Singing about going to be with God – about death and beyond – is a grand old hymnal and gospel topic. For those mired in trouble, misery and oppression, it’s one of the most powerful statements you can make: this world is not all there is. George Harrison, in 1970, was not mired in those things, no matter how high Mr Wilson and Mr Heath set their marginal tax rates. And he knew it – the original “My Sweet Lord”, written by a newly free singer on top of his professional world, is a surge of multi-faith ecstasy. Backing singers and the Chiffons come together – willingly or not – to take the strain off Harrison’s voice, and he builds a bridge to the hereafter out of a slide guitar solo.
Thirty-two years later, Harrison’s in the grave, and his song is at number one again. It comes reissued on a CD single with the original “My Sweet Lord” as the lead, but also a re-recording – “My Sweet Lord (2000)”. Laid down between the stabbing that didn’t kill him and the illness that did, it’s worth hearing and thinking about.
This is a blog about failure. Thirty years ago, Marvel Comics celebrated its 25th Anniversary by launching a “New Universe” – a start-up line of all-original comics, designed to… well, that depends who you ask. In theory, the New Universe was meant to reflect “the world outside your window”, returning to a level of ‘realism’ other Marvel comics had supposedly once had and lost. From the world outside Marvel’s window, it looked like a colossal vanity project – born of a need by Marvel’s then Editor-In-Chief, Jim Shooter, to prove a point to his critics: he was a creator, not just a brand manager.
In practise, once underway, both these aims were quickly scrambled. Marvel slashed the New Universe’s budget, and the grind of producing eight monthly comics on a shoestring soon became visible on the page. Within a year of its launch, Shooter was out of a job. This is a blog, after all, about failure, as it shows up in creative product: disappointing, mediocre, half-hearted, cruddy failure. It will also be about comics, and hype, and the 80s. At 13, a Marvel fan, I believed in the New Universe. Shooter’s very eighties pitch – that I would be “in on the ground floor” of something big – suckered me in. I have hardly ever been as excited as when the first issues of its titles trickled into a suburban British comic shop. And hardly ever as disappointed as when I read them. Some I dropped entirely, some I followed doggedly. At least one became a favourite, for a while. In among the failure may be some elements of success.
The Queen Of The Damned soundtrack, released later in 2002, is a fearful pile of tosh, a body count of nu-metal second-raters which illustrates a dilemma the film didn’t totally resolve: just which children of the night was this thing aimed at – nostalgic goths, or their snarling mallrat stepchildren? Through the film stepped Aaliyah, ignoring the question by offering a third option. Recently dead, a bigger star than ever, her immortal character moved like “More Than A Woman” sounded – seductively unnatural, a vision of skin and metal animated in Ray Harryhausen stop-motion.
This is our only meeting with Aaliyah, but it’s not a typical Aaliyah single: she didn’t make those, the smooth adaptability of her singing encouraging collaborators to push their margins. And speaking of collaborators, it’s also our first directly credit encounter with Tim Mosley, Timbaland, who took her as one of his muses. We’ve glimpsed Timbaland by reflection, via imitators and co-creators, and even here he’s occluded – co-writer Static Major heard the original “More Than A Woman” and felt he could do more with it.
Implicitly, it’s Static Major we have to thank for the song’s lushness, breaking off from Aaliyah’s two previous Timba-produced tracks, the playful “Try Again”, garlanded with acid squelches, and the bubbling, desperate paranoia of “We Need A Resolution”. Brilliant, but emotionally ugly and self-lacerating, that song had been only a modest hit. After finishing the vampire flick, Aaliyah shot a video in the Bahamas for a more conventional follow-up, gorgeous R&B sex jam “Rock The Boat”. She took a plane back to the States. It crashed on take-off. All nine aboard died.
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.