Sunday, January 11, 2009

The hype machine

So Little Boots topped the BBC Sound Of '09 industry poll, heralded today with purely coincidentally timed big catch-up features in both the Times and Guardian. We have nothing against Victoria Hesketh - we'd like to like her far more than we do, actually - but such poll-of-polls efforts smack a little of the demand that a new year requires the record buying public to be shaped a certain way. In recent years it's overseen an assortment of messages - guitars are back, UK R&B will finally conquer all, it's time for the big soulful singers, it's time for flamboyant pop, it's time for proper real emotion dammit - which has worked wonders for previous winners Adele, Mika, Corinne Bailey Rae, Keane and 50 Cent (oh, and The Bravery) OK, they missed the Lily'n'Kate brigade, but the former emerged a couple of months into the year and the latter was certainly around at the start of 2007 but nobody expected that much that soon. Interestingly, the previous winners had the radio wind behind them with singles out within ten weeks of the start of the year, while as far as we can tell Little Boots has nothing currently on the slab.

So clearly 2009, whoever you talk to, is in commercial terms (he writes, neatly sidestepping the two pieces already posted about albums to watch for and artists to watch out for - they're persona opinion suggestions to keep an eye on straws in the wind whereas this is The Man at pop's AGM laying out his plans for the year, OK?) going to be the year of girls with synths, with La Roux, Lady GaGa and VV Brown also managing top ten positions in the poll along with the suitably girly and not-rocky Florence And The Machine. The other assumption, that this means the death of landfill indie, is somewhat undermined by the appearance at number two of White Lies, the favourite band of copyrighters (they're sub-Editors. Thank you), but what's that sort of thing between friends. There doesn't seem at first to be a lot to back up the assumption that this is what the public are crying out for - Roisin Murphy, Ladyhawke and Lykke Li hardly set the charts alight in 2008 - unless A&Rs are seeing the sales for Duffy and the Killers and putting two and two together or someone's taking a post-Ting Tings flyer, but on a wider roadmap you can see the collective cogs whirring and printing out the equation: "Wonky Pop" plus credible backer (Joe Goddard of Hot Chip) plus credible background (Dead Disco, a kind of poor man's New Young Pony Club) plus Web 2.0 (every single piece of press mentions the covers she uploaded to YouTube) plus gives quotes that are slightly more interesting than those Beyonce gives and is thus "not your average bland pop diva" plus doesn't play guitar plus ELECTRICAL BOX OF ELECTRO MAJICK - you'd be forgiven for thinking from the tone of many of her pieces that she'd invented the Tenori-On, the Japanese gadget that allows the user to replicate the underlying backing on recent Kylie singles - equals right place, right time. As with Florence Welch, an attempt to connect the worlds of indie cred, big ol' voice, slightly out of date cred signifier (managed by the Queens Of Noize - what is this, 2005?), bit bluesy/folky, doesn't play guitar and the obviously never cloying at all power of a 'kooky' girl gabbling about how wild and wacky she is, there's no obvious way of selling them as they are - in the 2008 review we assumed that Florence would be watered down for mainstream use and presented as a more outre companion to Kate Nash, but that angle doesn't seem to have rooted, presumably because of the desire for a 'quirky' 'character' - so everyone's going to use osmosis apparently. This is what you want, this is what you shall have. The eighties are going to be big because it's all modern and shiny, indie is over (big of them, give they repositioned indie to begin with), MGMT is the direction everyone else should be heading because... oh, because. It's very much a semi-snobbish critics' idea of what You The Public Should Do. (Sidenote: for all the critical garlanding of one and time-passed deriding of the other, the Kooks album comfortably outsold Oracular Spectacular)

And isn't this groupthink increasingly the problem with Tips For 20xx? After last year, when the one to watch candidate was deemed by all media to be between Adele and Duffy with no third way allowed past the specialist press, it seems this year that not only are the same names cropping up time and again with little or no diversity but artists are being specifically bred for being mentioned in 2009 dispatches, because of course they're the ones with the promo money being showered upon them. Like Adele and her connections with Jamie T and Jack Penate, Florence Welch has been known about for eighteen months on the scene because of her links with Alex James, Dev Hynes and assorted London club glitterati. Seven of the shortlisted fifteen are on Universal labels. Three of the top four have already been in signed bands, two faux-indies and an actual indie with Mercury support (Fear Of Flying were on Young And Lost, White Lies are on fellow Universal subsidiary Fiction). This here is how it's meant to be or your money back, or rather your advance immediately wanted back. Square this up against, say, the career progression of Annie, who as we've said before was us pale homely hipsters' idea of a big pop star but didn't get a push for her first album apparently because the label didn't think a fervent online fanbase that had got Chewing Gum into the top thirty on minimal promotion would transfer to a wider audience, so signed to Island, worked with both Xenomania, Richard X and Paul Epworth and admits she deliberately wrote more commercially minded songs, braced herself for a big push, then got dropped before the album was so much as released. Too much of a threat to the established order, too enigmatic, too hipster-focused (it took Girls Aloud years to acknowledge that they might have fans because of the music rather than the image, and Rachel Stevens still hasn't been let into the secret)? Nobody's saying yet, but if she didn't have an album already under her belt it's a fair shout that she'd have fit right in in some jagged jigsaw piece way with the prevailing trend.

Such homogenised strategy is reflected in how the way they're written up is subject to a concensus of opinion about what these people actually are or where they might slot in, a Trojan horse hook to hang someone else's expectations of at least 150,000 first album sales on. If you allow, say, VV Brown to label herself "indie doo-wop" then that's what she is. You're right, doo-wop is generally carried off in multi-part harmony and thus doesn't really lend itself to a solo singer, and she's not 'indie' in any sense either, but fair goes for trying. (And special congratulations and possibly a crate of champagne to the Mirror, who refer to Kid British as a "ska-kissed Specials". Can you possibly imagine such a thing?) In her own Sound Of '09 interview La Roux opined "Music doesn't feel honest any more... and it's so contrived now." In the very same piece, Elly Jackson told the expectant world "we don't listen to anything apart from '80s music" and "I want to see people who aren't afraid to look a bit mad and have crazy hair". And after all, what could be less contrived than following in the footsteps of Visage, Yazoo, Eurythmics, Depeche Mode and Frankie Goes To Hollywood?

And this is why a lot of this year's big preview winners don't ring true. What sector of the record buying public are they being aimed at? Does Little Boots really have distinguishable massive hits in her? Have labels decided that it's not worth finding someone interesting on their own terms, presumably because those type of people just emerge anyway? Almost all the girls mentioned in such terms refer to Kate Bush as a major influence, but Kate Bush was comprehensively enigmatic at a very tender age and Wuthering Heights sounded even more alien then then it sounds now. She certainly wasn't demanding you admire her Tenori-On and her hair.

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