Sunday, December 31, 2006

What's another year?

In Rip It Up And Start Again, Simon Reynolds makes reference in the section about Bow Wow Wow to Malcolm McLaren's then latest brainwaves about the sale, packaging and indeed place of music as product, a result of his belief that music was a mere sideling to other activities. With the mini-album Your Cassette Pet he envisaged a means of making actual music disposable, just something to pick up wherever and whenever as software for your portable boombox, cutting traditional record shops out of the picture. It didn't come off - the record stiffed, EMI only went with the idea because it was at the time harder to copy cassettes than vinyl, Bow Wow Wow faded as McLaren believed his own svengali genius status where nobody else was.

In fact, it turned out in 2006 that while McLaren was off still trying to convince anyone else that bands of teenage Chinese girls playing chipped Gameboys is the future of popular music, the music industry and technological multinationals were doing his job for him. iPod became a verb and was joined by the Nano and Shuffle, Microsoft's Zune created as much buzz as DRM-fronted controversy, the Creative Zen took off as a third way, Vodafone became willing to tell all and sundry about how much their phones now hold...yes, all very nice, but is it art? Well, of course it's not, and that's the problem the industry has landed itself full square in during this year. In spending so much time emphasising just how many songs you could get onto their digital player and what you could then do with them, the value of those little commodities on the players seemed to be sidetracked, and none of your fancy options will make the music sound better. It seemed to become about using music as an adjunct to buy your phone/player/broadband package with no thought as to how to sell an idea of why you'd need all that on your player to begin with. It's not just iTunes, of course, as Myspace becomes the place where everyone congregates, as opposed to somewhere where you can chase up new band recommendations - see, apparently we as consumers of the music industry shouldn't be following the money, we should be bowing to the great god Tom for his selflessness. Web 2.0, a phrase that started being used about a week after the original World Wide Web was invented (hands up who else remembers frenzied talk of Internet II in 1997?), isn't social networking sites, in this case it's a way of getting quicker from A to B. It seems at times that the last thing anyone wants to do is talk about the music rather than the format on which you heard it.

Of all things, this was driven home by ITV2's end of year music stories rundown show, where, alighting on Gnarls Barkley's Crazy, that noted cutting edge musical authority Sara Cawood offered up the thought that it was good that we had this inaugural download number one because it pointed up the future of music. Right. We understand a couple of people bought the paid download because they liked the song. Yes, Crazy did go to number one a week before the CD was released, but its physical sales in that first week were triple the number 'sold' the previous week. The one saving grace in all this is that, in utilising the Web as sales pitch, those doing the marketing forgot that there's already a great number of people using the Web who can see right through the techniques being sold as PR. We dealt with this in brief last year when the Arctic Monkeys' rise was attributed to anything but someone sticking the demos from a CDR sold at their gigs online and then telling various popular message boards about them, but this year the desire to understand what exactly happens on here featured a tri-pronged attack of Gnarls Barkley's 99p downloads, Lily Allen's blog and Sandi Thom's webcam shows, hence modern technology as USP. Within minutes the positions had been undermined - Crazy went to number one because it was heavily playlisted as a crossover hit and used on a Radio 1 trail weeks before release (and had been leaked last November, the other side of the downloading coin that a lot of this end of the media like to pretend doesn't happen any more), Allen was already signed to Regal/Parlophone records (although she has said that she'd set up her account before anyone at the label suggested there was something there she might want to take advantage of) and had had early support from Observer Music Monthly, Jo Whiley and the NME, while it was found that Thom couldn't physically have had 70,000 hits in one session with the technology she was using and the hype around those shows was boosted by her hiring a PR company who got a press release onto the BBC News site ahead of the re-release of a single that, with good old fashioned radio support from Radio 2's Johnnie Walker, had already charted at 55 in 2005. Yet how often have you seen pieces this year about bands "doing an Arctic Monkeys" or "following Lily's example"? With a new set of bands making waves who have sold or made available for free their demos, you'll be getting used to all this.

So. Music.

