When they predicted back in the ’80s that pop would eat itself, they weren’t wrong. What they didn’t realise was that by feeding on its own internal organs, pop would only make itself stronger.
In 2002, when Girls Aloud won Popstars: The Rivals, reality TV was still in its fairly early days. Big Brother was only in its third series and the country was already well over the hysteria and subsequent undignified demise of original Popstars winners Hear’Say, but we hadn’t quite reached the relentless conveyor belt of moon-faced idiots and explotative freakery the genre ultimately descended to. It could still surprise you.
That said, nothing could have prepared us for the Girls’ ‘Sound Of The Underground’. Wisely avoiding either the generic kiddy-pop route or the slough of sugary balladry that many subsequent reality TV stars have taken, it instead raced down the path the Sugababes had beat out with ‘Round Round’ – sharp, danceable, relentlessly modern pop.
The hard drum’n’bass rhythms, the ridiculous rockabilly guitar sample, the tense, abstract lyrics. Rather than trying to tack on an edge of credibility, it was made by people who knew exactly what they were doing.
As a result, we had the only decent Christmas Number One of the decade. It was smart, sexy, witty and it was… popular. It was a bit of a shock.
In the US, the influence of hip-hop and R&B had been pushing pop to new heights via the likes of Destiny’s Child, Aaliyah and Kelis.
British pop, however, had failed to meet the challenge of dance music, drum’n’bass and garage, remaining stuck in the novelty rut carved by the Spice Girls (you can bleat on about girl power all you want, but the plain fact is the majority of the Spice Girls’ songs were naff as hell), Boyzone and B*Witched.
‘Sound Of The Underground’ (and ‘Round Round’ before it) was a whole new kind of pop. It didn’t glory in its own cheesiness. It wasn’t wholesome Royal Variety Show family entertainment. It was shiny and sexy and perfect.
While Kimberley, Nadine, Sarah, Cheryl and Nicola deserve their own credit (if you think you can give a song like that to just anyone, imagine the twins from this year’s X Factor singing it), it made us start to think about chart hits in a different way.
Growing accustomed as we now were to looking behind the scenes, peeling back pop’s perfect skin to prod at the mechanical workings underneath, the producers of the track, Xenomania, became stars of a sort themselves. Seven years later, we’re excited about Mini Viva because they’re produced by Xenomania.
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We’re not excited about Xenomania because of Mini Viva. Xenomanic leader Brian Higgins’ previous biggest credits had been working with Dannii Minogue and Saint Etienne and writing and producing Cher’s ‘Believe’ (whose bizarre use of Auto-Tune is arguably still an influence on hip-hop today).
Following ‘Sound Of The Underground’ and ‘Round Round’, though, Xeno have sprinkled their magic dust over Kylie, Annie and the Pet Shop Boys, becoming a byword for wickedly clever, saucy, superficial, heartbroken pop. If you take all their writing and production credits together, they’ve had more UK Top 10 hits than Madonna, Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears put together.
They’re far from the original pop superproducers, though. Timbaland had long been a name in the hip-hop and R&B worlds thanks to his work with Missy Elliott and Aaliyah (remember the formidable ‘More Than A Woman’?).
He took a serious credibility risk by working with a nerdy, white, curly-haired Christian Mouseketeer. The fruits of that unlikely union, though, was one of the best
pop singles of the decade, Justin Timberlake’s ‘Cry Me A River’.
Timberlake’s other helping hands on the ‘Justified’ album, The Neptunes, had made their name working with Kelis and Jay-Z. When they turned their hands to the taut, Latin-tinged ‘Like I Love You’, though, that’s when it went global. They’d already got their filthy fingers all over Justin’s ex-girlfriend Britney in the lascivious, panting ‘I’m A Slave 4 U’ (still her best single, forget about ‘Toxic’).
In 2003, a survey showed that 20 per cent of the songs played on British radio had been produced by the duo. Timbaland, meanwhile, getting a taste for this career-revival lark, turned his talents to Canadian-Latino hippy pop star Nelly Furtado, who was so naff at the time she’d actually called her debut solo album ‘Whoa, Nelly!’.
Then the robotic raunch of ‘Promiscuous’ and ‘Maneater’ devoured the charts and suddenly Ms Furtado was sex on a stick. MIA, Björk, Madonna, nearly everyone you can name has tried to work with him. He’s the 22nd most successful songwriter ever in the history of the UK charts. Higher than David Bowie or Prince or Bob Dylan.
And what was indie rock doing while this was going on? For a music that prides itself on finding alternative means of expression, much as we might have loved The Libertines, The Coral or The Von Bondies in 2002, you have to admit, the guitar boys and girls had dropped the ball.
If beat music in the ’60s and prog and punk in the ’70s were the forms pushing music forward, in the first decade of the new millennium, it’s been pop that defined our sound palette. Why else the rash of guitar-band covers of the likes of Beyoncé, Timberlake and Britney in the past few years? They’re trying to figure out how the hell it’s been done.
Some would argue that the rise of pop production powerhouses, or new focus on the makings rather than the magic, has ruined the innocence of the music. Much as there’ve always been super-producers (Spector, Joe Meek, Moroder, etc) the veil of illusion has never seemed so thin, the suspension of disbelief so shallow.
But on a dancefloor, the right song at the right moment feels no different no matter if you know its entire genesis from whistled melody line to shop shelf.
Lady Gaga is a mental, metal-clad paradigm of the modern pop star, we nod and smile at her artificiality-as-art shtick, we talked about her producer RedOne and how he’s working with Sugababes now, though Rihanna’s moved on to Chase & Status, and did you know Timbaland’s working with Leona?
But the second ‘Poker Face’ hits you in the guts, you’ve had it. The only question left is: where is the next push forward going to come from?