The Panpopticon With Amy Pettifer: This Month In Pop

Just as the late winter slowly loosens its icy grip, pop offers cold hearts with the promise of future sunshine, writes Amy Pettifer

The days are dark, the wind is cold. One blue Monday follows another – the winter grinds on and, should a lone shaft of sunlight find its way to a corner of your room, there’s a tendency to shift your chair, crane your neck and bathe in it, eyes closed. You’d forgotten that its warmth is rejuvenating in the same way that you forget, from one lover to the next, that heartbreak hurts.

This seasonal drag is something to be relied on, year on year, but perhaps it’s never been so aptly soundtracked than by the pop music that’s dominated the chilly, business end of 2014. From multi-Grammy winning Sam Smith to the criminally undecorated Sia, there’s been luxuriant, crestfallen music swimming solemnly at the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. Even the joy displayed by Paloma Faith, after rising from her mock-burlesque beginnings to win Best British Female at last week’s Brit Awards, was in contrast to her dramatic performance that night: as she sang her torch song, ‘Only Love Can Hurt Like This’, a storm cloud hung above her like the sword of Damocles and then drenched her to the skin at the song’s apex.

The truth, one might guess, is that being blindsided by the relentlessly upbeat is far less pleasant than the shady euphoria of a good wallow. Sadness unites us where unbridled joy can be divisive and isolating. Sam Smith’s phenomenal fortune has been mined from the cold side of the bed, the snagging pain of betrayal and the depths of loss. His breakthrough single ‘Stay With Me’ (still lingering in the upper echelons of the charts after 40 weeks) begs a one-night stand to remain; he clogs up personal space with strangers rather than facing the lonely hours alone. His more recent release, ‘Like I Can’, is the brightest to date, chiming with major chords and a gospel round, but it still deals in demons, campaigning for the return of an estranged amore. Smith’s universal appeal and particular brand of soulfulness stem from a mouth that sounds to be permanently filled with tears – all soft emotive vowels that soar and cry. It’s said with a pinch of salt, but Smith has walked two red carpets in as many weeks, publicly advertising his desire for a guy to swoop into his life and bust his heart up all over again – and who can blame him? It’s in that dolour that the best and most personal songs emerge, and a sea change can occur in the life of a pop star. 

Take Selena Gomez, a baby-doll popsicle whose sugar-coated oeuvre was recently overshadowed by one of one of the best heartbreak anthems of late 2014. ‘The Heart Wants What It Wants’ is a brilliant, brooding mid-tempo cut whose lyric and vocal drive, velvet smooth, through the familiar territories of an ill-advised relationship – in this case, her much publicised tryst with Justin Bieber. Gomez has stated that she felt girls “needed to hear this” – for it to be made perfectly clear (as the lyric relates) that modern fairy tales are those without a happy ending. We – and she – have learned this much the hard way; rather than providing insouciant escapism, this pop music is a reality check. The tearful, opening monologue was apparently recorded as Gomez carried on a conversation with herself in a dressing-room mirror; a Lacanian coup in which the star addresses and emotionally recognises herself from the perspective of a curious public, itching to scratch the surface of her pop veneer. 

Leaving aside the peppy colossus that is ‘Shake it Off’ and the wry bunny boiler ‘Blank Space’, it occurs to me that what made Taylor Swift’s 1989 such an attractive prospect outside of her younger legions of fans is its panoply of break-up songs. It’s a veritable catalogue of them – bitter, yearning and wrapped up in a shimmering, electronic shell that’s easier to swallow than the stylings of her country roots. Perhaps because it’s colder and a little more jaded, it had many mature listeners tripping up in waves of recognition. ‘Style’ wouldn’t have been my pick for next single but I like that what sounds like a hopeful ballad is actually tinged with the knowing warning that a love that only looks good from the outside is doomed to crash and burn.  

