David Guetta and Pitbull have soiled the charts for too long but pop is finally beginning to climb out of its creative slump
Dorian Lynskey the Guardian.co.uk 12/31/12
Last November, 265 journalists and fans boarded Rihanna’s jet for her week-long 777 jaunt, a hubristic and shambolic PR stunt to promote a mediocre record which used this once-interesting star’s reunion with former assailant Chris Brown as a tacky selling point. Rolling Stone’s reporter described passengers as “ignored, bored, hungry and annoyed” and concluded: “Never do something like this again.” If Buddy Holly’s fatal plane journey on 2 February 1959 was, according to Don McLean, the day the music died, then 777 was the week the music took a long hard look at itself.
The 777 tour felt symbolic of the current sickly condition of chart pop. The industry’s falling revenues have induced suffocating caution and cynicism as more and more eggs are stuffed into a few threadbare baskets. Most of the chart’s regular visitors are the same as they were two years ago. Producers such as David Guetta, Calvin Harris and will.i.am have presided over a ubiquitous lowest-common-denominator mulch of pop, hip-hop and dance music whose lyrical vision rarely extends below the club VIP room. The output of tireless Miami rapper Pitbull is so increasingly cretinous that each release makes its predecessor sound like River Deep Mountain High, and the Olympics closing ceremony suggested that if the answer is always Jessie J then you’re asking the wrong question. Like the benighted passengers on 777, chart pop sounds exhausted and nauseous. Even the usually upbeat Popjustice website recently decided: “Pop needs a kick up the arse.”
There are three ways of assessing such a slump. One is the kneejerk anti-pop argument that the top 40 has always been terrible and always will be. Another is the declinist view that there was a halcyon era (which invariably coincides with the listener’s own youth) and we are doomed to live in its shadow. The third approach is that it is a point on a cycle: another fall before another rise before another fall, and so on.
Despite the depressing prevailing winds, change is definitely afoot. The largest bastions of tabloid values and tin-eared conservatism are vulnerable. The last two seasons of X Factor have haemorrhaged viewers and Chris Moyles has ceded the Radio 1 breakfast show to the younger, sharper Nick Grimshaw, a DJ whose favourite sound is not his own voice. Meanwhile, some of the year’s biggest hits have been refreshing anomalies. A couple of years ago, nobody was banking on global success for a thirtysomething South Korean (PSY), a Belgian-Australian drummer called Wally (Gotye), and a drowsy starlet whose music resembles a high-school musical based on the movies of David Lynch (Lana Del Rey).
People who disdain chart pop tend to assume that the average listener is a tasteless mug who will stomach any formulaic tat because they don’t know any better. The likes of Simon Cowell and Pitbull operate on that principle. But even the least discerning listeners get restless and hungry for something new. Give them a Somebody That I Used to Know or Video Games, a record that doesn’t follow the script, and they will often embrace it. Underestimate them and you might get away with it in the short-term, but eventually they’ll turn around and say: “Enough!”
George Ergatoudis, head of music at Radio 1 and 1Xtra, recently said: “Guitar music is definitely on the way back.” But the answer to pop’s malaise isn’t white boys with guitars. For one thing, there’s little sign that it is on the way back. For another, it’s foolish to assume that a rock revival is a silver bullet that will change everything. There is already so much great pop on the verge of mainstream success. Hip-hop and R&B hip-hop and R&B have been creatively reinvigorated by adventurous new releases from Frank Ocean, Miguel, Angel Haze and Kendrick Lamar. Jessie Ware demonstrates the neglected virtues of subtlety and restraint while Katy B’s recent Danger EP is an exciting taster for her forthcoming second album of club-savvy pop.
There is exciting traffic between genres as left-of-centre UK producers such as Jamie xx and Hudson Mohawke seize the chance to reinvigorate US stars. And new artists such as London duo AlunaGeorge, Glasgow’s CHVRCHES and LA trio Haim are writing fantastic, inventive songs with commercial appeal. Some of these acts feature on the current Radio 1 playlist, which is taking far more chances than it was this time a year ago. It could go further.
At its very best the top 40 resembles a massive house party with nobody guarding the door. The extroverts are on the dancefloor, the oddballs are in the kitchen and all manner of surprising couplings are taking place in the room where the coats are stored. The mingling of people who would otherwise never meet is what makes it interesting and relevant. Of late, the party has taken on a desperate 5am feel. Pitbull is spraying himself with champagne, Calvin Harris hogs the stereo, Britney wanders around looking sad and lost, Jessie J is everywhere, and all the oddballs have gone home because nobody was talking to them. But there are some intriguing new arrivals at the door and this year should see at least some of them walk right in.