In this week's edition of Pop is Not a Dirty Word, columnist Douglas Greenwood unpacks the breakout success of young singer/songwriters going against the grain of glitzy pop stardom
I can’t tell you how sad it was to see my queen Rita Ora‘s long-awaited sophomore album ‘Phoenix’ chart outside of the UK Top 10. It was like watching your little sister slip and fall on her face some 10 feet from the finish line on Sports Day.
How long I’d waited for the pop star of my heart to return and absolute annihilate the charts, earning the commercial recognition for a body of work that had taken her ages to make! She is, in theory, the image of a perfect chart entity: all singing, all dancing, fully charged with umpteen bangers. But maybe, I soon realised, that’s not what the people want anymore?
A quick glance into the current reigning ‘influential pop artist’ demographic unveils a new kind of trend. In the past few months, a series of singer-songwriters have started to ride the wave kickstarted by Adele and Ed Sheeran‘s success, swapping out the heart-stopping, glitter-doused, breathless world of manufactured pop music in favour of something more – and I wince at the word – “organic”.
Is there any word that fills a pop fan with dread more than “organic”? By nature, it suggests an uppity, ‘holier than thou’ kind of artistic superiority. It suggests that the music the person is making is real rather than any of the ‘crap’ that’s dominating the charts right now. It’s usually shaped by gee-tars and warbling voices and songs so wincingly twee that they make you want to crawl into a hole and die. I hate ‘organic’ music. I hate it so much. Give me fickle, ‘The Fame’-era Gaga over somebody pouring their heart into a pop song any day.
But that, in many ways, is starting to become the norm now: a stripping back of pop music to unveil a new army of EmotiPop artists. It’s a subsection of the pop world defined by their choice of instrumentation (less electronic, more acoustic), subjects of discussion (coming of age, rubbish relationships, school life) and the route they’ve taken to wind up in the charts, usually shaped by a kind social media support.
I can’t write this honestly without making it clear that some of these EmotiPop makers are responsible for some great stuff. Young Maisie Peters, who I met recently and was an absolute scream, has a single coming out that I’m obsessed with, and she’d fit loosely into this category. We had a pleasant conversation about how she’d much rather stan Girls Aloud than Joni Mitchell. I respect that.
“The beauty of the pop world is the messiness and the stench of desperation that lingers around its biggest acts as they fight for relevancy. If you have to be nice solely to get a hit, then I don’t want to hear about it.”
Another one is Dodie. Her acoustic brand of YouTube-bred pop doesn’t interest me all that much, but her latest single ‘Monster’ is one of the most earworm-y songs I’ve heard in 2019 so far. Listen once and find yourself humming that ‘Mmhmm’ bit in the chorus for the rest of the day.
Maybe that’s just what the kids are into these days? If Dodie’s stats are anything to go by, the most loyal demographic seem to be the ones who’ve watched their favourite musicians from the very beginning, charting their rise on YouTube and gaining a tangible connection to them. Eventually, when they get signed and start playing shows, that translates into a huge number of fans paying actual money (remember those days?) to buy their music and see them live. While some behemoth pop stars struggle to break the Top Ten, artists like Dodie, a 23-year-old girl from Epping, are releasing EPs that comfortably debut in the UK Top Five. She also sold out a show at London’s Roundhouse at breakneck speed.
It’s an encouraging sign that the pop scene is diversifying and is giving young women more agency, but is this good for pop music, or a harkening back to a time when the charts felt more boring and one dimensional? I dread the idea of modesty and inoffensiveness shaping the charts as a whole.
For every nice and lovely Dodie – who right now has a kind of fan loyalty that most pop stars would bend over backwards for – we need a Rita Ora trying her damn best to smash a chart record while also peddling a shoe line and presenting a TV show people probably won’t watch. The beauty of the pop world is the messiness and the stench of desperation that lingers around its biggest acts as they fight for relevancy. If you have to be nice solely to get a hit, then I don’t want to hear about it.