Posts from March 2015
Never has the “early, funny stuff” cliche held such weight in pop: we’re at a stage now where the new stars coming through are still heavyweights now, and the sclerotic Marshall Mathers of the mid-10s haunts this swaggering, sparkling kid. But “The Real Slim Shady” is still an Eminem who knows how to tell a joke – though how much he’s joking is open to question – and he’s the most technically audacious and exciting rapper to have hit number one yet. By a considerable distance – take the “Now there’s a million of us…” climax, thirty-seven staccato monosyllables from “just like me” to “not quite me”, a pattern of triple stresses reeled out and back like a man casually doing tricks on a yo-yo. Or the animals – cannibals – canteloupes – antelopes – can’t elope rhyme set, as bravura in its wordplay as anything you’d find on an underground mixtape. Or the entire first verse (”Act like you never seen a white person before…”) and its teetering jenga of internal rhymes. Or the single’s best gag, delivered barely as rap, just as a great one-liner: “Will Smith don’t gotta cuss on his raps to sell records / Well I do / So fuck him and fuck you too”
Most comebacks risk being overshadowed by the past. To find its distinct identity, “Spinning Around” has to battle the future. The second phase of Kylie’s career pivots on one single, and we’re a year out from it, but the gravity of “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” makes this nimble disco-pop track sound more a cautious herald than a triumphant return.
Leslie Knope: Why would anybody ever eat anything besides breakfast food?
Ron Swanson: People are idiots, Leslie.
Michael Bluth: What have we always said is the most important thing?
George-Michael Bluth: Breakfast?
Michael Bluth: Family.
George-Michael Bluth: Oh right, family. I thought you meant of the things we eat.
I almost never have breakfast on weekdays. Given the choice between even five extra minutes of delicious, nourishing sleep or some toast, I’ll always go for the sleep. When I get to work, I’m straight onto the coffee and now my brain considers this a meal.
Weekends are different. Weekends are for doing not-work things like ignoring the housework, failing to reply to personal emails and thinking really hard about going outside for a lovely walk. Therefore I end up going out to breakfast most weekends and am always on the lookout for somewhere new and interesting.
Louis CK introduced me to the glory of the bang-bang: going for a meal at one restaurant and then immediately going to another for a second full meal. This idea is insane; the episode of Louie featuring the Indian/Diner bang-bang was impossible and therefore hilarious. Lou’s a big dude but there’s no way he could have managed to eat that mountain of food. A breakfast bang-bang, on the other hand, is achievable and only slightly gluttonous.
No black legends were harmed in the making of this single: Barry White, whose 1976 song forms the dislocated spine of “You See The Trouble With Me” and whose vocal sample was meant as its centre, said no, and the job went to a rough soundalike. The track hit number one anyhow, which suggests it’s the idea and structure that’s driving this one, not Barry specifically. “Trouble” is built around a double peak – the sliced up vocal sample and its hints of disco backing, and the bouncy instrumental break that follows on its heels, a transfer across from the White song’s funk guitar.
Sonique’s success has a distinct feelgood factor, one of pop’s lottery-winner stories. A singer and DJ who had been on the circuit for over a decade, her closest tilt at fame before this song was lead vocal on a couple of the later S’Express singles. Was it a case of a singer finally getting the right song? Hindsight says yes – except that “It Feels So Good” had been only a modest hit a couple of years before, slipping quickly out of the Top 30. There was nothing in the singer or song’s pedigree to suggest it would hold the top for three weeks in the most volatile year in UK pop history.
I’m going to listen to one album on a once-a-day basis for a week, a different one each week. Not in order to write about them or anything, unless I decide I want to. Just a minor attention-span workout, the listening equivalent of that “20 minutes of brisk exercise daily” or “5 a day” advice. I realised now I don’t review albums any more I’ve got out of that habit of intensive listening, except for Popular, which is done very much with writing as the aim. It would be healthy to get it back, I reckon.
The albums will mostly be a) stuff I already own that b) I know I like but c) have never really given the time they deserve. The listening cycle is
Friday to Thursday, until such time as I miss a day, at which point it will shift currently Tuesday to Monday. Albums below:
It had been thirteen months since Billie Piper’s last single. It might as well have been a hundred and thirteen: “Day And Night” was part of a standard pop career cycle, but the world of pop had upended itself, and the hesitant returns of the class of ‘98 underlined that – second albums that suddenly felt like desperate comeback attempts. The chunky sound of post-Spice British bubblegum – good-natured, amateurish, playground-ready – stood no chance against the all-conquering Cheiron sound, which powered not just Britney but the three biggest boybands in the world.
For Billie, B*Witched, Five, and the Spicers themselves, this was an existential crisis. We’ve seen, in sometimes gruesome detail, the solo Spice Girls try to find a viable sound, and their difficulties were mirrored across British pop, which suddenly found itself sidelined and playing catch-up. Anything was worth a try – country, UK garage, vocodered disco-house, R&B, indie rock… in the face of such panic, some decided just to swim with the tide. If Cheiron were unavailable – or unaffordable – perhaps there were other songwriting and production teams lurking in darkest Scandinavia?
For all my hyperbole, and for all that 2000 was the zenith of the Cheiron sound, it didn’t have the charts to itself. The glut of number ones in 2000 is matched by an extravagance of pop styles – Max and his imitators, futurist R&B, UK garage, pop-trance… joined now by one of pop’s periodic disco revivals. Disco had been an undercurrent through the 1990s, used as a sound both party-ready and family-friendly. Take That and Steps covered the Bee Gees as helpful pop forebears, a good time straight out of the box. The rash of disco-inflected number ones in the early 00s are a little different – more invested in the sound and style of disco, not just its songs. From Melbourne to Paris, a question was being asked: what could modern dance music learn from disco?
How do you follow “…Baby One More Time”? Perhaps you can’t. Britney Spears’ second album splits the job, starting with two songs that plainly exist in “Baby”’s shadow. One is an overt sequel, “Stronger” – eager, catchy dance-pop that’s more upbeat than the first instalment: “My loneliness ain’t killing me no more”, Spears sings. Glad to hear it. The other is “Oops… I Did It Again”, which hit listeners initially as a straight-up clone of “…Baby One More Time”: the mid-paced, dancer-ready stomp, the melodrama, the end-of-song pile-on. And as that half-mocking title signalled, the song knew it.
The similarities weren’t enough to dismiss “Oops”, because if you copy a classic you might easily end up somewhere very good. Clone or not, “Oops” became one of Britney Spears’ signature tracks – a highlight of her tours and now her Vegas residency. But the resemblance meant that what “Oops” does differently – its startling gamble with its breakdown, its development of the singer’s persona, and the uses it starts to find for her voice – was overlooked.
“Certain guys can’t face the fact of what we’ve done
Sold over a quarter of a million
Casualty went straight to number one
And still they wanna cuss come on
Oh yeah about the Casualty theme?
Well no one controls the scene
So you do what you want and you do what you like and you do what you please” – Oxide and Neutrino, ‘Up Middle Finger’
There’s more than one way to make an 18 year old into a pop star. Craig David was a record industry dream – UK garage as a cradle for a new generation of international stars. Oxide and Neutrino represented a different future, one the biz had far less idea how to cope with in the long term. Though for now, and for the duo’s record label East West, the success of “Bound 4 Da Reload” was actually business as usual: find a hot sound in the clubs or on the pirates, license it, push it onto the charts. The main opposition to Oxide and Neutrino’s overnight success came from within garage – the pirates and the clubs in open disagreement. “Reload”, belligerent, snotty and unsophisticated, was a flashpoint record for the scene’s internal politics and anxieties.