So, Janet Jackson has announced that she's making a comeback.
I don't know if a new Janet Jackson project has the potential to do anything other than preach to the already converted. And even then her parishioners aren't what they once were. Her last few projects seemed to come and go without contributing all that much to her legacy, which I think is based on her amazing work from the late 80s/nineties.
But that said, I feel we've come to the point in pop where everything feels so cynical and lightweight, and even the possibility of a new Janet Jackson album seems almost groundbreaking. These days it seems that if we want something that is not middle of the road from the current bushel of talent show grads and stock standard label acts, then we have to fund it ourselves.
Innovation doesn't seem to be what it once was nor what we're much interested in these days. Don't get me wrong, that Style song was great, but I fear that we're not about celebrating music that moves things forward anymore. I think Taylor Swift and her album's success is a modern take on what someone like Shania Twain once represented. Wholesome, corporate entertainment than doesn't challenge you in any real way, and that you can find something to like or admire even if it's not your cup of tea. Not the kind of thing that will make you switch the channel in disgust.
The great thing about Janet was that at her peak, she was in the middle of a creative and chart rivalry with Madonna who was the flip side of the same coin. It's gonna be interesting to see if Janet's work is received any differently to that of Madonna's recent work, and if she finds a wider market for it in a way that Madonna hasn't been able to.
Madge and JJ were their label's most prized possessions but, rather than aim for pure commercial supremacy, their rivalry seemed to push one another into newer territories while experimenting with the scope of what pop music could be and do.
As much as the press seems to pit the current generation of it girls against each other, I don't feel that they are forced to acknowledge each other in any other way other than commercially or socially. Madge and JJ's rivalry was as much about targets as it was about overcoming their limitations as talents. I don't feel like the current crop of pop acts is forced to perform to the kind of exacting level that they were forced to.
Few pop artists are being rewarded these days for innovation. And let's face it, in recent years pop has been a ladies' game. With the exception perhaps of Beyonce's last album, few of the top solo female acts have really been pushed to do anything that JJ and Madge did in their prime.
Back then, everything rested on a strong album full of potential singles. These days, albums seem to be constantly repackaged and added to, meaning that six months' down the track they are unrecognisable and only ever a means to an end.
I'm not saying that there aren't any amazing pop acts around, but if you look at who's making great pop today, it's not built around the last wave of innovation that we saw at the end of the 'oughties. Back then, Robyn, Santigold, M.I.A, Kelis and Róisín Murphy seemed to be redefining what pop could mean at the time. Even Goldfrapp and Lady Gaga were adding something sophisticated to pop and leading people to emulate in the process.
The tragedy seems that we've regressed from that point and are now more interested in the middle of the road than what lies beyond. Is it just me or is it more formulaic than it has been for a long time? And if you're not following the formula, you've got zero chance in hell to get any exposure today.
Case in point: Róisín Murphy. She's back you know. Imagine the lack of surprise to see that her new album, Hairless Toys has arrived and nobody's paying any attention. She's not ever been one to break open to the masses, but she has consistently made amazing music back since her Moloko days and she's the kind of innovator whose ideas were further poppified (I think I just invented that word) and streamlined for the masses.
People were slow in catching onto Overpowered, her last studio album, but when it dropped some eight years ago it was chock full of amazing, pop friendly tracks. The single You Know Me Better, with its Cindy Sherman tribute video was one of my favourites at the time and criminally ignored by the masses, but if you had your ear to what was happening, you could see that Roisin in many ways was like a new Grace Jones. Smart, a great vocalist, and that one of a kind avant-guard artist who wasn't afraid to put it all out there. She remains a living gallery act who also happens to be amazing live.
From first listens of Hairless Toys, I think she's still unafraid to put it all out there, and yet it seems to be a fearlessness that doesn't translate over to the masses. A shame cos we definitely need to fight the fight for people like her. Watch the lead single from the new album and tell me that its not unlike anything you've heard before and ten times more sophisticated than anything else you're going to this year until the pop acts catch up to her next year.
As we continue to hurtle through 2011, popular culture continues to move forward at break neck speed.
A decade or so ago, a new release by an artist might have been accompanied by a couple of print interviews, some syndicated TV one on ones and maybe a little bit of advertising along with the usual music videos and radio promotion.
But today, in the advent of the MP3 (or MP4), we are no longer helped by the slow build. Now its instantaneous. We need to be assaulted with worldwide promo tours, deluges of blogs and online appearances, and general saturation style promotion in order to get the next big hit on its way, or to keep an artist in the limelight for another month or so.
If you think about the way Lady Gaga is kind of everywhere today compared to how her predecessors made the odd, special appearance now and then, you get an idea of what I am saying. People in pop culture are chewed up and spat out now more than they have ever been. We have shorter attention spans than we have ever had before, and we're a lot more unforgiving. Things are reviewed before they are released, and if they are on the receiving end of a bad review, there is no clawing back there after. Janet Jackson was one of the first high profile victims of this approach.
Yes, there were some mitigating factors. Let's see, she made the same album over and over again; Damita Jo, 20 YO and Discipline were all basically copies of 2000's All For You, which in turn was nowhere near as special as her Velvet Rope album that came two years earlier. Then she had that unfortunate nipple gate episode, which was blown way out of proportion, really. It was a nipple. Walk on a beach in the Mediterranean and you will sometimes wish for a far more dramatic backlash to occur.
But for over a decade, she was right up there, at least in the States, where she was on par with her brother and Madonna in the hearts of youth culture. Part of her problem with longeivity is that she never really held the same international appeal outside the States, and thus, didn't have that wide support net when things started to go a bit nipple cripply for her.
The tide also changes in the pop culture world. A hot director or model or artist is only hot until the next best thing comes along, and then its up to the adoring fans and fanbases as to whether or not they are worthy of longterm support. Unfortunately, long term support has gone the way of pensions in most countries, severely diminished, reduced in length, and not much in the way of distinction between the poverty line and a government payment.
JJ was loved. Her videos were cool, she was a little dorky, but also knew how to turn on the edge when it suited her, and she made the best of her talents. She won't ever be in the league to compete with the Gagas or Rihanna or even Katy Perry again, and her current small venue world tour is probably more likely to be a farewell tour than anything else, but, I'm gonna hold on to the love, fondly remember the Rhythm Nation and all those super punch dance moves, until the next of the newbies gets relegated to a has been, and then I will have to reconsider her place in my heart.
Dave Di Vito
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Dave Di Vito is a writer, teacher and former curator.He's also the author of the Vinyl Tiger series and Replace The Sky.
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