Posts from April 2015

29
Apr 15

A1 – “Take On Me”

Popular72 comments • 3,190 views

#873, 9th September 2000

A1take A single that’s good for one thing, at least: “Which group got to No.1 with Take On Me?” is a reliably sneaky pop quiz question. Beyond that, it’s tempting to dismiss A1’s version as irrelevant. Doubly tempting if you were 12 in 1985, and the clean surge of that keyboard riff still sounded like the bright world of life and youth and adventure opening up in front of you. It’s not that a cover version is any kind of sacrilege – just that you can’t update the eternally young. But listen again and A-Ha’s original sounds stuck in its time: the synthesisers thin, the drum sound hollow and deadened. That doesn’t make it less glorious to me, it just reminds me of the work memory does in making songs great. Why not give new 12-year olds a chance for memories of their own?

26
Apr 15

MADONNA – “Music”

Popular67 comments • 3,850 views

#872, 2nd September 2000

madonna music “Her whole career’s been like, oh, they’re the trendy person of the moment, I’ll work with them to make me younger. They’re using you.” – Aphex Twin on Madonna, 2001.

I am the same age now – just turned 42 – as Madonna was when she released “Music”. Last week, with delightful serendipity, Spotify released a study suggesting that listeners hit a “musical mid-life crisis” at 42, as their tastes suddenly skew (a little) back towards the mainstream: are they trying to keep up? Was Madonna? The image of her as trend-chasing, desperate, even “vampiric” (as that Aphex interviewer glossed it) has hardened as the hits dried up. But the Aphex quote shows it was current in the Music era – how he framed the singer’s interest in working with him.

24
Apr 15

Taxonomy Domine

FT15 comments • 1,938 views

Sisyphus was a rockist.

Sisyphus was a rockist.

This is a list – scribbled down over lunch, then expanded – of ways that writers who focus on pop music have approached it. I agree with some. I disagree with some. Some of them I’ve tried, some I’ve only read. A few have become fairly orthodox. Others are rare, or at least rare nowadays.

The list is not meant to be exhaustive, and expansion is welcomed. (I think there should probably be something on camp in here, for instance, but I don’t feel I know enough to write it.)

1. Why Is This Popular?: I start with this one, because it’s largely what I do on Popular, which serves as an example. I am interested in things that are popular. The idea is that there’s value in thinking why something becomes a hit – what people hear or see in it. Popular things aren’t inherently good, but they are inherently interesting. Often shades into sociology, not always very expertly.

2. Pop As Expression Of The People: There are a few strands of thinking that really do hold popularity to be at least potentially a good in itself. “Popular culture is folk culture” (a Robert Wyatt paraphrase) would be the tenet here – pop is good because it reflects and represents everyday concerns, lives, dreams… maybe even a kind of will of the people. This type of angle feels unfashionable now, too monocultural (though see #8 below.)

3. Pop As A Site Of Subversion: A type of thinking that semi-inverts #2 – pop music is interesting when things sneak in and slip through that don’t ‘belong’ and that have the potential to question or overturn social norms. Runs the risk of turning into a simple scorecard or being horribly narrow about what constitutes subversion: where have all the protest songs gone, etc.

22
Apr 15

SPILLER – “Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love)”

Popular107 comments • 4,768 views

#871, 26th August 2000

spiller groovejet The revival of disco within pop put a spotlight on something that had gone missing over the 90s: a sense of music not just for dancing, but for dancing with someone. Disco was a music of mutual attraction: cruising, flirtation, negotiation. Its dancefloor is a space for immediate pleasure, but also for promises kept and otherwise. It’s a place where things start, but their resolution, let alone their meaning, is never clear. All of 2000’s great disco number ones explore how to play this hand. Madison Avenue look to impose their will upon it, to set terms and roles. Spiller is less rigid. “Groovejet” accepts the night’s changeability, happily sells out certainty for an amused smile and a few great one-liners. “Just for one lifetime I can be your pastime”, “In it together till I know you better.” Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s original chorus precisely caught the song’s resigned swoon: “And so it goes… how does it feel so good?”.

17
Apr 15

MELANIE C – “I Turn To You”

Popular50 comments • 2,939 views

#870, 19th August 2000

melciturn What does a Mel C record sound like? Not an easy question. Her solo singles ask more, in terms of brand loyalty, than any other Spice – she was respected for her voice, and the assumption is you’ll want to follow it through flashy Britrock (”Goin’ Down”), acoustic soft pop (”Northern Star”), twilit R&B (”Never Be The Same Again”) and now muscular pop-trance. And that’s without bringing Bryan Adams into it. There’s something very appealing about this hopscotch approach, but almost none of the songs are strong enough to sell Melanie C as more than a dabbler.

