Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Why pop stars need to be likeable

Remember the Lady Gaga vs Katy Perry chart battle? It only happened three weeks ago, but that was before Miley Cyrus stuck her bum in the air and her tongue in a camera, and pop imploded.

So if you've forgotten, here's what happened: Applause and Roar were released in the same week, after a leak prompted Gaga to bring her single forward. Then Katy Perry won - massively.

In fact, Roar outsold Applause by a factor of 2:1 in the US.

People were surprised - but Buzzfeed's Matthew Perpetua had a fantastically insightful, concise explanation.

Part of the reason Gaga’s song is leaving audiences cold is because, like most of her material, the song is entirely about being Lady Gaga. To fully enjoy Applause you need to buy into her stardom and be invested in her increasingly elaborate mythology.

Perry’s Roar, on the other hand, is a thoroughly generic song about self-affirmation and triumph over adversity, and though you can map the details of her personal life on to it, it’s just as easy to imagine the song being about you. Perry consistently aims for universal sentiments in her songs, and this is a big part of why she’s had significantly more success on the charts. Her hits have less cultural baggage, and far more utility.

It seems so simple, doesn't it? Be likeable. Be relatable. But artist after artist gets it wrong.

Perhaps it's not their fault. We're trained, in a post-Madonna era, to think that pop should be edgy, shocking, exciting. But it's easy to forget Madonna's career hit rock bottom when she extrapolated the success of Justify My Love (naughty, sexy) into Erotica (joyless, debauched).

A colleague at Radio One told me last week that they have trouble playing Ke$ha's music because her trashy image "puts off" a large section of their audience. That's not just an assumption - the station relentlessly tests its playlist with focus groups of real listeners. So when their drivetime host Greg James calls Miley Cyrus "ludicrous", you have to wonder if he's been getting similar feedback on her latest career moves.

With that in mind, let's take a look at the Not The One - the new release from indie-pop kid, and Capitol Records signing, Sky Ferreira.

The song is absolutely excellent: A gritty, scuzzy electro-pop smash, with a guitar line chopped out of Duran Duran's Girls On Film. But she looks unkempt, stand-offish and wasted. She stabs a man in her video. And, with appalling timing, she's just been arrested on suspicion of possession of controlled substances.

The arrest aside, it all seems calculated to make her seem "cool" but instead she comes off as haughty and unlikeable. I hope I'm wrong and Sky, who has a truckload of pop gems in her possession, can sustain a mainstream career. After all, Rihanna shows it's possible to combine rebellion with mass appeal (although I still find her a difficult person to warm to). But somehow, sadly, I doubt it's going to happen.

Sky Ferreira - Not The One

PS: I know all of the examples above are female - but the argument applies equally well to Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke. Their lyrics are broadly similar (ie misogynist), but Thicke comes off like a creepy sexpest, while JT does everything with a cheeky tip of the hat. The point stands: People want pop stars they can relate to.

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