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The Panpopticon With Amy Pettifer: The Year In Pop
Amy Pettifer , December 11th, 2015 10:54

Amy Pettifer recaps 2015 in pop by concentrating on stars, rather than tracks or albums...

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Attempting to distil a year in pop is perhaps a fool’s errand. It’s a genre composed of fleeting moments, bright flashes and – if you’re enjoying it properly – a kind of adrenaline that never stops moving.

I’ve spent the last twelve months chasing pop’s sweet spots and noting the futility of looking back. But if you were going to pin something down about pop in 2015, it would have to be this notion of being totally present, whether it be in the speedy assimilation of other genres; moving through releases so quickly that you can barely see the space between them; or the stealth with which new music inserted itself into every facet of existence without warning. Pop’s biggest names, most notably Adele and Justin Bieber, have reaped the benefits of this attitude, doing away with the tawdry business of ‘build-up’ by dropping singles and entire albums direct on to iTunes and inside ad breaks, knowing full well that the fervour will follow, with or without the tenterhooks.

But what this proves is that while individual releases are important, it’s just as much about pop manifesting as an idea, weaving its way into news and conversation, dancefloors and car stereos, screensavers and glossy covers - forming the playlists that get you out of bed and the memes that prevent you from going to sleep at a reasonable hour.

This is a sign that the pop machine is in rude health of course, but it’s also proof that it operates largely thanks to the sheer energy of the fan bases and commentators activated by social media, who have created ever more digital, physical and emotional space for the infinitesimal details of adoration to occupy.

While the pop industrial complex retains a gargantuan power, it’s important to acknowledge the counter-spells that the digital world and its virtual, global communities are able to perform. In a continual act of reduction - from albums, to singles, to performances, to clips and beyond – the atom proceeds to be split. In the time it took you to figure out that – in spite of yourself – you really like Drake’s ‘Hotline Bling’, its carefully conceived video had been splintered into a thousand memes (as tQ’s Karl Smith observed). In the time it takes you to find the YouTube clip of Adele’s SNL performance of ‘Hello’, a raft of animated video loops will have been created of her sigh of relief in the seconds after the song ended. We are existing in what theorist Jen Boyd describes as ‘gif-time’, cracks in pop’s veneer that offer a way in, “a temporality in which suspended elements begin to shake and gain a pace that is their own.” It’s this covert gap that accounts for the existence of PC Music – more present this year than many would have liked – with their uncanny warping of the pop universe into something that makes your skin itch and brain coddle. Producer A.G. Cook and artist Hannah Diamond’s granular level obsession with the aesthetics of dance pop, coupled with the scope of the internet and a cavalier approach to post production, have spawned something that embodies the innocence, grotesqueries and addictive hooks of pop – just as it is right now, albeit through a fun fair mirror lens.

So as much as it’s about being present, it’s also about moments, and regardless of the heft of your star power you may be stuck working to erase momentary gaffes and blips for the rest of the financial year. Having the empire building means of Taylor Swift (guilty of speaking without thinking) or Madonna (building up, stumbling, carrying on etc.) certainly helps, as relentless global touring of albums 1989 and Rebel Heart respectively has provided the opportunity for high budget repetitive loops (with pyrotechnics and a booking fee) of which they are in total control.

But for new artists, or those of lesser means, the only option is to try to perfect it on the first take and – whether you manage it or not – to never look back. Happily, 2015 has provided countless delicious moments from artists across the scale, with interesting hybrid voices emerging from the environs of electronic music, hip hop, R&B and indie as pop becomes a more viable and creatively fecund playground. If the recent release of Grimes’ fourth album Art Angels (an unabashed wallow in the bombast and levity of the genre) has revealed anything, it’s that it isn’t pop music that most people have a problem with. The problem, you might deduce, is with the personalities that transmit it to the world.

When alternative, independent artist Claire Boucher does it it’s fine – heralded even; but when Selena Gomez does it it’s pathetic, sexually motivated, vapid and clearly all someone else’s idea. On the one hand you could argue the flightiness of pop as fair game for recreational cynicism – its tendencies offering perfect fodder for critique of a world ever more devoid of depth. But on the other it reads as a world taking specific and barbed issue with the reams of young women who (for once) hold a majority share in the pop community and who exist, like it or not, as role models for girls and boys their age and younger.

