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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Happy Birthday, Madonna

In the recent ‘celebrations’ of the 50-year anniversary of (partial) decriminalisation of homosexual activity, one of the central themes which emerged was the importance of pop culture to LGBT* life. It has provided much-needed recognition and an outlet for expression while helping transform the world. In so doing, and in ways too numerous, too tiny, too enormous to express, it has transformed us. Anyone who knows anything about me knows how large a role Madonna has played in my life. She was there when I started to question the Catholicism I’d been raised with; she was there when I started to realise I was ‘different’; she was there when I started having sex and battled both the religious and societal conditioning that doing it with men, and with many men at  that, was wrong. She provided my own ‘Ziggy on TOTP’ moment, the men passionately kissing during In Bed With Madonna, the first time I can remember seeing not just gay men, but gay men expressing their sexuality. At every step she was there, both as an enormous, alien, mighty figure looming large over (seemingly) the entire world and as a small voice whispering to me, “you are ok, you are going to be ok and you are allowed to be ok.’ And she did it, and continues to do it, with a gold-plated soundtrack which remains an unparalleled testament to the power of pop; one which can still fill a club in Hackney with people dancing joyously; one which still thrills me and shakes me to my core. I love Madonna, and I always will love Madonna, with a sincerity and earnestness which you’re not really supposed to express in 2017. Happy birthday and thank you @Madonna

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This Ain’t a Scene, It’s an Arms Race

Britney Spears’ previous album, Britney Jean, staggered onto the stage as the pinnacle of ‘zombie pop‘ and was “one of the most depressing albums I have ever heard.” It was so wretched that I thought we might have reached the bottom of the barrel:

…pop isn’t taken seriously as an art form yet a trite populism means that it’s instinctively defended against any and all criticism. When the banal output of One Direction is celebrated as a joyful cultural force, the pressure to do something great is pretty much non-existent. Add to this the fact that record sales are in decline, resulting in labels increasingly relying on their star artists for revenue (which itself comes more and more from advertising and endorsement deals) and you have a recipe for conservatism. The results of this have been unavoidable this year in most of the big pop releases: Prism’s dry self-denial; Gaga and Justin’s need to smother their music in tortured conceits to lend it ‘worth’; Miley’s ‘will this do?’ singles-and-filler effort. There’s been a singular lack of vision and, more to the point, a lack of daring. If Thriller was the music industry’s Star Wars, it feels like we’re at the stage where the results are market-driven dreck akin to Pearl Harbour.

Reading this in 2016, it’s certainly more difficult to complain about ‘a singular lack of vision and, more to the point, a lack of daring” when the pop mainstream is dominated by artists like Beyonce and Frank Ocean. The former surprise released Lemonade with an accompanying feature-length ‘visual album’ while the latter, not to be outdone, preceded his second album with an entirely separate visual album and then dropped blond with international pop-up shops. Both ‘campaigns’ generated enough hyperbole to power a nuclear power station, massive critical acclaim and commercial success. On the more prosaic end of the pop spectrum, teen idols like Justin Bieber and Zayn Malik have been reinvented in collaborations with electronic and r&b producers like Skrillex, Diplo and Malay.

Britney Spears has kinda been paying attention. This week she releases a new album, Glory, and it’s a step away from the formulaic EDM which characterised her recent efforts into more diverse, but not unexpected, areas. It seems a major pop album in 2016 isn’t complete without forays into reggae, hip-hop, minimalist r&b and other ‘sonic terrains’ which would please the Pitchfork and Vice crowd. Glory is miles better than Britney Jean (it would be very difficult not to be) but it still feels dead behind the eyes without turning that quality into a dazzling strength, as Blackout did. More to the point, it feels very traditional, in this age of the pop arms race – it’s just a collection of songs with no particular theme, trailed well in advance and preceded by a single. Perhaps it was felt that ‘the return of Britney Spears’ was a big enough splash on its own but it seems doubtful that this will be the case.

