Pop Is Not A Dirty Word: How Clean Bandit made anonymous superstardom a thing

They're one of the best-selling acts in the country, but you wouldn't spot them in the queue at Tescos. Columnist Douglas Greenwood unpicks the phenomenon of faceless pop

Remember the days when chart success rested on a persona moulded by record labels? When you couldn’t get a hit unless you had a crowd-pleasing, bubbly or smoulderingly sexy outward-facing image?

Times have changed: pop stars can now be as reclusive or as outspoken as they want, unless, of course, their hot take is so trash that it gets them #cancelled.

As a result, fame, success, and the routes that artists take to the two have changed. You can be a household name, all over the radio, at the top of the charts and still maintain a relatively pleasant level of public anonymity. And the producers stepping out from behind the mixing desk to become pop stars in their own right are the perfect examples of that.

Benny Blanco hit number one a few weeks back with his track ‘Eastside’ (featuring Halsey and Khalid) and I could not pick him out of a line-up. Jax Jones? Familiar with his bangers. Probably quite rich by now. Do not have the foggiest idea what he looks like.

When Swedish House Mafia swept onto the pop scene back in 2010, creating digestible house for mainstream audience, chart consumers suddenly realised that what goes on behind the scenes matters more than they once thought. What we’ve had since they split (though they’ve since joined forces again) is a steady flow of producers who find their music doesn’t need a palatable personality or dazzling showmanship to shift records. Clean Bandit, one of Britain’s biggest bands, like it or not, are a prime example of that.

Their second record, ‘What is Love?’, drops on Friday. You already know that six of the songs (e.g. the singles) on the album’s 12-song track list are well-made pop, and you should also know that many of the ones that make up the rest of the album are also, unsurprisingly, very good.

On top of those singles, there’s a samba inspired number featuring Ellie Goulding (interesting!), a song about a woman escaping the “eight til five” grind featuring Kyle and Big Boi (the ‘Rock-a-bye’ sequel, I like to call it) and a song that somehow features both Charli XCX and Bhad Bhabie called ‘Playboy Style’ that doesn’t slap quite as much as it should, but earns multiple kudos points merely for existing.

In a time when stan-dom and artist-to-fan connections seem to dominate so much of the pop cultural conversation (though someone has decided to coin the term #fandit for the Bandit stan), there’s something interesting about this trio launching their singles into the Top 10 without even a smidge of internet begging. Their focus is solely on the music.

It’s what I like to call “the Jess Glynne effect”: well-formed, catchy pop that speaks for itself without any need for gimmicky add-ons, shareable profiles by cool fashion magazines or false narratives that help people ‘connect’ with the people behind the music. It’s no surprise the red-haired North London chart topper got her big break featuring on a Clean Bandit track; the two’s skyrocketing career paths are intertwined.

After all, Clean Bandit aren’t really pop stars. They might appear in their own videos, but a lack of literal voice in their music means that nobody seems to expect any of them to have anything interesting or worthy to say – or any type of personality whatsoever. Hence the guests.

In that sense, “faceless” could also be construed as a synonym for “unaccountable”, but a really fascinating profile by fellow pop journalist Michael Cragg ran in The Guardian last week proved that they do have a willingness to speak out about the things that matter, even if the public aren’t champing at the bit to hear it.

In the piece, they touched on their support for the Labour Party and their recent decision to play a concert in Israel – despite receiving plenty of backlash for doing so during a time when the Palestinian people are still subject to persecution. It’s the first time in recent memory I’ve seen a journalist ask the group pressing questions; the kind that most pop stars are lambasted with from all angles for the purpose of interesting, if often irrelevant pull quotes.

Reading it made me wonder: does anyone actually want to know what Clean Bandit have to say on any given issue? And, if so, is that a bad thing? Isn’t there something quite nice that the Grammy-winning group behind some of the biggest bops of the past five years can exist as without entering into the world of accountability when, for the most part, they seem to sit quietly and not bother anybody?

Either way, it’s quite fascinating to see how Clean Bandit have gone from being a university bedroom band into one of the most strongly supported radio pop acts in the country with a Grammy under their belts. Maybe keeping a low profile and churning out bops – probably what all artists should have at the top of their priority list – really is the strange secret to success in 2018?