And is it fair to say that it's been a bloody odd year? Crazy was probably the story of the year even leaving aside its "record breaking" quality - number one for nine weeks before being deleted, the first time anyone had topped seven since 1994, it was perhaps more remarkable for what it was, an organic R&B retro psychedelic soul record shorn of the easy sheen of many of its stylistic contemporaries, a proper breakout track that reached right across genre lines. If you can tell a breakout sensation by the range and number who attempt to catch its particular lightning in a bottle, then the covers essayed by the Kooks, Nelly Furtado, the Raconteurs, the Zutons, Cat Power, Ray LaMontagne, Billy Idol, Texas and Of Montreal among others point it up as an instant classic. The oddest chart pattern of the year, however, went to Shakira, who managed one week up top, hovered at 2 and 3 for three weeks and then retook top spot for four further weeks with a track that Radio 1 hadn't so much as playlisted, and it wasn't even the first single from the album. The album ended up not getting past 12, and Shakira retreated to her natural position of the slightly odd one from South America who has a huge hit now and again but often just grazes the popular conscious.

In fact, there was something a little askew about most of this year's movers and shakers. At least it gave the lie to the idea held throughout this decade that if you pointed anyone at a studio who already had a familiar face - for 'extension of brand awareness', you understand - you're not going to get the easiest ride. Jordan's autobiography may well be challenging the Bible in sales soon, but her duets album with hubby didn't pass number 20 while the single stalled at 12. The (fake) 'original mix' mp3 that did the rounds just before release is more ingrained on the national conscious. Exactly the same with Paris Hilton, who found that hiring the best songwriters and producers means diddly squat when nobody's that interested in your vivacious personality except pranksters. Still, good to see Banksy going for the difficult target. No, your solo breakthrough acts all came from well outside traditional parameters. Lily Allen, for example, who we still feel is merely a Donna Lewis/Billie Myers-style summer one hit wonder extending her time through media adulation, but clearly isn't in the mould of most - she's got an odd squashed up face, a pleasant but mid-ranking voice and bases her songs on a good knowledge of light reggae and a varying ability with lyrics. It's connected with people, though, perhaps on the playing up of her down to earth credentials, or as much as she can have when your dad's the famous Keith Allen of the Groucho Club. Her inability to see where a misquote might occur might be the death of her, but her impassioned rant about the NME Cool List had even the haters admitting she had something there. Even further outside the box labelled 'carefully constructed PR campaign ahead of album', Amy Winehouse had the oddest build-up to a big, consistently selling album we can recall - nobody having thought about her for a good eighteen months, the mid-market papers suddenly decided to run an almost daily feature on how much weight she'd lost. Then everyone clambered to review her low-key not even so much comeback gigs and Rehab hit radio in a way she never had before. The clip of her approximating singing with Charlotte Church was car crash telly, in that you wouldn't admit to officers trying to breathalyse you that you'd seen or done anything so untoward either. In comparison, the attempts to push new soul sensations (Corinne Bailey Rae) or New Blunts (Nutini, Morrison) were doomed to, if not failure as all had popular singles and all three appear in the thirty best selling albums of the year, then a certain amount of fade over the year, given we can pigeonhole their appeal instantaneously. Special hats off to whoever though Seth Lakeman would be an ideal poster boy for the Bluntists. In a year when R&B drifted back into stasis, finding that now everybody sounds like the Neptunes you can have too much of a once good thing, while yet again a new dawn for British urban music failed to make any impact - but note Lady Sovereign's US success for future reference - the American invaders also seemed to be coming at us from odd angles, whether Rihanna riding on the back of Tainted Love (note Jamelia's big single failing as it was perceived as ripping off SOS' idea) or Nelly Furtado bafflingly turning tail completely. It was all her doing, you understand.

At least Justin Timberlake kept his end of the deal up by making records that sounded like Timbaland being suffocated, because for the established superstars it was a curious year as well. Madonna took up most column inches as she went to Malawi on a charity factfinding mission between world tour dates and came back with a baby in curious circumstances the background of which seemed to change daily. Michael Jackson, who may or may not be in Bahrain and may or may not be ready to sing in public again, finds his Katrina single still remaining on hold, which seems a bit of a waste given how quickly U2 and Green Day got theirs out. Bono, having won back his hat and done some more schmoozing with Republicans, threw his weight behind the Red campaign, which may well have only failed to take off as people can't tell what differentiates this one from all the other AIDS and Africa campaigns. Robbie Williams made a mad album that saw his career crash (ie sell a couple of thousand less than the last one in its first week) while George Michael chose an odd method of promoting another pointless Greatest Hits (plenty of them to go round this year) by spending the year either touring again or falling asleep in his car on blind corners. Apparently, a man who has spent the last few years talking about his spliff intake and debating the legal status thereof had - get this - been smoking cannabis. Why, he's just like Pete Doherty, who we'll come back to. Britney Spears, meanwhile, must have had a lot to get out of her own system this year, perhaps in advance of actually releasing some music in 2007 (her last single was in March 2005), watching bemused as Kevin Federline failed to launch his own career (see Paris Hilton thoughts passim) before divorcing him, driving with Sean on her lap, having a statue of her giving birth produced by anti-abortionists (not strictly her fault, but it fills a sentence) and finding a new friend in, whaddaya know, Paris Hilton. Now, nobody surely goes out in a short skirt to a place where they know the passenger side of their car will be flanked by paparazzi and neglects to put knickers on accidentally. Still, at least she can say she's presented a side of herself her fans have never seen before. The whole Paul'n'Heather debacle can best be glossed over, other than John Aizlewood's astute note in Word magazine that it had taken Yoko Ono three decades to be deposed as the least liked spouse in pop, and when it's finally achieved the husband's identity couldn't be more ironic.

