Oh, you and your pop sensibilities. Immediate, and disposable, and fun. Because more than any other medium, pop represents singularity. A celebration of being alive, for just that very instant, and no-one need care about the consequences (for whatever they are, we won’t have to face them until the run-out groove).
Pop music doesn’t stand up to scrutiny or deep analysis; it wasn’t designed that way. It’s not anti-intellectual, because intellect is beyond its operational parameters, its scope of comprehension. Instead, it parades its ambivalence towards context not of its own devising, and should the language and the composition and the popinjay manners trigger snobbery from those who should know better – well, that’s their issue; pop couldn’t give a fiddler’s fuck.
That’s not to say all pop is intrinsically good or of virtue; the vast, vast majority of it is bibble. Witless, charmless, and because it’s generally targeted towards undiscerning youth, paralysingly prone to cynical manipulation. You could describe pop music as a triumph of marketing over anything as snug as talent, vision, or panache, and it would be difficult to disagree. Yet such a view overlooks the fact that not only has it always been this way, but pop also never pretended to be anything else; “manufactured” is frequently wielded about in the pejorative, as if any creative process behind the pop song is a parody of “truer”, more cerebral musical genres, and this entirely misses the distinction between good and bad – that any debate is pinioned to the qualities of a particular track, and really isn’t anything to do with classification at all.
Pop at its finest is dumb, infectious, liberating and neatly egalitarian; that’s my argument, and I’m sticking to it. But there’s also a further, more substantial joy to be had from the great pop single, in that pre-conceived notions of the artform leave it open to delicious subversion from within. We know what a record aimed at the hit parade should look like; as such, there’s space for duplicity. For tracks that work on two distinct levels; the nod and wink, the killer hook, lyrical texture and nuance, all dressed up within pop particulars, thus pleasing both possible audiences.
Pop, I’d argue, is very much a force for good. And whilst it isn’t a genre I listen to with any regularity – this blog’s title alone gives away my allegiance – there are certainly moments that call for Gwen Stefani’s ‘What You Waiting For?’. Languid afternoons neatly repositioned thanks to ‘Absolute’ by Scritti Politti, or ‘Lovefool’ by The Cardigans. Below, and in no particular order: ten examples of when pop got it absolutely spot on. Pristine and supple and very much a part of what it means to be human.
Terry, Blair & Anouchka – Ultra Modern Nursery Rhyme
There’s something about the Terry Hall career curve that’s most appealing. The manner by which he’s flitted about like a firefly, never quite settling on this niche or that, instead taking a route that makes sense specifically to him. It also helps that he’s a wonderful songwriter; ‘Our Lips Are Sealed’ (co-written with Jane Wiedlin of The Go-Go’s), ‘Thinking Of You’, ‘Forever J’; from The Specials to Fun Boy Three, The Colourfield to his solo material, there’s a rich vein of grace and balance to his songcraft, simultaneously verdant yet edged with layers of agreeable melancholia (he even recorded an album – Vegas – with Dave Stewart of Eurythmics; ignored by critics and public alike, there’s one track – ‘Possessed’ – that’s very much one of my favourite things he’s ever recorded).
And then there’s ‘Ultra Modern Nursery Rhyme’, which as the title implies is silly, and singalong, and possibly – if we’re being objective – just that little bit shallow in how it delivers its words of advice. But it’s also emblematic of pop’s sleek angles. Its celebratory bounce and timbre. Or rather, that element of detachment dressed up as bounce. This is Bowie’s ‘Kooks’ given a pure pop makeover; an iridescence that’s quite charming.
The All-Seeing I – 1st Man In Space
From the Pickled Eggs and Sherbet LP, the collaborative pop paean to Sheffield, featuring on vox such South Yorkshire luminaries as Tony Christie and Stephen “Babybird” Jones. The entire album is a treat, full of pop persuasion of slanted affectation, the city in question brooding in tangible, dark-tinted nostalgia.
