The Fall And Rise Of Pop, Part I

Back in May, Luke Haines titillated his handfuls of observers by calling for a Pop Strike. His plea – for a week’s respite from musical production and criticism – got him a few column inches, but it was hard to feel much sympathy. No matter how often Haines paid lip-service to this being an attack on all music, the columnists stuck to dishing familiar targets – Hear’Say, Westlife, Britney, Mariah – in familiar ways. Plastic. Soulless. Manufactured. Tired. The usual words, the usual secret sneery desire to bury a generation’s enjoyment under grey verbal ash. This time though, they needn’t have bothered, because Pop – the kind of pop they hate, glossy glorious robotic energetic teenage all-age singing dancing pop – is dead.

Of course, it’s had a good – the best – run. “Bills Bills Bills”, “No Scrubs”, “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)”, “Are You That Somebody?”, “…Baby One More Time” – these were records which dazzled on their own and all together made a watertight case that the charts were once again going to be the only party worth crashing. Between Britney and now we’ve had two years of fireworks and dancing, spiced (let’s face it) by the knowledge that everybody who thought they mattered had written the stuff off from the first shake of Brit’s pigtails. It couldn’t last, and it didn’t last. To quote Howard Devoto, quitting the Buzzcocks after one single, “What was once unhealthily fresh has become a clean old hat.”

Or, more appropriately: “We feel that the “hype” of Cheiron has become bigger than itself and it’s time to quit while we’re ahead” – with these words Max Martin, desk-jockey behind every Backstreet and Britney song worth hearing, closed his studio’s doors in August 2000. Martin was killing off a brand name, Devoto was doing his best to murder a movement (or his unlooked-for part in one), but in pop branding is ideology so the comparison nearly fits. They both saw the writing on the wall. But to understand exactly why the nu pop is dead, we need to look at what it was.

It’s a truism of pop’s opponents that ‘image’ is more important than ‘music’. It’s also become a truism of pop’s defenders that, yes, image is crucial – pop is about the total package, pop is glamour and youth and gossip and dancing. The thing about the latest pop boom, though, is how undifferentiated that image was. Yes, at point-of-sale everyone making pop had to be pretty, as has always been the case, but the homogenity of boy band and teen diva image is still striking. You could be told what the key differences between A1 and Five were, for sure, but you couldn’t necessarily see them. The stage schools which bred pop’s new generation might be responsible, but then Britney – arriving with the most distinctive image in years – was a Mouseketeer.

Maybe the audience just didn’t see the point of too much character. Certainly from a marketing perspective it’s been a winner, extending the fashionable life of pop bands from two years to four or potentially even more. Besides, the smoothness and control of the pop image is hardly a loss, when the music has been so fizzy and choppy. Impeccably produced, too – the oiled shudders of a Max Martin production and the body swerves of N’Sync fit together in ways that go beyond standard choreography and into a kind of physical onomatopaeia.

A conformity of image, though, leaves pop vulnerable, open more than ever to accusations of blandness, of being nothing but a production-line. In themselves these attacks hardly ever interfere with the pop process, but the damage gets done when the pop stars start listening. And that, more than anything else, is what’s killed pop – a self-consciousness has crept in, a knowingness that’s half decadent and half neurotic.

Could I perhaps be talking about N’Sync? Their “Pop” single is a bus-missing manifesto for the new generation’s “dirty pop” – musically a confused grope at a post-Cheiron style, lyrically a starry piece of petulance. “All that matters is that you recognise that it’s just about respect”. And why aren’t they getting respect? Because people say pop’s just a trend, it’s doomed to end, and they focus on the cars and the “ice” rather than the music. Questions of image and substance prey on N’Sync – or rather, the people responsible for the N’Sync brand feel that questions of image and substance should be seen to prey on it.

But even taken at face value this defensive self-knowledge draws pop’s sting. Recorded music operates on two levels: your relationship with the star (be it lust, respect or amused observation) and your relationship with the song. With a lot of music these lines cross and tangle – the intentions of the songwriter or singer come to seem important, for instance. As the lines meet, too, the point of criticism seems to be to figure where these records fit into an artist’s life, not where they might fit into yours. Pop, though, merges the lines completely and breaks this link between artist and product by erasing the artist’s autonomy – understanding a radio hit in terms of biography or career might be titillating, but it gets the critic mostly nowhere.

