RSS | Archive | Random | E-mail

Links

Last.fm
Flickr
26 April 2012

30 Years of Madonna

image

October 6th, 1982: I was 2 years old, "Pass The Dutchie" was No.1 in the charts (and Dire Straits in the album charts) and ‘E.T.’ was conquering the box office. With no fanfare, the world got its first chance to hear the debut single by an unknown artist with the striking name of ‘Madonna’. ‘Everybody’, written solely by Madonna, so convincingly blended new wave with r&b and an increasingly unfashionable disco sound that (as the now infamous story goes) listeners thought Madonna was black and Sire capitalised on this by keeping images of her off the sleeve. Although the single didn’t make many waves, it wouldn’t be too long before Madonna’s image was imprinted on our culture as part of a rarified breed of pop music icons.

2012 is a big year for Madonna – her first album in 4 years (the previous, ‘Hard Candy’, was incidentally also released in April), her first world-tour since the record-breaking ‘Sticky & Sweet’ and, perhaps biggest of all, the 30th anniversary of the start of her pop career. In typical Madonna fashion she has yet to acknowledge the landmark – no ‘M30’  or ‘30YO’ for her. Indeed, on the October date of ‘Everybody’s widespread release she is due to be playing a gig in San Jose – as a symbol of her restless hunger to keep looking forward, it’s hard to beat.

Yet if Madonna rarely takes the time to celebrate what has come before (even the self-explanatory ‘Celebration’ hits collection was largely ignored by her), it doesn’t mean no-one else should. Here, in honour of 30 years of Madonna, are my thoughts on her albums (presented in reverse order of my personal preferences – today!):

‘I’m Breathless’ (1990)

‘I’m Breathless’ is largely ignored, probably because it’s not viewed as a studio album. Indeed, it was noticeably absent from this year’s ‘Complete Studio Albums’ collection. Yet if ‘Purple Rain’, ‘Parade’, ‘Graffitti Bridge’ and ‘Batman’ are widely viewed as Prince albums, this (with 12 original songs and 6 Madonna co-writes) surely qualifies as worthy of sitting alongside Madonna’s 12 other albums.

The album’s tagline is ‘Music from and inspired by the film “Dick Tracy”’ and, as a result, it’s a bit of an oddity. The predominantly jazz and swing tone of the album suggests it as a precursor to Christina Aguilera’s ‘Back to Basics’, yet it’s far more knowingly camp. It features 3 Sondheim songs which are, predictably, brilliant. They also inspire some of the best vocals of Madonna’s career (and if you haven’t seen her performance of ‘Sooner or Later’ at the Oscars, get over to Youtube immediately). The rest of the album is a mixed bag – fillers like ‘I’m Going Bananas’ and ‘Cry Baby’ sit uneasily alongside moody ballads like ‘He’s A Man’ and ‘Something to Remember’. Then, somewhat tacked on at the end, we have the legendary ‘Vogue’. Suffice to say its shadow looms large over the rest of the album as it demonstrates that Madonna is at her best when she’s doing Madonna, and not doing Breathless Mahoney. The album is a curious failure – one that, bizarrely, Madonna chose as her own favourite when promoting ‘Bedtime Stories’. Which leads us nicely to….

‘Bedtime Stories’ (1994)

Madonna is so regularly and easily mocked these days that the notion of a ‘Madonna backlash’ seems rather quaint. Nevertheless, this album arose from the ashes of the biggest backlash she had faced in her career to that point. This context is key to the record, which must sound rather odd without it. Despite the combative ‘Human Nature’, this is a Madonna burned and cowed by relative failure. She worked with mainstays of the American charts like Babyface, Dallas Austin and Dave Hall, lending at least half the album a glossy, mainstream r&b sound which, at the time, seemed like a radical departure. Still, this is Madonna, so she contrasts the chart-ready material with some of the most unusual and ‘difficult’ songs of her career. Who else would blend r&b, Herbie Hancock and Walt Whitman (‘Sanctuary’) and, more than that, get away with it?! The more experimental efforts don’t always work – Bjork’s ‘Bedtime Story’ is ill-fitting – yet they lend the album a messy warmth that makes it far more interesting than the sales-chasing vehicle it could have been. Madonna doesn’t seem very fond of it herself – 7 of its 11 tracks have never been performed live.

‘Confessions on a Dancefloor’ (2005)

Speaking of albums which came from backlashes, this followed a doozy. ‘American Life’ is probably Madonna’s biggest commercial failure and (for the hundredth time) detractors were wondering if perhaps her time as a major force was at an end. Madonna responded with her most successful single ever. ‘Hung Up’ is undoubtedly a classic – not only a Madonna classic, but a CLASSIC classic. What’s remarkable about this album is that there is rarely a sense of the other songs playing catch-up - at least ¾ of them could be singles. What’s even more remarkable is that, despite the advance publicity playing up its floor-filling qualities, it lyrically covers much of the same ground as ‘American Life’. Fan favourite ‘How High’ is essentially a much more digestible rewrite of ‘American Life’ (the song) while ‘Isaac’ is as unusual a dance song as has ever graced a 10 million-selling album. Nonetheless, some of Madonna’s persuasive spikiness is lost in a set which aims to please and the absence of a ballad (one of her real strengths) is a sore disappointment.

