Category Archives: Vortex of bad pop

Not Myself Tonight

I’m reluctant to slag this off, because a) I think Xtina has done some really good stuff (albeit mostly in the Stripped period) and b) it’s too easy in the era of Lady GaGa to assume that those who’ve come before her are now stealing her moves. That might be partly true, but the reality is more reciprocal, and I’m sure Xtina has also in a sense paved the way for GaGa (just as Kylie has — there I said it).

But enough moderation. Not Myself Tonight is pretty shit. It’s in no way a memorable song — certainly not a lead single — and I find its premise a little lame. In that it fits too well with Xtina’s new role as a wholesome mother who’s still a little diiirtttty underneath. Not that there’s anything wrong with that (and it’s probably quite balanced and so forth), but for some reason I get the sense that she presses the ‘conservative’ button between albums, and then presses the ‘skank’ button to crank up the pre-release hype, which is perhaps a little cynical.
And the clip is limp. It reminds me of various Janet Jackson vids which, if you take them at face value, are hyper-sexual, but if you look at them from another angle, they’re extremely cold, controlled and non-sexual. From this I get a similar sense of her going through the motions. Who knows, maybe before The Fame Monster I would have thought differently. I think GaGa has certainly pushed the boundaries in the sense that, even within her context of high artifice, there’s a really raw sexuality that comes through. Anyway, tangent. And, as a final snide comment, the Express Yourself references simply reinforce that, at this point in her career [bring on grand concluding statement] Xtina’s not leading, but following.

Gabriella Cilmi has blindsided me with this. I sort of liked Sweet Like Me until it was played to death, and until I got the vaguest sense that she was just a little bit annoying. But On a Mission has really grown on me. I think musically it’s a backward step, but the very fact it sounds so regressive makes it fun.

The bizarre thing is that with the first album Cilmi had instantly captured the kind of international sound that most Australian artists strive for. But with this (not having heard the album), it sounds so Australian, in the S2S vein — polished but banal. And so trashy. I think she deserves some credit for presenting just a little bit of Chapel Street to the world…

Heidi Montag

Has she had work done?

While Heidi Montag is a vacant starlet in the truest sense (see this), nonetheless her complete plastic surgery makeover is a bold move, and raises some interesting questions about, umm, the boundaries of identity. While I’m tempted to say that in becoming a completely different person, Montag is making a profound political statement, she’s most likely playing out some kind of body dysmorphia to tragic effect. But whatever the motivation, her physical transformation is intense. She has actually become a different person, extracting the essence of transgender surgery to rebuild her face and body rather than tweak it.
Unfortunately her face is so bruised she’s unable to promote her new album Superficial, suggesting her planning skills are somewhat underdeveloped. But seriously, ever since starlets caught wind of this Warhol(ian?) notion that even the most superficial fame has its own innate meaning, I’m really bad at picking the idiots from the canny ones.

The Circus Tour

I’ve been meaning to properly recap 2009 (a good year in pop indeed), but recapping 2009 has meant writing up Britney’s Circus tour, which is an act that I’ve put somewhere down around ‘tax return’ and ‘check if I have diabetes’ on my ‘to-do’ list. Because what is there to say really — it was awful. Stunningly awful. But bizarrely, not at all enjoyable. If I’d spent $200 on a spectacularly entertaining debacle, that would have been fine (such as I imagine Victoria Beckham gigs would have been, if they’d happened). But this was deeply boring, which is quite an achievement — to create a spectacular that fails to entertain. There’s a long essay in why these sorts of shows often fall over (their alienating slickness for one thing), but to wrap this up quickly, and to provide an outline of the show using effort levels similar to that which Britters put in to the show, dot points are in order:

