I hate to tip my hat to Taylor Swift, but she really was onto something.
1989 really was a watershed year for pop music.
As the months roll on this year, you'll find that your social media feeds will be brimming with 30 year anniversary posts.
Some key albums from 1989 have had a lasting impact worldwide; others proved transformative in their local markets.
There was something about 1989 that pushed a lot of eighties acts to lift their game; to do something to justify your attention into the next decade. So many eighties pop acts seemed to come of age that year.
In Australia, as in some other countries in the colonial world, we were still coming out of a bit of a rock music haze. We certainly had lapped up the work of the international superstars, but we were a bit late to the pop party locally.
For better or worse, genres other than rock really only started to gain traction in the mid eighties in Oz. You were more likely to find yourself down the pub watching a bunch of frizzy haired guys in acid wash making their air guitar dreams come true than you were to be having a little shuffle in the middle of a heaving dancefloor back then.
There were certainly some great Aussie pop acts that emerged in the eighties (mostly for a flash) in Australia, but for the most part we had to wait until the end of the decade for female artists to be given the space to break the rock (chick) mould.
Before then it was unheard of for a record company and the media to really get behind a local lady and really give their work the kind of attention usually reserved for the blokes.
If you have even an ounce of Australian in you, then you know that Kate Ceberano is a national treasure; a versatile singer who effottlessly jumped across jazz, pop and funk as she paved out an unorthodox career that now spans three decades.
In 1989, she released her first proper pop debut; Brave, and for a year she and her Ministry of Fun were everywhere. She achieved great commercial sucess with her solo debut.
But more importantly Kate really ushered in a new era for Australian music.
ONCE upon a time, MTV was the superhighway of the music industry. Nearly every musical car passed along it, and in the absence of the internet, people tuned in and stopped everything to witness the annual car crash that was the VMAs.
That was back when MTV was central to the pop (and mainstream adjacent) world. The place where every controversy was encouraged, and every beef hosted, on MTV proper, as well as MTV Europe, MTV Asia, MTV Australia, MTV Latin America...
The powers at be at MTV, at some point, switched things up. As a cable network, the honchos felt that it was time to appeal more to lifestyle watchers. So, in order to make space for reality programming, the almost total emphasis on music and the music video was pushed aside, briefly to sister channel VH1, and then, well, into the ether.
These days we watch our music videos on Youtube and on VEVO, we get our music news from the web, and follow the majority of the beefs as they play out on Twitter. MTV, MTV Europe, MTV Asia etc. have ceased to play any role of importance in our consumption of music and video, but, once a year, an increasingly out of touch set of nominations are announced for the annual VMAs. And for a couple of hours each year, MTV hosts the petting zoo, where frenzied beefs that are usually spliced and diced across the various social and digital mediums are encouraged to play out under one, brief moment under the same roof.
In recent years the VMAs have a new series of fairy tale stars who get the lion's share of the coverage. You can count on Kanye West to play his role as the Emperor with no clothes, Miley Cyrus to play her role as the princess with no clothes, and Taylor Swift to be the night's damsel in distress, despite her unchallenged supremacy when it comes to sales and influence outside the play pen.
The lead up to this year's VMAs already set the ball rolling, but anything that was lacking in the Nicki Minaj inspired controversies (oops there's that Swift making her damsel self known again) carried over to the show itself which just aired.
You can't name any Kanye West track from the last five years but you can prove that you've still got your finger on the pulse by talking about how inappropriate his latest speech/ploy for Beyonce/announcement that he's running for the presidency is. You automatically think of Blurred Lines as being Miley Cyrus's party jam (when it's not) and of the foam finger as being her little helper, but beyond that the only thing you can remember to associate her with are skimpy outfits, that tongue and a strangely outsider's role in the bigger scheme of things, even when she's the hostess with the mostest.
And who won the year's most important Moon Man? No idea. (Swift) Who walked away with multiple statues rather than multiple personality disorder? (No clear winner) You'd never know unless you googled it, because without the context that the MTV channel once provided, and the semblance until a certain point that the awards were just as much about rewarding creativity and excellence as they were a popularity quest, none of that stuff matters anymore.
What matters is that MTV generated its week of press coverage and new beefs and, as the weeks play out, we'll get the latest rounds of apologies and escalating wars, while being taken even further away from the chance to acknowledge the very creative people who are still out there plugging away at making music videos that, paradoxically are being seen now more than ever, but more and more as vehicles for sale on a superhighway that is not in any way built around artistry.
For what you need to know about the night's biggest personalities go here.
