This was quite an interesting one. My well-documented disdain for Lady Gaga led some friends to jokingly note that I couldn’t possibly be ‘objective’ when reviewing her new album. Yet such ‘objectivity’ surely doesn’t exist? We all approach music with our particular notions of what it is and what it should be; we particularly approach specific pop stars with these preconceptions. In the case of someone like Lady Gaga, whose personality is absolutely fundamental to her appeal, it’s disingenuous to pretend that you don’t have a particular view. Indeed, if you didn’t have one it would beg the question of why you were writing as a ‘critic’ in the first place. Sadly the decline of criticism and rise of marketing means that this isn’t viewed as particularly odd –it’s expected that a review will offer little more than bland statements as to whether you should spend your cash on the music in question. Here music is an extension of lifestyle rather than a cultural force with socio-political meaning. “Pop will never be low-brow”, indeed.

FWIW, my personal journey with Gaga is peaks and troughs…her initial single run was dazzling, even if The Fame was largely dreck. As I note in this review however, The Fame Monster is an incredible record. Unfortunately its success, particularly that of Bad Romance, has derailed her entire career. 

Lady Gaga – ARTPOP

Springsteen and I

It occurred to me while reading these thoughts on One Direction and fandom from Lucy Robinson that one of the greatest aspects of Springsteen & I (which I saw last night) is that it openly celebrates unadulterated fandom from the kind of music listener who is commonly presented as a ‘snob’ these days. Bruce Springsteen is pretty much the archetypal ‘old man with a guitar’ of our age, held up as emblematic of ‘rockism’ and beloved of the kind of people who could never listen to Ke$ha. Yet the fans in the film (ranging from kids through to pensioners) are as excitable, as enthusiastic and as devoted as the most hysterical One Directioner, It’s a very sweet and heart-warming depiction of the profound importance which music plays in the lives of those of us who’ve let the magic in; it’s also a moving tribute to the relationships which this can lead to. A mother proudly watches as her 10 year old son shows off the close-up photo of Bruce he managed to take after they both attended his concert; a couple reminisce about how they initially bonded over their mutual fandom and dance around their kitchen to a tinny stereo, lamenting that they’ve never been able to see Bruce live; a middle-aged woman explains how her first Bruce concert changed her, awakening a previously-dormant sexuality and a newfound appreciation for rock ‘n’ roll. In one of the loveliest moments a woman who could be a grandmother films herself alone in some woods (her first ever video, apparently) as she speaks about how Bruce is one of her oldest friends even though he’s never met her.

What the film offers which a One Direction equivalent couldn’t possibly duplicate is an appreciation of the musical relationships which endure and which sustain us. More than acting as a soundtrack to their lives, these people speak time and again of how Bruce’s songs are part of their being and how they offer the kind of intimacy which allows them to feel that they are seeing some kind of truth regarding life. One man speaks of how the lyrics are such that he feels he can smell Bruce’s coffee and share in Bruce’s failures and triumphs, an observation which reduces him to tears. A woman in her 20s speaks about her job and how Bruce’s music has helped her to accept that it’s ok to have a degree that she doesn’t use in her job as a truck-driver. It’s fandom but it’s also didactic and transformational. Bruce himself gets this in an after-credits scene where he meets some of the fans from the film. Asked what motivates him to get on stage every night, he explains simply that music changed his life for the better and he wants to be able to give that gift to other people. This is pretty much exactly what I meant when I wrote previously that caring about what they did was the most fundamental thing an artist could offer. The intense, ephemeral love for a short-lived pop act is something many of us experience and it’s great while it lasts but we’re kinda not supposed to acknowledge that it’s a temporary rush which probably has more to do with our own adolescent states than anything else.  It’s seen as patronising to say that and preferable to pretend that we don’t ever change . Yet we do and the music which speaks to us evolves and changes in turn. If we’re lucky, the artists whom we love at 13 will change us, inspire us to check out more music, books etc, If we’re lucky, they’ll develop as we do and we’ll have a hell of a journey together. One Direction are clearly aimed at children and no doubt speak to their experiences but their music would be pretty useless at capturing the peaks and troughs of a 33-year old (unless it’s a particularly stunted one). Maybe they’ll progress, as (the far superior) Take That did but there’s nothing wrong with recognising that acts being loved by lots of kids isn’t a huge virtue in and of itself. What we rather should acknowledge is that our love for music doesn’t diminish with age. It’s no less ‘pure’ just because you have a life, responsibilities, problems and passions which take you away from it. Rather our relationship with music deepens and it permeates us in ways we couldn’t possibly begin to quantify or adequately describe. It’s a great thing and it should be celebrated.

Click the link for Spotify playlist. Along with many others, my single of the year is undoubtedly Call Me Maybe – a track I initially dismissed as asinine and bland. I was a fool! My song of the year has not, however, been released as a single – Taylor Swift’s astonishing All Too Well floored me when I first heard it and still does so, its dissection of a break-up displaying an understanding of the power dynamics in relationships which belies Swift’s age. Various pitch-shifted versions can be found on Youtube but you’d be best just buying it on iTunes.

