Getty | Getty It's been a great year for music. But what's been even…
- Posted on Apr 15th 2011 1:00PM by Richard Trapunski
Getty Images | WireImage
How did this happen? In the last few years, pop music started taking risks and this began, as most such movements do, in the indie scene.
It's no secret that the musical landscape is evolving rapidly and that tried-and-true methods are no longer infallible. The internet has democratized the record industry and even proven stars are often unable to adapt to the increasingly uncertain terrain. Just compare YouTube-spawned sensations like Justin Bieber and Rebecca Black to last year's non-comeback by Christina Aguilera, whose 'Bionic' album failed to land any radio hits and forced the cancellation of her arena tour.
Still, the fact that edgy, forward-thinking music is coming from the realm of pop is surprising to say the least. Inextricably linked to record sales, the pop industry is typically perceived as one of the last major bastions of musical conservatism, a genre mired in a system that often resists adaptation.
Independent bands like Arcade Fire and Radiohead have recently received massive accolades at the Grammys, Brits, Junos and NME Awards. These bands circumvented the mainstream with their unique brands of rock for years, yet recently have become crowd favorites, selling out stadiums like New York's Madison Square Garden. In the same way, the new generation of pop singers have adopted non-traditional routes to inch their way toward mainstream success.
There's likely no better example of this slow-but-effective path to the zeitgeist than Swedish pop singer Robyn.
The modest triumph of her 2005 self-titled breakthrough LP (released in 2007 in the US) kept her in the touring/promoting cycle for more than three years without much payoff. So she altered her approach. Rather than repeating the same drawn-out release process, Robyn decided to put out her next album, the electro-pop opus 'Body Talk,' in three short parts, staggered throughout 2010. In doing so, the 'Dancing on My Own' star stumbled upon a wise new strategy.
By alternating abbreviated recording sessions with live dates, she could stay consistently on the road without taking any major breaks. Meanwhile, the productivity fueled her with new songs to both play at concerts and promote in interviews. It paid off with critics, too: at year's end she was a fixture on "best of" lists both big and small (including Spinner's own Best Songs of 2010 list.)
"I think a lot of times we do things the way they've always been done, even though we don't really understand why," Robyn tells Spinner. "It's like the emperor's new clothes. Everybody knows that he's naked, but no one's going to talk about it or change it if necessary."
Robyn's role as an indie-pop trailblazer is somewhat ironic considering her past. Back in 1997, before the looming threat of Napster threw the music industry into disarray, Robyn was primed to be pop's next "it girl." Armed with a pair of hits helmed by Swedish hitmaker Max Martin -- the vaguely R&B-influenced 'Show Me Love' and 'Do You Know (What It Takes)' -- the only thing standing between Robyn and success was her own reticence.
After dropping out of a high-profile opening tour for Backstreet Boys, Robyn struggled to reach her initial potential, prompting both her producer, Martin, and her label, BMG, to move onto the next burgeoning teen star, a 17-year-old upstart named Britney Spears.
Prompted by necessity, Robyn formed her own imprint, Konichiwa Records, and with her new-found independence and flexibility, re-invented herself as a sassy, emotionally charged, electro icon. The resulting album, 'Robyn,' was a minor commercial, but major critical hit and it eventually landed her a stateside distribution deal with Interscope.
Unlike her last major-label tenure, however, Robyn now has the flexibility to blaze her own trail with experiments like the 'Body Talk' EP series, and though she's yet to reach the heights of her brief teen-star success, she's developed a fiercely loyal fanbase that's growing by the day. And she's doing it on her own terms.
"[Interscope] doesn't interfere at all with my music," she says. "I deliver the albums to them, and we work it out from there."
Ironically, her fingerprints are most noticeable on the music of her one-time replacement, Britney Spears. In fact, Robyn's voice can literally be heard on Britney's 2007 single, 'Piece of Me,' a song for which she provided background vocals and was produced by Robyn's Grammy-winning Swedish compatriots Bloodshy & Avant of 'Toxic' fame. Also known as two-thirds of indie-pop powerhouse Miike Snow (cult heroes for electro epics like 'Animal' and 'Sylvia'), Bloodshy & Avant returned to the Brit fold for a few tracks on 'Femme Fatale,' an album further echoing the Euro-dance aesthetic of 'Body Talk.'
The colourfully glam stage persona of erstwhile (and recently returned) frontman John O'Regan, Diamond Rings employs a DIY mentality to create pop music on a budget. Though O'Regan comes from the realm of small rock clubs and indie labels, his music is also heavily influenced by the mainstream and his well-received debut, 'Small Affections,' owes as much to Kylie Minogue as it does to Depeche Mode.
"I'm interested in the structure of a pop song and the idea of a pop song, but I'm still touring behind an album that I made in Garageband on my roommate's computer," says O'Regan. "I'm kind of like a pop star with one hand tied behind my back."
Major labels are also now noticeably taking the "Robyn route." Rather than the built-by-committee, ready-made pop star, majors are investing in self-styled, self-driven artists whose qualities of "authenticity" are more often associated with the indie stream.
Marina Diamandis, sole member of Marina and the Diamonds, for instance, takes pride in writing her own songs, even when she works with a producer or co-writer. Her music, while glossy, often uses her split Welsh-Greek identity as a lens to examine the contradictions in American pop culture.
"I make pop music, but that doesn't mean I'm not a real artist," she avows. "I think pop music seems to have wildly deteriorated over the last ten years, with the rise of the American R&B auto-tuned era, but I think there's a lot of us bringing meaning and emotion back. It's not just about cranking out hits."
Like Diamandis, former independent singer Natalia Kills (born Natalia Cappucini) has involved herself in every level of her career, from video to songwriting to production. A former child actress, Natalia Kills co-directs and stars in an expressionist web series called 'Love Kills xx' that extends the noir-pop aesthetic found on her debut LP, 'Perfectionist.'
"People want something they can connect with more than just a random song on the radio," she says. "They want to know the face behind it; they want to know the opinion behind it. Listeners don't just want a hit song; they want someone to fall in love with. If pop music is developing into something more, that's because people are demanding more."
While Marina and the Diamonds and Natalia Kills are both signed to Warner and Interscope only through subsidiaries, their progressive approach can be spotted even in the most commercial pop artists. Lady Gaga's performance art shtick, for instance, assumes an intelligent performer behind the persona, while Justin Bieber's active Twitter campaign utilizes the unmediated fan-to-star potential of social media.
"It's hard to say what 'indie' even means these days," reflects Diamond Rings' O'Regan. "Look at Arcade Fire winning Grammys or LCD Soundsystem playing arena shows. I don't see how that's any less pop than someone like Robyn. I think what were formerly two very clear-cut disciplines are evaporating into one -- and that's a good thing."