Many questions arose this year that can't be answered quite so glibly. For instance: is pop dead? Not the overhanging umbrella of popular music, but proper POP as a statement or onomatopoeic noun. Very much a young person's game, the coming to grief of more than one big name and the emergence of others not totally committed to playing the straight up and down game suggests that the form might be retreating back into its shell a little. McFly continue having successful singles but where they fit into anything any more is questionable. We know who buys Westlife singles, at least - the same people that buy James Blunt's, not those of former members of Blue. The main hammer blow to the pop brigade was the ending this year of their three greatest outlets, Smash Hits, CD:UK and finally, inevitably but no less unfortunately, Top Of The Pops, dragged to its death by a litany of poor production decisions and the feeling that they didn't care any more about the simplicity of what they had. (The media blamed the Internet, obviously.) Last year's X Factor graduates seem to exist in a state of limbo, selling well - Shayne Ward and Journey South are both in the year's top ten selling debut albums - but you couldn't pin down anyone who'd actually call themselves a fan if they didn't present themselves to you. Even Dannii Minogue still has a vibrant and vocal fanbase. And if you're not on prime-time, heaven help you these days. Take Frank - two series on T4, both given full re-runs, and a shedload poured into development of a band whose selling point was they were all girls, thus something for other girls to aspire to, who could all play instruments and sing. It couldn't fail. It did - the first single entered at 40, the album at 110, the band were dropped a month later. Or Upper Street, the high profile union of four ex-successful boy band members again followed by T4 and MTV cameras every step of the way until the single stiffed at 35 with nobody given a reason to care. Hilariously, a lack of publicity has been cited as a reason for the flops in both cases. The standard issue boy band is virtually defunct now - ask 365, who were the subject of a lengthy Guardian piece about how there would always be a market for dancing dreamboats like themselves before the market proved them very wrong. What health for the girl bands, then? We had the first Girls Aloud To Split headlines this year as they put out their Greatest Hits, which made the end of year top 20 not undeservedly as even their publicity machine noticed that their appeal was extending far beyond pure pop's confines. The Christmas cover version was rubbish, but that's part of the Mephistophilean deal. The Sugababes put out their own Stalinised retrospective, and beyond them it's much of a muchness. The Pussycat Dolls still only really exist to look sexified having succeeded in dragging their debut album campaign out over 15 months, while former owner of that mould Christina Aguilera's Back To Basics seemed to fade as soon as it arrived in a confused fanfare and Kylie was necessarily out of action, but very much watch that space. Leona seems to be uniquely popular out in the country, but we've been down this route of X Factor winners turning out to have little to no actual X factor before.