‘Hard Candy’ (2008)

Whereas ‘Bedtime Stories’, Madonna’s previous courtship of Hot 100-pleasing r&b, came from failure, ‘Hard Candy’ arrived as she once again ruled the pop world. Many were confused, then, that she chose to work with ubiquitous producers Pharrell Williams and Timbaland. More than confused, even – there was a real sense of anger in some quarters, much of it founded in the mistaken belief that Madonna has always nurtured undiscovered talent (and, perhaps most importantly, talent rooted in European dance rather than American r&b). As a result this is a much maligned album. However, as the US counterpoint to the far more respected ‘Confessions….’, I find it a much better record. It’s far more personal, for a start – for all the complaints about her latter day lyrics, songs like ‘Miles Away’, ‘She’s Not Me’ and ‘Voices’ give a devastating insight into a relationship in meltdown. Even something like ‘Incredible’, which ostensibly seems to be a sweet celebration of love, carries the weary sense that an end is near (‘I remember when you were the one, you were my friend…I need a reminder so I can relate, I need to go back there before it’s too late’). The ballads are back too, with ‘Devil Wouldn’t Recognise You’ being an instant Madonna classic, albeit one that suffers from Timbaland’s tendency towards generic production. I am definitely in a tiny minority in rating this above ‘Confessions…’ but for me, it’s far more rewarding and a perfect example of a relevant pop album made when the artist has reached middle-age.

‘True Blue’ (1986)

Madonna’s biggest-selling studio album and essentially her own ‘Thriller’ – 5 legendary singles dominate and the other 4 songs feel like filler beside them (and, to be fair, ‘Love Makes The World Go Round’ is one of the worst things she’s recorded). This is where many who had previously dismissed her as an ephemeral pop dolly sat up and took notice – ‘Live to Tell’ announced a new Madonna, with its sombre tone, allusions to child abuse and a singing voice far weightier than the previous coquettish come on. Decades of the singles being presented on hits collections has dulled their impact here and the album almost comes across as its own little greatest hits, yet its brilliance is undeniable. Many other artists would have fought tooth and nail for a pop song as carefree and exhilarating as ‘Where’s The Party?’, possibly the album track least deserving of the phrase ‘album track’ ever.

‘Ray of Light’ (1998)

‘Ray of Light’ is without doubt one of the most spectacular ‘comebacks’ in pop music history, easily up there with ‘Achtung Baby’ with which it shares much. Like U2 in the run-up to that album, Madonna had remained a consistent commercial force but there was a real sense of decline hanging over her. ‘Bedtime Stories’ and ‘Erotica’ had sold less combined than ‘Like a Prayer’ did and, with ballads compilation ‘Something to Remember’ and the film/soundtrack ‘Evita’, there were worrying omens that she was positioning herself as an MOR artist to compete with then-huge artists like Celine Dion. The gap between this and ‘Bedtime Stories’ was also the longest yet between her studio albums, causing many to wonder if her heart was still in the game. By now we should know that every time we ask this question, she knocks it out of the park. Again like U2 with ‘Achtung Baby’, Madonna had gone away and rediscovered herself – in the process reinventing her music for the 21st century. This album is outstanding – an emotionally honest, sonically radical collection that, crucially, sounds completely liberated from the pressures that led to it. One of the most transcendent moments of her career comes midway through opener ‘Drowned World/Substitute For Love’. The sumptuous electronica was already unfamiliar territory but when her voice takes off in the ‘No famous faces…’ section, it was a Madonna we had never heard before. Against all odds, she delivered the third-biggest seller of her career and this album laid the template for the latter half of her career.

MDNA’ (2012)

I have already written about this here and, happily, the weeks since have not dulled my appreciation. As much of a crossroads album as ‘Ray of Light’, this could so easily have been a disaster. Instead it manages the tricky task of being an album largely packed with lyrics about being a wealthy, middle-aged pop icon who has recently experienced divorce – yet being immensely enjoyable and fun rather than alienating. Fun, in fact, in an endearing way which harks back to her 80s peak – songs like ‘Give Me All Your Luvin’, ‘B-Day Song’ and ‘I’m A Sinner’ sound borne out of relaxed creativity rather than an eye on chart placements (though the presence of Nicki Minaj and MIA show that this is clearly not an absent consideration).  She still manages to surprise – the camp noir of ‘Gang Bang’ sounds unlike anything she’s done before while ‘I Fucked Up’ is one of her most affecting ballads.   

‘Madonna’ (1983)

In light of what came after, it’s impossible to review this record as a debut; impossible to really see if the clues were there or guess how the record would now be perceived (if it was perceived at all) if it hadn’t led to a phenomenon. Reviews written years after the fact almost uniformly declare it a masterpiece yet, at the time, it’s safe to say that it had a mixed reception. It’s easy to see why – it’s largely unassuming, making no huge statements about Madonna as an artist and giving few glimpses into her inner life. However it’s worth noting that this is Madonna before she discovered co-writing – 5 of the 8 songs are written by her alone, including the iconic ‘Lucky Star’. What it does demonstrate, then, is the savvy talent for pop melodies and hooks that has largely stayed with her in the subsequent 30 years. Also present, in songs like ‘Burning Up’ and ‘Think of Me’, is a aggressively independent streak demanding that we pay attention. Perhaps most important is the fact that, despite her thin voice, Madonna owns these songs. No one else could do this.

