“It’s all about the music, man”
A Boring Cunt
What makes a pop star/musical artist an actual star? What makes them compelling? What makes them inspirational? What makes them essential? What exact element compels you to drop to your knees and pledge eternal allegiance to some pop stars, making an oath that even if they were to release autotuned snippets of gas being released from their intestinal tract you would crawl naked over broken glass to purchase it the second it’s released? What renders them different from those artists who are given short tenancy in your consciousness, occupying next to no time in your thoughts and plans outside the three to four minutes it takes for their music to pass between your ears?
If you’d said ‘the music’, you’d be completely wrong. You’re an idiot and I never want you to talk to me again. Yes, that’s it, turn your chair around. Bow your head. Think about how fucking stupid you are.
The music isn’t completely superfluous- we are talking about musical artists here so maybe the actual music plays as much as 10-20% of the reason- but it’s ridiculously low down on the list of reasons. The idea that it’s even the most prominent part is a lie only peddled by artists who have nothing else to offer you. If you hear some dull-as-dog’s-cock pop ‘star’ try and convince you that “It’s all about the music”, what they’re actually saying is :
“Move along now, there’s nothing to see here. I am a complete nonentity whose name would be a waste of brain space memorising. Seriously, if you learn my name there’s a chance you’ll forget how to double knot an elastic band or something, which might not seem like an essential thing to know but, mark my words, is a far more helpful thing to know than a waste of space, time and energy such as myself. To be honest, my very existence is worth calling into question. Do I even exist?? Who cares? It’s all about the music, yeah?”
Y’know, if you read between the lines.
Elvis Presley was probably the biggest pop star of all time, at least before the aforementioned Rick Waller* shook the music world back in 2001. How many great songs did he actually have. No, hang on, wait a minute, calm down, think about it: close to zero! There are songs that you think are great, but you only believe they’re proper quality because of how Elvis performed them. Heartbreak Hotel is a great song? Then surely you’d also appreciate the Cliff Richard version? What about Billy Joel? No. These versions seem sacrilegious, don’t they? Wrong on so many levels? That’s because Heartbreak Hotel’s majesty isn’t contained in its actual bars or written in its lyrics. The reason people love that song is because they like sneering their upper lip when they sing along, they like swinging their arms, they like shaking their hips to the chung-chung-cha-chung bit. It’s Elvis that’s brilliant, not the song.
(*That joke works on so many levels! God, I’m a fucking comic genius)
Johnny Cash though? That’s alright, innit? Because Johnny Cash was a fucking star.
Now, before you get so heated up that the sweat makes your greasy hair gel drip onto the keyboard and render any further digital correspondence impossible (your doctor told you that someone your weight has to stop getting appalled at things so often!), I’m not saying that no big pop star has any good songs, just that it’s in no way essential. The Beatles and Rihanna were already some of the biggest stars in the world a long time before they ever got around to releasing any decent music. Their musical quality eventually ended up neighbouring their star quality, but it certainly wasn’t essential to it.
Who’s the biggest pop star in the world at the moment? Do we all agree that it’s probably Ariana Grande? Do we think that’s because she has the best songs? Exactly, shut up. The greatest pop star though? That’s almost definitely Fanny Karilynn Atkinson Twigs.
FKA Twigs is amazing. I likely said as much when I named her debut LP the seventh best album of whatever year it was released in*. Almost everything about her is absolutely bang up the elephant. She’s crafted a look that’s often jaw dropping, she’s constructed a persona that renders attention compulsory, and she performs her music in a style that’s at once unique and yet bizarrely relatable. She knows more than perhaps anyone else the importance of the presentation in pop music, she knows how big a part the physical expression plays in people’s consumption of music as art. She knows the first taste is with the eyes and she’s sure to make that delicious.
(*Hmmm. I’ve not read that review since I wrote it about four and a half years ago. Turns out I make exactly the same points as I’m trying to do int his post. Only, probably, a lot better. This just proves my point though: all I do these days is write mediocre rehashes of posts I’ve done in the past, and yet I’m still absolutely a fucking star!!)
