My Albums of 2016

In no particular order, though ★ was definitely my number 1. It goes without saying that three artists loomed large in my listening this year and here are the posts I wrote to mark their passing:

David Bowie

Prince

Leonard Cohen

George Michael died late in the year, during that period when everything grinds to a halt. I marked it on Instagram.

2016 was a fucking terrible year in so many ways. I hope 2017 is better.

RIP Prince

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1992. I’m 12 years old and sitting in my bedroom with one of my friends. We’re listening to Prince’s Love Symbol album loudly. We turn it up for Sexy MF and sing along with gusto. Halfway through the song I look up and my mum is standing in the doorway. She doesn’t bat an eyelid and asks if we want something to eat. “Your mum is pretty cool,” says my friend.

A snapshot of an evening from the early-noughties. I was in Barfly in Glasgow, dancing and singing along to Raspberry Beret. I felt completely alone in the best possible way. It would have appeared to be an unremarkable event but I will never forget it because it’s one of the moments where the transcendent joy of pop music set me on fire.

In 2014 I went up to Glasgow to see Prince at the Hydro with my brother. I was excited enough to don a purple tie for the gig but nothing could have prepared me for what we experienced. Alongside the entire arena, we sang and danced like it was the last night on earth. Prince exuded a truly unfathomable charisma: “Do you all have to work tomorrow? I could stay here all night. I got too many hits!” I was grinning for hours afterwards.

I shouldn’t have to be writing this so soon after Bowie, another of my defining heroes, passed away. Yet here I am again, listening with tears in my eyes to the music I’ve listened to my entire life, seeking comfort in the innumerable happy memories I associate with it. Probably because he was around well before I was, I can remember exactly when I properly got into David Bowie; Prince, on the other hand, just seems to have always been there. I still loved him when people were dismissing his triple-albums and I still rushed home in excitement when HITnRUN Phase Two leaked last year. I still love him and I always will. I have to write that down. I have to, in my own small way, let him know that.

I listened to Sometimes It Snows In April on repeat when my dog died. Now it will forever have a dual poignancy. Yet in the main Prince inspired in me an almost-unparalled ecstasy, an out-of-body abandonment which I’ve needed in so many difficult times. I hope I, and everyone who ever loves his music, will always have that.

The beautiful ones/U always seem 2 lose

RIP Prince. You truly were one of the beautiful ones.

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.

Albums of 2014

Playlist here.

Again, no particular order though Jenny Lewis would definitely be my album of the year and the Manics would probably be second. I ‘discovered’ the Rosanne Cash album due to her being interviewed on Radio 2 whilst I was having my haircut. Great times. Special shout-out for the King Creosote album, a project tied into the Commonwealth Games which I think does a better job of capturing the Scottish psyche than a million indy ref thinkpieces.

The Voyager – Jenny Lewis
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Soundtrack – Various
Futurology – Manic Street Preachers
Take Me When You Go – Betty Who
Me. I Am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse – Mariah Carey
Xscape – Michael Jackson
No-One Is Lost – Stars
Popular Problems – Leonard Cohen
Stay Gold – First Aid Kit
Ghost Stories – Coldplay
High Hopes – Bruce Springsteen
The Take Off and Landing of Everything – Elbow
The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett – Eels
Do It Again – Royksopp & Robyn
Are We There – Sharon Van Etten
Ruins – Grouper
PLECTRUMELECTRUM – Prince & 3RDEYEGIRL
From Scotland With Love – King Creosote
Live In Dublin – Leonard Cohen
Unrepentant Geraldines – Tori Amos
Tough Love – Jessie Ware
The River & the Thread – Rosanne Cash
Food – Kelis
Kiasmos – Kiasmos
Xen – Arca

And not on Spotify but definitely in my top 5 albums of the year:

I don’t think 1989 is as good as Red – it properly goes off the boil in its second half – but its high points are high enough for it to be included here. Particularly the bonus track New Romantics which, had it been released, would’ve been my single of the year.  But Swift hates the internet so go illegally download it.

And it Feels like Home – 25 Years of Like A Prayer

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“Did this actually make you think or are you just trying to be cool?’