Like A Virgin’ (1984)

In retrospect, this is where she began her rapid ascent to iconic status – at the time, it was probably just a massive pop album. It builds on her debut but goes ridiculously beyond it, adding Motown riffs, sugar-sweet ballads and that now-infamous knack for controversy. The more versatile sound no doubt has a lot to do with this being her first co-written album – the gorgeously clumsy ‘Shoo-Bee-Doo’ is the last solely-attributed writing credit on her studio albums. The ambition here – to rule the pop world – is clear but it doesn’t detract from the sheer joy that permeates the record. Songs like ‘Stay’, ‘Pretender’ and ‘Over & Over’ still rank amongst her best album tracks – ‘Love Don’t Live Here Anymore’ is, however, one of her worst. It’s the sole misstep on what must be approaching a perfect pop album – indeed, if you remove it and replace with ‘Into The Groove’ (which was later added to the tracklist), the case is pretty overwhelming.

‘Erotica’ (1992)

‘The Immaculate Collection’ and accompanying Blond Ambition tour in 1990 found Madonna in an imperial phase, with massive commercial success, huge critical acclaim and a general air of being impervious. It’s understandable, then, that she felt that she could afford to take increasingly radical risks – leading to this album and the ‘Sex’ book. Even in 2012, the thought of the world’s biggest pop star releasing a concept album and coffee-table book about sex, featuring many images of her and her famous friends in various states of undress, is staggering. Yet in the enormous backlash that ensued one crucial thing is lost – the fact that ‘Erotica’ is an utterly brilliant album. It was easily the most intelligent, complex and demanding work she had yet released. The cold production almost deliberately pushed the listener away while Madonna’s delivery on many songs is so detached that it brings to mind a drug-addled drag queen singing someone else’s pop hits. The questions raised about sexuality, commerce and personal identity were almost completely missed (and indeed remain so). It doesn’t all demand effort – ‘Deeper and Deeper’ marries a peerless narrative about coming out with an effortless disco ferocity, while the plaintive ‘Bad Girl’ is just gorgeous (and led the 12 year old me to write a letter to Michael Stipe asking him to sing with Madonna…!) It’s intriguing to wonder what would have come next if this had been a massive success. Instead, we’re left with a record that was her first commercial failure but is undoubtedly one of her biggest creative successes.

‘American Life’ (2003)

A similar context preceded ‘American Life’ – two commercially and critically successful albums of sometimes radical electronic music and a world tour which managed to sell-out despite largely ignoring all her hits, Madonna probably felt she was taking millions of people on a journey. It’s easy to comprehend how pushing further must have looked like a logical step. Nevertheless, this odd album – with its blend of electro and folk, its sometimes self-important and sometimes disarming personal examinations and its over-arching theme of a naval-gazing culture – was a step too far and lost 2/3 of the listeners who had embraced ‘Music’. It was also the first Madonna album not to produce a worldwide hit single – the kiss of death for any global popstar. It’s a shame because this was a Madonna leaping into the void, showing a fearless creativity which her detractors don’t believe exists. It takes either massive chutzpah or titanic delusion to believe that the awkward, absurd title track could be a lead single, though the hilarious rap shows a sense of humour usually missed by listeners (though some missed it even here!) It’s interesting that the fearlessness did not extend to the original, provocatively anti-war video for the song, a stance that was at the time liable to kill careers yet is now the consensus view. Nothing could save the album’s sales after that, though God knows Madonna tried with an air of desperation that was entirely missing from the record itself. For all the headline-grabbing politics, it’s a largely intimate and very adult affair, with little for pop fans of the period (the biggest pop albums of the period were Beyonce’s debut and Britney’s ‘In the Zone’) to grab hold of – and it’s all the more admirable for it.

‘Music’ (2000)

The singles from this certainly didn’t sound quite like anything on the charts at the time – yet they succeeded in re-shaping tastes in a way which ‘American Life’ could only dream of. With characteristic restlessness Madonna largely ditched William Orbit and instead collaborated with the (still) relatively unknown Mirwais. So successful were the results that a slew of imitators followed. Madonna is at her very best here, bringing innovation to the mainstream with a gold-plated commercial nous and combining the sounds with peerless pop lyrics. ‘What It Feels Like For A Girl’ is a perfect representation of why she’s so valuable, accessibly communicating complex ideas regarding gender identity and roles in a moving, warm pop song that sounds quite unlike any other pop ballad of the period. The title track, her last American number one, is as much a manifesto as ‘Everybody’ was 18 years later while ‘Don’t Tell Me’ is surely one of the most interesting massive pop hits ever? ‘Impressive Instant’ is a great lost single, rightly chosen for release by Madonna but thwarted by her label who wanted the fun-but-derivative ‘Amazing’ instead. Here also marks the beginning of the ‘Guy Ritchie songs’ which have recently climaxed with ‘MDNA’.  

‘Like A Prayer’ (1989)

Every pop fan by now surely knows the famous Rolling Stone quote claiming that this album was ‘as close to art as pop music gets’. I couldn’t put it any better myself. ‘True Blue’ may have made critics start to take notice but with ‘Like A Prayer’, Madonna surpassed even the kindest of expectations and ensured that she would never again be seen as ‘Minnie Mouse on helium’. It’s here that she first exposed the brutal honesty that has largely dominated her best work since and saw her lyrically more comparable to rock singers of the period than to Michael Jackson or Prince. It is, in fact, her most ‘rock’ album in that it is largely based on a traditional band sound and not disco or dance music. The legendary title track’s blend of gospel and rock, the sacred and profane is obvious. She called the wonderful ‘Oh Father’ her ‘homage to Simon & Garfunkel’ while the influential ‘Express Yourself’ was conceived as a tribute to Sly and the Family Stone. Prince himself pops up on ‘Love Song’, as unassuming a duet between icons as you could ever hear. ‘Cherish’, meanwhile, is a gorgeously sincere frolic of the kind she has (sadly) rarely returned to since. Aforementioned ‘Oh Father’ together with ‘Promise to Try’ (about her mother) and ‘Til Death Do Us Part’ (about an abusive marriage – never explicitly commented on but rumours abound that Sean Penn assaulted her) form the emotional core – popstars of Madonna’s level simply weren’t expected to turn their inner lives into pop songs. It’s an album she will never surpass – but in her defence, almost no-one will.

