Hello, and thanks for tuning into the eighth edition of DiS Does Pop. The pop column which judges Cheryl Cole on a purely musical basis, only to be pissed off with yet another dreadful solo album. This month we were reading Simon Reynolds' Retromania and thought, 'There's far too much here on Throbbing Gristle and far too little on Take That'. So we decided to investigate the wave of pop nostalgia that has arguably reached its peak in 2012.
There's also a new DiS Does Pop Barometer feature to replace the usual Top 40 Watch because, doing that once every month seemed a bit ridiculous. Fear not fans of Made For TV, that ever-reliable bastion of daytime terrestrial nonsense is still present and correct. Whether you want an informed take on where chart music is heading next or prefer to read some pithy words written at the expense of David Guetta, you've come to the right place.
Is retromania ruining pop music?
There is a Brazilian lady crying in front of us. Not sobbing but weeping so that her makeup is streaming down her face and she’s holding her hand against her mouth to suppress a howl of ecstasy. It’s hard to blame her, she has just touched a Backstreet Boy. We’re sat right in the middle of the cavernous O2 Arena watching the ultimate boy band reunion tour. One which has seen the New Kids On The Block join forces with Nick Carter and co to a wail of hysteria and more than a few tears.
This kind of unabashed nostalgia is no longer a rarity in pop. Earlier this year Kylie Minogue sold out the Hammersmith Apollo for a B-sides and rarities show, Girls Aloud are due to reunite for their 10th anniversary and there’s the Pete Waterman-endorsed Hit Factory concert featuring nearly every successful act of the SAW era. That wave of retromania Simon Reynolds was harping on about last year, where pop culture becomes a slave to its own past, is finally crossing the genre divide from independent music to the mainstream.
When we chatted to Pete earlier this month he didn’t think this was anything new, “Working on radio all people wanted to hear was the old ones.” That is, of course, very true but it doesn’t explain the current wave of pop reunions that saw Take That and Boyzone resurrect themselves to sell out tours and Number 1 albums. Nor does it account for the Instagram credi-pop stylings of Lana Del Rey and Marina and the Diamonds and the continuing trend of sampling old hits in modern pop songs.
Pop music has always borrowed from the past but moved too quickly to be a slave to it. Longevity is a fate many acts dream of only to be tied to a genre that went out of favour in between album cycles. Just look at Pixie Lott, one day she’s warbling the vacuous retro soul of Duffy, the next she’s vamping it up ‘in the club’ to a flimsy synth-pop tune David Guetta would be ashamed of. Lord help us when metalcore finally works its way into the Top 40.
With the obvious exception of ABBA, who this year indulged their reissues addiction with a CD+DVD edition of cult classic The Visitors, there’s never been a real appetite for reformed pop groups. When Bananarama returned as a duo in 1992, despite holding the most chart entries in history for an all-female group, their comeback album Please Yourself only reached Number 46. Bar a similarly ill-fated attempt by Culture Club, few of their contemporaries have even bothered reuniting for a disinterested public. Following the explosion of live music revenues in the early noughties, pop’s ruthless surge forward towards new vessels to fill the dancefloor has been gradually eroded.
Take That were the first to break the resurrection mold as a live and recording outfit. First came the now traditional TV reunion special, For The Record, which drew in over six million viewers. Next followed the Ultimate Tour which saw 275,000 tickets sold out in just under three hours, while an accompanying Ultimate ‘Best Of’ Collection would shift 2.1 million units. As one of the best-selling acts of the 90s, such initial success was perhaps to be expected. It’s how the story continued which caught everybody off guard, combined the occasional five piece - when Robbie Williams can be bothered - have now sold over 5,600,000 albums in the UK since their return.
With the first group through the wall having emerged without a smear of blood on their impeccably chiseled jawlines, the good, the bad and the Steps of 90s pop were soon to follow. Boyzone sold 200,000 tickets in three hours for their Back Again... No Matter What tour and trumped that achievement with their Number 1 album Brother a year later. Boosted by an endlessly hysterical Sky Living documentary, Steps also embarked on a massive UK arena tour including a £1 million, two night residency at the O2 Arena following their Number 1 Ultimate Collection album. Hoping to follow in their footsteps, are the original Overload-era Sugababes and Girls Aloud who will break their year-long hiatus - originally announced in 2009 - to tour in celebration of their 10th anniversary.