My first high school English teacher didn’t much care for my essay about Madonna’s Like A Prayer, returning it to me with the (barely) implicit message that I would write it again. I’d written about how, at the tail-end of my Catholic primary education, Madonna’s album (and particularly the furore around its first single) had opened up a small but ultimately invaluable space for me to start thinking about my relationship with religion. This had been previously been unthinkable for me; more than that, it had seemed terrifying. It felt intrinsically wrong. That the music so resonated with me is unsurprising when you read Madonna’s thoughts at the time:

“I have a great sense of guilt and sin from Catholicism that has definitely permeated my everyday life, whether I want it to or not. And when I do something wrong… if I don’t let someone know that I have wronged, I’m always afraid that I’m going to be punished. And that’s something you’re raised to believe as a Catholic.”

She spoke of the deeply-ingrained but nonetheless taught sense that “If you enjoy something, it must be wrong.” It was ironic, then, that prior to the school discos and end-of-term days where we could bring music into the classroom, we would be given the firm instruction “NO MADONNA”.  This had the obvious effect of making Madonna seem infinitely cooler – even dangerous. And how often can you say that about pop music?

There has been nothing quite like the controversy which erupted around Like A Prayer, either before or since. The single was premiered in an innocuous Pepsi commercial, the product of a then-unprecedented $5 million tie-in deal.

The day after, the now-legendary music video was released. There was instant and widespread uproar, with accusations of blasphemy meeting barely-hidden racism regarding Madonna’s use of a ‘black Jesus’ (the video actually depicts Saint Martin de Porres). The Pope himself condemned the video and the Vatican later censured the whole album. Pepsi quickly ditched the campaign and Madonna kept the money, managing the quite incredible feat of appearing subversive while filling her bustier with multinational dollars.

We tend to believe that boundaries keep being pushed and we become less and less easy to shock. Yet if anything, the Like A Prayer tornado seems less likely to happen in 2014. Pop is more fragmented now, yes. Yet it also seems to carry less cultural weight and have less heady aspirations. The instant response to this in some quarters will be to point out that I’m just older. Sure. But we live in age where even self-confessed pop fans argue for the ‘right’ of pop to be meaningless, frothy background noise, thinking that this is fighting the good fight against elitism. Big artistic statements are so rare that Lady Gaga can hinge an entire career on the mere appearance of offering something beyond the interchangeable pop which dominates, with most of the big pop stars singing variations offered by the same few song-writing teams. Indeed, it’s notable that many listeners of contemporary Madonna long affectionately for the days when she would largely write an entire album with one or two other people (and relatively obscure people at that) – they may not realise it but they’re buying completely into notions of creativity and authenticity (in the spark between writers) which they would probably profess to scorn.

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Going back to 1989, there was little overlap in the collaborators between the dominant artists of the era. Prince’s Batman was created by a total of three writers and one producer. Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 – three writers and four producers. Even Kylie’s Enjoy Yourself is entirely driven by Stock Aitken and Waterman, with one cover version. Madonna’s Like A Prayer unashamedly revelled in its ‘rockist’ take on pop, drawing on inspirations like Simon and Garfunkel, Sly and the Family Stone, The Beatles and Stax Records. Madonna spoke of her love for Tom Waits in interviews of the period, while the album cover is a clear evocation of Sticky Fingers by The Rolling Stones. This was no trite attempt to ‘elevate’ pop by name-dropping so-called serious artists – it was a refusal to countenance that pop wasn’t just as worthy and creative in the first place. If this seems overly worthy, the scenting of the album sleeve with patchouli oil surely provided a cheeky wink at the misunderstood blurred line between artifice and authenticity?

At the time this line was personified by Prince, so it’s unsurprising that Madonna wanted to work with him. What’s perhaps more surprising for some is that Prince equally wanted to work with her (Madonna laughed about how little respect she was afforded as an artist with a wry ““You mean they don’t realize I’m a songwriter as well as a slut?”) The two had gotten together in 1987 to figure out a collaboration: Prince wanted Madonna to star in Graffiti Bridge only for her to dismiss the script as ‘a piece of shit’ (she was right). A co-written musical was mooted and then abandoned. In the end, the two created some impromptu demos, with Madonna describing how they:

“…sat down and just started fooling around. We had a lot of fun. What happened is that he played the drums and I played the synthesizer and we came up with the original melody line; I just, off the top of my head, started singing lyrics into the microphone.”