2 June 2012
I’ve had so many lives since I was a child and I realise how many times I’ve died

I’ve had so many lives since I was a child and I realise how many times I’ve died

Tags: Madonna MDNA
20 June 2012

Blond Ambition live in Nice - Madonna

18 July 2012
More than ever, it seems, we live in an age where you’re not supposed to take pop music seriously. This isn’t difficult to comprehend - we do, after all, live in an age where taking almost anything very seriously is frowned upon - yet it’s easy to forget that there are artists who have been working on the premise that ‘pop music will never be low brow’ (as Lady Gaga put it, prior to a massive backlash which has led her to already describe her next album as lacking ‘maturity’) for decades. In my 17 years of gig-going I’ve learned that there really is no other pop show quite like a Madonna one. Sure, the ‘theatrical’ influences of her tours (themselves heavily influenced by David Bowie’s work) hang heavily over shows by scores of other artists, yet a big production and ‘themed segments’ is typically as far as it gets. Make no mistake about it: at times Madonna’s shows are performance art on a grand scale.
Previously this was perhaps most pronounced on the Drowned World tour, a dark, violent and largely classic-free show which demanded a lot from its audience. It’s rare for pop shows to demand much. For all of their merits, today’s pop superstars tend to deliver hit and after hit, quickly skating over lesser-known album tracks. Whatever the cause and effect of the situation this has coincided with audiences which have become lazier and more obnoxious, refusing to indulge songs they are unfamiliar with and seemingly determined to ruin things for those who do wish to listen by screeching loudly throughout.
This is more pronounced in stadium gigs, where many clearly go along expecting to hear classic hit followed by classic hit. This has never been Madonna’s style and the MDNA tour is no exception. In terms of its tone and themes it reminded me heavily in places of Drowned World - a dense, spectacular and steely show which took it as given that pop shows can be high brow. Perhaps the crucial difference, however, is that Drowned World played to the 19,000 capacity Earls Court while MDNA played to 70,000 people in Hyde Park.
The venue was definitely the problem here: Hyde Park’s volume limit (due to it being a residential area) meant the sound never packed a punch while its flat terrain saw scores of people around us building mounds out of wood chips in order to try and catch a glimpse of the lady herself. The curfew also meant that the show, clearly intended to begin under the cover of darkness, had to begin in daylight. A casual listener expecting to hear selections from Celebration for the evening would already have had to alter their expectations - these problems could only have further alienated them. Saying that, anyone attending a show called MDNA who hasn’t listened to the album of the same title probably deserves everything they get
For a big fan such as myself, the show was an absolute treat. The opening section stretching from ‘Girl Gone Wild’ to ‘I Don’t Give A’ was simply stunning. There was a lot going on, both physically on stage and thematically, with a dark, aggressive and violent exploration of a ‘girl gone wild’. The symbolism of Madonna emerging from a confessional booth in a cathedral, dressed in a funereal take on her wedding dress, is difficult to beat. The following songs, imagery and choreography saw her celebrating her position as a feminist icon while linking her failed marriage to her status as a lapsed Catholic. ‘Revolver’ saw her surrounded by female dancers, celebrating sexuality before being boxed in and fighting off male assailants in the demented ‘Gang Bang’. ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ and ‘Hung Up’ were re-interpreted as a communique to God, a plea for Him to send a sign as Madonna tries and repeatedly fails to ‘walk the line’ before finally accepting her identity and proclaiming ‘I Don’t Give A’. Transgression is undoubtedly one of the most truly theatrical sections of a music concert I’ve ever seen and I can’t wait to see it again.
Flowing neatly from her ‘acceptance’ of herself, Madonna returned to the stage to perform a truly joyous version of ‘Express Yourself’. This old classic united the entire park in song, so much so that the sly dig at Gaga with the snippets of ‘Born This Way’ and accompanying video of ‘little monsters’ eating mass produced product was almost unnoticeable. The production of this section was just incredible, with drummers suspended in mid-air for ‘Give Me All Your Luvin’ and a visual assault on the senses.
The third section was the most interesting to me, as a fan. It kicked off with an imperial take on ‘Vogue’, possibly her most iconic song and certainly one of the most iconic songs in pop. Given what followed, it seemed as if she was reminding everyone of her unassailable position in the pop pantheon. The following three songs were, quite simply, a massive ‘fuck you’ to those who take glee in attacking her these days - for her age, for her sexuality, for her music. The performance of ‘Candy Shop’, the much-ridiculed opening track to the maligned Hard Candy, seemed pointed enough but in following it with the defiant ‘Human Nature’, Madonna made the message clear: no regrets, no compromises. The point was rammed home with an odd, mournful version of ‘Like A Virgin’ which saw Madonna stripped and on the floor just as in its legendary MTV Award performance in 1984. Unlike then, however, this Madonna was aged, tired, emotional. It was a rare glimpse into the psyche of an artist who has been on the pop treadmill for 30 years and still receives many brickbats for it. The segment ended with Madonna being strapped tightly into a corset - constrained and back in character, ready for another performance.
It was a pleasure to hear ‘I’m Addicted’ live but this was definitely one which needed the music to be LOUD. ‘Like A Prayer’ of course managed to overcome this problem - again, the entire park was as one for a truly euphoric sing-a-long which is definitely one of my all-time favourite gig moments. A brief, playful rendition of ‘Celebration’ (featuring one of several appearances from Rocco, clearly having the time of his life) and it was all over.
Madonna was definitely on form - she looked, moved and sounded better than on Sticky & Sweet. The tour passes suggest that the tour will continue into 2013, which raises the hope that (as with her last tour) she will return for an arena date. Fingers crossed as this intelligent, often-subtle show would work much better in such an environment. It’s nonetheless remarkable that, 30 years into her career, Madonna can remind you of the transcendental brilliance of pop at its best and its unifying power - both before and after the gig, the streets and bars of central London had an air of celebration,  packed as they were with people wearing Madonna t-shirts.  It may not be fashionable to take pop music too seriously or to earnestly proclaim your love for it - with Madonna, I’m unable to do anything else. 

