Cosmic Slop #119: Are We Scared To Be Pop Stars?

By Shaun Ponsonby
Thu 14 September, 2017

Does pop still sound like pop? Shaun Ponsonby ponders the increasing eccentricity of pop music, and why it has taken such a sharp left turn.

“I’m an artist and I should be respected.”

The above quote comes from one Justin Bieber – or, as the Romans would have said; “Justin Bieber inde est quod superius quote”.

It’s a quote I have come back to again and again – because it’s kinda bollocks, innit? We can argue back and forth about what constitutes an artist, but there aren’t many people who wouldn’t put Justin Bieber squarely in the “pop star” category. And that is before we get to the fact that Purpose had 27 producers.

But why is he running away from that? Why is it assumed to be an insult?

There is nothing wrong with being a pop star. Despite being hate filled and conceited, I would accept certain people more if they admitted that they were pop stars instead of pretending that they are reaching for something deeper. Bieber is hardly going for deep art with Sorry, is he? The lyrics are far too dumb.

There was a time when it was OK to be a pop star. Hell, Michael Jackson marketed himself as the King of Pop. The late 90s and early 00s was a goldmine of classic pop, from Britney Spears to Justin Timberlake. The Spice Girls conquered the world in a way that Britpop couldn’t in its wildest dreams.

Somewhere along the line, it became uncool to be a pop star.  Even in the music they make, it almost feels like people are running away from it. Things are sounding much less “pop” and, by default, much less fun.

The most extreme examples seem especially prevalent in female acts. Think Dua Lipa and Anne-Marie. Their vocal stylings are eccentric – a far cry from the classic singers from days of yore. At times, the latter’s vocals on recent hit Ciao Adios seems to owe more to Hounds of Love-era Kate Bush than it does Whitney Houston or Celine Dion.  Yet the end product doesn’t reach as deeply as Bush. It isn’t particularly progressive – it’s still a pop song, even if it is camouflaged.

Kate Bush isn’t designed for stadiums. Even she is aware of this. So this marriage of styles doesn’t comfortably fit together.

Even production seems to have gotten ugly. Like William (I refuse to call him – don’t put punctuation where punctuation doesn’t belong) has become the most important figure in latter day pop and people have taken it upon themselves to produce records in his style, but without the knowledge that what they were doing sounds obnoxious.

Ultimately, there seems to be a move away from the classic idea of what a pop star is. I started to wonder where this started, and concluded that it may have been a reaction to the Simon Cowell brigade.

Think about how ubiquitous The X Factor and American Idol have been on both sides of the Atlantic, and who are celebrated on those shows. Big ballad belters like Whitney, Celine and Mariah are held as some untouchably superior talent – the perpetuated myth that a ballad is superior, or proves you are the better singer, or that being the better singer makes you the better pop star (it doesn’t – see: Madonna).

On top of that, anyone who shows anything resembling individuality or personality is either removed, or used by the producers as the villain of the show. There are plenty online listicles that go through the X Factor contestants and point to anyone who isn’t like Leona Lewis as being a ridiculous contestant.  Think Kitty Brucknell, Storm Lee, Rhydian, Katie Waissel (obviously, being someone who thinks he’s better than The X Factor, I had to look them all up).

Then the winner’s single would come out. Your Nan would pop down to the Tesco to pick it up, and tell you all about it because she thought it made her seem like a cool Nan.

Except it didn’t, because the song was horrible, the performer was dead behind the eyes and if it came on as muzak in a lift, you bang your own head against the speaker risking breaking both the lift and your skull just to get rid of it. They were the safest of the safe, the blandest of the bland. Celine Dion without the authenticity. Nothing bordering soul, interest or charisma allowed, thank you very much. In the eyes of the young, it’s not cool to listen to songs your Nan likes.

With one or two exceptions, pop became boring. Then, as Cowell’s dirge seemed to drown us, Lady GaGa dropped from a whole ‘nother planet.

Now, say what you want about Lady GaGa, but you remembered her. Your parents probably hated her – even though if David Bowie pulled the exact same stunts in the 70s it merely would have confirmed his utter genius. Your Nan wasn’t buying Bad Romance. “Did you see her in the video? Imagine going out dressed like. She’s weird!” What she did was prove that someone who displayed that level of individuality could be world conqueringly successful.

Even though it was GaGa’s image that set her apart rather than her music, that basic principle of individuality seems to have been influential over the last few years. It feels like people are building on what they saw GaGa do and using it to move as far away from Cowell shlock as possible.

But it might be working in reverse. Now everybody is striving to sound so individual, so different, so against the traditional fundamentals of pop music, that the people who are standing out are the ones who are classically pop.

Is this why One Direction were so huge? Or Ariana Grande? They are unashamedly pop, their image is frothy, and they are basically fun and accessible. Next to FKA Twigs, it’s actually pretty appealing on a mass level. Even when Zayn Spice left the Directions, despite the hype, PILLOWTALK sounded like an ugly One Direction song. Pop for people who pretend they don’t like pop.

But of course we like pop. We like melody, we like to dance. We need pop stars for the masses as much as we need cult artists.

  • Image: Anne-Marie‘s Facebook page