Oh, to have been in that room. The result, Love Song, was largely finished off via a tape being sent back and forth (very 20th century) and it is perhaps the most low-key and left-field duet between two pop superstars that there has ever been. Some see it as the weak point of Like A Prayer – I think it’s a febrile treasure. The Purple One also pops up on Keep It Together and Act of Contrition, as well as the 12” version of Like A Prayer.

Prince aside, Madonna again worked with the two men who had largely guided 1986’s mammoth-selling True Blue album: Patrick Leonard and Stephen Bray.  Having collaborated with both for years by this point, there was an easy and magical chemistry. Things moved quickly, with Leonard later saying:

“Everything is very quick. We wrote ‘Like A Prayer’, ‘Spanish Eyes’, ‘Til Death Do Us Part’, ‘Dear Jessie’, ‘Promise to Try’ and ‘Cherish’ in a two week period. I was working on another album at the time so she’d just come in on Saturdays or days off. Nothing took more than 4 hours ever.”

Bray summed up the mood which drove the writing forward with such speed: “It’s behind the scenes, definitely, in Madonna’s psyche.” Her relationship with Sean Penn had very publically disintegrated during the album’s genesis, with Madonna finally filing for divorce following a prolonged violent assault by Penn. Speaking about writing her most personal record to date, Madonna said:

“In the past I wrote a lot of songs like that, but I felt they were too honest or too frightening or too scary and I decided not to record them. It just seemed like the time was right at this point. Because this was what was coming out of me. “

‘Express yourself so you can respect yourself’ was no throwaway line – it’s a fundamental tenet of the record. The result may have been atypical of pop at the time but it was the continuation of a trend Madonna had both pushed and ridden. True Blue’s Live To Tell was the obvious precursor, while Janet Jackson’s Control (also released in 1986) had attracted much attention for its very public rejection of her father Joseph’s influence (and indeed Janet too would push deeper with the themes of Rhythm Nation 1814). You can nonetheless imagine that it was still shocking to hear a pop superstar of Madonna’s calibre singing about an abusive partner, a dead mother and a dysfunctional family.

It’s not noted enough how central the theme of family is to Like A Prayer, despite it being writ large on the record. It is dedicated to her mother, who provides the inspiration for the naked emotion of Promise To Try. Her father is the subject of Oh Father (funnily enough) while on Keep It Together she addresses her five siblings. Til Death Do Us Part of course addresses her former husband while the psychedelic  joy of Dear Jessie is aimed at Pat Leonard’s daughter Jessie whom Madonna had apparently gotten drunk on champagne in 1987. If much of the family on display here is messy and messed up it’s clear that Madonna views it as central to life: “don’t forget that your family is gold”, she sings on Keep It Together, positing them as the key to remembering the essential core of yourself.

It was a self I was still finding, let alone coming to terms with, in 1989 and the following years. Like A Prayer more than any other record not only accompanied me on that journey but helped me to discover myself. It didn’t explode my world wide open but rather, as I said at the start, created a small space where the seeds for what became defining questions about my life were planted. I haven’t even touched on my burgeoning sexuality and how Madonna at the time was by far the most prominent advocate of gay rights (Like A Prayer featured an educational insert about AIDS while the song Spanish Eyes has been said to be about the disease). I’m sure I picked up on that connection, somewhere, but truth be told it was buried deep within me at that stage; I had to get out from under the whole Catholic sinner thing before I could even begin to visit those places. Happily, Madonna would be there for that part too.

So happy 25th anniversary to Like A Prayer, a pop album which remains unparalleled in my humble opinion. More than any other it shows what pop can really be and why it demands to be taken seriously rather than defended as irrelevant fluff. It’s a record which continues to matter while containing some mercurial, evergreen singles –  it remains a watershed moment in pop. Its DNA can be found when Christina Aguilera announces herself as a ‘serious artist’ by getting personal on Stripped; when Rihanna turns the travails of her private life into brilliant music on Rated R and (of course) when Lady Gaga pays ‘homage’ to one of its most famous singles. We now don’t bat an eyelid when, on her most recent album MDNA, Madonna sings of her second failing marriage on songs like I Fucked Up and Falling Free (it’s surely no accident that her second divorce album picks up where the first one ends, with a recitation of the Act of Contrition?)