More than ever, it seems, we live in an age where you’re not supposed to take pop music seriously. This isn’t difficult to comprehend - we do, after all, live in an age where taking almost anything very seriously is frowned upon - yet it’s easy to forget that there are artists who have been working on the premise that ‘pop music will never be low brow’ (as Lady Gaga put it, prior to a massive backlash which has led her to already describe her next album as lacking ‘maturity’) for decades. In my 17 years of gig-going I’ve learned that there really is no other pop show quite like a Madonna one. Sure, the ‘theatrical’ influences of her tours (themselves heavily influenced by David Bowie’s work) hang heavily over shows by scores of other artists, yet a big production and ‘themed segments’ is typically as far as it gets. Make no mistake about it: at times Madonna’s shows are performance art on a grand scale.

Previously this was perhaps most pronounced on the Drowned World tour, a dark, violent and largely classic-free show which demanded a lot from its audience. It’s rare for pop shows to demand much. For all of their merits, today’s pop superstars tend to deliver hit and after hit, quickly skating over lesser-known album tracks. Whatever the cause and effect of the situation this has coincided with audiences which have become lazier and more obnoxious, refusing to indulge songs they are unfamiliar with and seemingly determined to ruin things for those who do wish to listen by screeching loudly throughout.

This is more pronounced in stadium gigs, where many clearly go along expecting to hear classic hit followed by classic hit. This has never been Madonna’s style and the MDNA tour is no exception. In terms of its tone and themes it reminded me heavily in places of Drowned World - a dense, spectacular and steely show which took it as given that pop shows can be high brow. Perhaps the crucial difference, however, is that Drowned World played to the 19,000 capacity Earls Court while MDNA played to 70,000 people in Hyde Park.

The venue was definitely the problem here: Hyde Park’s volume limit (due to it being a residential area) meant the sound never packed a punch while its flat terrain saw scores of people around us building mounds out of wood chips in order to try and catch a glimpse of the lady herself. The curfew also meant that the show, clearly intended to begin under the cover of darkness, had to begin in daylight. A casual listener expecting to hear selections from Celebration for the evening would already have had to alter their expectations - these problems could only have further alienated them. Saying that, anyone attending a show called MDNA who hasn’t listened to the album of the same title probably deserves everything they get

For a big fan such as myself, the show was an absolute treat. The opening section stretching from ‘Girl Gone Wild’ to ‘I Don’t Give A’ was simply stunning. There was a lot going on, both physically on stage and thematically, with a dark, aggressive and violent exploration of a ‘girl gone wild’. The symbolism of Madonna emerging from a confessional booth in a cathedral, dressed in a funereal take on her wedding dress, is difficult to beat. The following songs, imagery and choreography saw her celebrating her position as a feminist icon while linking her failed marriage to her status as a lapsed Catholic. ‘Revolver’ saw her surrounded by female dancers, celebrating sexuality before being boxed in and fighting off male assailants in the demented ‘Gang Bang’. ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ and ‘Hung Up’ were re-interpreted as a communique to God, a plea for Him to send a sign as Madonna tries and repeatedly fails to ‘walk the line’ before finally accepting her identity and proclaiming ‘I Don’t Give A’. Transgression is undoubtedly one of the most truly theatrical sections of a music concert I’ve ever seen and I can’t wait to see it again.

Flowing neatly from her ‘acceptance’ of herself, Madonna returned to the stage to perform a truly joyous version of ‘Express Yourself’. This old classic united the entire park in song, so much so that the sly dig at Gaga with the snippets of ‘Born This Way’ and accompanying video of ‘little monsters’ eating mass produced product was almost unnoticeable. The production of this section was just incredible, with drummers suspended in mid-air for ‘Give Me All Your Luvin’ and a visual assault on the senses.

The third section was the most interesting to me, as a fan. It kicked off with an imperial take on ‘Vogue’, possibly her most iconic song and certainly one of the most iconic songs in pop. Given what followed, it seemed as if she was reminding everyone of her unassailable position in the pop pantheon. The following three songs were, quite simply, a massive ‘fuck you’ to those who take glee in attacking her these days - for her age, for her sexuality, for her music. The performance of ‘Candy Shop’, the much-ridiculed opening track to the maligned Hard Candy, seemed pointed enough but in following it with the defiant ‘Human Nature’, Madonna made the message clear: no regrets, no compromises. The point was rammed home with an odd, mournful version of ‘Like A Virgin’ which saw Madonna stripped and on the floor just as in its legendary MTV Award performance in 1984. Unlike then, however, this Madonna was aged, tired, emotional. It was a rare glimpse into the psyche of an artist who has been on the pop treadmill for 30 years and still receives many brickbats for it. The segment ended with Madonna being strapped tightly into a corset - constrained and back in character, ready for another performance.