But when it comes to the stark manifestation and expression of emotional darkness, no one has quite managed to eclipse the genius, gut-wrenching but somehow still uplifting work of Sia Furler, who is finally achieving ubiquity after a 20-year career writing soaring hits for Katy Perry, Kylie and Rihanna among others. Her ‘Chandelier’ was one of the most significant pop records of 2014, the vocal operatic, broken and gravelled, carrying the tonality of a night without sleep and speaking openly of the silent tears after the party. “Party girls don’t get hurt,” she sings, and if a painful feeling arises they “push it down.” It’s all about a brave face and an epic (if sometimes crumbling) resolve. Enter Maddie Ziegler, the 12-year-old dancer who has become the living incarnation of Furler’s inner self, cartwheeling and twirling like an Act Three Ophelia in a series of highly stylised videos and live performances that have lent further gravitas to Sia’s music. 

Routinely turning her back to the camera, Sia has become a purely acousmatic voice hovering outside of herself, the resonances of her throaty sound free to echo from any kindred body. In mini-operas for closed, ragged rooms (that we can assume are analogous with inner psyche) girlish Ziegler and a raft of actors, including Lena Dunham and Kristen Wiig, become the interchangeable blonde-tressed protagonists of the song’s story – ratty, childish, shellshocked – on the lookout for some kind of respite.  

Her follow-up single ‘Elastic Heart’, produced by Diplo and with a video that pits Ziegler against Shia LaBeouf, is just as powerful. Its spitting, chattering beats supporting a vocal that’s a shade more defiant, telling of the kind of corporeal resilience that can surprise you in the darkest moments. In its crescendo, as the beat doubles and the layered vocals seagull almost out of control, you can hear the sonic reflection of deferred, multiple personalities and psychological jaggedness that Furler’s visual conceit performs. The many shades of knotty, complicated, weirdo business that we all carry around, and are just hiding or ignoring to greater or lesser degrees. Sia’s success is rooted both in her laying bare of this fact and her provision of a musical catharsis. Her avant garde visuals, when matched with her particular brand of skilled, emotive songwriting, carry the hallmarks of an auteur – she’s a blessing to the charts. The next few months will elicit the final song and video in this compelling trilogy. 

For some, catharsis manifests in other ways. In a nod to this sense that the bleak midwinter is no time to release a euphoric banger, Rihanna – otherwise reliable in that area – began 2015 with ‘FourFiveSeconds’, a subdued, acoustic duet with Kanye West backed with an unmistakable Paul McCartney chord progression played by McCartney himself. The song’s sheer lack of bombast in the face of considerable egos is its grace point, not to mention the space it gives to Rihanna’s voice, a powerful instrument that benefits from being stripped of beats and allowed to holler, crack and slur around the church organ chords of the middle eight. Any virtuosic swoops are tempered by the loose, sketchy quality of the composition, which feels like it was thought up and recorded on the fly, complete with odd, heckling backing vocals that seep from elsewhere in the room. Rather than the impersonal trappings of fat production and separate studio time, you’re meant to imagine a band feeling their way to a melody, a mood, a moment. 

But despite its casual sweetness, this song’s spirit is firmly on the defensive, telling of another internal struggle in which the aim is to keep anger contained, reckless abandon in check and a partnership intact. It’s a complex ballad of short fuses and stubbornness which chimes with Rihanna’s own romantic history. In this sadly familiar fiction, Kanye and Ri are each seconds away from flying off the handle, madly drowning their sorrows and maybe ending up behind bars. West croons the line, “If I go to jail tonight / Promise you’ll pay my bail” and, in the spare Inez & Vinoodh video, Ri brushes off such consequences with a blithe roll of her eyes.

Details of her eighth album, R8, are scarce and other than this track the singer herself has remained tightlipped. Her turn on the cover of i-D’s recent music issue however speaks volumes. The un-glossed styling, the deadlock of her eyes, a slight disdain on her lips – something is definitely brewing.