For the night's winners, visit here.
A couple of jarring singles that perhaps haven't connected with audiences as well as songs in the past. An unrepentant, give a f*ck attitude beating down with nearly every public appearance and a new, epic, 7 minute video that smacks of Kubrik meets Tarantino with a dash of Oliver Stone like touches thrown in.
Posting on social media is about to get a lot easier thanks to Rihanna. She's breaking it down into acronyms for us. BBHMM is NSFW. No corporal tunnel syndrome for her fans! No No!
In the video RiRi enacts bloody and lustful revenge on her accountant. But not before she puts her accountant's piece through an Oliver Stone ringer. Girl's gotta come out on top.
But will it be enough to reverse the fortunes of a single that hasn't done as well as can usually be expected from Rihanna, probably the strongest singles artist in the game? (Actually, by downloads and streaming measures she's just been named the most successful singles act of all time in the US). Probably, for the short term at least.
It's going to generate a lot of controversy and attention which it is courting in a completely unsubtle way. Expect it to chock up tens of millions of youtube views over the coming days and eclipse Taylor Swift's Bad Blood and Madonna's Bitch I'm Madonna as Twitter topic of the day (music video category).
What's interesting about RiRi is that she's like these lone wolves that we keep hearing about in the news. Not that she's always on the attack, but rather, through her video persona she hasn't ever really been one of the girls. But that is probably part of her appeal.
So, moral of the story: new album imminent. Recent songs and videos mixed reception. Crank out a controversial video that will do little to change your mind about the song if you don't already like it, but that will firmly put you back into conversation. And we know who we can blame for that game play. :)
Sometimes I think you just need to be late to the party, particularly when it comes to a good read. It's all about the timing sometimes.
I've been getting into some of John Niven's work lately, a bit after the fact, but I'm here now...
Kill Your Friends has already been adapted into a film and will hit cinema screens from November onwards and I read it a few months' back and loved it so much that I've hunted down all Niven's other works in the meantime.
Niven's backstory is that he worked in A&R in the record industry for over a decade. The bio that gets trotted around indicates that he took a pass on Coldplay and Muse (thank god there is someone in the world who had the foresight to say no to those guys :p), but the reality is he knows the music industry inside out, and writes in a way that makes it relateable.
You'll love Kill Your Friends: it's the music industry mentality stripped bare, with some garish violence, humour and, Niven's other trademark, satire in spades.
He's written other novels too, but I've jumped straight to The Second Coming, which is kind of like an indie Jesus Christ Superstar meets Life of Brian meets American Idol.
I think it's a pretty courageous attempt at a really loaded topic done in Niven's style: more cutting social commentary, humour and satire all over the place.
The idea is that JC gets sent back to present day earth, and finds his platform via an American Idol kind of franchise. The world's not the same these days, and so it's interesting to pit the observations that Niven makes against an uncaring and unfeeling background.
Perhaps Niven bit off more than he could chew with this one, but on the other side, perhaps our modern day brains dismiss the ideas as being a tad bit twee every now and then. But overall if you're looking for something that is mostly refreshing, loaded with pop culture references with a dash of violence to keep you turning those pages, then you'll find much to love and be nice about.
I'm an unabashed pop lover, but let's face it, these days its getting harder to impress my little beating pop heart.
I feel like pop, in recent years has become a bit of a ladies game. Not a bad thing at all, especially when there are so many great female pop acts around. Making the distinction is redundant, I don't really care what gender we ascribe to great music makers, but that said, sometimes I have a yearning for a bit more of a male perspective in pop from acts that I can relate to.
In order to get that little black pop heart of mine beating, I also need something more than a hooky ear worm. Straightforward pop doesn't really cut the mustard for me these days. I need something smart and funky. Ideally that I can find on an album that switches genres like there's no tomorrow to keep me on the ball.
And to that end, I've got a soft spot for Dan Black: not because we share a birthday, but because to my mind he's got a talent for hopping across genres like few others.
His [[UN]] album (2009/2010) is one of my all time favourite albums. Mind you it doesn't come as much of a surprise: it's the work of a studio boffin who is credited for having created much of the album on his own in an apartment basement.
I consider Dan something of a neo-romantic. You know, if you could imagine that the new romantics of the early eighties ever reincarnated for modern times, they would do so by soaring over this generation's heartbreak in Dan Black like form. They'd be smart and self sufficient musos whose edgy songs bristle with great melodies and with lyrics that will leave you with a wry smile on your face.
