In this week's edition of Pop is Not a Dirty Word, Douglas Greenwood delves into the creation of the year's most talked about record, and how trusting your gut can help you reap beautiful rewards.
Even today, some 12 years later, I distinctly remember the day Leona Lewis returned from a near year long studio session with her first solo single after becoming one of the (very few) half decent The X Factor winners. I was 12 years old, in the first year of high school, huddling around a friend’s Sony Ericsson in the playground as we listened to that big bastard of a pop ballad, Bleeding Love, for the first time.
“Wow,” I thought. How great was it that Leona Lewis had escaped the prospect of the discount bin of Woolies by going into a studio with actual songwriters for a while, toiling at her craft while her predecessors had shat out weak LPs teeming with crass covers mere weeks after winning the crown. By becoming a ‘real artist’ and being considered, she’d successfully transcended The X Factor curse.
How times have changed! Leona Lewis is back to square one, fighting for relevancy as if Forgive Me never even happened, and the days of pop stars spending months, if not years teasing new records feel like ancient history. That technique is dead, and in its place is a weirder, genre-defying way of making pop tunes – one that favours creative instinct over scrutiny.
Ariana Grande’s ‘thank u, next‘, arguably her most self assured and expression full-length effort to date, was written over a two week period in New York City, with her favourite friends, writers (including her long term bestie and fellow musician Victoria Monét) and producers like the formative banger man Max Martin. Yep. 14 days, 12 songs that absolutely slap and deserve to released as standalone singles.
For Grande, I guess this impromptu gush of new music came off the back of several things: the death of her ex-boyfriend Mac Miller, an emancipation from her former beau Pete Davidson, and a realisation that, while men may be both brilliant and trash at the same time, she now harbours the power to have a narrative that revolves around her. Like an outburst of emotions, jumping from songs about nonchalant, no-strings sex to palpable heartbreaks, ‘thank u, next’ proves that pop can be eye-opening and diaristic should the artist not have a fear of holding back. She’s not the only one either. To a lesser extent, Charli XCX’s monumental mix tape “Pop 2” can attest to benefitting from that same quick thinking. A celebrated record that’s widely seen as one of 2017’s best, production started on that some two months before it was due to be released. Compared to the years most artists spend making everything prim and proper, it’s a testimony to both Charli and her executive producer A.G. Cook’s talents that it wound up sounding so special.
When you look at it that way, the length of time it took Ari to write, record and oversee production on ‘thank u, next’ is an intrinsic factor in how brilliant the end product is. The issue that comes with spending a long time with material is that we lose out on great songs that skew in the heads of those who spend a lot of time listening to them. Tracks are polished and rewritten to the point they can feel void of personality, and could be performed by pretty much anyone. It was this knee-jerk process that lead Ariana to eventually find her voice, showing she’s more than just vocal acrobatics and becoming the superstar with personality so many had been yearning to find.
Perhaps we can hope to see a reborn Leona Lewis lay out a new record with 10 days warning. Or maybe Gaga can compile a whole LP of SOPHIE-produced slamming dance tunes (a woman the ‘A Star is Born’ siren is rumoured to be working with) in three days and just RELEASE IT so the Monsters can move on from the sombre nature of Joanne era? Our instincts are usually right. And when we trust them, as Ariana Grande just proved, real pop magic can be made.