Lorde’s Royals came out the year before Twigs’s ‘LP1’ was released. Aside from being an absolutely amazing piece of pop music, Royals had a massive effect on the music industry in how it highlighted how pop music might be better marketed as something ‘small’ and ‘genuine’ and ‘relatable’. Lorde’s success convinced many of the biggest pop stars to strip it down. “Hey”, the world’s biggest pop stars decided to say, “We’re not squillionaire dick heads who can afford to film videos where we wipe our arses on swan necks while having orgies on Mars! We’re just hanging around our flats watching TV and worrying about paying the rent! We’re just like Lorde! We’re just like you!!” Suddenly, with a few notable exceptions, pop music was real! It was gritty! It was fucking approachable!! Pop stars weren’t flying private jets in music videos any more, they were just, like, having a house party and getting wrecked on smutty drugs. Just like you, yeah?!
FKA Twigs saw through this, she was smart enough to know that such desperate attempts at ‘legitimacy’ were absolute bullshit. She knew that to dress up her image and her song’s presentation in many layers of gimmicks and counterfeits wouldn’t automatically mean her music was less ‘real’. If done right, it could even expand or support its authenticity. As a great mind once put it: “once she’s given full reign to produce her own work instead of stripping it all down as a cack-handed presentation of the ‘real me’ she adds more and more artifice to better demonstrate the vast differentiation between the real person and whatever persona is presented to you as a pop culture artefact”. Christ, I was a much better writer back then, wasn’t I…?
This comes across amazingly in her live shows. I was present at the recent Alexandra Palace gig– because I am far cooler than you and I am always present for these notable events- and was blown away by the sheer perfection of it. Rehearsed and extremely deliberate perfection, yes, but still perfection. FKA Twigs is aware that being a pop star is roughly 70% a performance, and so her gigs are absolutely stunning pieces of performance art.
Me and the person I went with (Johnny. There’s a bit of a story behind that which I might get to at year’s end) were both impressed. We also both agreed that the fact that she’s such a wonderful performer an unarguable star does a lot of work in masking the fact that she doesn’t really have any amazing songs.
Apart from Two Weeks.
Two Weeks is, quite simply, absolutely as perfect as experimental pop music can possibly get. I say ‘experimental’ because it’s ever so slightly off– the bars are a little distorted, the melody isn’t quite right, the music and lyrics seem at once tranquil and aggressive (“I know it hurts/You know I’d put you first/I can fuck you better, better”)- but it’s really just a perfect pop song that grows into ‘greatest ever’ territory by being ever so slightly left of centre. The presentation and ‘artifice’ is all still there- from its exhilarating video to the icy persona at the song’s centre- but it’s wrapped within a song so good it would work however it was brought to you. Like all the best music, it doesn’t necessarily fit into an easy to define mood or emotion. Rather, it’s easy to project any emotion you may be feeling onto it and it would easily fit into that mood. If you’re in a sad mood and fancy something to mope along to, Two Weeks has you covered. If you’re one of those weirdos who just fancies reminding yourself quite how much you love Darren*, Two Weeks has you covered. If you fancy just basking in the glow of how fucking awesome you are, then, speaking from personal experience, Two Weeks has you covered!! Whatever personal baggage you bring to the song, whatever emotion you’re feeling, when that coda hits back in extra hard (y’know, when it goes from ‘der-ner-ner-ner-ner-ner-ner’ to ‘DER-NER-NER-NER-NER-NER-NER‘) you’ll feel it just as hard and feel automatically validated. Yeah, this song’s that good.
(*Other people are availible, but it works best with Darren)
Would I love FKA Twigs so much if it wasn’t for this song, her one moment of absolute musical triumph? Of course. I would love FKA Twigs even if her entire recorded career consisted exclusively of that noise that Toad makes when he wins on Mario Kart simply recorded at thousands of different pitches. Even if FKA Twigs missed the mark horrendously musically, she would still have the other 70% of what it takes to be a star down so comprehensively that it wouldn’t matter. The fact that she can occasionally release such incredible music is just a wonderful bonus.
Now, we await that Cliff Richard cover…