not optimistic.

Anyway, back to the live thingy. After dancing around to her song and announcing details of her album (inspired by ‘late-80s pop’ apparently – hello Jive Bunny) she premiered the video. As soon as I saw the scenes from which the above cap comes from, my heart sank. I actually thought of this line. Why does this shit keep happening? Well, a big part of it is that most pop listeners just pretend it’s not, as we saw with the really-quite-obviously-racist Lily Allen video. In a pretty classic demonstration of the ‘Bad Feeling’ thesis (yeah, I keep returning to that because it’s so right) people see the problematic thing and, rather than thinking ‘oh dear, this is a bit bad’, try to anticipate and undermine the discussions labelling it as problematic. And so:

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Notice the references to the ‘social justice warriors of the internet’ and ‘blogs’. There are usually liberal references to Tumblr thrown in for good measure. It’s always those people on the internet who pick holes in this stuff, who can’t just enjoy it for what it is. That last tweet is actually from a Guardian writer who ‘writes about film, TV and music’. Yes, someone who writes about culture for a living throws out ‘fucking earnest columns’ as an insult. If such responses are woefully inevitable it’s because, as I’ve written about quite a few times before, pop criticism is in a really fucking terrible place. It’s dominated by the misguided idea that patronisingly faux-positive responses (I covered it with regards to One Direction but clearly Taylor also receives the same treatment) show you really get this stuff and are really open-minded and aren’t a snob and blah blah blah! There will be lots of barely-formed sneering at ‘authenticity’ and anything associated with it, even guitars (notice that Taylor’s cultural power has risen in tandem with her move away from country). Most importantly, everything must be FUN! and IRONIC! and SARCASTIC! and SILLY! and nothing is worth taking too seriously or thinking about too much. The Alex Niven quote I used when previously writing about this is worth wheeling out again:

Unfortunately the mainstream of music journalism right now appears to be dominated by a peculiarly virulent strain of braindead consumer hedonism, by people who simply don’t acknowledge that pop music can be debated about in politico-cultural terms. It would be (sort of) alright if these people were cognisant of their position, but depressingly I fear that they’re just moronic capitalistic yes-people for whom pop music is a leisure pursuit and nothing more. 

That brief paragraph perfectly captures where criticism and, unfortunately, much fandom is right now. It’s been that way for a while but the rise of link-bait is making it even worse. Which sites that profess to love pop music write about it with any insight or depth? They all instead seem terrified of being ‘fucking earnest’ and losing readers who they think mustn’t be challenged in any way. Just whack out another list, keep the press releases flowing and write some shite about what Madonna’s daughter might be doing and they’re sorted.

You’ll notice that the piece I linked to at the start is a personal blog. It’s an absolutely sublime bit of writing but it drives home just how rarely you read anything like that in mainstream journalism. Yet rather than being some poxy angry internet social justice warrior thing that can be easily dismissed, it’s gone viral, been picked up by Vice and Time, and (along with some high-profile Twitter criticism) inspired much critical coverage of the video on sites which would have otherwise have stayed well away from the subject. The do-it-yourself internet has led the way here, just as it did with the Lily Allen video and just as it does with the vast majority of pop criticism. DIY internet is where the best writing on pop is found these days, whether that be the fiercely intelligent analysis found in personal blogs like One Of Those Faces or the beguiling passion found in One Week One Band (overwhelmingly written, it should be noted, by people who blog and/or tweet rather than ‘professional’ writers). These people know that pop matters. They know that it not only deserves and is deserving of serious appraisal but that it requires it: it shapes culture and it shapes lives. They are ‘fucking earnest’ about it because they fucking care about it. The ones who roll their eyes at the ‘internet’ people who write about pop ‘in politico-cultural terms’ are, ironically, the ones who display their sheer contempt for pop in their ostentatious efforts to look like they respect it. To them, it’s just a silly Taylor Swift song and video that doesn’t mean anything and will be forgotten soon after they’ve made sure to loudly show their appreciation. It’s lazy, it’s cheap and it’s tired. Pop deserves better.

 

Nostalgia and Futurology

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Modern pop music came to prominence at the same time as the invention and rise of the teenager, a concept (and grouping) with which it has had a long, sweaty symbiosis. While pop may be at least 70 years old, it still carries associations with, and connotations of, youth and modernity. Yet while the dawn of the teenager is inextricably linked to guitar-based rock and roll music, the past 20-odd years has seen the rise of poptimism, which seeks to paint guitar-based ‘rock’ as conservative and backwards against the futuristic-leanings of a self-consciously ‘artificial’ dance-oriented chart pop. I’ve always found this attempted delineation to be weak and messy, a position which I feel has been vindicated the more dominant poptimism has become in the media. Shows like The Big Reunion and acts like One Direction (one of whose biggest hits was widely viewed as being an…homage…to The Who) have shown that conservatism and nostalgia are by no means solely confined to rock music.

