I give a mark out of 10 to every entry. These polls are your chance to say which records YOU would have given 6 or more to. Not quite as many 2001 entries as the 2000 poll but still an awful lot. My 9s this year went to Destinys Child, So Solid Crew, and Kylie. DJ Otzi landed a 1. Over to you!
Robbie Williams quit a boy band because the grinning and flexing began to feel like a job, and feeling like a job meant feeling like a cage. He fled into pop stardom, and the cage followed. Rising up the TV ratings as “Somethin’ Stupid” topped the charts was Pop Idol, a show that was a four-month job interview for being a pop star, an announcement that the role was now a profession. And who was the blueprint for that these days? Who was the idol, the one with the X Factor? Nobody but Robbie. The Robbie of 1998, “Let Me Entertain You” and “Angels”, versatile, shining with charisma and desperate for love, was the model for what Reality TV spent the next decade hunting. He had wanted to do it his way: now his way was a template for sheer will-to-stardom. Meanwhile he looked for another jump. This time he went backwards: the swing era and the big bands.
Real life almost did for Popular this time – writing about the glittery 00s boom in 2016 felt like, well, writing about the jazz age in 1937 might have. Plus I had a book about social media research to write for work (out in downloadable PDF form from the IPA in September, if such is your bag).
But you can’t keep a good project down, so I got over myself, and I’m taking up the reins again with a Robbie and Nicole entry (up today), a POLL (scheduled for tomorrow) and then… well actually, silence for a week, as I’m off to the Canaries on holiday. But once I come back I’m going to get the gears grinding again. Forward into 2002!
Like disco and Philly soul before it, UK garage mixed upfront celebration with flashes of heartbreak, only lightly concealed. The carrier for 2-step’s bittersweet accents was often its string or harpsichord lines, set as counterpoint to the carefree lyrics. Sometimes songs were more open about their anomie: “I’m tired of love / And scared of no love” sighs the unhappy singer on Y Tribe’s beautiful “Enough Is Enough”. The opportunity was always there for a garage track which slipped further into the emotional dark, which took the skittering beats of 2-step not as champagne pops but as the prickly heat of nervous desire. Daniel Bedingfield took it.
Kylie’s brief glimpse into pop’s realm of platonic forms only made the central issue starker: British pop was in the doldrums. The Spice Years seemed more than ever like a can shaken too hard: a burst of fizz, and only flatness left behind. It’s not that Blue’s “If You Come Back” or S Club 7’s “Have You Ever” are especially bad songs. In fact that was the problem – each saw their group at full strength, delivering the best ballad they could. It’s not enough.
Both are vignettes of love and regret. Blue’s is weaker and smarmier, a jilted dude trying to understand what he did wrong, professing that next time it’ll work out. Ghosts of better – or at least more famous – songs flicker through the mix: “I Swear” is in there, and there’s a hint of “Always On My Mind” in the bridge. It only makes you notice how thin Blue’s porridge is. Mush-mouthed, the group make “If you come back to my life” sound like “if you come back here alive” – more exciting, but in any case the song isn’t short on the usual hyperbole. Everything is eternal in boyband songs, all loves last all time.
This is the text of my presentation to EMP 2016, in Seattle. The theme of the conference was “voice”, thankfully this proved flexible enough for me to ride my favourite hobby horse. I gave the presentation without notes, so the text here is slightly drier than attendees might remember, and lacks ad libs, embellishments, moments of desperate panic, etc. Thank you to everyone who attended and thank you especially to all those attendees who came up afterwards and said nice things. I had a wonderful time.
Hello Seattle. Make some noise.
Back to ‘Life, back to reality. The charts’ burst of Autumnal energy fades, the novelties and classics depart, and it’s a return to business very much as usual, the first single from Westlife’s third LP. “Queen Of My Heart” sounded to me like the ur-Westlife song from when I first heard it, a merciless tramp through the now-established formula. It flirts with the sombre, at first – can this be the Westlife track where the boys are actually going to break up with their long-suffering lady? Not a bit of it: though this is a more muddled Westlife lyric than many, the initial finality turns into a very temporary break.
Six days ago I was about to do an EMP talk and I saw rumours about Prince on Twitter. I thought for a second about what I would do if I had to break the news that Prince had died to a room of women and men who loved him. Only for a second, because the answer was very obvious. I would tell them, and end the presentation, and we would all go to the bar and talk about Prince. Prince had not died. Prince has died. I would prefer to be with the friends I was with then, not in an open-plan office which feels like the least Princely place in the world right now, without any of his music to play. Prince is a star who makes most sense with people – dancing, talking, gasping at his ideas, sharing ideas and memories. There are probably other things you might think of to do with other people that involve Prince.
But I also wish I was there, talking to Americans, because for me Prince was America. My first idea of America as a place that could be wilder, stranger, funkier, deeper, more committed to itself, more religious, more dangerous than where I lived. British stars I understood. Prince was a myth, a creature of scandal and rumour; from Smash Hits I understood Paisley Park as a city of music, an Oz. Prince’s records sounded electric and frightening. At that time he was the centre of pop’s map and its edge at the same time. Nothing I learned about him later changed any of that, or of my sense that he was a key to America’s music and its secrets.
He was a star, I want to say the first, where that dynamic of incomprehension turning into awe hit me, very strongly with “When Doves Cry”. “Do I like this”, “I love this”. The pop uncanny. Without that, pop is just things you like and things you don’t. Prince gave me things that made no sense then suddenly did. Every so often in the decades since I’ve heard something and thought, ah, pop has come back to Prince. He was a meeting point of all the ideas America had about pop, soul, and rock music and the ones it was about to have. This will go on for decades more, there are futures to mine in Prince beyond easy reckoning.
That’s what he meant to me, a long time ago, and as an adult. There is so much more to say and learn. I will read the stories. Thankyou to Prince.
If rock criticism was a stoner, one of its endlessly repeated good-vibes stories would be Paul McCartney waking up and ‘discovering’ the melody to “Yesterday” in his head as “Scrambled Eggs”. McCartney, no enemy of the herb at this point, became convinced he’d heard it before, only gradually accepting that he’d stumbled upon the tune via luck or talent or sheer morphic resonance – the theory popularised by Dr Rupert Sheldrake in the 80s that blue tits learn to open milk bottles because they’re all connected by a kind of blue tit superconsciousness, mind blown, except it wasn’t true. Though it was true enough for a physics teacher I had to suspend lessons so he could give us all crosswords to fill in, staggered batch by batch to see if morphic learning was happening.