As with the greatest wonky pop releases, UN found success in some markets but was criminally ignored by most of the masses.
You've probably heard the lead track Symphonies which took Rihanna and Jay Z's admittedly already fab Umbrella and recast it as something completely different and brilliant and whose video was a breath of fresh air. Dan Black's talent for bending and reinventing widely recognised sounds was what led me to discovering him in the first place: through his mixtape which was circulating in 2010, I stumbled across his breakthrough moment. A moment born from the idea of putting Kate Bush and Madonna together into a blender, layering himself over them and seeing what came out the other side. The result? This epic piece.
But beyond his abilities to mix and add value to pop staple pieces, on UN, his debut solo album, Dan has a way of combining his own pretty heartfelt observations with fresh sounds. Check out Wonder for his take on wistful pop, or Alone for some grubby funk inspired romanticism. Want something a little more passive aggressive? Well, the electro pop of Yours has your name written all over it.
Since UN there have been a few singles and a mix tape, including another almost crossover moment: this one featuring Kelis and paired with an innovative video. But Dan Black fans are in wait for UN's perpetually delayed/postponed follow up.
When will it arrive? Who knows? But let's just say that pop could do with a nice shot in the arm from this wonkypop making neo-romantic.
In the meantime, go and discover UN and see what all my fuss is about. It's held up really well over time and remains a favourite.
You've probably not heard this record.
Don't be embarrassed even if you should be ashamed. There are numerous reasons behind you not having heard it.
Darren Hayes, the record's creator, is someone you spent most of the nineties listening to, especially if you ever had the radio on during that time. He was one half of Savage Garden, whose record sales were somewhere between the 20 and 30 million mark worldwide, and whose folding allowed Darren to pursue a solo career.
At first his debut LP Spin picked up some traction, especially with the lead single Insatiable, on which his vocal seemed uncannily Michael Jackson like at times.
Spin didn't change the world, but it did permit him to make a follow up, The Tension and the Spark, which to my mind was a great album, and one which allowed Darren to mess around with his sound, be more tortured, and lay the groundwork for his more textured and dramatic music that would later follow.
The super slick radio hit maker was no more: he was more likely to be working with Marius De Vries et al and playing around with electronica and old synths. Vocally, Darren is the kind of the guy who could sing the phone book and have you enthralled. Check out his version of Madonna's Ray of Light to get an inkling of how amazing he is in front of a mic stand.
But why is it that This Delicate Thing We've Made and Darren's other solo output have rarely received the kind of attention that his (comparatively inferior) Savage Garden work did? Well for one thing, Darren's solo work has rarely been as straightforward and pop radio friendly as his Savage Garden work was. This, coupled with his battle with his sexuality and the difficulty facing gay acts in the nineties and the turn of the millennium, made for a muted audience and press reception for his work. Additionally, the freedom of releasing This Delicate Thing We've Made, his double disc opus of 2007 through his own label, also meant that he didn't have the same kind of major label resources at his disposal to promote his work to wider audiences.
It's a shame, because in my opinion, TDTWM is one of the few double albums that consistently holds its tone and only rarely missteps. The music is sophisticated, full of intriguing melodies and the lyrics are always poignant and expressive. It's a seamless meeting of personal honesty, reflection and sci/fi fantasy styled story telling that creates a detailed picture of Darren's histories and state of mind rather than the expressive but wider brush strokes of Savage Garden's material.
One of the recurring themes on the album is the idea of going back in time to change the end outcomes. I remember listening to the album and being completely caught up in the idea at the time. How to Build a Time Machine sets up the paradox of going back to times of cherished memories and heartbreaking moments, armed with the self awareness that only time and experience can bestow on us. Casey takes us back again, but without the insanity and fear: it's poignant and sad, but radiating a warmth that thaws out the icy strings and synths.
Sinister memories reach their apex with Neverland, in which the young Darren imagines topping his father with a toaster in the bathtub. It's wonky pop: a seductive pop melody providing the background to some of the most brutal recollections on the album.
Even in his Savage Garden days, Darren's skill with balladry was already peerless, and on TDTWM there's room and scope for some gorgeous, lush ballads beyond the trips back in time. The trilogy of Sing to Me, The Only One and The Tuning of Violins, give you the sense that his recent marriage at the time did much to restore his romantic's heart. After all, as Darren points out on Who Would Have Thought, nobody tells us "that a heart is like a deep deep freeze/so many lies/ so much of it broken".
