Making sense of Simon Cowell requires negotiating a maze of banalities – a host of things which are, like judges’ verdicts on a reality show, obvious and lacking insight, but nonetheless true. For instance, saying “Simon Cowell cares about money more than music” is a lazy criticism, but it’s also surely right. Saying “Whoever wins, Cowell is the real winner” is a similar no-shit-Sherlock conclusion, and equally hard to deny.
If we turn over these obvious stones, is there anything wriggling underneath? Maybe there is. Take Simon Cowell’s taste in music. It’s not that he doesn’t like music – he has a set of preferences. It’s more that once he became a reality impresario, the exact contours of his taste became a source of competitive advantage. Some of the reality TV judge’s power is unpredictability – anything that compromises the unpredictability, like a known aesthetic, is a weakness.
It was not immediately obvious that everything had changed. I was at an engagement party, and was introduced as a music fan to someone, and they asked me a question: “Will or Gareth?”. I didn’t really get what they were talking about. Pop Idol, of course. Oh, I haven’t been watching it. “You haven’t?” It seemed bizarre to them, that someone into pop music wouldn’t have felt the show was important. They were right.
There is an economic maxim called Goodhart’s Law: when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. Reality TV pop was the application of this to the charts. Being number one was the measure, already a shakily symbolic one, of popularity and fame. To be a pop idol meant having massive pop hits. And so the winner of Pop Idol would have the biggest hits anyone could. But what actually happened was the colonisation of the charts by TV, for several weeks a year. It became an annual event, like the flooding of the Nile delta. Instead of proving that Will or Gareth or Darius or anyone else could compete with the best, it made the weakness of the charts as a metric of best-ness – or anything else – absurdly obvious.
It’s taken them until their 10th number one, but Westlife finally bring us an original uptempo song. Within the band’s corpus “World Of Our Own” is a break from the norm, with half-hearted ‘party’ noises under the intro acting as cues for the lads to rise up from the stools and shake a tailfeather. On anyone else’s terms it’s reliable workhorses Steve Mac and Wayne Hector trying to write a Gregg Alexander song. The string of emphases on the bridge – “Took! For! Granted!” – feels particularly like a stab at New Radicals style euphoric lift-off, but Westlife is not a rollercoaster. It’s barely even a teacup ride. The chorus bumps repetitively along, its sing-song melody irritating before the first pass is even through. And the scenario is a standard Westlife one – our hero has strayed but regrets it and realises real happiness lies with the comforts of home. A decent metaphor for this mildest of experimental moves, then, which ends with the inevitable – and reassuring – key change.
In Britain it was another ballad, another global import megahit, arriving here with the spontaneity of a powerpoint build. But in America it was jetsam, a fragment of wreckage to cling to in a time of fear. Within days of the World Trade Centre falling, “Hero” had been remixed to incorporate found audio from 9/11, a collage of sobbing witnesses, panicked rescuers, and the drained sincerity of politicians interrupting Enrique Iglesias’ every line.
It’s a remarkable thing to listen to, pop snatched up into history, pushed beyond the limit of what it can accommodate. The sentiment of the song – Enrique as hero as lover – shifts into Enrique as firefighter, as cop, and as anyone desperately trying to help and to reassure. But the juxtaposition of pop and tragedy, grotesque as it is, works, because Iglesias himself is so lachrymose: his stagey chokes and moans and trembling lips mix into place smoothly alongside the real agony caught on tape. “I just wanna hold you… I just wanna hold you…” Iglesias murmurs at the end, exhausted and bereft. Romance turns into terror sex.
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.
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.