“Even though pop music is great, some people are still a bit embarrassed to say that they like it, so it will be really great if we can change people’s perception of it,” the similarly DIY-leaning pop artist Charli XCX said this year. And in a recent article for this site, Carrie Battan detailed some of the shifts that have already taken place, tracing the paths currently being forged by Sky Ferreira, a former major-label pop star gone fascinatingly rogue, and Solange, an artist more content to redefine pop and R&B on her own terms, rather than those of her famous sister.
-lindsay zoladz in her ordinary machines column on pitchfork
sky ferreira is not a former major-label pop star, she is a current major-label pop star, and there’s nothing DIY about charli xcx. she’s on atlantic or whatever, and she works with outside producers and songwriters on everything she does. like, i love “everything is embarrassing”, i fundamentally do like the idea of projects like those two curating input from outside songwriters and producers the way that radio-focused major-label capital-P pop projects do, but with an eye towards making something that’s more about art and not afraid to risk reaching a smaller audience. like i actually think projects like this, with sky recording songs by cass mccombs and dev hynes or maybe in the future people like caitlin rose recording songs by chris owens or whoever, are really exciting on a lot of levels
but like, please do not mistake charli xcx for grimes. do not talk about a major label pop project who shares co-writers and producers with justin bieber as if they’re at all comparable to someone who writes, records, performs, and produces everything herself. charli xcx is not the result of like an indie/DIY artist allowing themselves to be influenced by stuff that came out of the major label top 40 pop machinery. charli xcx is the major label top 40 pop machinery allowing itself to be influenced by grimes. charli xcx is the major label top 40 pop machinery recognizing that everyone seems to like this grimes person a lot and responding by spitting out a mangled, grotesque approximation of it in an effort to sell you something they own.
see also: twigs
So this has been going around my dash in various states of agreement and/or refutation. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise where I fall. (Up front: here are my biases. Charli XCX and Sky Ferreira are on my ballot, toward the top; Grimes is not, but I don’t dislike her. I like her well enough. I just wasn’t as taken by Visions as a lot of my colleagues are.)
I do think it’s pertinent and necessary to discuss artists’ pasts and their marketing strategies. (Ferreira’s is well-documented, overly so; Charli’s less so, but I distinctly remember seeing her tipped as the next La Roux at one point; they both play the promo/SEO/PR games immaculately — but so does Grimes, more later). Thanks to a number of factors (Web publishing economics, artist engagement and cultivating fanbases that are at least partly public) it’s a little easier lately to spot the pop machinery’s moving parts (see: the fits and starts and trends of Azealia Banks’ entire post-“212” career) But I’m not quite sure what the objection here is, precisely.
- Is the objection the specific producers involved? “Shares co-writers and producers with Justin Bieber” is a hell of an umbrella. I assume it’s meant as a pejorative, which is just silly, a swipe at the easiest strawman available. Even if you get rid of Believe, which is supposedly his step into maturity or whatthehellever (it is, but in tessitura only) and limit yourself to Pipsqueak Combover Bieber Era, you’ve still got plenty of The-Dream, who I thought we decided we were all OK with years ago, as well as a certain Christopher Breaux, now known as Frank Ocean, now known as the consensus pick for the best artist going. You could contend that Ocean wasn’t particularly fulfilled by being a studio writer, earning him a mulligan, but that’s not the original argument. I mean, you could decide to gothrough liner notes like ingredients lists to make sure nobody snuck in any high fructose Shelly Peiken or whatever, but then you find out you’ve also got to watch out for glucose-fructose Sia, and oh wait, studies show Diplo’s now sold out, and it all gets rather out of control and pointless. People need to get paid. Career shifts happen. David Frank was half of The System. Greg Kurstin was half of The Bird and the Bee. Bonnie McKee is essentially 2012’s Lauren Christy. Max Martin once fronted a terrible rock band. It’s all fascinating and improbable and morally neutral.