It’s my view that pop should absolutely be exposed to the same level of critical consideration meted at other apparently weightier genres, but that the mode and rhetoric of that criticism needs to move away from knee-jerk vitriol and dismissal that are essentially motivated by issues of youth and gender. The invented rivalries to create column inches, reductive questioning, slut shaming and general condescension all seep into the sprawling world of modern communication and become quickly embedded, producing narratives that it becomes ever harder to unwrite.

The architecture of pop for many of these female artists exists on a well-established framework of writers, producers, engineers and execs that are – by and large – male. From the hit making genius of Max Martin to the omnipresent machinations of Simon Cowell, there is a genre-defining power that is impossible to ignore and will likely endure for years to come.

But if I had one wish for 2016 and beyond (along with the return of Beyoncé and Lorde, plus Lady Gaga’s release from the world of dinner jazz) it would be to see more of the many women in pop who are in full control of their sound, lyrics and song craft, writing and, more importantly, producing for their female peers. Meghan Trainor, Charli XCX and particularly Sia have led the way in this field, becoming successful solo artists in the process - but there’s so much further to go.

It wasn’t difficult to assemble a list of key artists from 2015 but they’re there – Janus like - as much to point at the neon shades of things to come as they are to look back. Those double binds of future and past, love and hate make pop what it is, not to mention the fully Shakespearian drama mined from its apparently flighty universe; the ‘heavy lightness’ and ‘serious vanity’ as Romeo put it. Or, to put it another way, the profound good times.

Sia

From song writing A-lister, to gut wrenched performer of ‘Chandelier’, to the 2015 Woman’s Hour Power List, Sia Furler has deservedly become a huge solo artist, lending satisfying bite to the charts with singles ‘Elastic Heart’ and ‘Big Girls Cry’. New record This Is Acting is released in January following lead single ‘Alive’ co-written with Adele and Tobias Jesso Jr. A voice of shattering power and an inspiring example for women in the music industry and beyond.

Charli XCX

Like Sia, Charlotte Aitchison is behind massive hits including Icona Pop’s raging ‘I Love It’ and Iggy Azalea’s ‘Fancy’ but found a rightful spotlight of her own following the release of album Sucker. Unpolished, unapologetic and coming on like the demon child of all five Spice Girls, Charli XCX delivered one of the best sets at Glastonbury. Backed by an all-female band and banging out chart hits including ‘Boom Clap’ and ‘Doin It’ (still the best thing to feature Rita Ora) she was both un-serious and seriously good. Her recent BBC documentary The F-Word And Me was a generational statement of intent and a new album is slated for 2016.

Justin Bieber

As colossal boy band phenomenon One Direction sounded their death rattle, colossal teen pop phenomenon Bieber returned to the world stage to fill the void. His two most recent singles ‘Sorry’ and ‘Love Yourself’ (which topped each other at Number One) are accompanied by videos featuring clever choreography and no visible trace of the man himself. The electro filtered vocals are crisp and pop light in the best way, leaving room for a different kind of performer to emerge and some of the pressures of his heartthrob personae to settle. Having said that, at the time of writing, he currently occupies nine places in the UK Top 40. Obsessional pop fandom is alive and well.

Jess Glynne

Possibly the busiest woman in pop in 2015, Jess Glynne was a massively featured guest artist, racking up number ones even before surging forward with her own material and debut album I Cry When I Laugh in August. ‘Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself’ remains her best single – a driving affirmation of clubby euphoria that lets her gravelly vocal rip, but recent release ‘Take Me Home’ with its close to the bone video, encapsulates the scale of her journey in the last 12 months. Recognition of achievement and recollection of loss, it’s a deeply personal approach that sets her apart.

Little Mix

Worthy of mention mainly because they’ve continued scratching and surviving in an age when groups have been massively eclipsed by solo artists. As X-Factor victors they’re also a fascinating product of the machine, continuing to prove their worth four years after the event. 2015’s album Get Weird is a perfect foil for their collective vocal prowess, even if it is Americanised beyond reason and oddly tedious in its song writing. Hopefully in 2016 they’ll gain some worthy peers, as well as taking their own album’s advice and loosening up - more like the Prince inspired ‘Weird People’ would do the job.

