Archive for May, 2011

Nicola Roberts rocking a ruffIt is a truth universally acknowledged, that Girls Aloud were ace. Their seven-year run of hit singles – excluding the handful of boring, housewife-baiting cover versions – represent some of the most exciting, dynamic and forward thinking commercial pop music of the last decade.
Great pop music inspires devotion, and with devotion comes tribalism. Everyone had their favourite Beatle, their favourite Spice Girl. Lord help them, a few quality-starved pop fans of today probably have a favourite Saturday. However, a cursory look around the forums and blogs that have become the debating floor of the modern day pop obsessive clearly indicates that in the hearts of the true fans there is only one star in Girls Aloud – and it isn’t Cheryl. It isn’t even Nadine. No, the potential Robbie of this group is one Nicola Roberts. Now she’s finally releasing a solo record, featuring collaborations with the likes of Diplo, Metronomy and Dragonette. It could end up as one of the most exciting pop albums released by a British artist this year.
Despite her comparatively low profile, Nicola was always the best thing about Girls Aloud. She rarely sang lead, but she always got the best lines; the shimmering middle-eight in ‘Call The Shots’, a heartbreaking turn in ‘Whole Lotta History’, the spectacularly disdainful “Frankly I don’t even care” that closes ‘No Good Advice’. Vocally, the other girls could be fairly interchangeable, but she always stood out, her voice switching from brittle fragility to aloof and imperious with ease.
The first taste of what she might be capable of outside the group came with ‘It’s Magic’ her self-penned solo turn on the undervalued Chemistry album. A sensual and bewitching track with ambiguous lyrics and an unusual structure – the chorus occurs only once – it suggested that Nicola could mature into a fascinating electro ice-queen in the Roisin Murphy mould if given the opportunity.
She has the all-important likeability factor too. From day one she felt like one of us. The rest of the group were a little too perfect –too thin, too tanned, too conventional. Nicola grew into her looks, rather than emerging seemingly fully formed. From an incredibly young age she had to deal with being witlessly labelled ‘the ugly ginger one’, enough vitriol to send a lesser person off the rails. However she’s never played the victim, risking above petty insults and emerging as a genuinely stylish woman, unafraid to make leftfield fashion choices and embrace the power of big hair. She remains a champion for individuality and unconventional beauty as a genuine quality rather than a backhanded insult – fronting a documentary about the dangers of sun bed abuse and developing a successful make-up line for pale-skinned girls.
There’s a clip of her onstage during a Girls Aloud concert some years ago. She spots a fan banner that reads, “Chris Moyles is a cunt”, referring to the Radio 1 DJ who had recently referred to her as ‘a sour-faced old cow’. Nicola – looking beautiful in a sparkling gold dress – cackles with unconcealed delight and blows a kiss to the standard-bearers before turning on her heels and getting on with the show. That’s a pop star attitude right there.
Some have complained that she comes across as grumpy, but where they see moodiness I see honesty and a refreshing alternative to blandly polite media training. She can be charming and articulate, but doesn’t suffer fools. The veteran newsreader Huw Edwards has dealt with some of the most powerful and influential people on earth during his long career, but I’ve never seen him look more unsettled than when he was on the receiving end of one of Nicola’s celebrated acid glares during a particularly awkward interview.
At time of writing we’ve only heard a snippet of her forthcoming single Beat of my Drum, but in that 30 seconds alone there is more of the fun, creativity and attitude that marked out the best of Girls Aloud’s work than can be found in the three albums of collective solo material from Cheryl and Nadine. It’s a little bit Robyn, a little bit MIA, a little bit MGMT, and unmistakably Nicola. It feels like a genuine evolution of the Girls Aloud formula, rather than a retreat into bland RnB or an attempt to ‘do a Gaga’. If the full track lives up to it, it’s going to be one of the best pop songs of the year. This will probably surprise many people, but those of us who were paying attention always knew she wouldn’t let us down. The USA can keep Cheryl, the true star of Girls Aloud has finally arrived.

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Dannii MinogueSo it’s finally happened. After surviving years of rumours about her supposedly imminent departure and months of exhausting speculation about the line-up for this year, Dannii Minogue is officially off the X Factor. Did she jump or was she pushed? We don’t know yet, but one thing is certain – the show is going to be infinitely poorer without her. For me it’s probably the final nail. No Simon? – meh, he’s been a pale imitation of his former self for years now. No Cheryl? – no loss. But no Dannii? Unthinkable!

Being a Dannii defender isn’t always easy. Her credentials as a judge have always been the subject of some derision. This largely seems to be down to the fact that she’s scored a mere fourteen top twenty chart hits, compared to the forty-seven her sister has achieved. God, what a loser.