It was a pleasure to hear ‘I’m Addicted’ live but this was definitely one which needed the music to be LOUD. ‘Like A Prayer’ of course managed to overcome this problem - again, the entire park was as one for a truly euphoric sing-a-long which is definitely one of my all-time favourite gig moments. A brief, playful rendition of ‘Celebration’ (featuring one of several appearances from Rocco, clearly having the time of his life) and it was all over.

Madonna was definitely on form - she looked, moved and sounded better than on Sticky & Sweet. The tour passes suggest that the tour will continue into 2013, which raises the hope that (as with her last tour) she will return for an arena date. Fingers crossed as this intelligent, often-subtle show would work much better in such an environment. It’s nonetheless remarkable that, 30 years into her career, Madonna can remind you of the transcendental brilliance of pop at its best and its unifying power - both before and after the gig, the streets and bars of central London had an air of celebration,  packed as they were with people wearing Madonna t-shirts.  It may not be fashionable to take pop music too seriously or to earnestly proclaim your love for it - with Madonna, I’m unable to do anything else. 

8 August 2012

'No Fear'

For all of the crap that gets thrown her way, for all of her missteps and failures; for all of the contradictions and hypocrisies that she embodies and which surround her; for the political gestures which are sometimes clumsy, sometimes misguided, sometimes just plain wrong - this is why I love Madonna. This is what separates her from the pop crowd. An artist who is trying to engage and trying to use her position to make things better. I felt overwhelming admiration when the news of what she’d done came through. In supporting Pussy Riot in an atmosphere of threats of violence and of authoritarian crackdowns, she did something unquestionably brave and decent. Of course, her wealth and status offer her far more protection in speaking out than any ordinary citizen would have, but it seems churlish to nitpick. Today Pussy Riot’s lawyers stated that they believed the global attention which peaked with Madonna’s gesture had been instrumental in forcing the judge to delay her sentence: “No matter what the verdict is, we have won.”

Of course, this being Madonna, some could still only offer praise in the form of a backhanded ‘compliment’. I find the current enmity towards Madonna in many quarters intriguing, if depressingly familiar. There is undoubtedly an element of sexism at work - Madonna is such an enormous figure that her ‘representation’ of womanhood has always been pissing off someone. Throw in the fact that she’s over 50 and you have a toxic mix. Gossip rags, tabloids and even broadsheets wax endlessly about how she should behave and, more embarrassingly, how she should look (contrast with coverage of middle-aged male celebrities who dare to bare.) Her recent flesh-bearing on the MDNA tour has been the object of ridicule and scorn, its context in the show (at the close of ‘Human Nature’) completely lost on asinine commentators who rush to prove the point she was trying to make. In ‘Human Nature’ she sings of not being meant to be sexual, be outspoken - ’I’m not your bitch, don’t hang your shit on me’.  Yet hang-ups galore inform the responses to her, few of which criticise her without bringing their own ideas of what 53-year old women should be doing and, most bizarrely of all, should be singing. Popular music as we know it is roughly half a century old - there is no trodden path for what pop stars are ‘supposed’ to do as they grow older. Again, ‘Human Nature’ sounds enormously prescient - ‘I’m breaking all the rules I didn’t make’.

I think what most riles people about Madonna, however, is that she’s still striving to progress and, worst of all, remain relevant. I’m old enough to remember the response to David Bowie’s ‘1.Outside’ and ‘Earthling’ albums, released when he was 48 and 50. While Bowie’s status as a ‘classic rock’ artist and the absence of a sexual element meant criticism never achieved the same hysterical heights as Madonna faces, he nevertheless faced a chorus of ridicule. The albums revealed a Bowie who was, as ever, in-tune with the current music scene, being heavily influenced by industrial music, techno and even jungle. Nine Inch Nails popped up on the single version of ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’ while Bowie’s 50th birthday concert featured Foo Fighters, Smashing Pumpkins and Sonic Youth. There were accusations that Bowie was ‘desperate’, that he was grasping onto younger stars for relevance, that he was embarrassing himself as ‘granddad down the disco’. The fact that Bowie had always absorbed contemporary influences was irrelevant - he was ageing and past his peak.

Bowie, of course, is an astute operator. It’s almost certainly no quirk of fate that the cover of his next album, 'hours…', featured a more recognisably ‘classic’ Bowie cradling his own corpse, which sported the haircut he’d been wearing for the above ‘desperate’ period. The album was a self-conscious return to his 70s sound. He went further in ‘Heathen’, an album which saw him re-united with Tony Visconti (producer of several of his classic albums) and which largely eschewed experimentation in favour of deliberate nods to his past. The critics, and the listeners, came flooding back. The formula worked again on ‘Reality’.

Bowie has released nothing new since, which works out brilliantly for his reputation. Because at some point we want the artists we love as we grow up to remind us of headier times; of when we were younger and their music meant everything to us; of when they sound-tracked the formative moments of our lives. In short, we want them to stop growing up so that we don’t have to either. So scorn is poured on those artists who dare to think that they not only have every right to keep making and performing new music, but have the audacity to not make it sound like the songs we loved. There are countless examples - Prince found himself embraced again when he made the self-referential album ‘Musicology’. U2 roared back into the public consciousness with ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’, an album even they admitted was a deliberate attempt to re-capture an earlier magic (they slumped back out again with ‘No Line on the Horizon’, a great album but one which largely made demands on the listener.) Elton John, The Rolling Stones and Stevie Wonder long ago became exercises in nostalgia, putting out new material of varying quality but always touring with the old songs, the ones you know. 