- Is it the existence of collaboration at all? Pop music is one of the only artistic endeavors where this is seen as a pejorative. Cate Blanchett doesn’t write her own damn lines, Sarah Bernhardt didn’t write her own damn plays, Kirsten Flagstad didn’t compose her own damn operas, Margaret Atwood doesn’t publish and edit her own damn novels (though she’s coming really close lately). I’ll come back to this later, but…
- Is it the commercialism, the “path of mindless consumption” or advertising data or whatnot? (c.f.) I sure hope you’re not reading this on Tumblr. Or any Web-based startup, for that matter, or anything that takes VC money. Or hell, probably most of the Internet. Or the machine you’re accessing it on. Or the bed you’re lying on, or the building it’s in, or the food that fed the people who built it, or the booze and smokes they turn to after hours…. This gets ridiculous fast, a chain of terrible, terrible, corrupt industries — but the links in the chain that garner the most outrage tend to be the ones most soaked in identity politics. And too often, “mindless consumption” is a dog whistle for “annoying teenage girls at the mall.”
(Along those lines: why do Charli XCX and Sky Ferreira, not far removed from teenage girls, get the thrust of the blame, rather than grown-ass adult men Ariel Reichstadt and Dev Hynes? The answer might be that Charli and Ferreira are frontwomen, not behind the scenes. But are you sure?)
- Is it the fact that Grimes does everything herself, making her uniquely inspirational? Sure, that could be inspiring. That’s not meant to be flippant or sarcastic; it just is. I’m OK with Grimes. I’m glad she’s doing well for herself. But unique? There’s an old glenn mcdonald column on Chantal Kreviazuk (who, in the column, plays the role of Charli or Ferreira, not that of Grimes) that I think is relevant here. The whole thing’s pertinent — the opening alone is Best Music Writing gold — but I’ll quote the salient part: “The sad truth is that behind every unexpected breakthrough there are probably thirty complete unknowns who’ve been writing songs just like that in their studio apartments for years. (Actually, the sadder truth is that there are probably thirty deserving unknowns for every failed breakthrough, as well.)”
So! Grimes. Grimes writes and produces everything herself. Who else does? The first name that comes to mind happens to be Canadian too: Kym Brown, who writes and produces all her music (I’m guessing; data is hard to find because she’s so obscure, feel free to correct me on this, but I did all the research I could short of making phone calls on a quick Tumblr post) and whose Eye Spiral EP has songs I like as much as any given song on Visions. What does Grimes have that she doesn’t? All the formidable PR force of 4AD, for one. All the accumulated fanbase and media coverage to justify outlets covering her. Willingness to do style/e-commerce articles. Knowing the right people. (Knowing the right people. I can’t stress this enough. You do not simply waltz into the DIY scene.) It’s great that she wrote, recorded and produced the whole thing herself, but those three things alone don’t explain her success, or else they’d explain it for everyone. There are two ways to reconcile this. You could argue that it’s a meritocracy, and Claire Boucher was the best out of all the hundreds or thousands or millions, maybe, of would-be Grimes; or you could argue that there are other factors.
(Tangent: This, incidentally, is the main problem I have with much of the “tokenism” talk lately. Yes, there are obvious complications when you factor in race [the R&B/urban radio argument, which is valid] or gender [the “token Idler Wheel!” argument, which is ludicrous]. But those aren’t the criteria anymore, and the resulting mangled term can now accommodate literally anything. Love Icona Pop? You better be reading Swedish pop blogs daily or else your love is nullified. Is “Call Me Maybe” on the list? I bet you didn’t hear Bella Thorne, right? Taken by Mumford and Sons? Get thee to a bluegrass festival, dilettante.. [Actually, that’d be a fantastic argument. Everyone should make it.])
- Mostly, I just don’t care. (Which is why I’ve spent an hour and countless words on this, clearly.) Lacking an omniscient view of the commercial OKness of everything, I’m left to judge on things like craft, or execution, or what cool things sounds can do to my brain and my life. The end.