Failure to grasp this is what’s left most criticism of the teenpop boom seeming so irrelevant. A writer might have landed on the apparent dichotomies between Britney’s Christian values, and her sexy costumes, and her maybe-masochistic lyrics. This line of thinking ends up telling us nothing whatsoever about “…Baby One More Time” the record, because the three things are as marginally related as the window you’re reading this in and any two others on your desktop. The pop package is as compartmentalised as its consumers’ lives. And this ultimately is why complaints about image’s primacy over music are not wrong so much as pointless. Sometimes the two parts fit (N’Sync dancing), sometimes they clash (Britney vamping) – pop consumers pick whatever aspect they like best, and can happily ignore the rest of it. And ‘pop consumers’ doesn’t just mean the fans, but all you jaded observers gawking at Christina’s latest fashion outrage or cackling over Britney’s novel.

But what N’Sync are so dangerously doing is making this dead image/music issue the issue, making their lifestyles part of their pop style, making what a celebrity is rub too closely against what a celebrity does. You can sympathise with “Pop”, but how are you meant to empathise with it? It’s a song to support, not sing. And what would you be supporting, anyway? Like a politician up for re-election, all N’Sync want to do is to keep on going, to “last”.

They won’t, and their aspirations are part of the reason why. Ideas of maturity, of lasting, of being taken seriously, of songwriting – these aren’t bad ideas in themselves, they just get in the way. The divisions of labour in the teenpop process are integral to its commercial and aesthetic success, which rests on artistic independence being a non-issue. Pop without them is like jazz without improvisation.

One single doesn’t sustain a trend. But the signs of this self-consciousness – this splitting of the artist/product pop atom – are all over the place right now, as pop begins to decay. In Britain, boy band 5ive return with a more independent image, and are challenged by rivals A1, whose claim to fame is that they – yes – write their own songs. The solo careers of the various Spice Girls have been marked by an emphasis on autobiographical material – Geri’s solo records are like self-help audiobooks set to a canned beat, and Mel B has put out a run of insipid singles about her ex-lover, her new lover, her child. “Lady Marmalade” is the nu-pop equivalent of Cream, or Blind Faith – a song whose only point is the personnel assembled to strut through it. The Popstars phenomenon, meanwhile, makes the guts of the pop process into the consumer hook – and a tour de force of entertainment results. But like stage magic, pop shimmers in superposition between the behind-the-scenes fakery and the conjured spectacle: showing the wires breaks the spell as surely as N’Sync’s pouty insistence that the spectacle is real.

What does all this do to the music? It doesn’t help that so many current teenpop records sound so tired – Atomic Kitten, for instance, are following up their simple but effective “Whole Again” with a holiday camp cover of “Eternal Flame”. But the pop collapse afflicts even the best – the Sugababes have critics in the UK cartwheeling over their often-excellent debut album, but all the press is keen to emphasise that these precocious teens write all their own songs. This may or may not be true – certainly the “Sugababes” writing credit on the CD is generally linked with a host of other names – but they didn’t write their best song, “Overload”. So instead their press kit emphasises how that song was done in one take – “I think it makes it more raw”, says one ‘babe. And so pop, refusing to even talk its own language, dies a little more.

Pop is music where artistic autonomy is irrelevant to the impact of the finished product. But “Overload” is still a superb record, so the ‘death of pop’ I’m talking about need not mean the end of excellent Top 40 singles. It might even produce some amusing, if decadent, albums – N’Sync’s slapping Kurt Cobain on their Celebrity album cover suggests that at least one cog in their machine has a sense of humour. Besides, every second boy band or girl group since rock began has fizzled out like this, crushed beneath its own noble intentions. But the current problem goes further than pop-stars making self-obsessed records. In the second part of this piece, I’ll look at the way pop criticism has travelled from unhealthy freshness to a clean-hatted consensus, and lost the music along the way.