Observations on music, why people like what they like and one of pap pop’s loveliest, most endearingly dimpled investment opportunities
Why does Cheryl Cole exist? Cheryl Cole the Novocastrian living organism-turned-Popstars: The Rivals auditionee obviously exists because Mr and Mrs Tweedy decided to jiggily get with it sometime in late 1982, possibly to numb the pain of Thatcherism’s continued political predominance. Accounting for her existence as a cultural phenomenon, though, is a lot more difficult.
Cheryl Cole is the reigning British champion of Why The Hell Are You So Famous. She’s probably a very nice person. Nothing apart from that time when she battered a nightclub toilet attendant in a dispute over a lollipop suggests otherwise. But she has no discernible talent whatsoever.
Despite this, in the prevailing state of organised insanity we call a society, our Cheryl’s still managed to rake in multimillion pound record deals with Polydor and Universal, a £500,000 sponsorship deal with L’Oreal Paris, a similar-sized contract to help flog Coke Zero and a £14m personal fortune. Her debut solo record, 2009’s 3 Words, quickly went platinum, then shifted over a million units. Her autobiography sold 300,000 copies, bringing in more than £2.5m. And as a judge on ITV’s The X Factor, she was rapidly elevated to Nation’s Sweetheart status, as millions understandably warmed to her inoffensive, unpretentious, compassionate on-screen persona and, yes, physical gorgeousness.
A quick jaunt to Wikipedia acquaints you with how it all began – in 2002, 19 year-old Cheryl Tweedy turned up to an audition for ITV’s latest pop band-manufacturing reality show, Popstars: The Rivals. She performed a fairly wobbly rendition of S Club 7’s ‘Have You Ever’, and largely got through because judge Pete Waterman cringe-worthily slobbered over her good looks.
The public eventually voted her into the final line-up of what would become Girls Aloud. Then they went on to become one of the most successful British groups of the 2000s. And, by the dismal standards of twenty-first century pop, they were quite good. If you were strapped to a table and made to listen to chart-topping music from the last decade, you could do a hell of a lot worse than the Best Of Girls Aloud.
But singing songs somebody else has written and produced for you, backed by four other singers, some of whom are much better at it than you – Nadine Doyle was widely regarded as the strongest singer among the Girls Aloud and did a lot of the vocal heavy lifting – is very different to being able to cut it on your own. As a solo chanteuse, Cheryl isn’t any more talented than millions of teenagers singing into their hairbrushes – in fact, there are probably thousands of undiscovered bedroom divas a darn sight better than her.
She’s conventionally attractive, she comes across as nice on the telly, she can hold a tune, at least, and is used to the rough-and-tumble of recording, touring and publicising music she’s had a hand in churning out. But if Ms Cole was all these things and didn’t rake in the dough, she’d still be on a Newcastle council estate.
Cheryl Cole exists because she’s a valuable financial asset. Record companies want her because she’s got the kind of image and musical style that reliably sells in huge numbers, making them ever-increasing amounts of profit and attracting the attention of big investors. These investors might not be buying shares in Cheryl directly, but any company with her on their books can sit back and watch the moolah roll in for years to come. And like it is for big companies everywhere, making money, and making more money this year than last year, is the overriding purpose of every major record label. The music itself doesn’t matter as long as it sells. It’s just another sphere of human culture than corporate capitalism ruthlessly milks for profit.
There’s a familiar riposte to this kind of criticism – that misery-guts Frank Zappa fans should just get over the fact that millions of people have always liked unoriginal manufactured pop music and always will. Artists like Cheryl get where they are because people love what they do and will loyally buy their records.
The argument is right in one respect – rubbish music is staggeringly popular. There’s absolutely no doubt of that. But the reason most people only like the junk that gets into the Top 40 is because that’s all they ever get to hear. People can only come to like different types of music if they have access to them, the earlier in life the better. And the Bemolution genuinely believes that if they sit down and listen to it for long enough, any person will come to like any kind of music, any kind of sound, even – whale song, a pneumatic drill, the rumbling of the washing machine, practically anything short of nails down a blackboard. If radio stations were only allowed to play Stravinsky on repeat then butchers, bakers and colonic irrigationists would happily go about their business whistling ‘The Rite Of Spring’ rather than Rihanna.
There’s always been shit pop music. And there’s always been high-quality pop music. Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky Mick and Tich were around at the same time as The Beatles, after all. But what’s changed, radically, over the last decade or so, is the ratio of trash to life-enhancingly good pop music. Originality, individuality, innovation, wit and social commentary have all been shunted out of mainstream pop altogether.