Was I ‘trying to be cool’ when I wrote that essay back then? Probably. I certainly felt cool liking the record at the time but by God, it really did make me think and it made me feel. Rolling Stone famously called the album ‘as close to art as pop music gets’. It may have been intended as a great compliment but fuck that. Like A Prayer is art – great art, at that. And when I listen to it now? It feels like home.

Justin Timberlake

When the now infamous Janet Jackson ‘incident’ happened at the Super Bowl, Justin Timberlake’s reaction was illuminating. As Janet overnight became a whipping post for the moral majority (and her career has never recovered), Timberlake hastily distanced himself from her, declaring himself “shocked and appalled”, invoking the outrage of his “own family” and going as far as he could in saying “SHE DID IT” without actually saying the words. He would have to have been spectacularly dense to be unaware of the gender and racial politics at play in the responses and the fact that his statements played up to the idea of Janet as “a contemporary Jezebel” still seems unforgivable; even more so because from the safety of three years’ later he felt able to observe that “I think that America’s harsher on women. And I think that America is, you know, unfairly harsh on ethnic people.” Gee, thanks Justin – Janet must have appreciated that.

For me, the incident neatly summed up Justin’s musical career: he’s become rather ridiculously successful and admired by appropriating black music, stripping it of everything vaguely ‘risky’ and presenting it to audiences as ‘innovative’, all the while coasting on his image as a wholesome white boy (the kind who tickles America’s tummy regarding its demonisation of Hugo Chavez just days after his death). Justified is a hugely derivative album of warmed-up Prince and Michael Jackson retreads – heck, ‘Rock Your Body’ was even originally written for the King of Pop. The singles aside, it’s absolutely atrocious. Prince looms even larger over the follow-up FutureSex/LoveSounds yet all of his perversity, his religious ecstasy, his danger, is gone. Even the ostensibly raunchy SexyBack offers little more than a self-conscious swearword. Hilariously, this album offers a ‘socially conscious’ song where the former Mouseketeer sings about a man addicted to crack – it’s not only dreadful but inadvertently highlights how his songs are almost never actually about anything. Still, by singing about crack he’s at least being urban, or something.

Of course many pop stars appropriate black culture but it particularly grates with Timberlake for two reasons: firstly, his entire musical career is based on it yet, as with the Janet incident, he is very careful to remain removed from any aspects of it which may prove difficult and actively promotes himself as this banal, clown-like Hollywood filmstar who just happens to have loads of black friends who want to make music with him. It’s an odd but important dichotomy. Secondly, I can think of no other pop star for whom the gap between their reality and the hysterically overblown guff written about them is so large. This piece from this week is a perfect example. He DOES EVERYTHING! Clearly singing r&b, having black producers, singing about crack and appropriating big band imagery is enough for this white man to be the natural successor of the renowned victim of racism and support of civil rights, Sammy Davis Jr. The fact that anyone would even write that piece highlights the central problem of Timberlake’s career – there is no sense that he’s had to work for this status, no sense that he is questioned or challenged in any way.

The largely positive reaction to The 20/20 Experience further underlines this. It is a deeply odd album, not least in the fact that its songs typically run 6-8 minutes long. There are two observations arising from this: firstly, that Timberlake has clearly been paying attention to Channel Orange (and to its rapturous reception) and its stand-out track, the almost-10 minutes long Pyramids. Secondly, that Timberlake has stated the song lengths were influenced by bands like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Queen and Bob Dylan. The latter artist is actually frequently cited by him as an influence but I defy anyone to find any of those artists present in any way in his music. No, what Timberlake is concerned with here is the appearance of authenticity and of ambition. Serious artists make long songs! The unfortunate thing is that he doesn’t have the courage of his convictions and this woefully exposes the agenda – the songs are long solely to draw attention to their own length and what that signifies. Every song is a highly conventional 4-5 minute pop track bloated by 2-3 minutes of self-conscious beats and ad-libbing. The single edits are clear and it’s difficult to imagine that anyone would mourn if the songs were shortened. Furthermore, the lyrics are almost entirely forgettable and terrible – these are more songs about nothing but what they can be said to reveal about the creativity of the man on the album cover. This makes the album seem deeply cynical. Indeed, it’s a surprise that any ‘Poptimist’ would claim Timberlake as ‘their Bowie’ when he is clearly deeply concerned with the notions of authenticity, talent and ambition which they so scorn. It’s no accident that the video for Suit & Tie begins with Timberlake playing the piano, just as it makes perfect sense that there is apparently a second instalment of The 20/20 Experience coming later in the year (nothing says ‘creative’ like a double album after all). This is what people who don’t actually listen to pop think of as ‘ambitious’ – it doesn’t matter that it has zero emotional resonance and is a chore to listen to as most of the critics praising it will never listen to it again for as long as they live.

