As far as pop princesses go, Marina Diamandis—stage name, Marina and the Diamonds—dazzles because she turns the archetype on its nose. The title of Marina’s latest album, Electra Heart, evokes images of a Cinderella-type character throwing her glass slippers to the wind and crying mascara tears, unable to cope with the possibility of a happily never after. As she flirts with success in the U.S., Marina and the Diamonds seems to be happening upon both a die-hard fanbase. But what exactly makes her stand out from other pop princesses?
Marina and the Diamonds have been stuck into a few different trendlets—a byproduct of the same British pop craze that’s turned Calvin Harris, One Direction, and Cher Lloyd into radio favorites; an obvious commodity meant to sate Kate Bush and Tori Amos fans who long ago stopped seeing eye-to-eye with either diva; a pop bombshell groomed in the tradition of Lana Del Rey. But with Electra Heart, she not only ushers in some much-needed verve and dazzle into the American Top 40 landscape, she represents a shift happening across pop music.
Thanks to services like Spotify, genre boundaries are, if not collapsing entirely, at least revealing themselves to be more porous; Beach House fans can guiltlessly indulge their Kylie Minogue whims, and vice versa. In the intersection of all those tastes is an emerging generation of pop stars who seem to be the product of music fans who grew up listening to everything. Nothing sums up Marina and the Diamonds’ ambition better than her desire to channel “goth Britney [Spears].”
Enter Electra Heart, a bubblegum pop concept album, an artifact so simultaneously highbrow and lowbrow that most music critics haven’t been able to analyze it without drawing ham-fisted comparisons to Del Rey’s Born to Die. True, both performers are women performing highly stylized pop songs about relationships, but the comparisons end there. As a concept album, Electra Heart is only as successful as you allow it to be. It’s a break-up album; it’s about being so destroyed after a relationship that the only way to move forward is to act selfishly; it’s about feelings of betrayal and revenge that we experience after a break-up. The album’s first single, the Dr. Luke-produced “Primadonna,” is an artful introduction.
Beneath the dance-pop sheen, though, Electra Heart is nasty and brutal; If Carrie and Fairuza Balk from The Craft could be merged into a single character, they would behave not unlike its titular character. But most strikingly—and with apologies to Marina, who has made no secret of disliking comparisons to fellow female performers—Electra Heart seems like a direct descendant of Tori Amos’ Boys For Pele. Both albums were born from germs of heartbreak, destruction, and rejection; both serve as a siren call that the artists who made them had finally begun to come into a style all their own.
Marina and the Diamonds’ slow, yet sudden entrance into mainstream American pop has resulted in her minting new fans out of listeners who, in other years, might have stanned for Lady Gaga. Neither performer hid their ambitions and desire to conquer the world one pop song at a time. Both performers also understand the importance of turning pop music into a spectacle where they play archetypes, i part because success in the long term means peddling memorable experiences.
But maybe what’s helping to connect Marina and the Diamonds to listeners is how she manages to essay the frustration of romantic break-up to the dissolution of the American Dream, a trope she’s been exploring since her first record. For all the grievances we have about “kids these days,” they have firsthand experience of just how broken the idea of the American Dream is.
Purists get lost among the album’s nuances: Marina and the Diamonds has no problem pairing portraits of herself in character as Electra with deliciously juvenile captions, thus further building her mythology. (A Tumblr dedicated to that ambition serves the same purpose that CD booklets would have a couple decades ago.) They might whine that music should stand on its own haunches, and in mining fans of Coldplay (who she opens for tonight) for future listeners, Marina finds herself appealing to people who might be icy about the prospect of a goth reinterpretation of Britney Spears. In assuming the warm-up slot for the band, Marina’s tasked herself with finding fans among throngs of moody dudes preoccupied with the so-called legitimacy of music. However, if it’s one thing moody dudes know well, it’s broken hearts—so the cries of Electra Heart may resonate with them more than they’d like to admit. Once she conquers them, the rest of the Top 40 is hers for the taking.
Marina and the Diamonds play at the Izod Center with Coldplay tonight and tomorrow and headline Webster Hall on August 16 and August 18.