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.
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.
Between its two writers and its performer, “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” is the sound of over seven decades’ pop experience. It’s better heard as distillation than prediction. Maybe its bright, brisk pop-dance sensibility comes from Cathy Denis. Maybe its moreish chunkiness, the crunchy stomp of its beats, comes from Mud’s Rob Davis. Its obvious comparison point, as a mantric, obsessive disco song, is Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”. But “I Feel Love” risks goofiness in placing a wager on the future – I bet this isn’t a novelty record – while there is no risk of “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” being anything other than a classic. As Kylie Minogue knew, the second she heard the demo.
“Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” is still sleek and clean, impeccably designed, full of beautiful textures. If “I Feel Love” was a kiss blown to an imagined future, “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” is an engineer’s fond response now that the imaginary has come true, more pragmatic but just as heartfelt. Moroder and Summer’s song was a jet pack. Dennis, Davis and Minogue’s is a map of flight plans. It’s a crystal of a record, an omnihedron revolving gently at the centre of pop, refracting and reflecting the 20th century’s music. In a context of Atomic Kitten, DJ Otzi and Blue, you might weep for joy on hearing it. It’s so well-arranged, so uncluttered, so satisfying. But the joy is partly one of familiarity. Ever since “Telstar”, people imagined 21st century pop would sound a bit like this. “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” isn’t futuristic, it’s the fulfillment of a promised future.