There’s also the allegation that she can’t sing, despite the fact that she cut her teeth on an Australian variety show, starred successfully in a production of Notre Dame De Paris on the West End, and could sing absolute rings around the tone-deaf Cheryl Cole, who somehow even manages to sound flat on record, never mind live.

Nepotism-fuelled pop singers of the kind poor Dannii is so often and unfairly associated with are ten a penny, from Julian Lennon to Willow Smith. The vast majority of them don’t last five minutes. It should seem obvious to anyone that a woman who has survived for over fifteen years in the harsh pop landscape is perfectly placed to mentor the hopefuls of the future.

In her time on the show, Dannii proved just that. Where the other judges relied on soundbites and meaningless platitudes, she was the only one who offered genuine constructive criticism. Last season her advice to One Direction that they needed to watch their harmonies was on-point and entirely fair. It was, of course, drowned out in a sea of boos, an indignity Dannii frequently suffered for committing the terrible crime of doing the job she was being paid to do.

Her relationships with her own charges was the most enjoyable part of the show for me. While other mentors transparently barely saw their own acts between shows (several weeks into the Finals last year, Simon Cowell could not – when pressed – name all five members of his aforementioned group One Direction) Dannii seemed to genuinely care about her acts, forming lasting bonds with many of them. To this day she regularly tweets motherly updates about the achievements of long forgotten contestants such as Lucie Jones and Daniel Evans, even if these achievements are largely limited to the world of regional theatre.

She was by far the most daring in her song choices too. For all his bluster about wanting to find a relevant, new pop act, Simon Cowell gives the impression that he doesn’t actually like any pop music released after 1988. While he was content to let his acts bellow out karaoke covers of pub rock standards like Unchained Melody and Crying, Dannii tested her acts with edgy recent hits by Robyn and David Guetta. These risks didn’t always pay off, but they always made for interesting performances.

Her greatest match was with the Spanish firebrand Ruth Lorenzo – in my opinion the most exciting and subsequently squandered talent the show has ever discovered. The developing friendship between the two was truly heart-warming, as was Ruth’s battle to remain in the show without the benefit of any of the regional or teenage support that her competitors enjoyed. It took Dannii a little while to figure out what to do with Ruth, but after the latter’s stunning rendition of Purple Rain in the sing-offs, everything fell into place. Her decision in Take That week to pair Ruth with their little-remembered hit Love Ain’t Here Anymore was a gamble that resulted in one of the greatest performances ever seen on the show. It’s that kind of genuine narrative between mentor and artist that makes Dannii so eminently watchable, and what makes the other judges so desperately boring by comparison. Cheryl Cole’s song choices are frequently so predictable and lacking in strategy that during artist theme weeks I often found myself wondering if she actually knew more than three songs by the likes of Elton John and The Beatles.

My one consolation is that Minogue ended her tenure on the show with a high. Her popularity soared in the final season and she came into her own as a beloved TV personality and fashion icon, with a best-selling autobiography and highly successful fashion line. She carried herself with grace and dignity, subverting the expectation that she would be as threatened by Cheryl Cole as the embittered Sharon Osbourne was by her. Under her guidance, and again with the help of some leftfield song choices, Matt Cardle sailed to victory against the might of Simon’s One Direction and Cheryl’s Cher Lloyd.

So what now? Personally I hope the rumoured return to music bears out. Her last full studio Neon Nights was for my money a more forward-thinking and cohesive long player than her sister has ever managed and, despite yielding four top ten hit singles, unfairly overlooked at the time. The 80s-influenced electro sound she was toying with way back in 2001 is now routinely heard in the upper echelons of the charts from the likes of Rihanna, Lady Gaga and Ke$ha. But then that’s Dannii all over, quietly defying expectations and generally being much better than most cynics think she has any right to be. I suspect the X Factor Producers have no idea what they’ve just lost…

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Swedish Hopeful Eric SaadeThe Eurovision finally kicks off proper this week, with the two semi finals on Tuesday and Thursday whittling the 43 entrants down to a more manageable 25 for the grand final on Saturday. So it’s probably about time I gathered my thoughts about the cream of this year’s crop. The tragic loon in me is tempted to do a full rundown detailing my thoughts on every entry, but in the name of expediency I’ll restrict myself to a top ten.

10. United Kingdom: Blue – I Can
I had to stick the home country in really, if only to mark the huge step forward in quality from last year’s disaster. I was never a particular fan of Blue during their heyday, and Lee Ryan remains a quite spectacular imbecile, but the song is decent. Their vocals have been ropey during rehearsals, but if they manage to pull it together they have a genuine shot at bringing it home. Even if they fall short, it should comfortably wind up giving us our best result in a while, and for the sake of future UK entries I hope they get some credit for that.