The sway of poptimism is such, however, that the latter examples aren’t seen as retrospective. The Big Reunion may explictly involve reforming pop acts who were briefly popular in the 90s but, when placed against the mythical bogeyman of conservative rock, it’s viewed as an open-minded celebration. One Direction may make derivative music but their talent show origins, their youth and their appeal to young girls conspire to present them as exciting and modern. Nostalgia, then, is elided to the point where it becomes meaningless: little more than a tool to bash already-disliked acts with rather than any considered and/or sincere aversion to conservatism. It is enough to be heard as loudly opposed to conservatism, no matter how incoherent this may be upon examination. What matters is perception.

This warping of ‘nostalgia’ from meaning a sentimental yearning for ‘the good old days’ to a largely-empty signifier to be deployed against acceptable targets has permeated music criticism. You can view it in how acts like Prince and David Bowie were warmly welcomed when they stopped messing about (trying new things) and instead delivered albums which played to their archetypal images. Again, this was very clearly playing to nostalgia but in aligning themselves with audience expectations they opened a space for fluid, unforced perceptions. We don’t want to be seen to be conservative but we also don’t like it when acts make things hard for us by not being what we want them to  be; so, when they oblige us in the latter, we tell ourselves that they have ‘returned to form’ rather than ‘allowed us to love our own idea of them again’. It’s noticeable that this rationalisation is very rarely wheeled out for acts who haven’t deviated from who we want them to be – acts who conversely can end up as whipping posts for faux anti-conservatism because there has been no disruption there, nothing for them to return to us from.

The genius of Bowie’s The Next Day, one I still don’t think is widely appreciated, is how it completely understood this state of affairs and made it integral to the album and its campaign. The actual music wasn’t particularly different from Bowie’s previous few albums and I’ve no doubt that had it been released a decade previous, it would have quickly faded from view. Yet there was the ten year disruption and it was this Bowie made use of. It wasn’t just nostalgia presented as modernity – it artfully used the listener’s expectations to make it the first post-nostalgic album.

Manics_Futurology_Art_600This brings me to Futurology, the new Manic Street Preachers album which is providing them with the best reviews they’ve had in almost 20 years. It’s a very good album but I find it curious that most of these reviews have been focusing on the band’s ‘reinvention’, their ability to take the ostentatious trappings of Krautrock, Berlin-era Bowie and early-Simple Minds and craft their own ‘masterpiece‘ from the ruins. I find it curious because despite all the advance word, Futurology isn’t a musical reinvention at all – there’s almost nothing on there that a Manics fan won’t have heard from them before. In fact, from the moment the melodic opening title track riff recalls the band’s commercial peak through the post-punk blast of Sex, Power, Love and Money, the Know Your Enemy-jangle of The Next Jet to Leave Moscow and the energised Lifeblood-sheen of Walk Me To The Bridge, it’s a record which feels steeped in the Manics’ history. The same is true lyrically – the latter song’s clear references to Richey (despite the band’s denials) have already been noted while TNJTLM finds them renouncing their Know Your Enemy jaunt to Cuba (everything must go, indeed!). Let’s Go To War, meanwhile, is presented as the final part of a newly-formulated trilogy and its line ‘don’t forget we love you still’ harks back to both previous instalments (You Love Us/Masses Against the Classes). There are also, as noted in The Quietus review, several nods to particular aspects of working-class Welsh history threaded throughout the album.

It’s been noted that Futurology is the sister album of last year’s Rewind The Film. Less noted is the clear contrast in the album titles – the past and the future, or rather an idea of the future. The title track of RTW was an ode to the comfort of nostalgia: “rewind the film once more/turn back the pages of my post/rewind the film once more/I want the world to see it all.” The video for this and that album’s other two singles formed a short film about working-class Wales and the impact of the Miners’ Strike. The mood of Rewind The Film meant that critics easily identified its obsession with the past, with nostalgia. It also had a sense of anxiety for an unknown future which seemed certain to be warped and alien, irrevocably broken from the comforting myths of the past.

The aesthetic and publicity of Futurology seems to have blinded many to the fact that it’s a continuation of these themes – and one which draws far more heavily on the Manics’ musical past. In its way, then, it also understands and plays with this post-nostalgia age. It offers a frictionless return to previous highs, mixing nods to a more aggressive and radical past with a distancing from (and sometimes apologising for) it (this distancing has been crucial to the Manics’ success with a particular kind of critic, who could never have stomached their early belligerence without that gap). It offers nostalgia under the guise of modernity, drawing on the past to present a comforting, easily-digestible image of a future. “We’ll come back one day… we never really went away. ” This is Futurology.