From Billie Eilish to Lizzo, the outsiders have taken over the pop landscape in recent years. There’s never been a better time for La Roux’s rebel pop star attitude
Words: Sam Cam Murphy
10 years since the release of La Roux’s debut album, the duo’s remaining member, Elly Jackson, has announced her return to music. Second album ‘Trouble In Paradise’ was released five years ago – a long time in pop – but the public appetite for new La Roux music is still in evidence. Jackson has always had a troubled relationship with pop music both, championing and struggling with its constraints, but she’s returning to the scene at a time at which it’s embracing rebels.
The polished pop star formula that Jackson has resisted for a decade is wearing off. Pop stars, who once followed mainstream trends in search of hits, have ditched the sheen in search of a sound that’s more honest and individual. Meanwhile, the relative newcomers are ushering in an era of pop rebellion with the likes of Billie Eilish, Lizzo and Halsey championing loud individuality. It’s something that Jackson has been fighting for with each of her releases, finding mainstream success while making boundary-pushing, individual pop music.
When La Roux dropped their debut album, they were an anomaly. Looking to ‘80s synth-pop for inspiration, they shook-up the landscape with crisp, melodic songs. It was unashamed pop music but it was entirely self-produced and unlike anything else in the charts. Still, songs like ‘Bulletproof’ and ‘In The Kill’ sat side by side with Britney Spears, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. ‘Bulletproof’ became the runaway hit, cracking the US top 10 and hitting number one in the UK.
At the same time, Jackson was becoming increasingly frustrated with the pop world that they had been thrown into. She told The Guardian that Gaga wasn’t her “thing” and also expressed confusion to The Quietus that La Roux was “suddenly part of that thing [they] were fighting against” because they were now considered mainstream.
It wasn’t the pop label that was Jackson was upset by. She believed the genre was bereft of the sort of trailblazers she had looked up to in the past, name-checking the likes of David Bowie, Eurythmics and George Michael in interviews.
Within just a year of their debut album being released, Jackson was already looking to make a hard turn away from their trademark electro-pop sound. Their synth-pop sound was filtering into popular music from Ellie Goulding to Kesha and she’d become somewhat disenchanted by the success. She told The Guardian, “the whole [synth-pop] genre is…done with,” before teasing a less synthetic second album.
By the time ‘Trouble In Paradise’ arrived in 2014, she’d pulled even further away from the mainstream sound. It was a pop record, full of slick hooks, but it veered more towards ‘70s Bowie than it did the dance-pop sound that Grande and Swift were scoring chart-toppers with. Jackson called the record “a minor rebellion against a lot of very simplistic, quite crass dance music that’s out there at the moment.”
As if it were a reaction to the gigantic success of ‘Bulletproof’, ‘Trouble In Paradise’ was a cohesive, nine-song record that was designed to be played from start-to-finish without cherry-picking one singular moment. The album drew strong reviews, but ultimately failed to make a dent on the charts.
Making hits wasn’t the blueprint for the album, though that doesn’t mean Jackson was against having one. Throughout her career she’s said she has no interest in being an underground artist. She reiterated this after the release of ‘Trouble In Paradise’ telling Time Out, “Underground music gets all of the respect and critical acclaim, yet the stuff which sells shit loads of records doesn’t.” She wanted to write music “that’s quality, but also pop”. She also told NME that she’d “love it if more people heard [‘Trouble In Paradise’].” She further expressed “frustration” with her label Polydor for not promoting the record enough.
“Back at it,” Jackson wrote on Twitter just last month alongside a picture of her in the studio. Her logo has also been updated suggesting that a return is imminent but in true La Roux style she’s keeping Mum on the details.
Since ‘Trouble In Paradise’, she’s released very little. Last year, she dropped an electro-heavy mix of London band Stats’ ‘Lose It’ and leant vocals to Whyte Horses’ vintage rock-tinged ‘The Best Of It’. This year, she provided backing vocals to Tyler The Creator’s ‘IGOR’. They’re all conflicting moves that offer little to no hints as to the direction she’s going in. In 2015, she discussed a “futuristic and innovative” third album in a Zig-Zag’s ‘Rolling with…’ interview but enough time has passed for her to have changed direction.
In the time she has been gone, however, the pop landscape has changed drastically. The appeal of the immaculate pop star is wearing thin, as those who once would’ve been outsiders rise to the top of the charts. Six years after her debut album, Lizzo is having her moment thanks to her outlandish anthem ‘Truth Hurts’. Billie Eilish’s ‘When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?’, meanwhile, has gone onto become one of the year’s highest sellers despite her rebelling against every pop star convention.
Ed Sheeran, Calvin Harris and Max Martin-produced bangers are still chart giants, but there’s a space that continues to open up for pop’s oddballs. That’s both on the charts and off. The dominance of streaming and rise of pop stan culture has offered an increased appreciation for boundary-pushing artists like Charli XCX, Carly Rae Jepsen and Tove Lo. They have all found an audience without dominating commercial airwaves.
Streaming numbers are increasingly dominating the mainstream agenda. ‘Truth Hurts’, for example, was scaling streaming charts long before radio took a chance on it. This won’t be the first La Roux album to enter a streaming market, but its power has multiplied since ‘Trouble In Paradise’. According to the IFPI Global Music Report, streaming made up 27 per cent of digital revenue in 2014. That figure is now up to 46.9 per cent.
Streaming means increased access, but promotion for inventive pop artists lies in stan culture. Given the excitement that permeated Twitter and Reddit forums when La Roux announced her return, there’s still a large audience craving new music. As XCX and Jepsen have experienced, in particular, pop stan culture has never been stronger.
Pop fans are obviously not a new concept, but TikTok and Twitter memes have proven to be capable of launching a hit (see ‘Old Town Road’). Digital fans are rallying behind experimental pop music in numbers, allowing careers to thrive outside of the traditional radio model. Both XCX and Jepsen’s Subreddits have thousands of dedicated members tracking their every move and while La Roux’s is small, it’s likely to grow as the third album draws nearer.
It’s yet to be seen whether La Roux will find herself in the XCX world of pop or back at the top of the charts, but it’s certain that her rebellious stand towards making pop music fits with the climate right now. No matter how weird and wild she decides to go with her new music, there are pop enthusiasts out there excited who are craving it. Actively avoiding being a pop star is the kind of attitude that pop fans are gravitating to in 2019, and it may be the thing that makes her an unlikely hero once again.