Zombie Pop

I’ve written quite a bit about the current contempt for pop music which bubbles away beneath the surface even of much ‘pop fandom’, not least in my recent Lily Allen piece. As I noted there, 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.

Britney Spears’ Britney Jean is the last big pop release of the year and (quite remarkably) it’s possibly the worst. Talked up in advance as being her “strongest album ever” and comparable to Madonna’s classic Ray of Light, in actuality it’s completely wretched. This shouldn’t be surprising: no artist has better personified the lack of respect afforded to pop music than Britney. Yet there have been moments, most notably Blackout, where Britney’s blankness has been put to brilliant use; for the most part however, she has cruised on her celebrity and the indulgence of beguiled fans who project themselves into the void. The lead single from Britney Jean, Work Bitch, was depressingly generic fare which very firmly fell into the latter camp. Interestingly enough, though, the single bombed.

If being a hyper-famous void wasn’t enough to sell that song, Britney Jean as an album is very clearly fucked. It’s a quite extraordinary listen – decay and decline seep from its every second. The opener Alien, a William Orbit variation on the existential angst of fame, is actually a decent song but Britney’s vocal is breathtakingly terrible. To say it’s processed would be an understatement – it sounds like some bizarre other-worldly approximation of what a human sounds like, sterile and vacuum-packed. It offers no warmth and no trace of emotion, only a cold technological dejection. As noted, Blackout had great fun with this – here it’s clear that we’re supposed to buy into these vocals being ‘heartfelt’ and ‘real’. It’s such a miserable black hole that the English impersonation of Work Bitch sounds positively sparkling in comparison.

If the album is hobbled by this from the off it’s mortally wounded by a succession of similarly dead-eyed conveyor belt contributions from will.i.am, David Guetta, Sia and a host of others. The ‘personal’ lyrics consist of little more than sweeping allusions to everyday emotions which allow chasms of ambiguity. Passenger is a prime example, seeming certain to be interpreted as being about Britney’s conservatorship yet being a standard love song with lyrics which just seem sinister if taken in a personal context (if you’re in your 30s and deemed to be incapable of managing your own affairs, singing “this is living, yeah!” about the situation is more than a little twisted.)

Britney is a zombie popstar, staggering on long past the point when blood last pumped through her veins and feasting on the low expectations of a catatonic audience. The cracks, however, are bursting wide open. It’s simply astonishing that, throughout the album, other voices crop up to paper over Britney’s contribution; at one point (on Body Ache) it actually sounds like someone else takes an entire verse. The fact that the people behind the record either think no-one will notice or (perhaps more likely) that no-one will care is remarkable. I suppose it’s a fair enough expectation when you have an artist who never actually sings during her ‘live’ shows but you surely need to have a semblance of respect for your audience?! Yet respect is entirely absent here. Britney Jean is one of the most depressing albums I have ever heard. The glimmer of hope lies in the failure of Work Bitch, offering the possibility that even Britney’s own fanbase are tiring of an act that is increasingly less about illusion and more about derangement. It’s ironic, after all, that in the end it’s the listener who has to work to maintain some pretence that this is a functional record.

Maybe, just maybe, this will indeed be pop’s Pearl Harbour (movie). There has to come some point where we say ‘enough now’, quit making excuses for the phoned in crud and start expecting again. Perhaps it’s already happening, with artists like Lorde enjoying the kind of swift and enormous success which testifies to a malnourished audience craving sustenance. On the other hand, One Direction sold over 100,000 copies of their album in one day this week and will be joined by Gary Barlow at the top of Sunday’s album chart. The battle lines are drawn: what do you want your pop to be?

Work Bitch

I find Britney Spears endlessly fascinating. Not musically, of course – I rarely listen to her these days – but for what she represents in modern pop (and attitudes towards it). When she was added to the panel of American X Factor I wrote about what a perfect fit it was, both pushing a “dead-eyed idea of pop as something which, at its best, sells.” On Britney herself, I wrote that:

Britney as a brand & persona long ago eclipsed Britney as a person. It’s almost irrelevant to ponder Britney as an artist because she is the ultimate blank canvas, reflecting everything and nothing, at once devoid of personality and containing everyone’s personalities. She may still put out albums but really, at this stage, no-one would bat an eyelid if she was used to advertise hedge funds.

Now this doesn’t mean that Britney can’t be involved in great pop. The brilliance of Blackout was (and remains) that it got the point (or more apropos, the lack of one) of Britney:

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?”

Post-Blackout, of course, there’s been a long attempt at normalising Britney’s image once more. X Factor was the apex of this, sending Britney into people’s homes every week in an acknowledgement that personality (the appearance of being ‘approachable’ and ‘down to earth’) is what really matters in modern pop. In truth, she didn’t come across as any less dead-eyed and lost. The crucial thing, however, is that she wasn’t unavoidably absurd. She remained inoffensive and blank – as such, people could keep on projecting whatever they wanted onto her. In a sense it’s the same projection which David Bowie used to such great effect on The Next Day, albeit inverted. Bowie had fun with it, documenting in a very real sense his ‘fall’ from mythical vacuum to a real, functioning artist again. He stamped his authority onto the void which he had become in the same way that Blackout did for Britney. Since then, however, Britney and everyone around her (you really don’t get the sense she cares much about any of this) have done their best to avoid it and pretend it’s business as usual (with the odd crack in the facade). So we had Femme Fatale, an album which sounded thoroughly modern and overwhelmingly anodyne – whatever the quality of the songs, they could have been anyone for the most part. By this stage, however, that’s more than enough. No-one expects much of Britney other than to leave them be to project whatever they like onto her. In this process rather generic material is elevated as it acts as a reservoir for the listeners, who feel that in Britney’s blankness they recognise the ultimate ‘pop personality’. How could they not think this – they’re really only recognising themselves.

‘Work Bitch’ is business as usual. It really is Scream and Shout part 2, from the generic EDM beats to the faux-British accent and it could easily be one of those one-hit wonder dance tracks which feature anonymous women both singing and being objectified to comedic levels in the video. It’s one stamp of personality comes from its appropriation of the language of (black) drag culture, reflecting the same appropriation by Western white gay men who exchange lines from Ru Paul’s Drag Race in facile approximation of an ‘edgier’ identity. For her part, Britney keeps out of the way: as with S&S there is literally nothing about the song which is unique to her aside from the appeal to her mythology (S&S very deliberately so, with the ‘Britney bitch!’ line) which these days is synonymous with her blankness. Here, we’re long past any notion of pop as something which can be sublime and cathartic; instead it’s something functional which makes no demands and serves primarily to validate the listener. Perhaps in that frame of reference this is a brilliant Britney Spears single. Unfortunately, a brilliant Britney Spears single in 2013 is one which displays little more than contempt for pop music as an art form which can contain its own character and integrity, rather than subsuming itself in the listener’s ego.