Thursday, 13 November 2008

Retro Pop Yourself

I have noted on this blog over the past couple of years how we have seen a tendency by many pop artists to go back to 1960s influences for their current releases. We have seen the enduring career of Amy Winehouse with a very soul/mowtown approach and then Duffy with her kind of Sandie Shaw/Dusty Springfield British 1960s flavour. Duffy seems to be releasing almost everything off her album and it all has that sound, very nostalgic to those who know the originals, but clearly appealing to younger people too. It was also interesting to note that Sharleen Spiteri's solo album, 'Melody' which was released in July also has very much a 1960s feel which is apparent if you look at the cover with her dressed in that smart, almost cute, black dress with the white piping. Her singles, 'All the Times I Cried' and 'Stop I Don't Love You Any More' mix together 1960s influences from both the USA and UK with the quite highly orchestrated, complex instrumentation with a force behind it that underlies lyrics which are belted out and are highly emotional. This pattern can be seen in Duffy's work too. Winehouse has overlaps with this style but also tinged with a bluesy flavour coming through the mowtown approach. Even performers who you would anticipate as being deep in a 2000s approach, notably the group, Girls Aloud (formed in 2002 for the TV show 'Pop Stars: The Rivals') who have just become the most successful female group in British history (19 consecutive Top 10 hits) and yet have joined the bandwagon of retro pop. This is most apparent in their current single 'The Promise'.

Not only does the video show them at a drive-in watching themselves dressed in outfits The Supremes would have worn, but the lyrics betray some of the submissive female lines that I had detected before especially in Duffy's early releases (though I am glad to say things like 'Warwick Avenue' are more ballsy). The opening lines from Girls Aloud's song that go: 'Everything he does, is better than anything ordinary/ Everything he wants he gets, cause everything he does is kinda necessary' really hammer home that the 'heroine' of the song judges her needs as being subservient to those of the man, not just because they are 'better' but because even though she cannot rationalise it, his self-importance asserts itself over anything she needs. This could almost be a Doris Day song and I think The Supremes themselves would have jarred a little at its sentiments. Despite the success of this song, I hope that young women do not think they have to subvert their goals to those of a man because he says it is necessary. Interestingly this submissive approach of the white female performers is in direct counterpoint to the songs that seemed to condemn men as unfeeling and selfish, notably, Beyonce's 'If I Was a Boy', Alesha Dixon's 'The Boy Does Nothing' ('boy' seems to becoming the derogatory term for men, though of course for American blacks it is a very loaded term for applying to men), Jennifer Hudson's 'Spotlight', Rihanna's 'Take a Bow' (which itself seems to be inspired by Beyonce's earlier single 'Irreplaceable' (2006)) and of course the ever-reliable white exception, Pink with 'So What' (though given the split from her husband there were clear motives for that one). This trend is going to the extent of Leona Lewis's 'Forgive Me' in which the woman she sings about feels that even though the man she is with had 'love that always passed the test', she feels 'I had to go and look somewhere else'. I suppose this is turning gender dynamics on its head with the woman setting very high standards for me, criticising them for failing to meet them, and thus feeling free to conduct affairs.

To some extent these singles are taking extremes on both sides. As a man I feel terribly uneasy that all men seemed to be being condemned as unfaithful and useless by influential female singers. I am sure it is doubly offensive to black American men at whom these songs seem aimed, surely there are positive examples out there who treat their wives/girlfriends decently, though this is certainly not the image received from Beyonce who portrays anyone who is 'just a boy' as incapable of any emotional attachment to their partners. Such songs do shape attitudes, as Blue's disgraceful 'All Rise' (2001) encouraged boyfriends to throw away all their girlfriend's possessions if she was not sufficiently forthcoming in information about her activities when away from him. The influx of 1960s sentiments through using 1960s stylings further complicates the battle of gender politics of the 2000s that seems to have been going on in the charts.

The most interesting entry in the current retro pop wave is Sir Tom Jones (1940-). What makes this so interesting is that Jones was an original 1960s recording artist anyway. He released his first single in 1965 and has sold 100 millon records since. He has always been hard to define as he has had one foot in the pop area and one in the more 'crooner', lounge singer area. Jones has constantly re-invented himself, first notably by covering 'Kiss' with the Art of Noise in 1988 and then performing with other pop acts, EMF and particularly 1999-2000 with The Cardigans, Cerys Matthews, The Pretenders, Mousse T, The Stereophonics and Robbie Williams. With the success of Tony Christie's 'Is This The Way to Amarillo?' re-released in 2005, maybe he has been tempted more back to the crooner side. The first single off his new album, '24 Hours', 'If He Sould Ever Leave You' is very much a song Jones could have released successfully in 1967 with lines such as 'He should be inclined to keep you close' and references to 'your captivating eyes' would not be out of place sitting alongside his 1960s hits such as 'It's Not Unusual' (1965), 'Help Yourself' (1968), '(It Looks Like) I'll Never Fall In Love Again' (1969) and 'She's A Lady' (1971). I suppose that given his success with this style he must be delighted he can continue to produce records in this style and have them still selling forty years on. I suppose it is what you say with all fashions if you stay still long enough with a style it will all come round again. Jones has had the best of both worlds, success with adapting his style and success with remaining with his original approach too. I wonder who will be next to benefit from the retro pop wave of the moment.

P.P. 11/01/2009 The Christmas period seemed no cease in the retro style pop songs coming from younger performers. Notable were Boyzone with 'Better' (2008) which could easily have been a Roy Orbison (1936-88) track, especially with the guitar and drums marking time, it was very remiscent of so much Orbison material. The group even tried his spread across the octaves though even using two lead vocals they cannot attain his two-and-a-half octave baritone stretch. The other was Gabriella Chilme being the Ronettes, the Crystals, Darlene Love or some similar mowtown style performers with her 'Warm This Winter' (2008) with the wall of sound and brass, it could have been write off the Phil Spector's 'A Christmas Gift To You' (1963; re-released in 1972). Perhaps she is seeking longevity as tracks from that album are still played on the radio today.

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