So what about that little ray of sunshine, struggling against the gloom? The sonically gleeful ‘All About That Bass’ may have jangled your nerves lately – a sticky wad of musical bubblegum from 21-year-old Meghan Trainor of Nantucket that flatly refused to detach itself from every surface it hit. Trainor has been working as a songwriter for as long as she can stand up, and her debut album Title is tightly honed. I fully expected it to make me want to poke my finger through my eye and into my brain, but there’s more than one track that achieves twinklings of pop perfection. The throwback, twee-bop style permeates, with bursts of Trainor’s rapped sass to keep it from sinking to novelty depths. ‘Walkashame’ and ‘Title’ are both head-spinningly infectious as well as being wry cautionary tales. ‘Like I’m Gonna Lose You’ is a soulful, acoustic guitar-scored duet with John Legend, and a romantic classic in the making. Trainor’s doo-wop styling, crossed with a saltier, urban edge, is likely to be the thing that causes her to grate with some listeners, but it’s possible to recognise the legacy of something once germinated by Amy Winehouse, particularly in her collaborations with Mark Ronson.

It’s heartbreaking to consider what effect Winehouse might have been having on pop now, but both her biggest fans and casual listeners might feel a shudder of recognition listening to newcomer Kali Uchis. The Columbian-American singer’s debut release Por Vida emerged earlier this month and carries some fond shadows of Winehouse in the warm bell chimes, the Shirelles drum-beats and the croaky croon of Uchis’s voice, particularly on ‘Lottery’, the record’s dreamy, soulful highpoint. “Yeah we had issues / Can we dismiss those?" she sings. What better attitude for sweeping away wintry emotional cobwebs? The nine tracks drip with a hazy, analog Californian sun, while the tough, lacquered platinum and pastels of her look push anything retro into a slight warping overdrive. ‘Speed’ is the darker, more abrasive end of her spectrum, produced by Tyler, The Creator and blending something more electronic and troubled with soaring and flowing keys. Her sound is welcome warmth for darker days, and if any of these tracks makes it to the charts it will be a great thing.

‘Doing it’, the third single from Charli XCX’s album Sucker, featuring Rita Ora, is the best and most upbeat thing to happen to the charts this year so far. The song’s theme is unerring female friendship and its aesthetic and attitude gives you the feeling that Charlotte Aitchison was a pop embryo incubated in the trashy, ballsy, contradictory environs of Spiceworld. Nothing wrong with that, particularly when it’s pushing a message of ebullient independence rather than tawdry sexual metaphor. When it comes to the sound, ‘Doing It’ is one in a long line of recent chart releases buoyed by the crisp, 80s grooves beloved of American producer Ariel Rechtshaid. His influence on contemporary pop is subtle, but as soon as you’re aware of it it’s noticeable everywhere – the Selena Gomez track mentioned above is a prime example, following in the dusky footsteps of Sky Ferreira’s ‘Night Time, My Time’ – one of Rechtshaid’s masterpieces.

Rechtshaid was also integral to the development of Haim’s sound on their 2013 debut Days Are Gone. Intentionally or not, Haim’s driving songs and breathy, percussive vocals, coated with a brisk shimmering edge of 80s melodic pop, are making their influence felt on chart music to significant ends. The verse melody on ‘Doing It’ could easily be one of theirs, and Taylor Swift’s 1989 seemed to point in their direction rather than anything conceived before her time.

Later in 2015 Haim will open for Swift on selected dates of her 1989 world tour, and it would seem that having a leather-booted foot in the pop camp is doing them no harm at all. I’m bummed to see them down instruments in exchange for a witchy, pouty turn manhandling rabbits and owls in the video for ‘Pray To God’, a collaborative cut from Calvin Harris’ record Motion (also featuring Rechtshaid’s production), but it is an irresistible track, both dark and danceable – Stevie Nicks’ ‘Edge Of Seventeen’ with banging 90s piano house and frosty strings. Este, Danielle and Alana’s tight, breathless harmonies in the track’s break are a sonically seductive foil for the final drop, and the alchemy as each element works together makes this a force to be reckoned with. Okay, so it’s snowing in the video and the dress code is widow’s weeds – but crane your neck, just a little, and bask in the golden glow of that winter sun lurking at the edge of the frame.  

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