Being a double album, there's also still scope to explore his other side, and that side, the electronica-dance loving Darren, crafts some equally impressive moments. The 1983 Fairlight synth is impossibly modern on songs like Me, Myself and I and the dance chart hit, Step Into The Light which also received the full remix treatment.
So many elements conspired against the commercial success of this album, and perhaps we're moving into a time when sexuality and indie labels are no longer the barriers they once were. But gems like this one deserve a relistening, and if you've got the time, take the full journey back and listen to both discs before you try hunting down Darren's subsequent side project We Are Smug and his subsequent return to pop form Secret Codes and Battleships.
Sun Kil Moon is coming to Rome this week.
But there's an ongoing controversy looming about Mark Kozelek's behaviour, particularly in relation to journalists and the press.
He's a critic's darling and has recorded some of the most acclaimed music of recent years, but much of what is written and said about him focuses on what he says outside of the studio. Is it fair to label Kozelek a misogynist? Have we been reduced to a point where any opinion being expressed in public is instant and the be all and end all? If someone in our personal circles says or does something that is out of line, do we write them off or do we work with them to resolve our issues?
Poses the question: where do we draw the line publicly? Is it relevant to report on the sound bytes of someone who is trying and failing to control their public image? Should we focus on what an artist is actually producing at the expense of any offence that they may cause outside of the studio?
It's an interesting argument and this piece over at Consequence of Sound is a good exploration of the issue, particularly looking at it through the outsized nature of power that being on stage brings with it.
There are some artists whose creative output can be broken down into distinct phases. The Pet Shop Boys, I think, are one of these acts. They arrived unexpectedly and set off a tremendous arc in the mid eighties with a string of classics. Everyone has their own favourite eighties PSB moment: what's yours? Domino Dancing? Heart? West End Girls?
I think the PSB are mostly thought of as being singles artists, but really, their mastery of a good hook and a brilliant approach to visuals and imagery was always done in the context of their album arcs.
Back in their first eighties phase, their music, powered by Chris Lowe's cold synths and Neil Tennant's already witty and intelligent lyrics helped them stay ahead of the bell curve through fresh and forward thinking electronic pop. The detached nature of Tennant's lyrical observations seemed to provide a great soundtrack to the vapid eighties. It was a period in which they could do no wrong, and that the ever switched on Tennant coined as being their imperial phase.
By the time the nineties rolled around, the PSB had already busied themselves with being introspective and retrospective. They toured for the first time at the beginning of the nineties, laying the groundwork for their later career, and by that stage were already among the many eighties acts who issued must have compilations of their work, placing a book end on that first career chapter.
In the nineties their output became ever more art pop. The mid nineties PSB were suddenly camper than ever. Still that sense of detachment, helped infinitely by Tennant's vocals, but now with an agenda. They seemed to be priming the pop mainstream with a campness that had never really entered into their eighties imperial chapter by way of retrospective criticism. Remember, that the idea of camp really only entered the mainstream during the cynical nineties.
In the UK and Europe, dance culture was taking hold, and the PSB, with their long term links to dance culture added their own slant to keep them fresh and relevant. The over the top nature of their work during this time was about as plastic as it gets, but, that desire to reclaim the blooming gay imagery of the time led to moments like Very, Go West and Absolutely Fabulous crossing over into the mainstream. It was bonkers gay dance pop with a harder techno edge and a more than subliminal message attached.
Those releases may have been huge with the public, but to my mind, the refinement of the PSB sound didn't happen until 1996's Bilingual. While they experimented and refused to be pigeon holed thereafter, Bilingual was their classic album and one which didn't suffer from any of the uneveness that I feel has marked much of their work ever since.
Hay una discoteca a por acqui? Yes! Bilingual was like a time stamp, a time capsule documenting a changing Europe, even if it was informed and made universal by Latin American rhythms.
Tennant's lyrics on this album are amazing: they spell out, in crystal clear fashion, much of what was taking hold of the newly formed EU at the time, framed through a gay man's point of view.
On Single, he's a British business man, traversing the Schengen borders with ease: ["I'm a player in the continental game/With unlimited expenses to reclaim/ Information's easy/Tapping at my PC"]. But elsewhere, the late nineties gay reality is repeatedly given voice. It finds its form in the combined feelings of fear and persecution and of hope and liberation that otherwise underscored what it meant to be on the threshold of emancipation.
On Discoteca: "I don't speak in anger/though the chances that I've let pass me by and now regret/ I can't forget/ They're haunting me like a score of unpaid debts/ Is it enough/ to live in hope that one day we'll be free without this fear?/ I'm going out and carrying on as normal".