Since the fans are the driving force behind each pop band reunion, they have so far been refreshingly free from artistic airs and graces. The people buying the tickets are paying to hear the hits and, as Pete Waterman says, the people singing the hits are rapidly approaching the point where "it’s now or never because in another 10 years, they won’t remember." New material only follows a sell out tour, not the other way around as Blue found out to their detriment via 2011's Eurovision Song Contest. The whole enterprise is such a fragile operation that there’s no room to do a Stone Roses and brand your fellow group member ‘a cunt’ after they throw a hissy fit.
A more immediately (de)pressing phenomenon in pop nostalgia is the tendency for ‘credible artists’ to drape themselves in the fineries of the past. While this isn’t necessarily the worst idea that could pass through a young performer's mind, it’s one that’s beginning to leave the genre’s leftfield stagnated with old ideas rather than genuinely new ones. Lana Del Rey is the obvious Queen of Retromania here having come to light in a series of videos that revelled in their use of archive footage and Lynchian gloom.
“Singing in the old bars swinging with the old stars,” crooned Lizzy Grant on ‘Video Games’, starting the Born To Die album campaign as she meant to go on. Staring longingly into the debris of a forgotten era that never really existed in the first place. The point here isn’t to slag off Lana, we’re about six months late to that particular party, but to understand why retromania equates with aspirations of critical acclaim in pop. Why did Marina Diamandis choose to focus the concept of her second album around a deconstruction of the American dream rather than deriving her inspiration from the present day?
When questioned by Popjustice on the subject, the ‘Homewrecker’ singer claimed she was “more about fantasy” than any political reality but that still doesn’t really explain much. Especially when Tumblr blogs dedicated to the project throw up Marilyn Monroe quotes that could quite easily pass for Electra Heart lyrics like, “Beneath the makeup and the smile I am just the girl who wishes for the world.” Certainly, it’s easier to trade in ideals with a pre-established cultural currency than create a whole new archetype for listeners to buy into. Perhaps the real reason for this lack of adventurism is the market for it simply doesn’t exist. Both Marina and Del Rey bagged Number 1 albums for their troubles whereas the likes of Nicola Roberts and Jessie Ware desperately struggle to score a hit single.
Completing the triad of retromania’s influences on modern pop is the genre’s widespread use of sampling. More than anything else, the blurring of time through technological advancement is what Reynolds focused on in his book last year. “We’ve become victims of our ever-increasing capacity to store, organise, instantly access and share vast amounts of cultural data,” noted the ever-wordy author. In Top 40 terms, it’s more acceptable than ever to create a new hit by cribbing from an old one.
If you’re not going to subscribe to the current trend for 80 synths, 90s rave or the next big revival to be elevated from history’s dustbin of obscurity, then your main fallback is to borrow an entire hook. As you’d expect from a man who seemingly has no concept of shame or dignity, Flo Rida is something of a pro at building his songs around a previously retired hit. From ‘Good Feeling’ (‘Something’s Got A Hold Of Me’ - Etta James) to ‘Right Round’ (‘You Spin Me Round’ - Dead or Alive) to ‘Sugar’ (‘Blue’ - Eiffel 65), it’s fair to say Tramar Dillard has built his career off the success of others.
Not only do these singles appeal to the folk who originally bought them but the samples are also free for younglings to discover afresh on YouTube. The same technique bought Sugababes their first UK Number 1 in ‘Freak Like Me’, a mash-up of Gary Numan and Tubeway Army's 'Are 'Friends' Electric?' and Adina Howard’s ‘Freak Like Me’. Likewise, MIA achieved international ubiquity and a hotline to Madonna with her Clash sampling behemoth ‘Paper Planes’.
Retreating back to the opulent confines of the O2 Arena, if retromania is performing a pincer movement on pop we’re completely distracted by how much fun this NKOTBSB mega-gig has proved to be. The Brazilian lady in front of us is now bawling so much that people have gone over to comfort her and, more worryingly, our girlfriend is screaming in delight every single time Nick Carter flashes his chest. This happens approximately once every 30 seconds. It’s a strange routine to be immersed in and one which can easily be dismissed in the moment as harmless entertainment.