  • Proceedings started dubiously with a series of people with disabilities performing circus tricks. On one level empowering to see such amazing physical achievements, but then, this is the opening of the ‘Circus’ tour. I’m not sure Britters’ fully thought through the cultural baggage attached to that…
  • Rather than dancing per se, Britters’ tended to strut, shake her shoulders and point to the ground, all the while lazily miming. As in opening and shutting her mouth with no apparent relation to the words…
  • Occasionally you’d lose her on the stage, and then realise the person you thought was a slightly tipsy backup dancer was actually the star.
  • The show had no taste or subtlety. Even William Baker’s efforts on costume design seemed tainted by tack.
  • Each tack sounded the same. The show was relentless. Tim fell asleep.
  • Many 12 year old girls were in attendence. They took over the men’s toilets, leading to an unfortunate experience in which I was literally urinating in front of 12 year old girls.
  • She didn’t bother performing 3, the single she was, like, promoting.
  • Britney Spears has absolutely no star quality in the flesh. The end.

The ‘Spiritual’ section…

Your Madgesty is dead… long live Shakira!

If one needs any more evidence of Madonna’s increasing musical irrelevance, here it is. Celebration is a dud. While theoretically I support her return to dance, this is a track with zero originality — it could be anyone’s track. She doesn’t even seem herself in the spoken word sections, normally a Madonna strength. And despite it’s celebratory intent, there is no soul. Once again she sounds like she’s phoning it in. She makes all the right noises about being yourself, chasing pleasure etc., but she may as well have been recording it from the treadmill, slave to her insatiable work ethic. A sad day this is. I was hoping that after such a setback as Hard Candy, she would be reborn.

Shakira on the other hand has snuck out of hibernation to produce a killer track with a fantastic clip (which echoes Madge’s Sorry, as if to emphasise some kind of changing of the guard). She Wolf is disco fun at its best. My hips shake even writing about it. And I love the clip’s bizarre concoction of contrary scenes: Shakira gyrating in some kind of glitter womb; her recreation of MJ’s Smooth Criminal ‘lean forward’ move; the bit where she basically detaches her hips in some kind of cage; and her climactic dance solo which evokes early 2000 J.Lo ‘house’ dance in a thoroughly satisfying way. This is adventurous, progressive and full of soul. Shakira is the new pop innovator.

Delta called on it…

A very spot on article about Delta Goodrem’s addiction to advertising dollars (do Age journalists trawl pop fan sites for stories? What is going on…). I was already slightly overwhelmed with the Sunsilk ads, Nintendo ads, soy milk… but now Proactiv?? Surely this is a bit low rent? The article speculates that she’s trying to cash in on her fame while it lasts, and this seems like a sensible hypothesis considering Sony’s decreasing interest in her quest for global domination (after the lukewarm local success of Delta, and her dumping in the US). I’m generally ambivalent about celebrity cash-in endorsements, but I think the extent of the cash-in has to be in proportion to the extent of one’s fame. If the ratio is off then a festering ‘career decline’ stench can set in… Delta’s ratio is certainly off.

But about that Proactiv ad. Because, you see, it is HILARIOUS. Not only because Delta has the cheek to say that ‘she wants to make a difference to people’s lives in a positive way… and this [her Proactiv endorsement] is part of it.’ But she’s also clearly turning into some parodic Ja’mie King type — all those shots of her purring at the camera, flicking her extensions about, signing autographs etc… ‘the most important part of what I do is connecting with people.’ Oh dear.
This is a trivial aside, but I notice that her NZ Sunsilk TV ad was projected behind her during the opening act of her creatively awful Believe Again tour. This makes sense as I remember thinking at the time that the footage of her parading down a fashion show runway looked a bit expense… so the commercial world is now fully integrated into her art (but not in a cool Madonna Pepsi ad type way). I miss old-school Delta. I blame Brian McFadden

Up! revisited

I saw you flinch! Shania Twain, you say? Well, yes, I acknowledge the cringe factor, but let’s not forget that around 1997 Shania Twain was an unstoppable force, bringing country to the masses, and From This Moment On to TTfm and wedding chapels the world over. Come on Over sold 34 million, and established Twain as one of the world’s top artists, and a byword for dependable, no-nonsense country spirit (even though she was, umm, Canadian). But what happened next? By the time Come on Over was stomping over the globe, Shania was living a very un-country vegan life holed up in her Swiss chateau, with her hubby/producer John ‘Mutt’ Lange. We didn’t hear much for a while, but in 2002 the Shania machine was back in gear with Up! which was, arguably, music’s first ‘world album’ and, arguably, a complete disaster.