Happily, quite a few songs floored me this year: Solange’s Losing You is appealing and accomplished in an almost cursive way while iLL Manors remains powerful despite its adoption by hand-wringing liberals as ‘the voice of the London riots’. The most recent addition to the list is Don’t Rush by Kelly Clarkson – I first heard it only about a fortnight ago and its gloriously relaxed bliss quickly burrowed its way into my affections. Meanwhile, acts I have previously loved but whom I’ve drifted away from in recent years recaptured me with brilliant tracks like Let’s Have a Kiki and Cut the World. The Misha B and Azealia Banks songs already point to an exciting 2013.

The list:
Call Me Maybe – Carly Rae Jepsen
Losing You – Solange
iLL Manors – Plan B
We Take Care Of Our Own – Bruce Springsteen
We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together – Taylor Swift
Born to Die – Lana del Rey
Turn Up The Radio – Madonna
Your Body – Christina Aguilera
Wide Awake – Katy Perry
Let’s Have A Kiki – Scissor Sisters
Every Single Night – Fiona Apple
Try – P!nk
Melancholy Sky – Goldfrapp
Don’t Rush – Kelly Clarkson
Cut the World – Antony & the Johnsons
Magic Chords – Sharon van Etten
1991 – Azealia Banks
Leaving – Pet Shop Boys
Do You Think Of Me – Misha B
Die Young – Ke$ha 

My Singles of 2012

I don’t wish to bang on about this too much but this is quite hilarious in that we have one writer taking another writer to task for not approaching a pop album in the ‘correct’ way. The line “it infuriates the sort of people who think Wrecking Ball is the year’s best album” is telling – clearly anyone who loves Wrecking Ball and Springsteen must be a conservative listener, right? People couldn’t like both just as a matter of fact – no, the ability to enjoy such diverse artists is the privileged reserve of music writers (undoubtedly in their 30s at least).

Music writing, certainly pop music writing, is saturated in Poptimism. Every week brings another trite piece sneering about ‘guitar music’ and ‘authenticity’; an X Factor contestant like James Arthur is almost instantly mocked for being draped in the trappings of ‘rock’. The default setting for many pop writers is to write against an imagined enemy who thinks music should have ended after Bob Dylan’s first decade. What this fails to recognise is that Poptimism has been the dominant force in music for the past 15 years or so. Acts like U2 and Coldplay fall over themselves to be viewed as part of the pop fraternity while an act like Jake Bugg making silly teenage comments (he’s a teenager, after all) about X Factor is instantly and widely mocked. This enemy who instinctively believes that Bugg is better than Beyonce because he plays a guitar is very much in the minority these days.

Two things frustrate me about this approach. The first is that it’s like the writers have read a couple of summaries of Derrida and they apply it to pop music in a completely half-arsed, embarrassing way which belies their own love for the genre. Tossing off statements about how it doesn’t matter who writes the songs, everything is ‘fake’ and a folk singer is just as ‘contrived’ as Lady Gaga is so par for the course that almost no-one questions what these statements actually mean anymore. Yet this refuses to allow pop music to be a sublime art form (other than in a nihilistic Warholian way – note the reference to Ke$ha’s “ephemerality” in this piece, which is far more damning than anything else.) Instead the attempt is to tear down any artist who actually strives towards greatness, to place Michael Jackson and Prince alongside some soap actor who’s bunged out a catchy hit because ‘all that matters is the song’.

This brings me to the second frustration – the approach bears little relation to how people actually listen to music. As I’ve previously noted, those of us who write about music in any capacity are a tiny minority and our relationship with it is not typical. It’s a misguided effort towards populism which drives an extreme Poptimism that implicitly devalues the worth of pop music – the fact of the matter is that time and time again, ‘casual’ music fans demonstrate that they value very traditional notions of talent. They understand that Michael Jackson was special and ‘authentic’ in ways which modern pop writing seeks to undermine and pretend don’t matter. I found it funny that Jack White’s misunderstood comments about Lady Gaga last week aroused such Poptimist outrage, because they have such relevance to that whole schtick: “The goal of modern celebrity is to make yourself into the lowest common denominator.” In speaking about how ‘image for the sake of image’ was an increasingly dominant notion and one which was deployed towards some facile caricature of being just like everyone else, White neatly speared the central tenet of modern Poptimism. The great irony being, of course, that it’s now so clearly almost entirely the preserve of professional writers who haven’t been in their teens for a long time, who convince themselves that they are bravely combatting the elitism of other professional writers. It is, to put it mildly, complete guff.

The whole Rockism/Poptimism thing undoubtedly arose out of very real attitudes in music writing but it is woefully outdated and having an instinctive mistrust of any genre of music, or someone with a guitar, or someone who doesn’t write their songs, or someone who thinks they have more to offer music than standing and miming badly, is idiotic. Ke$ha is as deserving of serious consideration as anyone else – how refreshing it would be if it was consideration which didn’t rely on an appeal to some external opponent.

Rolling and trolling: Ke$ha