Tove Styrke

It was a great year for new artists emerging with a pure pop sensibility but an alluringly individual take. Alongside Emilie Nicholas, Troye Sivan and Halsey, Tove Styrke shone thanks to brooding, world weary and dangerously skilled song writing. Combining a fiercely feminist approach with a sincere love of Britney Spears, album Kiddo released back in June, is a determined salvo of complex pop. Singles ‘Borderline’ and ‘Number One’ echoed both sides of her artistic self, while her cover of ‘Baby One More Time’ seals the deal. She tours extensively in 2016.

Grace Mitchell

Sliding in just under the wire, Portland born Grace Mitchell is my most profound pop crush of 2015. Her EP Raceday features two of the best songs of the year in ‘Jitter’ and ‘NoLo’ weaving the smoky bass of her vocal around bat shit production , melodic sweetness and full bodied hooks. Her soulful growl is music to any ear tired of the high-pitched trill of many pop vocals, and a performance opening for The Weeknd at the Apple Music festival in the summer, galvanised Mitchell as a nascent, sinewy phenomenon in the making. Her debut album is released next year.

Taylor Swift

No one has made a louder, more sustained racket in 2015 than Taylor Swift. Skidding gloriously onward from the success of album 1989, the three singles she released were secondary to the sheer scale of her world tour which featured every guest artist you could name; from current pop peers (Ellie Goulding) and pop legends (Justin Timberlake), to alt heroines (St Vincent) and wry generational gags (Phoebe from Friends). Swift knows how to make her presence felt on every level, splitting the seams of the pop universe while pedalling the goods that back it up. The release of a re-worked ‘Bad Blood’ featuring Kendrick Lamar was a canny move and improvement of an already great song. We can only assume that her 2016 plan is to lay low.

Rhianna

Rihanna remains a subject of constant fascination because of her refusal to give it all away. Whether a new album will materialise before Christmas is anyone’s guess; we’ve waited this long, what’s another few weeks? On ‘Four Five Seconds’ a scrappy duet with Kanye West and Paul McCartney, and the internet breaking ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’ Rihanna exposed a more stripped back and questioning side of a persona that was once passively groomed for the mainstream. Her refusal to be palatable is her best quality and the negotiation of her adult self, fascinating to witness. If her intent wasn’t clear enough, the new album and tour that will dominate her 2016 is titled Anti.

Hannah Diamond

While being, for many, the sonic equivalent of a cheese grater to the brain and remaining a fair distance from the mainstream charts, Hannah Diamond’s output via PC Music is essential to any discussion about pop in 2015. The naïve vocal and sugar high of her aesthetic belie a woman pursuing the creation of a perfect pop star with all the focus of a seasoned Svengali. But that pop star is her, living a daydream and garnering her skills as a photographer and artistic director to tweak her public image in her own, hyper-real way. Diamond is visible in Charli XCXs aforementioned BBC documentary, directing a photoshoot for fellow artist Liz and having the time of her life in that state of control. Her most recent single is also the second best song of the year on the subject of saying hello.

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Luke
Dec 11, 2015 7:56pm

Not even a mention of Carly Rae Jepsen? Or Years & Years? And was the sexism really necessary? If there's one arena of music that is more egalitarian than pop I have yet to discover it (excepting niche genres where the artists can be virtually anonymous). Other than that, I agree with points about the personality (unfortunately) being more important than the art, and "knee-jerk vitriol" being far too present in media coverage, but those are the times we live in, and if people wanted change, then change would be got.

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rez /@rrrle
Dec 13, 2015 2:32pm

Thanks for this list, which will expose me to much stuff I "knee-jerk" dismissed for commercialism. While I see the point you're getitng at when you say - "When alternative, independent artist Claire Boucher does it it’s fine – heralded even; but when Selena Gomez does it it’s pathetic, sexually motivated, vapid and clearly all someone else’s idea." - I do think it's not quite a fair analogy, since Grimes handles all technical-artistic production herself and seems not so much interested in exuding the sort of hypersexuality or "sexualness" that's at the foundation pop musical production. Nothing (I'd argue) in Art Angels even takes up the theme of romantic relationships, another age-old marker of pop, though the lyrics may sound as though they are addressed to a lover/former. Anyhow, point being, in total agreement with your call for a critical engagement with pop on all levels, whether "commercial" or avant/independent. Thanks for this piece.

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Tim Clarke
Dec 23, 2015 11:56pm

Jesus, that Hannah Diamond song is horrible.

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d
Dec 30, 2015 9:20am

In reply to Luke:

Point me to the sexism in this article.

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