Prediction: Top five seems likely.

9. Bosnia & Herzegovina: Dino – Love In Rewind
Very much a wildcard entry. Bosnia have quietly developed a nice little line in quirky, atmospheric entries, without falling into the trap of repeating themselves. This one starts off with some ghostly acapella wailing before settling into an eerie carnival-esque folk ballad. Things like this either really click or fail miserably, but I think this one is tuneful enough to go the distance.

Prediction: Top ten, with a shot at top 5.

8. Italy: Raphael Gualazzi – Madness of Love
Italy stropped out of the Eurovision in 1997 when their entry that year failed to win (he still came fourth, guys! Jeez!). They’ve finally gotten over it apparently, and this laid back jazz number is one of the more intriguing entries of the year. I can’t see it challenging the upper reaches, but hopefully they’ll stick it out this time.

Prediction: Mid-table finish, and lots of angry Italian stropping afterwards.

7. Israel: Dana International – Ding Dong
On name alone this was my most anticipated entry of the year. Dana International is of course a former winner and general Eurovision legend. Rumours abounded, first that RedOne had written her comeback, then David Guetta. Alas, neither of these stories turned out to be true, and it’s hard not to be a little disappointed by the pleasant but somewhat limp slice of europop we’re left with. It’s not half as dynamic as ‘Diva’ but still guaranteed to be a complete spectacle on the night. Expect an outrageous dress, lots of dramatic arm waving and some woman dressed as a tree in the background carrying all of the vocal heavy lifting.

Prediction: Likely to end up in the bottom third of the leader board.

6. France: Amaury Vassili – Sognu
The pre-contest favourite with rapidly shortening odds. The French always do best when they play up to their haughty image with something refined and melodramatic – as seen in their spectacular 2009 entry from Patricia Kaas. This operatic piece with shades of Ravel’s Bolero and Vangalis’ Conquest Of Paradise and looks set to go the distance. He’s a great singer and it’s very impressive, but in my shallow, pop loving heart I’m hoping something a wee bit less worthy takes the gold. If for no other reason than that this is unlikely to become a big hit single after the contest.

Prediction: Probable winner, a dead cert for the top five.

5. Germany: Lena Meyer-Landrut – Taken By a Stranger
Germany have taken the unusual decision to bring back their winning entrant from last year to defend her title on home turf. Some have questioned this decision, but it does make sense. The danger of coming back to the contest as a big name is that the burden of expectation is so much higher. This number is surprisingly understated compared to Satellite, and may not have enough instant appeal to make a serious challenge for the title, but it’s a bewitching little grower that won’t see her embarrassing herself.

Prediction: Low top ten.

4. Norway: Stella Mwangi – Haba Haba
Summery afro-fusion with a refrain sung in Swahili is perhaps not what we would have expected from the icy climes of Norway, but this entry from Norwegian-Kenyan songbird Stella Mwangi is an absolute delight. To me this is the song that could most credibly be an international hit single outside the contest. Expect to find it spinning around your head for days.

Prediction: With a good draw, I think this can make the top ten, but it could be forgotten if it appears too early in the running order.

3. Belarus: Anastasia Vinnikova – I Love Belarus!
Belarus can always be counted on to send something completely demented, and this might even top their previous high watermark, the terrifying Angelica Agurbash. This isn’t so much a song as a dictatorial war cry. Military chanting, mangled English and a key change so ridiculous it makes me lose bladder control. Try to walk down the street listening to this without breaking into involuntary nationalistic fist-pumps. Just try.

Prediction: Alas, I fear this is too niche to qualify.

2. Sweden: Eric Saade – Popular
Sweden can almost always be relied upon to make the effort, but they’ve had a run of bad luck in recent years. This storming pop number should put them back where they belong though – assuming his complicated glass box routine doesn’t go wrong. The lyrics are somewhat questionable, but with a chorus this catchy what does that matter?

Prediction: Top ten, with top five potential.

1. Hungary: Kati Wolf – What About My Dreams?
Hands down the best and most poppers o’clock song this year. Diva vocals, a pulsating dance beat, a bloody gospel choir!. This couldn’t be more melodramatic if it tried, and in a fair world it would be walking away with this contest. Alas, I can’t help but think of fan favourite Hera Bjork’s performance last year and wonder if perhaps it’ll underperform. Either way, if this isn’t performed with the wind machine set to gale force ten, I’m going to be very unhappy.

Prediction: Top fifteen

Happy viewing!

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