Sunday, 14 February 2010

Beyond Classification: Critical Thoughts on Chart Pop

As strange as it sounds, chart pop seems to be the most maligned genre of music. This in itself seems contradictory. In purely numerical terms songs and albums that reach the top of the charts are by definition the most popular. Consequently there seems to be a push/pull relationship between the genre and audiences. You can be popular, but not too popular. It is almost a disaster of critical proportions if an artist actually appeals to a twelve year old and their forty year old mum at the same time.

That seems to be the problem with Taylor Swift at the moment. Particularly the way people perceive her ever since Kayne West interrupted her at the MTV Video Music Awards last year. Part of the conflict is that commentators endeavored to make the incident needlessly political: it was not a signifier of racial stereotypes, just a display of extreme douchbaggery from Kanye. Yet since the incident the public persona of Taylor as described by outsiders has turned from her being a suitable role model, to media over exposure, to ‘Dear god, her live performances blow chunks'. This is yet another example of the way successful pop acts are unfairly treated by the critical media, particularly in the last decade.

I can’t put my finger on exactly why this is. Perhaps it is a musical extension of the famously Australian ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’ that suggests that the population love to cut celebrities down to size once they reach the point of ubiquitous fame. This poses a problem for artists and record companies alike. Once an artist reaches the point of 'Sold Out Wembley Stadium' notoriety how do they continue, or even build upon that success without reaching the inevitable sales slump? This is even more of a problem when a pop starlet reaches the point where her maturity surpasses the emotional context of her back catalogue. One of my favourite pop critics David Moore encapsulates this dilemma nicely:

Record labels and general expectations tend to make most teen and young-adult evolution as problematic externally as they probably are internally to the performer herself… Mandy Moore, Marit Larsen, Marion Raven (both from M2M), and Hilary Duff all offer some object lessons in "growing up" and how this translates to your music. The most successful of these (arguably) is Marit Larsen, who found an excellent way to translate writing well about teenage angst into writing well about twentysomething angst -- and that twentysomething angst actually transitions naturally into thirtysomething angst.

Mandy Moore and Hilary Duff have both chased elusive maturity -- Mandy super-consciously, (she's been actively marginalizing herself), and Hilary with the added detriment of being stuck on a Disney record label (Hollywood Records) that doesn't seem to want much to do with her anymore. But her album with (Songwriter and now American Idol judge) Kara DioGuardi is still probably her strongest overall.

I hate Avril more, the more I give her a fair listen within the context of her peers -- compared to the next wave of teen confessional (Ashlee Simpson, Lindsay Lohan, Kelly Clarkson) and the stuff before her (M2M, Michelle Branch and Vanessa Carlton, Pink's album with Linda Perry) she really does stand out like a sore thumb in terms of what she has to say (not that Michelle Branch or Vanessa Carlton were that deep, but they also weren't glaringly dumb).

By far my favourite of those artists mentioned above is Marit Larsen. Marit who you may ask? Norway, her native land is certainly a long way from Australia, which is certainly part of the problem, but she is unquestionably my favourite solo artist, having only released two albums. Australian and US audiences may remember her from this:

By all means it is a terrific little pop song, but certainly not indicative of her later work. There are a few problems with it. Firstly, it was the lead single on the Pokemon movie soundtrack, a showcase designed for the 10-12 aged population circa 2000, and that doesn’t really do the song justice because the song's emotional context is stunted. Then there is the chipmunk style production, which also does not do the terrifically catchy songwriting any favours. Unfortunately, Don’t Say You Love Me was M2M’s (her band) only hit in Australia and that’s kind of like defining Third Eye Blind’s catalogue by their sub standard hit Semi Charmed Life, a song that did really well in the mainstream, but is by far their weakest song ever put to tape.

After putting out two albums that didn’t sell at all well M2M parted ways. Marion (the dark haired one) went the trashy, skanky route, and hired the lead singer of Motley Crue to be her lead producer, Marit, on the hand, chose sensibly to go the opposite path and craft arguably the finest chart pop of the decade.


Her first album Under the Surface released in 2006 is unquestionably my favourite debut album. This record is Marit doing Taylor Swift, when Taylor was still in her bedroom dreaming of White Horses and developing high school crushes in the bleachers. Not to say that Taylor isn’t good, because she’s very good, but Marit pioneered Taylor’s pop/faux country sound only with an unrivialed maturity. This is evidenced by the album’s third single, Only A Fool:

Of course Under the Surface did not sell well outside Scandinavia, which is one of the greatest musical travesties of the 00s. If Marit had come from Nevada instead of Norway, Under the Surface would have sold more copies than Fearless. Don’t believe me? Well her second album is even better and would have sold even more copies again.

The Chase released in 2008, is my favourite non Tegan and Sara album of the decade. As Moore correctly points out, this is where Marit successfully negotiated the difficulties of transitioning between a teen pop starlet to a burgeoning twentysomething singer/songwriter. The arrangements are more complex as well as defined, and the lyrics demonstrate exponential growth beyond the already stellar heights of Under the Surface. In particular two tracks, the titular album opener and the gorgeous Ten Steps:

In some ways Taylor and Marit act as equally compelling opposites: the former a seemingly unrivalled mega star, and the latter as pop’s criminally underrecognised genius. They both demonstrate the problem with taking pop music as inherently superficial. Pop music is actually the most difficult genre to master. Writing a three and half minute song that is accessible, catchy and original is certainly no easy task. Yet these two fantastic songwriters don’t get the praise they deserve. Why is this so? Is it the height of hipster snobbery? I certainly think so. Yet for all its preconceptions, the joy that chart pop music provides is actually one of the greatest treasures the world possesses.


  1. Thanks Carly, quickly turning into a fan of your blog as well. I'll be sure to check that recommendation out.

  2. She is under @genmaynard on twitter and has a myspace - tell her I sent ya :)
    Thanks for the compliments re my bloggy. :)

  3. Oh coolness! I had no idea that the girls from M2M went on to anything...let alone anything good! I shall check her out :)

    I think it's a bit of tall poppy syndrome too, people love to pick everything apart and while sometimes, this is cutting back to the truth - often it's just needlessly degrading artist's work.