Madonna certainly isn’t unaware of this - her previous three albums have been littered with deliberate nods to her past. However, it’s far more difficult to mine your own history when you operate in the pop/dance genre. Aside from it having always commanded less respect (30 years into her career, Madonna is still regularly called ‘talentless’) it’s a genre which is predicated on sexuality and novelty - two traits which it’s nigh-on impossible for a woman in her 50s to embrace without scorn. So Madonna has faced perhaps the most aggressive criticisms of her career for working with younger artists and producers; for not performing enough classic hits on her tours; for making music which sounds modern; for not standing still and just being the Madonna we want her to be. Yet if ‘No Fear’ (the slogan usually printed on her back in place of ‘Pussy Riot’) is her current modus operandi, it’s something which doesn’t quite ring true in her work. Madonna fears becoming seen as a legacy act, wheeled out to perform ‘The Immaculate Collection’ every couple of years. It’s for this reason that she’s almost always turned down ‘Lifetime Achievement Awards’ and packs her concerts with new material. Perhaps this stubbornness goes too far - nevertheless, I think it’s an admirable quality in someone who has always sincerely treated pop music as an art form and, as we saw last night, a powerful social force. This. This is why I love Madonna.

23 October 2012
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.

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.

22 November 2012

A Manifesto for Pop (and for writing about it)

The pieces on Rihanna’s new album (including my own but particularly this one from The Quietus) have raised some interesting points about pop music. Largely, however, the various reviews have been interesting because of what they avoid. While many (but not all) critics/pop writers note the Chris Brown involvement and express unease at this, the general consensus seems to be that you can ignore this as long as you enjoy the music. That seems baffling to me – it’s unavoidable in the record, from the title onwards. No, what this argument is really saying is ‘hey, it’s only pop music – if you enjoy this, who really cares about its meaning?’ It treats pop music as an ultimately disposable, ephemeral pastime which is certainly not worth wasting your critical faculties on. This approach permeates most writing about pop music with even avowed pop lovers refusing to seriously engage with it as an art form. Instead we have an almost endless stream of sarcasm, cynicism, irony and self-imposed critical distance where even love for something is undermined as soon as it is expressed.

I remember that when ‘We Love Pop’ magazine launched, I read a feature in The Independent where the editor elaborated on its rationale:

The Wanted were at No 1 in the singles charts recently – what sort of magazine do you buy if you like The Wanted? Or if you were one of the thousands of girls watching Beyoncé at Glastonbury? There are no music magazines out there that target girls. Girls’ magazines featuring music stars tend to be the gossip ones and not about the music.

I think it’s fair to say that this raised the prospect of a kind-of Mojo-esque magazine devoted to pop music – one which took it very seriously and focused heavily on the music. A cursory look at any WLP cover, however, will show that it’s very much another magazine heavily in the vein of the ‘gossip ones’ the editor was differentiating it from. It doesn’t really tackle pop seriously at all. If we stick with the Rihanna/Chris Brown issue, something where WLP could be said to have an important role to play in speaking to an audience of teenage girls, they’ve largely avoided it. Instead it’s the subject of sarcastic jokes, perfunctory nods or odd outbursts of faux-sincerity which only engage on a completely superficial level. Again, it’s presented as something which distracts from the music rather than being a core part of it.

Can pop only be tackled if it’s done so in this very lightweight, light-hearted manner? Clearly not – a website like The Quietus has had frequently brilliant articles on pop, Q Magazine has had entire issues devoted to serious discussion of Madonna and that archetype of ‘music snobbery’ Pitchfork had an often-astounding column devoted to ‘poptimism’ . No, serious discussion of pop is clearly happening (if on a small scale). It could be argued, then, that many of the people writing about pop at the moment are approaching it with the almost-subconscious contempt which they imagine most others have for it. It comes back to that tired old ‘rockism vs poptimism’ thing: rock is the ‘serious’ music, which is taken to mean earnest and po-faced, and it’s the subject of earnest and po-faced analysis. Pop is fun! Pop writing should be fun! Pop writing should not be earnest and po-faced! And we end up with an approach which is seemingly terrified of taking anything too seriously and certainly hesitant to tackle pop as a serious art lest they be lumped in with the boring guitar snobs.

Thinking about this led to a discussion with a friend regarding Rihanna and Lana del Rey which very quickly became a proxy for notions of authenticity, talent and seriousness which are diffused throughout current pop writing. This made me realise that, in all the time I’ve written about this kind of thing, I’ve never really articulated my approach to pop. In attempting to do this I found that much of what I was thinking applied equally to my approach to writing about pop.

So, in the spirit of discussion, I present my own little manifesto for pop. I apply it mainly to artists but the implications for writing are implicit:

1 – Care about what you do. This is fundamental. Whether it’s Katy Perry, Grizzly Bear, King Creosote or Flying Lotus, the big divide in music is not between rock and pop but between those who take what they’re doing seriously and want to do it well and those who do not. ‘Artists’ like Cheryl Cole, Pitbull and the countless dire indie bands in the world rely on people’s low expectations, aspiring to nothing more than passable facsimiles of what other, better artists have done before. We should not be afraid of calling these people out. Most of all, we should have disdain for those who see pop only as a route to money and/or fame.