And so ‘1st Man In Space’, which rose to the giddy heights of #28 in the UK Singles Chart. It’s intelligent pop, in that it’s actually quite the maudlin affair, sung by The Human League’s Phil Oakey, it delightfully blends the sheer wonderment of space travel (“I’m floating like God in his heaven, high in the stratosphere”) with anti-climax (“Where was the ticker tape civic reception? How come no-one wants to know what I saw?”) and a mundane, suburban skein of observation (“How are you supposed to open these new milk cartons? Why don’t they make Golden Nuggets no more?”). In theory, the song ill-suits the singer; Oakey’s delivery is washy, a poor relation to Elton John’s ‘Rocket Man’, which broadly covers the same themes. Yet in reality it’s the indistinct nature of the vocals, alongside the track’s perky yet bitter-sweet synth loops, that underline the uncertainty of the protagonist’s predicament. There’s room for the listener to do some work, and I like that angle very much.
Also, ‘1st Man In Space’ was written by a certain Jarvis Cocker. And whilst I’m not a fan of his overt pop period (His ‘n’ Hers; Different Class), preferring instead the darker textures of both early and late Pulp, this particular track is another example of how his pop brain slyly pulses.
Roy Orbison – I Drove All Night
Emotion. Lordy, the emotion. Fragility and tenderness and desperation, the Big O and all that baggage working in the song’s favour. It’s certainly pop – I’ll point you in the direction of Cyndi Lauper’s original should you be in doubt – but pop hewn from something broken. Something imprecise.
All this could have turned out mawkish. Crass, even. That it doesn’t is testament to twin elements. Firstly, even though this version wasn’t released in his lifetime, the song was specifically written with Orbison in mind. Secondly, it’s in the vocal delivery. The manner by which he wraps his low, sweet tenor around the narrative as if events genuinely played out this way. There’s even an admission – “I drove all night, crept in your room” – that out-of-context sounds like the confessions of a sex pest. Yet there’s zero seedy or untoward about this version; it feels heartfelt in the extreme. A very grainy form of magnificence, and quite special.
Toni Basil – Mickey
“Oh Mickey, you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind”. Or to borrow something from earlier: pop at its finest is dumb, infectious, liberating and neatly egalitarian; that’s my argument, and I’m sticking to it.
Heaven 17 – Temptation
The Human League (mk II) bequeathed us so many fine examples of pop as resplendence. ‘Open Your Heart’, ‘(Keep Feeling) Fascination’, the wonderful ‘The Things That Dreams Are Made Of’. Hence it’s a little ironic that when it comes to oomph and zap, all were (possibly) beaten by those who schismed from The Human League (mk I). Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh exchanged Phil Oakey and the band’s name for vocalist Glenn Gregory and a musical vision far less compromised by what they saw as forced and impure pop sentimentality.
Then, from second album The Luxury Gap, came ‘Temptation’. A buff, even bruising shard of electronic pop preening, Carol Kenyon’s guest vocals adding muscle and flight in just the right proportions. A track that rings of overt commerciality when in many regards they were anything but, and whilst ‘Temptation’ has subsequently gone on the have a life of its own – lodged deep in the popular consciousness – it still has the power to demand your attention.
The Jackson 5 – ABC
Just your regular dumb evening, sometime in 2006/7, a young(er) LGM spinning records for listless kids down at the indie disco. A thankless task; the goats who ran the club expected people dancing, buying drinks, returning the next week for more of the same. Which impacted rather severely on the playlist; if I’d stuck to what I wanted to hear – a heady diet of Add N to (X), Atari Teenage Riot, and selections from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop – then I’d have been dragged from the decks by the bouncers and given a thorough kicking.
So I had to be creative amidst all the Britpop crap and anthemic indie-pop I was being played to play. The Grandstand theme tune, wedged in-between ‘Fool’s Gold’ and ‘Cannonball’ appeared to keep in the ingrates on the dancefloor. As did ‘ABC’ – which I think is testament to the track’s perky accessibility, those shimmering genes (as well, of course, as its durability).
Kylie – Come Into My World
So, what does a Kylie do, exactly? What purpose does it serve, with its lack of obvious, discernible talent? With its wallpaper voice, all background and insubstantial? An effective clothes-horse, perhaps, but that’s a little vague to be basing a global brand upon. She gyrates well, looks fantastic whilst the rest of us are busy losing our looks, but again, is that enough?