Country Shania…

This wasn’t a world album in the sense of later-years Peter Gabriel oddity, or Readings ‘world’ section, but in the production line sense of population-specific tinkering of the same product to suit distinct markets. This was the plan: each population would receive the same ‘Pop’ disc, but in the US this would also come with a ‘Country’ disc in which the same songs were recorded according to US country tradition. In the ‘International’ markets (defined in classic US imperialist terms as everywhere not in the US), the album would come with a ‘World’ disc, in which the same songs were recorded with, wait for it, a Pop-Bollywood style. I cannot convey how hideous this disc was, which, unfortunately was lumped on the Australian market (by this point I must confess that I bought the thing back in ’02.) Just imagine the country sass of I’m Gonna Get You Good recorded with a Bollywood beat… So impossibly awful, you must listen here. Apparently this Pop-Bollywood travesty was intended to ‘crack’ the Indian market.

Not surprisingly the album did not fare well (although Wikipedia tells me it was huge in Germany). As with any lofty album strategy, people got confused: why was a country-pop artist releasing Bollywood tracks? And for a country market already suspicious of Twain’s country cred, a token trad-country disc was not enough to appease concerns triggered by her dabbling in threatening ‘World’ music (was this… ANTI-AMERICAN?? Even though she’s Canadian). While Shania had big plans of conquering the globe with a little bit of what everyone wanted (as seems so inevitable in retrospect) the results were spread too thin, and only produced one hit single (I’m Gonna Getcha Good). And Shania hasn’t really done much since, apart from a lazy Greatest Hits album.

World music goddess…

But what of the music itself? While for the most part it’s catchy in a kitchen-sink kind of way, and produced from the same comforting formula as Come on Over, it remains very hard to connect its sketches of average-Joe American life with the Shania Twain vegan living in a Swiss chateau. Which means it all seems a bit mannered. Note the too-eager use of exclamation marks: Nah!; (Wanna Get to Know You) That Good!; Ka-Ching!; Waiter! Bring Me Water!; What a Way to Wanna Be!; Thank You Baby!; I’m Not in the Mood (to Say No!)…

In a systematic fashion, all the average Joe boxes were ticked. There was a song about a brave young mum deciding to keep her baby (‘I had a baby at 15, Daddy never did forgive me, never heard from the guy again…’), an everyday gal havin’ a bad day (‘even my skin is acting weird, I wish that I could grow a beard, then I could cover up my spots…’), and a stab at the hypocrisy of the beauty industry (‘Why be perfect, no, it’s not worth it… don’t be so obsessed’). As was pointed out in a particularly prickly interview, Shania as of course modelling for Revlon at the time.

The problem’s not so much that Shania was sketching characters – if I knew anything about the country tradition I’d assume that was part of it – but rather that the characters being sketched were a bit two dimensional. In contrast, Taylor Swift, for example, manages to put together a concept album about the schoolyard that, through its wit, detail and humour seems much fuller (although, to be fair, Taylor was barely out of school when she wrote it). But this two-dimensionality wasn’t new for Twain – Come on Over’s similarly full of faux-down-home vignettes. The difference, perhaps, is that during the Come on Over period Twain was maintaining the fiction that she was a country artist. When it came to Up! however, she was holed up in her Chateau with her eyes on India. Here’s another hideous ‘World’ version. And another. Got the point? This needs to be remembered.