Listening to Glory, a couple of things conspired to lend context and get me thinking about pop in 2016. Firstly, Madonna’s Cherish came on random play soon after Glory ended:

Madonna of course has had plenty of her own creative conceits and bold marketing moves but it struck me, listening to Cherish, that you so rarely hear pop music like it anymore (even from Madonna). It’s guileless, charming and feels unencumbered by an acute self-awareness or concern for a wider context. In an era when songs, videos and albums show an eagerness to launch a thousand memes and our popstars offer carefully curated connection via social media, it seems increasingly rare to hear pop songs confident enough that they themselves are enough.

Rare but not unheard of. My thoughts turned to what seemed to me the most obvious example of this kind of pop in recent years: Carly Rae Jepsen’s E•MO•TION, which saw its worldwide release one year ago this week. This anniversary was fresh in my mind as Jepsen has announced a companion release, E•MO•TION Side B, to mark it. The five-day gap from announcement to release is as far into the pop marketing arms race as Jepsen has yet ventured and while Call Me Maybe launched a plethora of viral videos, they felt like a cute aside to the song rather than a calculated part of its appeal.

In a review of Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP I once wrote:

…Gaga lacks confidence in pop as an art form in itself, seeming unable to let a song breathe and instead overbearing it with very deliberate efforts to be seen as a ‘proper artist’. Throughout ARTPOP signifier upon signifier is piled on top of sometimes brilliant melodies, creating enough room for breathless readings of Gaga’s ‘art’ certainly, but failing on the more basic level as engaging pop music. One of her early statements was that ‘pop will never be low-brow’, a suggested understanding that the simple pleasures of pop songs like (for example) Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe or Gaga’s own Poker Face were a powerful and admirable art form in themselves. With ARTPOP, however, it instead seems that Gaga thinks pop needs to be smothered in the language and aesthetics of more traditional art forms in order to have ‘value’.

It strikes me that this manifestation of Poptimism, wherein there’s a significant audience which requires its pop to be heavily signposted before they take it seriously, has gone turbo, feeding directly into the arms race of works which drape themselves in signifier after signifier that they are a ‘cut above’ your usual pop. It’s instructive that, for a mass audience, Carly Rae Jepsen is a semi-ironic one-hit-wonder to be enjoyed alongside Gangham Style. For a relatively small but vocal group, however, E•MO•TION marked her out as a pop artist in the most classic sense – someone who takes pop seriously enough to let it do the talking. From that plaintive sax which opens Run Away With Me, E•MO•TION grabs the heart with a charming sincerity atypical of the current pop scene: there is no overarching conceit tacked on, the music is not hinged on ‘Carly Rae Jepsen’ as a personality or cipher and for all the involvement of cool hitmakers like Sia and Blood Orange, it feels like an artist’s labour of love. It’s telling that in an article ostensibly praising the record, Vice still feels the need to observe that “maybe being marketed as a leftfield-leaning pop artist in the vein of Robyn is what Carly Rae Jepsen should be striving for”. It feels like we are increasingly unable to parse pop which doesn’t either make clear that it is SERIOUS AND CREDIBLE or allow itself to be framed as something apart from ‘real music’ which you are very broad-minded for enjoying. We expect the artist, and the marketing, to do a lot of the work for us.  Hence Madonna recently distinguishing herself from ‘pop acts’ and labelling herself as an ‘artist’ – the people have to be told!

This is a large part of why Glory feels like an album out of time. I think it’s largely going for the latter kind of appreciation, relying on Britney as the kind of popstar many will like in a performative way without any real belief that she is an ‘artist’, yet it was preceded by an atypically ‘mature’ single and advance word labelling it a ‘new era’. It’s a mish-mash which feels like it doesn’t understand the current scene or its dominant strain of Poptimism and it will probably struggle to make much impact as a result. If you want commercial success and critical acclaim in the arms race of 2016 pop, you gotta work, bitch.

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.

Let’s Go To War

When the Manics released Futurology earlier in the year I wrote that:

The aesthetic and publicity of Futurology seems to have blinded many to the fact that it’s a continuation of (obsession with the past, with nostalgia) – 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.

