By the looks of the chart, British pop is dead.
The battle is over. The ‘real music made on real instruments for real people!’ purists have won. Brandishing the Radio 2 playlist in one hand, (as the other fist clutches the 6th form notebook scribbles that make up the modern NME) they’ve purged our music scene of those unholy pop stars with breathtaking ease.
“Synthetic backing tracks?” They sneered superciliously, prodding Geri with their Pitchfork-bookmarked Blackberrys. “Lip-synching?” They cried in disgust, sending poor Javine fleeing for the Eurovision hills. “Artists who don’t even pretend to write their own material?” They roared, as Dannii Minogue, Holly Valance and their Antipodean chum Darren Hayes cowered, unloved in the upper echelons of the chart.
“Get thee gone, damned manifestations of our image-driven, artificial world! Pay no heed to the fact we spend just as much on image consultancy and branding as you! Ignore the cynical focus-grouping we employ to strategise our dominance!
For we, we are REAL. We are AUTHENTIC. We have GUITARS!”
They took Capital FM with a Blunt blow. They seized MTV into their bland Embrace. Only dear Simon and Miquita are safe in their Popworld, but even now the might of those angular guitars advance, intent on enslaving every last post-Chiron beat.
“Hang on,” I hear you cry, “Surely you should rejoice! Celebrate the variety of music flourishing. Diversity. Equality. Democracy in action!”
There may be choice in HMV, but it’s can’t be truly portrayed as the choice of the people. Is Tesco rewarding you with the eighteen varieties of apple to choose from really choice, when it’s they who select the lot with centimetre-specific regulations? Is the music industry rewarding you with choice through the decision between this group of 80’s synth art-rock boys who sound like the Killers, or that group of 80s synth art-rock boys who sound like Franz Ferdinand? Where’s the freedom in that?
People are easily led. Hell, I’m easily led. Flash me the trailer to ‘the Wedding Crashers’ enough times and even I’ll be mysteriously overcome with the urge to watch the Butterscotch Stallion prostrate himself on the alter of bad taste. This fact is the centrifugal force behind every political campaign, every advertising drive – the backbone of capitalist society (Really, think about it. Because you NEED that new car). We choose what is signed, marketed, sent out to CosmoGirl interviews and A-listed on radio; thus it has always been, thus is shall always be. But now, in retreating to unanimously to the relatively safe domain of soaring anthems of middle-class blandness, the labels have ensured a return on their investment. While rockists wet themselves with joy to those pure, dull sounds, I’m left wondering how many ominous Joy Division tribute acts I’ll have to suffer through before we get the innovation back.
It’s now the pop-lover who has the underground taste; Poptimists swapping rare Gwen Stefani remixes, Swedish popstress Robyn the new alternative icon. Internationally, pop is still striding forth: Ciara bringing the bubblecrunk, Rhianna with the reaggeton. Kelly Clarkson sits atop her pedestal after providing the best pop song of the past few years in ‘Since U Been Gone’, as Hillary Duff, Avril, La Lohan et all unleash their river of black eyelinered angst below her. The boundaries keep getting pushed, the heart of pop stays beating merrily to the latest jaunty tune, and I keep dancing.
But Britain? Those guitar acts used to sit alongside traditional, S Club pop fare – they were the cool substitute, the balancing force, Stereophonics bringing their croaking animus to Kylie’s sparkly gold-pant-clad anima – now it’s they who are the mainstream. There is no manufactured music in any meaningful quantity to rebel against – it’s ‘real’ musicians as far as the jaded eye can see. British A&Rs have self-censored to the point of absurdity.
Yes, we have Rachel. Yes, we have Girls Aloud. Yes, there’s Richard X and Xenomania and… Well? The former launched off a consistent hit-making group of the pop band era, the latter were backed by the multi-million audience of a reality TV show. Look around for the continually revolving stable of Top 20 B- and C-listers giving us a couple of pop gems before they recede back into obscurity: there’s none to be found. Charlotte Church gave us one fun single and a lacklustre album. Labels would rather re-release ‘I Predict a Riot’ for the umpteenth time than put money into a new pop act that has an ounce of risk attached to it.
Even the patented electro-pop blueprints that proved so resistant to the rockist purge and now sounding lifeless. ‘So Good’ barely scraped Top 10 status with its perfunctory chilled beats, while as you can tell, ‘Long Hot Summer’ is an underwhelming by-numbers effort that doesn’t even come close to the spine-shivers of ‘No Good Advice’. It’s as if the producers are still clinging to their sound-desks, unsure of any new direction. New Rioisin Murphey. New Goldfrapp. It’s polished, perfect, but I’ve heard it all before.
And then I saw the new Mark Owen video flashing before my eyes. Leaping around in an indie-boy T-shirt, real musicians strumming away in his background, the survivor himself was telling me everything will be alright. Because he believes in the boogie.Times are changingEverything will come aroundWe're just moving in circles, babyAll or nothingEverything will come around.
Lycra-clad boybands and their synchronised moves rose and fell. We had Steps, we had S Club. Boybands rose and fell again - Diane Warren ballads, suits and all. We had A1 and 5ive; we had the Sugababes and Mysteeq; Busted and the Faders.
This isn’t the end. Pop evolves, it’s in the very fabric of the genre to innovate - pushing the boundaries of sound forward with imagination and a recklessness that Athlete and the Rakes can’t even begin to comprehend. Remember where you were when you first heard those decisive opening notes of ‘Baby One More Time?’ Or how about when Ms Stefani pulled you to the dance-floor with such crazy, infectious power in ‘What Are You Waiting For?’
Pop has risen before, and it will do so again. Until that day arrives, and the grey mundanety of the British charts can crumble away into sparkle and joy, I’ll be here playing Clor as loud as my neighbours will allow.