The sense given by his musical return, then, is that he’s popped back to ‘remind’ everyone that he’s a renaissance man. It seems obvious that he will again disappear from music for a long period afterwards – at least then he’ll have the four albums to base his ludicrous status on. Instead he’ll return to being a Hollywood film star – a sphere where there is little cultural cachet in appropriating blackness (for a leading man, anyway). As this astute review notes, his career seems like a succession of role-playing. The Janet Jackson episode was the biggest and clearest example of his trying on a role and then fleeing it for safe privilege when it didn’t work. Such insincere fluidity may make him a pop star for our times, certainly – but not a pop star worth celebrating.

Taking Pop Music Seriously Again – Bowie, Timberlake and Roger Scruton

So apparently Justin Timberlake and Destiny’s Child are going to ‘save pop’, The Saturdays are returning via a new reality show and Will.I.Am & Britney Spears are set to hit number one with one of the worst pop songs in recent memory. Pop music, in that most narrow of senses meaning the Top 40 chart, seems to be up shit creek. The one thing which seems to unite all of these happenings is the triumph of celebrity over music: it should never be the case that a mediocre group like The Saturdays resort to debasing their personal lives on television in order to sell pop records. That they are doing so is instructive as to where much of the pop music audience is at these days – they want to like the artist almost as you would like a friend first and foremost and the music comes later. They are aspiring to that “strange celebrity where viewers/readers feel they know them and what they actually do is secondary so exemplified by Cheryl Cole. Britney offers a slightly different take on it – people may not feel that they know her, exactly, but she long ago ceased to exist in the public consciousness as a person and instead became a pliable brand – and people love their brands.

I think this has driven much of the hysterical response to Justin Timberlake returning. He’s had two albums, the first of which was pretty dreadful. Yet his return was viewed as The Great Hope for pop in 2013. Timberlake has long affected a chilled ‘guy next door’ cool – I say affected because it really seems so transparent to me that I’m amazed anyone buys into it, but buy into it they do – which led to him being one of the few mass pop artists it was ‘permissible’ to like if you were the kind of person who worries about such things. No less an arbiter of hipster tastes than Pitchfork adore him, hilariously placing him in their ‘Best Albums of the 2000s’ list and panting with excitement over this return. Destiny’s Child and Beyonce achieved similar, albeit with a much higher standard of output. It’s instructive that contemporaries like Nelly Furtado and Christina Aguilera released strong albums far removed from the Will.I.Am/Guetta chart stranglehold to deafening silence last year. Indeed, Furtado’s fate caused me to write last year about how “major pop albums which show such a messy but clear artistic impulse seem to be getting rarer and pop listeners were largely abandoning albums as ‘Rockist’ conceits. The response to Timberlake is a strong illustration of this – looking past his personality, his pop status rests on a handful of strong singles.

The sense that pop’s drive downwards is in large part fuelled by the low expectations of many pop listeners was further charged by the rather common response that Timberlake’s return was ‘pop’s Bowie moment’, referring to the latter’s unexpected appearance on Tuesday. Some undoubtedly meant this tongue-in-cheek but many clearly did not, taking the time to emphasise that they didn’t give a shit about David Bowie. Once again, the tired Rockist/Poptimist dichotomy was in play, with Bowie seen as the former and Timberlake the latter. I can think of nothing which better highlights the short-sighted stupidity of extreme Poptimism. There is definitely a case to be made for David Bowie being the greatest pop star of the past 100 years – certainly his influence is writ large in artists ranging from Madonna and Prince to Lady Gaga and, yes, Justin Timberlake. The idea that pop listeners should be encouraged to dismiss him as ‘not one of theirs’ because he’s too old, too respected, too ‘classic’, too artistic even, is very sad. Pathetic, even. As always, this attitude reinforces the idea that notions of wild creativity, of artistic involvement, of music-above-all-else, are tried old tropes obsessed over by ‘snobs’ while pop fans merrily destroy pretence and hierarchies. This attitude has , in fact, ended up in pop bands resorting to soul-destroying reality television in order to get noticed and pop fans celebrating One Direction being nominated for a ‘Best Group’ Brit award because it would ‘annoy fans of ‘credible’ music’. It’s idiotic.

