Monday, October 10, 2011

Is boring pop necessarily a bad thing?

Saturday's Guardian has a piece by Popjustice editor Peter Robinson arguing that pop music had gone beige. The UK's music scene, it suggests, has become a boring, unadventurous, whirlwind of shit.

It's Adele's fault, Peter says, for writing Someone Like You and forcing people to like it. Ed Sheeran and Birdy are causing actual narcolepsy. Ellie Goulding and Foster The People are named and shamed in an accompanying graphic, but their crimes against music are apparently too disturbing to be discussed in front of a family audience.

Now, I'm not going to pick a fight with Peter, a writer who punches way above my weight in just about every respect, but his piece was designed to provoke a debate - so here's my two cents.

First of all, Adele. I agree that, the elemental savagery of Rolling In The Deep aside, her album resurrects an ultra-safe Carole King 1970s pop vibe with alarming alacrity. A song like Don't You Remember is acoustically dampened by flock wallpaper and cosy deep-pile carpets. But at the centre of it all is Adele's voice - a stop-you-in-your-socks wail of agitated self-pity and visceral loneliness. It's so anti-boring that Adele's throat has literally exploded.

I have sympathy with the criticisms of Ed Sheeran and Birdy, two artists who are about as innovative as a shoe. But attacking the residents of Radio 2's playlist for being universally palatable is like criticising The X Factor for failing to have a Motorhead theme week with Lemmy as guest judge. This is just the way the world turns. At least Ed's got a song about a drug-addict prostitute unlike, say, Dido - a singer so neutral and inoffensive she could be Switzerland.

Elsewhere, Peter raises the spectre of Lady Gaga emerging from her egg at the Grammy Awards. He suggests Adele's Brits performance could also have done with some pyrotechnics and lasers. The mistake here is to confuse "eye-catching" with "interesting". Lady Gaga is great not because she's constantly frotting with a blow up banana (cf Katy Perry), but because she uses her visuals to support her music. Being carried in an ova about isn't just showing off (although it is), Gaga's talking about being reborn musically, personally, sexually and... you get the point.

If Adele was going to visually represent Someone Like You with a lavish stage production, dancers and light shows wouldn't be the way forward. No, she'd need that guy from Indiana Jones and the Temple Of Doom to walk onstage and rip out her heart before holding it triumphantly up to the crowd. On balance, I think tears were probably enough for primetime ITV1.

While we're on the topic of Gaga. For all of her subversion of the pop mainstream, its no secret that the Born This Way album has had a difficult genesis. The videos for the title track and Judas were a mess, the songs feel short of their expected chart positions, and the album only achieved high first-week sales in the US because it was discounted to a ridiculous $0.99 on Amazon. What set the entire project back on track? A ballad called You & I, possibly the most conventional song of Gaga's career, overseen by Shania Twain's former producer / husband John Mutt Lange, with a guitar solo by "Dr" Brian May. It's so conservative, it could tell you a story about an asylum seeker and their cat. It is, in fact, Beige This Way.

The Guardian article seems to be trying to emulate Peter's polemic against landfill indie, two-and-a-half years ago. That piece felt genuinely revolutionary, voicing an opinion (that Scouting For Girls were indescribably awful) many of us felt, but had never quite crystallised into actual words.

This time round, the argument feels weaker. Adele and Ed Sheeran are selling by the bucket-load. Ellie Goulding is pretty boring, but are people really that bothered by her? Surely she's just one of those artists, like Jack Johnson or Belle And Sebastian who are just there - not really making any impression on anyone, but mysteriously eking out a career all the same. And let's not forget all the amazing music being made at the moment - from the fresh pulse of Katy B's club hits to the astonishing sadpop of Lykke Li, via the bottom-wobbling bass of Chase & Status.

Towards the end of his article, Peter points out that the new wave of new beige is providing a necessary antidote to the vapid "parade of LOLpop party hits" by David Guetta, Pitbull and LMFAO. If that's the case, bring it on. I'm ready for a 100% hardcore boregasm.

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