When viewed alongside the genre’s other outlets for its ever-growing nostalgia vice, you have to question what happens next? Retromania may not be ruining pop music right now but you do get the sense of a coherent force emerging from the fringes and knocking on the door of the Top 40 more and more forcefully. Bands consigned to quaint Channel 4 retrospectives are getting a second shot at things, new acts are using the days of yore to embellish their own myth and they may even be doing so with the use of a sample. While pop’s past shines bright for all to see, you really need a pair of rose-tinted spectacles to peer into its future.
The DiS Does Pop Barmometer
Justin Bieber - Hot like flaming Baby oil
This week saw Justin Bieber deservedly grab his first UK Number 1 album, Believe, at the expense of Cheryl's thoroughly mediocre A Million Lights. While we've certainly given JB a kicking in the past for charging his fanbase $99 to use an official forum, there's no arguing with the quality of his third album which is a leap forward from the disposable tweenage fare of old.
Bieber's triumph over Chezza by just 3,000 copies may go down as something of shock chart turn but anyone who watched Canada's biggest cultural export since Fucked Up perform at the Capital Summertime Ball this month will have seen it coming. Billed as the final warm-up act before Katy Perry, the Bieb Machine kept 90,000 fans shrieking for a full thirty minutes before exiting for the Califonia Gurl. She was greeted by a half-capacity Wembley Stadium which was still emptying out at an outstanding pace.
Usher - Burning (with a Climax still to come?)
Despite standing as one of the main contenders for Pop Album of the Year, aside from JB and Lana Del Rey, Usher's Looking 4 Myself campaign will probably go down as a mixed bag. On the plus side, the moping, 'woe is me' R&B of The Weeknd and Frank Ocean has obviously formed a timely spur from which the likes of 'Climax' and 'What Happened To U' have emerged. These tracks easily stand amongst Raymond IV's best work in VIII or so years and deserve your immediate and undivided attention. On a downer, 'the torso' is still waiting on a proper hit single from his latest LP and that can't really be bought with a blog-worthy A$AP Rocky collaboration.
Jessie Ware - Running (out of barometer-themed puns)
If anyone is going to do a La Roux this year and grab a smash hit from under the radar it has to be Jessie Ware. Well, it better be or else SBTRKT will need to find a new buzzworthy, bittersweet female vocalist. Here's hoping Radio 1 is still feeling guilty over its failure to playlist 'In For The Kill' and gives 'Wildest Moments' the necessary push.
Miss Ware's latest single already has the dubious blessing of being Nick Grimshaw's 'Big Thing' which is admittedly much better than a vote of confidence from Fearne Cotton. Most importantly, the song itself is a straight up ballad which tugs at all the right heartstrings with a rare eloquence not seen since... well '110%'.
Fun. - Some Nights (they're toasty, some nights they're cold)
Fun. make no claims to be anything more than a cheery power-pop outfit but the stench of fromage was still a bit too strong on Some Nights. With 'We Are Young' clinging onto the Top 10 a full 11 weeks after charting, at least the band's pension fund is well and truly in place. Having caught the four-piece live at XOYO last month, they're certainly an endearing outfit and much better than the sum of their sophomore album. When half your crowd has turned up for one song it takes an undeniable level of stagecraft to distract them for a full 50 minutes before the inevitably triumphant encore kicks in.
Maroon 5 - Shiver (me timbers, Payphone is fucking awful)
After the catchy like ebola charms of 'Moves Like Jagger', Maroon 5 have furthered their unintentionally ironic contribution to the 'guitar music is dead' debate with the astounding 'Payphone'. Astounding because we thought Adam Levine's lot had hit rock bottom a long time ago. If only...
Made For TV: Shayne Ward & the cast of Rock Of Ages
We were going to feature Rizzle Kicks' lacklustre Daybreak debut in this month's Made For TV yet there was something missing from that performance. A sense of pitiful tragedy that encapsulates the very bottom of pop's conveyor belt. Then we discovered Shanye Ward's turn on This Morning as part of the Rock Of Ages cast and the rest was history.