What’s next? The new Madonnas

Written By :
02 Jan 2009 12:00

image Written By : SUN FIJI NEWSROOM. Boys with guitars are out, girls with synthesisers are in. Caroline Sullivan talks to the new electro-queens.
Every now and then pop music undergoes a dramatic shift, and if you believe the people who influence what we listen to, we’re currently on the verge of just such a phase. Out, according to record labels, are the male guitar bands who have dominated the charts and airwaves for much of the decade; in are solo electropop artists who have arrived en masse from Planet Quirky. If things go to plan, they’ll be leading a return to the idiosyncratic, credible pop we haven’t seen since the ’80s. And this time the hottest prospects are women.
Thanks to artists such as Little Boots, La Roux, Ladyhawke and, tipped as the first early-2009 success story, Lady GaGa, electropop’s image as the domain of the male technogeek is getting a makeover. These women, all in their early 20s, are of a generation that has been adept with computers since primary school; when they started writing songs, they turned to their laptops rather than picking up a guitar. They have pretty much nothing in common with the male guitar groups who are spending the final weeks of 2008 watching their much-anticipated new albums fail to sell.
La Roux, a 20-year-old south Londoner who was born Elly Jackson, is a cooler Sophie Ellis Bextor: her dance-pop tunes are infectious, she looks striking (her vertical red hairdo attracts frequent comments from strangers), and she says what she thinks. For instance: she believes that if women want to play an instrument on stage, only a synthesiser will do. “Girls look a bit stupid playing electric guitar and drums. It suits blokes better. But girls look wicked playing synths. When they play drums or whatever, it looks a bit butch. I hope that doesn’t sound anti-feminist.”
She is passionate about electronic music, citing the way “a dark synth” makes the perfect contrast to her thin, intense voice. “Synths make me feel warm and tingly,” she says. And if you listen to her first single, Quicksand (out this month), you see what she’s driving at. The emotive vocal and skittish, ping-ponging beat are reminiscent of the Eurythmics, and the effect is as warm and tingly as you could hope for.
The future, according to New Yorker Lady GaGa, is female and electro. “It’s a good time now,” she says, speaking on the phone from San Diego, where she is in the middle of a 23-day tour through 21 cities. “There’s a big empty space that was waiting to be filled by women.” GaGa, Joanne Germanotta to her parents, has already proved a controversial stage performer. She shows a lot of flesh and writes explicit lyrics (“I sing about oral sex in my underwear,” as she puts it). This, she says, is part of an effort to produce memorable art. Her inspiration is Andy Warhol, “because of his ability to take commercial art and create an intellectual and artistic space where it was taken seriously. The idea is to make things – videos, fashion, performance art – that are innately significant and insignificant, that will cause argument: ‘Is Lady GaGa valid or invalid?’ ”
Others before her, such as Berlin electropop act Peaches, have used a similar combination of a confrontational, sexualised image with a high-minded artistic vision; the difference is that GaGa sells records. Her album, The Fame, reached No. 17 in America and her single, Just Dance, has been nominated for a Grammy. Her sound is hard, modern, chrome-edged, but she hasn’t forgotten to add choruses, as a listen to Just Dance proves. The track is diabolically catchy.
An encounter with GaGa is a bracing experience, and you come away heartened at the prospect of people like her in the charts. Iain Watt, who manages Mika and founded the Wonky Pop brand, sees genuine commercial potential in the likes of GaGa. “What these girls are doing is based on pop, and it may start out in a niche way,” he says. “But because the songs are so good, it’ll spread far beyond (that).” They’ll also be helped along by the grim financial forecast, he contends. “Next year will be very heavily focused on pop because of the economic climate. People want a two-minute escape from their pressurised lives.” ”
Watt could be describing GaGa or La Roux or Little Boots – all of whom, by the way, are among the 15 new artists tipped for success in this month’s BBC Sound of 2009 poll, compiled from the tips of 130 critics and broadcasters. It’s worth pointing out that only two standard guitar bands (White Lies and Temper Trap) made it into next year’s 15; last year’s list was nearly 50 per cent guitar-based. It looks as if the classic male guitar group will have trouble finding a record deal in 2009, as labels concentrate their energies on chasing more GaGas and La Rouxs – credible solo talents they’re banking on to infuse music with fresh energy.
Is this the end of the band? James Oldham, head of A&R at A&M Records, says: “All A&R departments have been saying to managers and lawyers, ‘Don’t give us any more bands, because we’re not going to sign them, and they’re not going to sell records.’ ”
There is something of the young Madonna about GaGa: she’s boundlessly ambitious (“I intend to have an installation at the Louvre and Moma”), and emphatically denies she is a record-company construct. “To be quite honest,” she says, “the label had to tone me down. You’d think they were giving me tiny shorts to put on, but it was the other way around. When they met me, I was working in a nightclub in New York, half naked, but I had a big voice and they liked me. If anything, they put more clothes on me.”-Guardian

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