Elsewhere, this POV is even more explicit on Red Letter Day and Metamorphosis. But, by this point in this career, the PSB were capable of making their music universal in nature and not just speaking to the gay masses. Crossover moments like Se a Vide e' (That's the way life is) harnessed the Latin American rhythms that pop audiences loved in the late nineties, and offered up another classic for fans to claim as their own favourite PSB song.
And me? It's a toss up because while the ballad It Always Comes As A Surprise is incredibly moving, my favourite PSB song is fellow Bilingual track Before. It never fails to put me in a good mood. And like the album it comes from it's upbeat and hopeful, but self aware enough to suggest that although life isn't all a bed of roses, hope is always around the corner.
Brilliant album and worth a listen as it has held up really well. Go and rediscover it.
I've always loved me a good button pusher, and I have to say, I'm still a fan of M.I.A, even though we've been really limited in what her label has wanted to have us hear from her of late.
It's really interesting to see how some acts manage (or don't manage) to cope with the inevitable withholding of affection that always happens at some point in their careers.
M.I.A's fourth studio album Matangi arrived long after it was originally planned and months after fans had hoped for it.
There'd been super bowl controversies, lots of run ins with the press and a general reluctance to continue to see M.I.A as the pioneering and experimental artist that she doesn't always get credit for being.
More than the goddess of words, Matangi was suddenly M.I.A on a back foot.
Let's not forget that M.I.A was once a critic's darling. Her first two albums, Arular (2005) and Kala (2007) received universal acclaim on their release. She vaulted onto the scene out of the emerging social media world, and was celebrated in part for the way in which her records blended world music and hip hop sounds in a way that created something fresh and new.
With her mix of Sri Lankan and London heritage, she was as important for the cultural significance her presence suggested as she was her ground breaking music.
Here was a polarizing figure who straddled the visual arts, fashion and music scenes in an authentic way that few others had before. In a way she seemed to continue the legacy of eighties acts, but razor fresh and modern. She was the antithesis to Lady Gaga, the industry's template for the same mix. And although they were pitted together and had their own war of words, the reality was that they had their own congregations to preach to.
But times have changed. Few artists from the late 'oughties still have the same cache they once did. Look at Gaga- she's the prime example of universal withholding and, bar for Kanye West, there are few other acts with a mainstream presence who are courting the ire of the establishment these days.
People fall out of favour. M.I.A isn't a straightforward proposition for anyone. She has a complicated back story, and her music drips with a mix of influences that are meaningless to the wider, western public. And in this new decade the game has changed again. Where we once coveted other influences, we're closing borders and closing our ears and whitewashing it under the name of 'cultural appropriation'.
You could never imagine something like Memoirs of A Geisha happening again (the film I mean, and thank God for that: file under film adaptation travesties). M.I.A has made mention on her social media in recent days of a video being blocked for fears of cultural appropriation. The full story and details, as often happens with M.I.A controversies, aren't yet known, and whether or not this is really a case of the PCs, it still begs the question.
What constitutes cultural appropriation these days? Aren't we supposed to be living in a ever more globalized world where our ideas are all but interconnected? How is it that so much of what we see and read these days is the product of literal translations or direct copying and we have no problem with that, yet we still seek to limit the cross pollination of ideas when it comes to the arts? I'm pretty sure that sampling a traditional beat, or filming a local dance is not akin to colonizing a country or continent and stripping it of its identity and riches. Rather, what often happens is it turns people onto "new" things and informs the zeitgeist, pushing it into new territory and widening the diaspora.
So where's the harm in interpolating other sounds, visuals and ideas with one's own? Doesn't M.I.A have enough of a track record to suggest that she more than adds her own two cents to the mix? Are we seriously trying to suggest that white people should only make white music and black black? How ridiculous. Are major label acts given a set of rules saying what environments can and can't be deemed inspiring?
When we tire of somebody we often try to diminish them. In part it happens because we move on from things and people at break neck speeds.
Watch or read any interview that M.I.A has granted since 2010 and you'll see that she's been smarting, because she's never been one to articulate her ideas in a conventional way, because we don't allow renegades much free reign these days and because after you've been demonised in the press, it's very hard not to be distrustful.
I'm gonna fight the fight for M.I.A, cos, even if you feel that her more recent work isn't on par with her earlier stuff, the reality is without her, we face an alternative where we no longer feel we need the grit to create the pearl. And without that, we just end up rewarding more and more acts like Taylor Swift and the various voice/idol franchise winners, who, all talents aside, do little to push popular culture forward when all is said and done.
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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