2 – Pop is an art form. A magician is an entertainer. A juggler is an entertainer. That dog which won ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ is an entertainer. Entertainment is but one aspect of pop, which is an art form. Sometimes pop makes us sad, sometimes it makes us uncomfortable, sometimes it makes us angry, sometimes it’s difficult, sometimes it blows our mind. These can all be great, positive things and they are lost if we view the primary purpose of pop to be light entertainment. That idea brings us Olly Murs.

3. Art is human creativity. This sounds almost absurd. Yet the logical conclusion of many ostensibly ‘pro-pop’ arguments is that a catchy pop song made by a computer would be great pop, as the origin is irrelevant. However art is a human construct, defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination”. This is precisely why it’s absolutely fine to make demands on pop artists. We want them to communicate their inner world with us. This may be done by them writing songs. It may also be done by them interpreting songs written by other people, bringing their unique voice and persona to them. It is not done by someone blankly miming to a boilerplate dance-pop knock-off. Understanding this and having some expectations of pop artists is not buying into notions of ‘authenticity’ or ‘rockism’ – it’s understanding the very purpose of art itself.

4. Pop is fundamentally about music. Again, one which perhaps seems obvious but sometimes everything around the music can take over. People like Cheryl Cole and Olly Murs are television personalities who have perfunctory music which serves these personas. We can all think of pop stars (even ones we love) who have released sub-standard music with brilliant videos, dance routines, live performances, glitz, glamour! These things are not unimportant but they should never replace the music. It always must come back to that. That’s why we’re here.

5. But it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Like any art form, pop has a context and relies on relationships. The first and most important relationship is, of course, between it and ourselves. But it is also influenced by and speaks to wider society. Issues of politics, of power, of economics, of gender, of race, of sexuality, of interpersonal relationships – all of these and more feed into great pop (even if it’s not explicit in the record itself). That’s not so say that they forever anchor it or that it doesn’t make sense beyond this context but that’s part of the wonderful complexity. Never, ever dismiss any of these issues because ‘it’s only pop’.

6. Pop artists are not your friends. In that great pop communicates an inner world, it’s understandable that we may be repelled by personalities which we find abhorrent (hello, Chris Brown). However this is very different from the X Factorisation of pop where being ‘likeable’ is one of the most important things about an artist. Towering, untouchable, alien artists such as Madonna, Prince and Bowie would never have done well by this standard. A great pop star is there to make great pop, not be someone you can imagine popping down the pub with.

7. Don’t patronise young pop fans or use them to justify crap pop. A common response to criticisms of certain pop artists these days is to say ‘the kids like it’. What’s forgotten here is that just as lots of adults like dross, so do lots of kids. Why are we so afraid of thinking this? Watching ‘Crossfire Hurricane’ the other evening I was struck by the scenes from the early career of The Rolling Stones where girls in their early teens were fanatical about them. Just as teens (and younger) throughout the past 50 years have loved Elvis, Little Richard, The Beatles, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Taylor Swift, Beyonce. And loads have hated these artists and loved countless other artists who rarely (if ever) trouble the charts. Every time someone (usually at least double the age of the people they’re talking about) defends something terrible with an appeal to ‘the kids’, they’re talking rubbish.

8.  Beware instant opinions. Relating to point 2, great pop is frequently not instant. This is sometimes forgotten, especially in this age of Twitter and Facebook and internet forums and album leaks. Literally ten minutes after a big pop album leaks you’ll be able to find people giving forceful opinions on it. This is fair enough but the nature of online identities is that opinions very easily become entwined with self-worth. They become about getting attention, making a statement, being right and are quickly calcified as a result. This is exacerbated further by the speed of leaks and the corresponding demands on attention, where if an album doesn’t instantly grab you there are strong temptations to move on to the next one almost immediately. Some albums take time; some albums make demands of the listener. This fear of making demands, of not being instant and of people moving on quickly is what fuels the identikit-pop which floods the charts.

9. We are all here because we really love this stuff. All of us who spend hours and hours every week listening to music, thinking about music, writing about music – we are very much in the minority. We are not typical of how most people interact with music. Why, then, do we go to such pains to pretend that we are? Why do we pursue the kind of relativism which, applied to other art forms, would see dreck like ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ compared with Shakespeare merely because ‘people like it’? If we truly thought that mass consumption was the ultimate arbiter we wouldn’t waste our time on this. The fact that we do is because none of us truly believe that and the beginning of a sincere interaction with pop is to acknowledge this and stop trying to speak on behalf of the people who really couldn’t give a toss. It’s not being a ‘snob’ to recognise that you care about all of this far more than most people do. Does that mean your opinion is the be all and end all? Of course not. But it means you shouldn’t instantly undermine said opinion with appeals to an imagined mass audience.

10. So show it. Following on from 8, if we love pop – we should show it. Drop the easy recourse to sarcasm, to gossip, to irony and get stuck in with the art we adore. Let go of corrosive fixations on ‘flops’, on ‘snobs’, on ‘haters’. Stop pretending that we don’t find some popular pop artists spirit-crushingly awful and don’t love some hugely unpopular ones. Above all, stop pretending that we don’t think pop is a wondrous, magnificent, life-changing GREAT THING that matters.

And…there we go. Comments welcome!

17 December 2012
Posted: 12:05 PM
12 January 2013

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.

Themed by Hunson. Originally by Josh