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Archive for October, 2011

KT Tunstall - Oh, the Glamour!

There was an interesting piece in The Guardian this week in which Rob Fitzpatrick pondered the rapid decline in popularity suffered by once-massive acts such as The Kaiser Chiefs, Hoosiers and Duffy. It was a great piece, with the focus largely on how it feels to experience the second album curse. But why does it happen to some acts and not others?

The obvious answer, of course, is that some acts just make rubbish second albums which are received accordingly. But I have noticed that the most extreme falls from grace almost always happen either to ‘indie’ bands such as the Kaiser Chiefs, Hard-Fi and Glasvegas, or singer-songwriter types like KT Tunstall, Duffy and Newton Faulkner. In general, although other acts such as pop groups and RnB stars are far from immune from a followup flop, they’re much better at holding on to a fanbase, with a decline in popularity likely to be more gradual – and easier to recover from.

On the surface, this seems strange. The received wisdom is that it’s the indie kids who make real connections to their music, while pop fans have a shorter attention span and are more apt to move on to the next big thing than to stick with an artist through thick and thin. Think of the obsessive fandom that fuelled classic indie acts like The Smiths and a pre-stadium REM.

In another recent Guardian article; Peter Robinson talked about  ‘The New Boring’ – the idea that no-fuss, stripped back performers like Adele and Mumford & Sons had come to represent a supposed ideal of what constituted real and valuable music. Most of the artists who suffer unexpectedly brief shelf-lives fall into this category. Kaiser Chiefs and Hard Fi might have traded in witty lyrics and spiky guitar riffs, but they still dressed and performed in a way that suggested they’d fit in more comfortably in a local working men’s club than on the world stage.

The problem is, while many of these acts are extremely talented, they’re just not all that interesting. For all of Morrissey’s outsider credibility in the 80s, he was also a pop star through and through. From his biting wit to his unique fashion sense, he was a figure that people could really connect with, imitate and aspire to. He was also more than willing to delve into the celebrity world that today’s indie acts set themselves in opposition to – from recording with 60s pop icon Sandie Shaw to hanging out with Pete Burns of Dead or Alive. Then as now, he was easy to love, easy to hate and very difficult to be indifferent to.

Aside from the fact that she’s Scottish, plays guitar and has a few nice songs, what can anybody really say about KT Tunstall – whose second album sold barely an eighth of her multi-platinum debut? She might be the funniest woman in the world, but you’d never know because she isn’t presented in a manner that is in any way engaging or accessible. Same with Duffy. A hideous coke advert and a dreadful lead single from her second album can’t have helped, but ultimately for all her ubiquity in 2008, I couldn’t tell you a thing about her. It’s just very difficult to care about people like this. If I was Ellie Goulding, I’d be very worried right now.

On the other hand, I don’t think this is an absolute rule. Adele may be the poster child for slightly drab worthiness, but she actually makes a fantastic pop star. She has a great sense of style, she gives wonderful interviews and she speaks her mind. People who like Adele aren’t just buying into a few nice songs they’ve heard on the radio, they’re buying into a complete package. She may have a few failures in the future – very few artists never do – but I suspect she’ll be a star for as long as she wants to be.

Another major problem is that once you’ve lost your audience, it’s very difficult to win it back. The industry is always in search of the next big thing, and once you’ve been deemed over or uncool (i.e. when Radio 1 stop playlisting your singles), you could record the next Pet Sounds and they still probably wouldn’t welcome you back.

In 1978 Kate Bush was launched with a number one single and a top-selling debut album. What people often forget is that her swiftly recorded followup Lionheart was a big disappointment. The first single ‘Wow’ stalled at #14, the second ‘Hammer Horror’ missed the top forty entirely. As we know, Kate went on to record a string of classic singles and albums that cemented her place as one of our very greatest performers and songwriters. But what if, after Lionheart, she’d been written off and faded into obscurity? Kate herself has stated that she feels Lionheart was a mistake, rushed out under record label pressure to capitalise on the success of her debut. But perhaps it was a mistake that she needed to make. Without that learning curve, would she have fought so hard for the independence she required to produce her subsequent records?

In my experience, a failed second album almost always leads to a more interesting third one. In cases where a followup record does manage to continue the momentum of the debut, there’s always a risk that hubris will set in. If What’s The Story (Morning Glory) hadn’t matched the success of Definitely Maybe, perhaps Oasis wouldn’t have spent the next fifteen years rehashing the same sound that kept them on top for much of the mid-nineties. Although if Liam and Noel hadn’t been such quoteable, tabloid-friendly characters, perhaps nobody would have cared very much either way.

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This week I was struck with what I am fairly certain was a unique thought – is Marina Diamandis the new Debbie Currie? In 1997, the daughter of the egg-hating, John Major-shagging politician Edwina teamed up with ITV’s The Cook Report to front a sham pop single in the style of the hits of the time, in order to prove how easy it was to get into the charts in the supposedly creatively bankrupt pop scene that was dominant at the time. Their point was somewhat undermined when the track – a cover of America’s You Can Do Magic with actual vocals provided by Sinitta – crashed into the charts at number 86.

Marina, of Marina and The Diamonds, appears to be attempting a similar trick with her current single Radioactive. Having had a protracted attack of sour grapes when her first album failed to take her to Florence-esque multi-platinum heights, she’s now launched a new project – not, she insists, an alter ego, but “a vehicle to portray part of the American dream. Electra Heart is… the antithesis of everything that I stand for. And the point of introducing her and building a whole concept around her is that she stands for the corrupt side of American ideology, and basically that’s the corruption of yourself. My worst fear – that’s anyone’s worst fear – is losing myself and becoming a vacuous person”. Rightyho then.

Now I have no problem with artists attempting new and exciting ventures through their music or personas. But the Electra Heart project just feels like a petulant reaction to the fact that her first album didn’t make her the globe-straddling superstar she clearly believes she is destined to be. The Family Jewels was an interesting album that largely dealt with the fickle and destructive nature of being a superstar. Given that she wasn’t one, most listeners reasonably assumed that it was a cynical and tongue-in-cheek piece from a clever outsider who was wise enough to know better than to chase fame and fortune for its own sake, but virtually everything Marina has said or done since then has suggested quite the opposite, from her unedifying twitter rants to her new musical direction.

Radioactive isn’t necessarily a bad song – Marina does after all have a strong ear for pop hooks, but it feels laboured and joyless. By pretty much openly acknowledging that she’s dressing up her music in of-the-moment dance beats and dying her hair blonde in order to make a point that you need to be vacuous to score a hit, she’s basically telling her listeners that if you like this music, you are stupid.

Well pop fans are not stupid Marina, and neither is pop music. One of the greatest misunderstandings about commercial chart music is that merely a case of joining the dots. It isn’t. If writing world-beating hit singles was as easy as embittered indie bores frequently assume it is, everybody would be doing it. Yes, there are a few producers – from Stock Aitken & Waterman to David Guetta – who hit upon a magic formula that becomes the sound of the moment, at which point they do become able to churn out quite lazy re-hashes of their former glories, just as a band like, say, Oasis found a sound that captured the public mood and spent the next fifteen years basically rewriting the same two songs. But you have to find that formula first, and it isn’t something just anyone can do. With Radioactive likely to miss the top twenty today, it seems that Marina is about to learn this the hard way. I strongly suspect that within a few months she’ll have completely disowned the song and persona and moved on to something else. If she’s going to continue in this industry, she needs to decide who she really wants to be. Because right now, it doesn’t seem like being Marina & The Diamonds or Electra Heart is any fun at all.

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