No; Kylie certainly has something to explain the longevity. In an industry where so many are spat out and used so readily (there’s a depressing tale involving a young female singer and a record label executive I could tell, for instance), Ms Minogue’s durability is quite remarkable.
This, I’ll offer, is all to do with anticipation. That, as with Bowie and Madonna before her, she’s ridden the waves of vogue, constantly keeping one step ahead of the pack through the careful selection of material, and by surrounding herself with allies and conspirators at just the right moment, before moving on to the next crowd. There’s several examples of exquisite pop I could have slipped in here – ‘All The Lovers’; ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ – but for my money, ‘Come Into My World’, and especially the Fischerspooner remix, straddle that fine line between mystery and temptation. Pop song as momentum, and intrigue, and all those multiple levels I keep wittering on about.
ABC – All Of My Heart
Should pop have a default decade – when all was bright and shiny – then I’d suggest the 80’s are a strong candidate. Quite literally shiny in the case of Martin Fry’s wardrobe. And, of course, The Lexicon of Love LP, from which ‘All Of My Heart’ is one of several great pop songs. It’s conventional – simple, even – and not something that’s going to deposit us amidst new vistas. Instead, it does strictly as advertised, rippling with just the right type of drama that works so well in such a medium.
Betty Boo – Where Are You Baby?
Alison Clarkson, direct from some retro sci-fi future. There she is, in her skin-tight silver catsuit, toting a ray gun, quite the coquette. This is what I want space travel to be; sure – the narrative’s all about a lover spurned, but the package as a whole is so much more. The relevance of image, and poise, stylistic detail. Girls wanted to be Betty Boo; teenage boys… well, we all know what teenage boys get up to. And I’ll admit it; on one level this is pop as some kitsch male fantasy… but then again, that’s what pop does. It facilitates fantasy of every description. Refracts the world and its experiences through neon-lit mendacity. Plays up to, rather than playing against.
The greatest thing about ‘Where Are You Baby?’ is that Alison as Betty spends the chorus not being able to sing, raps each verse as if she’s so desperate for a pee she’s going to have go behind the bus stop, yet this matters not one iota. She deploys lines such as “All I wanna do is kiss you, I’ve used up all my tissues”, and “Love is just a word that you tell to all your birds” without the merest hint of irony. The song wields its 60’s reference points with a glib abandon – something that just wouldn’t have worked if it took itself at all seriously – and whilst in real life I’m old and jaded and (theoretically) beyond becoming bewitched by trinkets and baubles, playing this is almost enough to make me feel like a teenage boy all over again.
Jane Wiedlin – Rush Hour
Cars… speed… adrenalin… yup, I think I get it. Not that anyone is going to sit there stunned into reverence by the song’s central metaphor, but that’s pretty much the point; since when is pop dependent upon sophistication in order to deliver its message?
‘Rush Hour’ doesn’t function on multiple levels. So glorious and elemental is its message that it doesn’t need to. “It’s so good, Baby when you’re at the wheel, I can’t believe the way I feel” has a universality. A foreverness we can all relate to (and if you can’t, I’d suggest that you’re more than a little dead inside). I’ve deliberately book-ended this choice of tracks with Hall and Wiedlin, partly because ‘Our Lips Are Sealed’ is such perfect songcraft, but also, as exponents of pop, both artists implicitly get it. You could have skipped these 2,000-plus words and gone and listened to their respective back catalogues instead – you’d have gleaned a far greater insight into what pop is. Its underlying sentiments, the valour, the glee. In fact, I’d recommend unreading all of this right this very second. Go put a record on. Prince’s ‘Raspberry Beret’. ‘Party Fears Two’ by the Associates. ‘Money’ by The Flying Lizards. Even M’s ‘Pop Muzik’, if you must – the latter not being a particularly great track, but even this understands pop so much better than I can ever hope to elucidate. ‘New York, London, Paris, Munich’ – that’s pretty much all you need.