Why England's Pop Divas The Sugababes Put Ours to Shame
At a moment of American economic meltdown, it's probably inadvisable—maybe even traitorous!—to advocate for the increased import of foreign goods. ("Buy American," commanded the headline of a recent New York Times op-ed by Warren Buffett, a man whose knowledge of finance equals mine regarding The Hills.) But listen: When the Pussycat Dolls are churning out crap as witless and charm-free as this year's Doll Domination, a lifelong lady-pop fan's got no choice but to globalize—especially now that Girls Aloud's terrific new Out of Control is calling out for his recession-ravaged dollar.
Girls Aloud are the most successful products of England's Popstars, the reality-show precursor to Pop Idol (which itself led to American Idol), and though they're hugely famous in the U.K., none of their five studio albums has been released in the United States. (The Internet, of course, makes this distinction largely symbolic.) The music's official unavailability here is not entirely a function of market protectionism: Though the painted ladies of Danity Kane have done an admirable job of chipping away at America's fear of camp, we're still, for the most part, a nation of Hinder-loving mouth-breathers—which means you can't blame our beleaguered record biz for not throwing in its lot with a group so dedicated to fabulousity that they once covered a Pointer Sisters song.
But, indeed, for anyone unafraid of fun and sparkles and girls who are boys who like boys to be girls, there's no denying that 2008's homegrown pop crop withers in Out of Control's shadow. I mean, this thing has more highlights than Carmen Electra: Opener "The Promise" (a number-one debut in England last month) swirls with junk-Bond spy-flick strings; "Love Is the Key" walks Nancy Sinatra's '60s-pop boots back to the future; "The Loving Kind," co-written with the Pet Shop Boys, is so pretty it could bring a tear to a mannequin's eye. The best cut might be "Untouchable," a pulsating six-minute emo-disco jam about beautiful robots dancing alone. Beautiful robots dancing alone! Why didn't Katy Perry (or the Killers) think of that?
Girls Aloud aren't England's only threat to the crippled notion of American pop-cultural pre-eminence; see also strong new imports by the Saturdays and Sugababes (the latter of whom actually had a brief Stateside deal back in the early '00s). On Chasing Lights, the Saturdays—including two former members of S Club 8 (the kiddie version of S Club 7)—make nifty use of a Yaz sample, harmonize sweetly over grinding synth riffs, and sing about feeling vulnerable without sounding vulnerable in the least. It's a confidence thing. (Also: computers.)
Catfights and Spotlights, the Sugababes disc, does offer woebegone Yanks a glimmer of hope in the form of a pronounced Motown influence that suggests that, hey, at least there's profit in our past. "Disaster is always just a beat away," the 'Babes sing over a juiced-up Supremes groove in "You on a Good Day," before helping themselves to a handful of Jackson 5 hooks in "No Can Do." A less flamboyantly English-sounding effort than Out of Control, Catfights is, in fact, loaded with lifts from other American hits—Chris Brown's "Forever" in "Unbreakable Heart," and "Let's Hear It for the Boy," of all things, in "Hanging on a Star." With any luck, we'll be in a position to call in these loans sometime soon. (Say a little prayer for Britney Spears's upcoming Circus.) Until then, expect the trade deficit to continue deepening.
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