Next question: what the hell do we do with Pete Doherty? He now seems to exist in a place both beyond his roots and anti-hero status entirely, the Babyshambles EP that came out at the start of December almost treated as a Parisesque passing show. Amid the roundel of seven court appearances, six drug arrests (even those started to look a bit tired as the year moved on), innumerable Kate rumours, a couple of photographer fights, a couple of loose implications in nasty scenes, a couple of photographic implications in nasty scenes and a thousand and one Net-based rumours of which at best two might have a small sliver of truth, it occurs to us that this whirlwind will have to spin itself out eventually, but the exit point looks more and more clouded. Death? If not by now, let's not be morbid by proxy. Cleaning up? Also looking a distinct speck in the distance. What points lie between these will continue to drag themselves out over 2007 in the style of a snapped rubber band. Where we'll be then is... well, probably exactly where we are now. It's a Greek tragedy without the tight plotting. His reputation meanwhile outlives his worth to the scene he seems to be leaving behind, whether through the still remarkable and we can now see trailblazing success of the Arctic Monkeys, the Kooks-led reclamation of Britpop and fomer sparring partners Razorlight's ascendence to the biggest stage, where now everybody knows about Johnny Borrell's controlling habits. Still nobody thought of a respectful name for it all, which meant the NME could spend the year playing with new genres and revivals. New Rave doesn't sound like old rave, New Goth bears little resemblance to original goth, but ver kidz won't know the difference. The glam revival, spearheaded by Kasabian, must have been lost in the margins. The one that did take hold was the final ascendance, after a lot of cosmetic surgery to its original meaning, of emo, rubber stamped as a menace by the celebrated Mail article, given its own standing by the NME's ludicrous idea that a Reading festival bottling constituted a War On Emo. My Chemical Romance's grandiose number one single can't have left the unitiated much more the wiser and supposed follow-up stars Panic! At The Disco (who are essentially a very quick hark back to the Taking Back Sunday school of post-nu metal anyway) and Brand New never made the full breakthrough, but it was a reminder in these days when everyone's supposed to be 'into' music that you can still breed outsider habits with panstick, haircuts and dark clothing. Muse have been doing that sort of grandstanding for years, going madly pop-stratospheric with Black Holes And Revelations. Preston, meanwhile, helped blow the door the other way, his placement in Celebrity Big Brother ensuring the parameters are now wide open for potential participants and not just the Willis/Klass/Donovan school of failed popettes, resuscitating a band who to all intents and purposes were dead in the water. If the Rakes' Alan Donohoe turns up on the version that starts next week don't say we didn't warn you. Meanwhile, with the usual lack of fussiness, the biggest selling album of 2006 turned out to be Snow Patrol's Eyes Open, which severed all links with the underappreciated spiky leftfield trio of Jeepster Recordings days and saw them finally take Coldplay's position as the band marker post by which music critics shall measure blandness, especially after the only other serious contenders Keane first produced a darker work in Under The Iron Sea and then Tom Chaplin went to the Priory. Much of the antipathy towards Snow Patrol is excessive, but that they got so far this year without seemingly breaking the surface tension is baffling all the same. The album they held off, the Scissor Sisters' Ta-Dah, went to the other extreme, finding the answer to second album syndrome lay in making the glam slam first album sound like the Pastels. Their charity gig in Trafalgar Square showed that that kind of unabashed glitter pop not caring about what others might think is great party music for all occasions, but you'll regret it when every label has one. In fact, you could argue that with Orson and The Feeling making a success of it and everyone's tip for the new year being Toploader manque Mika, there's already a 70s MOR revival in full swing.

And it was comebacks that, for good or more likely ill, shaped a lot of this year, most notably Take That's. Who knew that James Blunt would turn out to be the most influential singer of the decade? A treacly ballad for a mature audience was all they needed for four weeks at the top and the hosannahs of the nedia. Bands seemed to be reforming on a daily basis, with All Saints popping their heads back round the door briefly before the album failed (and hats off to Girls Aloud, who are still continuing their resolutely one-sided feud with them - this presumably is what makes them out as edgy characters) and East 17 doing some gigs before falling out again. Weren't Five reforming? The aesthetes got Scritti Politti back among many others, a promise of new Smashing Pumpkins and Dinoaur Jr material and a Bob Dylan Billboard number one. The more things change, the more things stay the same. Or maybe not, because of this thing called the Internet music community. As music blogs and Pitchforkian magazines multiply week by week their importance as somewhere to break new acts may well be read as an attempt to form a new set of litanies and hegemonies, but it makes the chase so much more exciting, the downside being that we're barely allowed time any more to step back and see what's happening in the wider picture of artist development and getting the love of this music out to the people. Will people care about the second Beirut album? Are Cold War Kids yesterday's men already? Will the public ever get to take to The Knife? On reflection, Joanna Newsom's five track, 55 minute expansive orchestrated opus Ys making number 41 in the UK album charts may be the actual greatest technologically based achievement of this majorly confusing year.


swisslet said...

what a year, what a review. Here's to 2007. After a year that was strangely empty without a weekend spent sat in a muddy field, I'm very much looking forward to the next Glastonbury Festival!

happy new year to you all.


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