15
Apr 15

Is Japan’s Bathhouse That Unusual?

The Brown Wedge/Post a comment • 167 views

thermaeromae More comics reviews, this time focused on manga. Contains spoilers in places!

Thermae Romae I (Yen Press)

Surely the greatest time travel/bathhouse design manga ever written, Mari Yamakazi’s charming Thermae Romae has the pace and pleasures of a culture-clash sitcom: each episode, down-on-his-luck bath architect Lucius Modestus is confronted with a bathing-related problem in 2nd century AD Rome, finds himself whisked away to modern Japan, and returns home full of inspiration. Along the way he invents the Roman Empire’s first reptile house, water slide and loyalty marketing scheme.

14
Apr 15

ROBBIE WILLIAMS – “Rock DJ”

Popular70 comments • 4,354 views

#869, 12th August 2000

robbierock Back at “Millennium” I claimed that Robbie Williams’ wild success, his undeniable – and untranslatable – appeal as a pop star, said something wider about turn of the century British culture; that Robbie fitted into a post-Blair, post-Diana era where Britain felt at ease with itself and curious about itself, happy to celebrate the everyday, and to let someone become the country’s biggest star on little but determination and cheek.

Robbie was only the beginning: the early 00s saw a steady demystifying of celebrity matched by an equally steady supply of the newly famous. “Rock DJ” landed at number one near the beginning of this process – during the first series of Big Brother, still very much at this point a ‘psychological experiment’ in national voyeurism, Britain taking an unblinking, intimate look at ten of its own. Life Thru A Lens, if you like. If Robbie Williams was an expert on anything, it was being famous, and he understood every side of such attention. The video for “Rock DJ” cast him as a dancer, desperate to be noticed, stripping off clothes, then skin, muscle and organ.

12
Apr 15

CRAIG DAVID – “7 Days”

Popular59 comments • 3,449 views

#868, 5th August 2000

craig david days When Craig David’s manager heard the chorus of “7 Days” for the first time, he knew at once the 17 year old would be a star. The song made him. It also doomed him. “7 Days” is the most immediate single of the year, and also the easiest to parody. A committed, self-serious lad, David chafed at the attention of comedians, particularly Bo Selecta!’s Leigh Francis, whose consistent, surreal use of the singer was blamed by David for sabotaging his career. But “7 Days” is so ridiculous – and so catchy – that it attracted piss-takers like piranha to steak. That doesn’t make David’s hurt and regret less real, or void his case – the relationship between pop music and the rest of British culture, comedy included, was on the turn. But it doesn’t make “7 Days” less funny.

9
Apr 15

FIVE + QUEEN – “We Will Rock You”

Popular40 comments • 2,768 views

#867, 29th July 2000

five queen rock 2014 saw Queen reach an unfortunate milestone – they’ve now been going for longer without Freddie Mercury than with him. It’s been an odd 23 years. John Deacon bowed out with some dignity in 1997, but Brian May and Roger Taylor remain remorselessly active. Sometimes their stewardship has been a great public success – pioneering the jukebox musical, for instance – and sometimes it’s felt more like the most dogged but pointless of May’s many hobbies. This single, their only No.1 since the initial post-Freddie tribute era, surely falls into the former category. But hold on – the official Queen website has no mention of it. Nor does the band’s quite thorough Wikipedia history. What’s up?

7
Apr 15

RONAN KEATING – “Life Is A Rollercoaster”

Popular62 comments • 2,892 views

#866, 22nd July 2000

ronancoaster Fishing for critical angles in songwriting credits is a mostly futile endeavour. You soon learn the sad truth: the distribution of talent and memorable style is as skewed among writers as among everyone else – including the stars and hopefuls they work for. Consistency – never mind individuality – is a rare gift. More likely the trawl through Discogs and Wikipedia reveals the half-forgotten boyband hit as the peak of some toiler’s career. But every so often a partnership between star and writer works, and sometimes in surprising ways. This is the only number one Gregg Alexander – ex New Radicals – wrote for Ronan, but he was heavily involved with every one of the singer’s early solo LPs. And listening to “Life Is A Rollercoaster” it’s easy to hear why. Alexander solved a real problem for Keating: how to make the Irish boyband style work for upbeat songs.