Take an artist like David Bowie, who managed to balance those qualities with massive popular exposure, and try and imagine how his career would go if he was starting out in 2014 rather than 1969. Big labels wouldn’t touch him with a barge-pole – he’d be too intellectual, too weird. Simon Cowell would say he couldn’t sing. And in the unlikely event he did manage to secure a major record deal, he’d be emotionlessly dropped if his first album wasn’t a thundering commercial success – which it wasn’t – thereby halting the process of gradual artistic flourishing that would eventually result in the stonkingly successfully Ziggy Stardust period and everything that came after it.
The big culprit is, unsurprisingly, the now near-total corporate dominance of the music industry. In the ‘70s, people chose to buy David Bowie LPs. In the 2010s, people choose to download Cheryl Cole singles. Tastes have clearly changed. But once you get beyond the illusion of musical ‘choice’, you can see the situation for what it really is. Big companies don’t just give the people what they want – they actively shape musical tastes and buying habits. They make people want what they want. People can only like what they hear.
They dictate what music people like – by choosing the kind of artists to fund and promote, and by controlling the kind of music that gets airplay on corporate-run TV and mainstream radio. It pays to make everyone like the same kind of music – then you can just pile all your capital into churning out sure-fire hit homogenised dross, rather than having to bother going to the additional expense of catering to all sorts of tastes. And thus the music that gets airplay, the only music that most people get to hear, is the same. The fabulous range of life-changing, mind-expanding alternatives don’t get a look-in, and in the rare event that people hear snippets of them on the TV or the internet, it doesn’t sound anything like what they know as ‘music’ at all.
But why does corporate-mediated mainstream music have to be quite so bad? For two main reasons, one political, one practical. Firstly – imagine you’re an extravagantly wealthy record company executive. Your immense, disgusting privilege depends on a political status quo that lets a tiny minority in the upper echelons of massive corporations make fortunes doing nothing very useful while millions starve and suffer and work themselves into early graves. For that situation to continue, the little people struggling to live off dwindling proportions of the national income have to be kept from kicking up too much of a fuss, and threatening your excessive lifestyle.
With that in mind – would you rather the masses were listening to songs with meaningless, repetitive choruses, a sunnily vacuous tone and all the lyrical depth of a puddle in July? Or stuff that is intellectually challenging, suggests all isn’t fine and dandy in the world and encourages them to think critically? It’s a no-brainer. Elites learned from the ‘60s and the ‘70s. Music can be a catalyst for dangerous, status quo-imperilling social change. Thousands were politicised by Bob Dylan, John Lennon, The Clash and others like them. When corporations run music, you can be sure they’ll stamp out anything with even the vaguest chance of making people question whether corporations should exist.
The second reason is simple efficiency. Junk pop is the cheapest, quickest and easiest to make. It takes years of dedication to be able to play the guitar like Jimi Hendrix or sing like Amy Winehouse, write lyrics like Morrissey or craft a perfect pop melody like Lennon and McCartney. And it takes patience and understanding from the money men to indulge the restless experimentation of the David Bowies and Kate Bushes and PJ Harveys of the world. Even if executives were willing to take the time to nurture that kind of talent, artists willing to put that level of effort into honing their craft are relatively rare. And if your overwhelming goal is just to make as much money as possible, you can’t have the listening public expecting quality. In fact, it’s in your interest to push acceptable standards of music as low as they’ll go.
It’s scary how quickly the screws have tightened over just a few decades. Music that purists derided twenty years ago sounds like the Mahavishnu Orchestra compared to the bulk of what’s popular today. The abomination that was ‘I’m Your Man’ aside, George Michael’s musical output was far more subtle and interesting than anything you’ll find topping the charts in 2014. ‘Club Tropicana’ and ‘Young Guns Go For It’ were witty social commentaries. ‘Careless Whisper’ has more depth and nuance than Olly Murs’s whole career.
In a world where whole generations have now been weaned on The X Factor and radio that’s 40% X Factor contestants, it’s easy for a reality show product who can’t play an instrument, can’t really sing, can’t really write songs but looks quite nice in pretty dresses to become some kind of perplexing national treasure. It’s not Cheryl’s fault – and, like Bieber, she’s as much of a victim as a beneficiary of such a skewed situation. But if you actually like human-made sounds, it’s a tragic state of affairs. Oodles of good music still exists. You’ll find it languishing on the cultural fringes, denied investment and exposure but sustained by the passion of the people who make it and listen it. But good pop music – high-quality, mass-audience pop music – is almost definitely dead.
And no, Get Lucky doesn’t count. One half-decent track can’t reverse a general trend.