I found the perfect summation of this attitude in a rather unexpected place – an OpenDemocracy piece on Melvyn Bragg’s Radio 4 series on ‘culture’. In a paragraph dealing with the ancient debate over ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture the author writes:

…nobody today believes that entire genres can be either defended or dismissed in toto, while only fanatical neoliberals actually believe that all preferences are of equal value.

The dismissal of entire genres was of course a central trait of Rockism. The irony is that, while Poptimists would claim to hold the second view that ‘all preferences are of equal value’ (which certainly is fanatically neoliberal) they actually tend to hold the first, dismissing most music which falls outside a narrow idea of what ‘pop’ is. What any music fan should aspire to is the piece’s description of Roger Scruton’s notion that “there is a case to be made for critical and informed discrimination within any genre of creative work.” This means being open to music wherever it may come from, certainly, but the ‘critical and informed discrimination’ point is key. We should not abandon our faculties in pursuit of the misguided notion that a critical approach to music is a pointless, even negative, exercise. The idea that ‘all music is equal, but some music is more equal than others’ is the idea which is more than anything responsible for the identikit dreck littering the charts at the moment. We need more people like Bowie, artists who sincerely and seriously care about what they do and do not aspire to be all things to all people. We need to demand more and that begins when we start taking pop seriously again.

The Real Best Ofs

Q Magazine this month has a feature on ‘the real best of’ various classic artists. The tagline is ‘forget the greatest hits’ and each artist has a little essay devoted to them by a writer who is ostensibly a fan. The idea is, I suppose, that these fans can give a passionate insight into the ‘hidden treasures’ in each artist’s back catalogue. The execution is rather awry – while some writers do indeed highlight album tracks or obscure b-sides which will be unfamiliar to casual listeners, others pepper lesser-known singles next to the usual big hits. Others still are clearly not particularly interested in the artist assigned to them.

No hardcore fan would ever agree with such a list as compiled by another. I think such lists are pointless, however, if they include the big hits. Anyone interested surely already knows them, and most of the artists are so massive that many of these songs have penetrated our consciousness whether we like it or not. With that in mind, I present my own ‘obscurities’ lists for Madonna/Bowie/Manics (and Prince, who was oddly missed out by Q), taking into account the limits imposed by the Spotify catalogue. The only criteria was – no big hits and about an hour of music.

The Q Madonna list:
Borderline
Into The Groove
Live To Tell
Oh Father
Justify My Love
Deeper and Deeper
I Want You
Skin
Don’t Tell Me
Hung Up (SDP Extended Vocal)

My Madonna Spotify List 

The Q Bowie List:
Space Oddity
The Man Who Sold The World
Life on Mars?
The Bewley Brothers
All The Young Dudes
Starman
Win
Always Crashing in the Same Car
Ashes to Ashes
Teenage Wildlife

My David Bowie Spotify Playlist 

The Q Manics List:
Motown Junk
Motorcycle Emptiness
Sleepflower
Comfort Comes
Faster
Yes
A Design For Life
Judge Yr’self
Your Love Alone Is Not Enough
All Is Vanity

My Manic Street Preachers Spotify Playlist 

My Prince Spotify Playlist

Prince

The way Prince tells it, ‘Little Red Corvette’ came to him in a dream. It’s easily one of my favourite songs: sexy, witty and almost painfully lachrymose. When I hear it I always hear one of his ‘Sign O’ The Time’ tour performances of it. He sits alone at a piano and sings ‘You need to find a love that’s gonna last…’ then pleads plaintively, ‘Do you think maybe I could be that love?’ before yelping in the dirty way only Prince can yelp, ‘But tonight, we get off!’ and jumping away from his piano. I must have been around 10 when I saw this. I’ve never forgotten it.

Happy birthday, Prince. It’s been a long time since we saw your sort round these parts.