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The since-announced tour reviving The Holy Bible (to mark its 20th anniversary) fits in perfectly with this. Lest we forget, THB is an aggressive, uncompromising album which acts as a chilling testament to humanity’s brutality in the 20th century. It features song about the holocaust, the violence of the British Empire, serial killers, eating disorders, suicide, racism. More than that, it deliberately baits the liberal sensibility to distance onself from this bleakness and believe that it’s the fault of people ‘over there’ – who’s responsible, you fucking are (it also more directly baits liberals with its pro-gun, pro-death penalty lyrics and its ambivalence towards violence in general). While it’s inevitable that its unsettling power has dimmed with familiarity, we should be under no illusions that this album would be met with a chilly and/or bewildered response from many critics today. We live, after all, in an age where ‘music critic’ is viewed as an aspect of your broadsheet-friendly brand which easily lends itself to writing about fashion or Disney or yourself – all done with the same ironic wink at the audience. THB deliberately tries to shut down this distance, directly addressing the listener and implicating them in its litany of horrors. The band’s performance of Faster on Top of the Pops famously garnered the most complaints in BBC history – there was to be no easy escape and no backing down.

It’s been widely noted that THB came out on the same day as Oasis’ Definitely Maybe with the comparison invariably contrasting the former’s desolation with the swaggering optimism of the latter. Yet both had their roots in almost two decades of a largely-successful war against the working-class. The 1984 miners’ strike has become emblematic of this and it’s notable that (what remained of) the mining industry was fully-privatised at the end of 1994. In retrospect we can easily see this act as cementing the defeat of the working-class, yet at the time it was subsumed beneath the 20-point plus leads which Labour were enjoying over the Tories. There was a real sense of optimism that real change was coming – the first Labour government in almost 20 years. Definitely Maybe captured this zeitgeist but we can now see that THB was a more accurate harbinger of what was the come. Blair’s New Labour may have become almost comically demonised in recent years but, if it did some good, it certainly confirmed that the powerful forces represented by Thatcherism had won.

The left still hasn’t come to terms with this comprehensive defeat – one which stretches around the world and largely ensures that any government attempting to pursue radical left-wing policies is swiftly and aggressively punished (as Labour were in the late-70s). 20 years later we have another Tory government (let’s ignore the Lib Dems) which is widely viewed as being more Thatcherite than Thatcher and a left which is not in good shape. Fragmented, directionless and defeatist, much of the left prefers to dwell on the so-called glory days of the Spirit of ’45 (ignoring the unpleasant aspects of the context in which this happened, not least Empire) and pin its hopes on a Labour Party (or SNP for many in Scotland) which it hopes will be left-wing…just because. An analysis of power, the pressures which position political parties and the need to organise are frequently replaced by a blind optimism.

It’s into this context which THB is being re-born. The many pieces marking its anniversary may have paid lip service to its radicalism but they are steeped in nostalgia – a force which creates the crucial distance necessary for listening to the album without personal discomfort. There is often a sigh at the fact no band in 2014 could be envisaged releasing such a work, an attitude which bears comparison with the Spirit of ’45 nostalgia (we could draw a line from the complaints about the latter’s lack of acknowledgement of race and Empire, for example, to the notion that because no British white men with guitars are singing about politics it is currently absent). The fact that THB gigs were the fastest-selling ones the Manics have done in many years is testament to the power which the album holds over many people around my age and also an uncomfortable reminder of how easily we seek solace in sentimental reminiscing. In 1994, a BBC performance of Revol would have felt dangerous – now it feels like a crowd-pleasing offering to an audience who’ve just put the kids to bed and are relaxing with a drink. That’s what happens – we age and in doing so we hark back to when we weren’t sure who we were, when everything seemed more vivid and when life exploded with possibility (real or imagined). Yet we aren’t defeated until we stop trying and nostalgia is ultimately the enemy of progress. The Manics’ current playing with the past, both in straightforward reliving and in Rewind The Film/Futurology’s more experimental playing, risk obscuring the really important message here:

Working class skeletons
Lie scattered in museums
And all the false economies
Speak falsely of your dreams

Let’s go to war
To feel some pureness and pain
Let’s go to war
We need to go to war again