dimanche, octobre 21, 2007

Girl Power

If you wanna be a pop star, you better get with the girls.

'Girl Power', once just a slogan, now dominates the pop charts. So what happened to the boys?

Kitty Empire
Sunday October 21, 2007
The Observer

As pop manifestos go, the one touted by the nascent Spice Girls in long-ago 1996 was more suspect than most. Girl Power was a cheeky, hen-night vision of feminism riddled with body dysmorphia and worse. It was all catchphrase and little artistic control, as Spice memoirs have laid bare. But a decade on, with the Girls reunited and retailing their forthcoming album in lingerie chain Victoria's Secret, it turns out that Girl Power was no eye-rolling matter after all, at least commercially.

As 2007 sashays to a close, pop has rarely been more female. A glance at the albums being released up until Christmas reveals a coven of pop high priestesses handbagging each other in pursuit of pop buyers' cash. Britney's comeback has been rushed forward to stave off internet leaks; Kylie's big, sparkly two fingers to cancer arrives next month. In pop, as in life, women seem to outlive men. Deathless disco mama Madonna has a new £60m deal and another pop confection due next year. British pop's most confounding triad, Sugababes, continue to have hits despite having their DNA frequently rearranged; they are the perfect example of a brand, rather than a band.

After a year cooking up her debut in the US, X Factor winner Leona Lewis's imminent album will try to establish her as an enduring pop force. Rihanna's 'Umbrella' was a rain dance so effective it changed the climate and stayed at No 1 for 10 weeks. And the most entertaining girl group of all, Girls Aloud, defy rumours of their demise with a new set, also out next month. We need no reminder that the biggest pop news this year was Kate Nash. Meanwhile, the wellbeing (or not) of Amy Winehouse (though her retro sound is outside the realm of pure pop) remains a national obsession, and her arrest last Thursday in Norway ensures the prurience will continue.

But where are the boys? Genders used to be evenly matched in the pop game. For every female artist, there was a winsome romantic beau, sexually unthreatening to pre-teens but just lush enough to inspire filthy home-made banners from fans on the way to the sold-out arena. In pop's heyday, the Eighties, the Whams and Spands and Frankies defined the age more indelibly and with more make-up than the girls, who have faded from memory (although it is nice when Kim Wilde crops up on a TV gardening show). In the Nineties, clots of chaps - Bros, New Kids on the Block, Take That, East 17, Boyzone, Westlife - ruled the arenas, a status quo that the Spice Girls overturned.

The demise of the boy band has been widely mulled over during the past few years. Even those notional saviours of the genre, McFly, have lost their lustre. True, the Take That reunion and the continued existence of Westlife mean that there will never be a national shortage of swollen multi-part ballads. The odd trouser turn-up does occasionally breach the frilly cordon sanitaire in place around pop - this year Mika was the exception that proved the rule that boys in pop are missing, presumed dead. And Robbie? His most heartfelt and breezy album tanked, making you feel almost sorry for him. Almost.

If boys in pop are all but dead, we know the execution date and the executioners. It was 2002, when two Pop Stars: The Rivals teams squared up. In the red corner, Girls Aloud with their strange, twanging single, 'Sound of the Underground'. In the blue corner, slushy boy band One True Voice, Svengali'd by pop puppeteer Pete Waterman. The smart money was on the fellas, but Girls Aloud staged a historic pop upset when they trounced the hapless, derivative guys and went on to be the most successful British talent show act ever.

What did the boys do in the wake of this symbolic defeat? They stropped. Busted earned the boy band a brief, riffy reprieve from obsolescence. Many more of them felt sorry for themselves, and learned how to play acoustic guitar. Where once a young man could prance under a hundredweight of hair gel and get rich, in the mid-Noughties it was essential to become a sensitive singer-songwriter to impress. What is Paolo Nutini but a lost boy band member trying to cut it as a troubadour? It would take a stylist half a second and some bicycle shorts to shear James Morrison of all his hard-conjured credibility.

Perhaps pop's gendercide is better explained as a diaspora: the cute boys and their ballads moved sideways, out of dance routines and on to guitar stools - or into R&B. In the US, male pop is a one-man show. Justin Timberlake presides over the most impressive post-boy band career ever. Like us, the Americans also have plenty of pouting male singer-songwriters who might once have been pressed into pop shapes; John Mayer sees himself as a serious blues guitarist but has he looked in the mirror? Jack Johnson - a buff surfer with an acoustic guitar - is one of the US's biggest draws.

But if you are looking for the love of a soft-hearted stripling, you will find it has become almost exclusively an urban thing. While our own Craig David is now a figure of fun, in the US, the loverman brigade - Omarion, Joe, Ne-Yo, Akon and Mario - are potent chart players. They take the schmaltz of pop and dress it up in the more attitudinal garb of hip hop. At heart, though, these are ladies' men. Antecedents aren't hard to find here. American music is stuffed with old soul lovermen, and the new breed draw deeply from the well dug by priapic teddy bears Luther Vandross, Alexander O'Neal and R Kelly. But rarely have soppy men appeared in such numbers, so consistently high in the Billboard charts. Usher remains the undisputed champion of this eye-wateringly tedious strand of R&B.

Why has the XY factor gone out of pop? It's not an easy question to answer. Gay men are the pivotal early adopters of all puissant pop outfits. Groups like Take That spent their early months touring gay clubs as well as schools. Have gay men given up on smooth-cheeked wannabes? They may well have ploughed all their cash into supporting needy divas like Madonna and Barbra Streisand instead. According to a tabloid, London's Soho is to erect a statue of Kylie, thanks to lobbying by fans: Soho's denizens are hardly campaigning for Gareth Gates on a plinth.

But the real culprits are probably youngsters. The rosy-cheeked masses who loved pop are fractured now. They are forming aesthetic judgments earlier than previous generations. Instead of being told what to like by Smash Hits and record companies, they are roaming the web, favouring outfits like the Kooks over cute boys with no guitars.

It is also the fault of the acts themselves. With every generation of British boy band, the output became more saccharine. Take That were feisty; Boyzone far duller. By the time the boy band franchise trickled down to Westlife, it was all ballads, all the time. They appealed to grandmothers.

Some of the blame can be ascribed, too, to the lack of imagination of producers and record companies. In R&B, as in pop, it is usually the female-fronted records that take the most musical risks. Producers have done immensely cool, creepy, daft and marvellous things with Britney, Amerie, Aaliyah, Christina Aguilera; Gwen Stefani's records do nothing but monkey about with pop convention.

The sexiness of these female stars - the crux of pop transactions - is a given. As long as they gyrate and smoulder, and some sort of hook is present, the rest of the record can sound like an accident in an electronics factory, and no one will bat an eyelid. Pop's men are more limited, crooning sweet nothings to a swell of synthesised strings. They lack topspin, winks, daring. You can count the men who have fronted avant-garde pop records on two fingers: Timberlake and Usher, whose icy crunk hit of 2004 'Yeah' was the torso-toting dullard's finest moment. Until the records get more exciting, male pop stars are doomed. (We await the new Duran Duran album - laced with collaborations with Justin Timberlake and producer Timbaland - with great interest.) And the new breed? Up 'n' coming foursome Palladium are making a valiant attempt at rekindling the male pop band. Their single, 'High Five', contains such charmingly pre-sexual pop sentiments as 'three kisses for me, and I know she's the marrying kind'. But rather than just dancing giddily, Palladium have had to resort to playing instruments to get attention. They sound like the Feeling with a few added riffs. If they are the best the industry can cook up, pop's men are going to be missing in action for some time yet.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007