Underwhelmed And Overstimulated, Part II: PJ Harvey, Jessie J, And The Post-Pop Character Landscape


Sound of the City’s year-end roundtable, with contributions from Tom Ewing, Eric Harvey, Maura Johnston, Nick Murray, and Katherine St. Asaph, continues.

Thanks Maura! And hello Nick, Katherine and Eric.

Post-megasales megastars? Beyoncé and Gaga fit the bill, for certain. There are convincing post-rationalisations of why sales on those albums were soft—Beyoncé can do what she likes, and what she likes right now is old-school soul belters; and Gaga’s mix of hi-NRG and stadium rock is a maximalist step too far. But nobody would dispute Beyoncé and Gaga’s presence. If you look at the top celebs on Facebook, the appetite for musicians is endless: scattered athletes and actors cower in the shadow of pop stars living and dead, G and B among them. So perhaps pop music is becoming like comics—a minor artform, fiercely loved by enthusiasts but nugatory in revenue terms, whose real value lies in powering something else. What comics IP does for the film industry, pop does for the celebrity biz—provide a stream of garish, blockbuster characters and never mind the source material.

Is Rihanna really any different? She’s selling, but her Twitter is fiercer than her music. To be fair, her Twitter is fiercer than almost anyone’s music: as I type this she’s going in gloriously hard on a Dutch magazine’s racist profile of her, and she’s well known for gleeful slapdowns of her 140-character foes. If you’re a fan of Rihanna the star more than Rihanna the singer, the music will seem forced and artificial next to that.

Speaking of forced and artificial, as the UK ambassador on this panel I’d like to publically apologise for Jessie J, a tin-eared Bizarro to Gaga’s Superwoman who the British music industry (or what’s left of it) seems cruelly determined to make happen overseas. She’s a caricature of the modern pop star—ever ready with a platitude, peddling lumbering self-empowerment but still obsessed with long-gone haters. The fact that the Jessie J push was simultaneous with the biggest UK success story in a decade or two just makes it more painful.

And both Jessie and Adele emerged in a year when better UK pop records were left stranded at home. I loved Charli XCX’s “Stay Away” too—sounding a bit like Propaganda is as sure a way to my heart as exists—but at least she travelled critically. Katy B followed up breakthrough single “Katy On A Mission” with an album refining her approach—taking the nuances of a night out and building impeccably modernist clubland pop around them. Cher Lloyd, an irrepressible 17 year-old who’s the best thing to come out of the British X-Factor, horrified everyone with “Swagger Jagger” (the British “Gucci Gucci” if you like) and then won me over completely with Sticks And Stones, a cheeky, ten-track bubblegum classic. And Nicola Roberts, formerly of Girls Aloud, put out “Beat Of My Drum”, a clattery Diplo-produced earworm that broke through initial suspicions to become my most-played song of 2011. The public didn’t agree, and Roberts’ album, Cinderella’s Eyes, looks like it’ll be the cult pop record of the year: a shame, since beyond the singles there’s a record that’s as candid and vulnerable as it is catchy (try “I” for a flavour of it).

But back—for the last time, I promise—to Jessie J, who provided a great example of how the always-on celebrity culture Rihanna and Beyoncé live in can be a tricky mistress when you don’t have the self-knowledge to handle it. As London burned in August, she announced that she was heading urgently to the studio to write a song about the London riots. A strife-torn nation united briefly in mockery. The riots are still being picked and wrangled over by Britain’s political classes, and this isn’t the place to analyse them. But in pop terms there were two immediate impacts. The first was a boost for 2011’s most exhausting critical meme—where oh where are the protest songs? The second was to make it even more certain that PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake would sweep the UK’s end of year polls. If I didn’t love the record, I’d be boiling with resentment now as critic after critic fell into line. But it’s my favourite album this year too, as much for its command of mood as for its lyrics—the horrible placidness and resignation of “Hanging In The Wire,” or the title track’s haunted music hall strut. In a year where “atmosphere” was a euphemism for cocooning oneself in production—and there’s my answer to Maura’s Bon Iver question—Harvey’s greatest achievement may have been to summon up the dislocating and uncanny with not much more than an autoharp, a skiffle beat and a handful of samples.

Polly Harvey’s songs, of course, weren’t anti-war, simply about war—or that was the theory, since her collage of voices built up into an indictment anyway. But whatever resonance they had with the year’s events was mostly coincidental. The gravity of protest is, I suspect, felt less by musicians than by critics, who are keen to legitimise the artform by fitting it into wider narrative and letting it stand comparison with history. So my first question to the other panelists—far nearer than I was to the Occupy epicentre—is whether you felt that urge to link songs with events, and whether you gave into it?