New York, London, Paris, Munich, everyone’s talkin’ ’bout pop musik
Oh baby baby how were we supposed to know. . . that when we started worshipping at the feet of the new wave of guitar bands, turned over during Top of the Pops and failed to drag ourselves out of bed for CD:UK that we were presiding over the slow strangul
POP has gone to hell in a handcart. First they closed down the pop bible, Smash Hits. Then they took Top of the Pops off the air. Then Simon and Miquita left Channel 4’s Popworld, and then CD:UK was wiped off the airwaves. Pop is in crisis, under attack from guitar rock groups on one side and impatient record labels looking for a quick buck out of pop stars and ditching them quickly if they don’t produce bottomline figures on the other. There is, though, a corner of the web that is forever poptastic. Somewhere where you can go if you believe that you should never have to grow out of pop music and somewhere where you won’t feel stupid about your musical sensibilities.
The gang at Popjustice (www.popjustice.com) have come up with the perfect formula with which to approach the oft-derided genre: mix irreverence with mindless hero worship and triviality with ironic detachment and – voila! – you get a safe haven for popsters everywhere with an in-built sarcastic opt-out clause.
With more than one million page impressions per month, the Popjustice site has become, formany, Planet Pop. It’s a one-man show run by British music journalist Peter Robinson, who has never contrived to hide his passionate love of pure pop.
“I think I came to pop in a strange way,” he says. “Most people start with pop and then go on to rock, but I started off listening to The Orb and The Shamen and later on to Slayer. When I was about 17, though, I returned to pop music. There is no sense of this being a guilty pleasure and I am opposed to the idea that pop should be a guilty pleasure. I don’t do this with any sense of ironic detachment at all.” Robinson started the site as a labour of love five years ago and has watched it grow ever since. With the demise of Smash Hits, Top of the Pops and CD:UK, Popjustice now seems like the lone voice out there for popsters.
“I started it because I thought the traditional media weren’t doing a very good job in covering pop, especially the teen press. You had no idea what was good or bad. There’d be an amazingly good pop record which they would say was great, then a really bad song which they’d also say was great. What Iwanted to do was bring a bit of taste and decency back.”
He runs Popjustice on a part-time basis – “it’s frustrating because the more time I spend on it, the better it is” – and has recently got help of one other person. “We do get some advertising, but it’s still something I think of as doing in between my real job,” he says.
If you’re the sort of person who thought that Lee from Steps straightening his hair was more controversial than Dylan going electric, this is the site for you. Apart from a daily pop briefing, you’ll find singles reviews, pop videos, a letters page, a dream book (for when you have a dream about a pop star), e-cards, a pop dictionary and all that is relevant from the bleeding edge of pop.
While pop has transmogrified over the years, the contrasts between the last two decades are substantial. The 1990s were dominated by the assembly kit groups: New Kids on the Block, Backstreet Boys and ’N Sync. Famously, Take That began as the British version of a US boyband and opened the dam for that particular sub-genre. The nadir came with the arrival of Steps in 1997 – their ability barely stretched to being able to lipsynch their way through join-the-dots covers.
It would be impossible for a band such as Steps to exist in today’s climate. Very pale impersonations simply aren’t enough, and it takes something like Sugababes plundering the GaryNuman back catalogue to really make a mark.
Whether it be Justin Timberlake or The Pussycat Dolls, pop now demands a more collage-type approach, where the boundaries between pop and dance and rock and hip-hop are stretched. Which is something that the likes of Madonna and Kylie Minogue have always appreciated.
Not that Kylie and Madonna do it all themselves. The other huge difference between the decades is in the role of the producer. Whereas before the producer would simply put a pop sheen on recordings – with the emphasis always being more on the image of the act – today’s producer is an all-stop shop for the aspiring pop act. Where would Rihanna be without Stargate, or Christine Aguilera without Linda Perry?
But the one person almost single-handedly responsible for the ascendancy of the pop producer is Timbaland, who has sprinkled his magic dust over acts such as Justin Timberlake, Janet Jackson, Jay-Z and Destiny’s Child. Similar to Phil Spector before him, Timbaland has a recognisable production style which can sometimes overshadow the actual act.
There’s also the changed role of the record company, where pop acts today are not somuch launched as sent into the publicity trajectory at Mach 3 speed.
There is no such thing as a pop act being developed over a number of albums. Wary of the transient nature of the form, an act needs to hit hard with its first single or the album won’t be released. The sums of money spent in launching a pop act are multiples of that of a rock band.
All of this helps Popjustice’s cause. The genre is a dynamic one, subject to sudden changes, and even in its greatest failures it remains downright hilarious. Where Popjustice ultimately succeeds is in its honesty, iconoclasm and, in particular, trivia: if there’s a continuity error in the latest Sugababes video, it’ll tell you all about it.
Robinson figures the site is mainly used by twentysomethings. “It’s written for adults and if any younger pop fans come across it, we can’t really do anything about that. An eight-year-old could buy the NME, after all.”
The more muso-ish of his colleagues in the music press aren’t surprised by his love of all things pop. “What you will find is that the people who write for the NME, for example, are very passionate about the music they’re writing about,” he says. “But they can also be passionate about other types ofmusic that the NME doesn’t cover. In my case, I really like guitar rock. It’s just that I don’t write about it on the site. Some people, though, remain surprised by my involvement in all of
Popjustice is perfectly equipped to deal with the changed pop music landscape.
“It’s great that there are bands such as Girls Aloud and Sugababes out there. I think the boyband thing is something that’s over – it was something which just happened for a number of years – and it’s the guitar bands who are getting all the attention now. It would take an amazing and mind-blowing debut single for a boyband, in the traditional sense, to succeed now. They’d need to have a song such as [Nelly Furtado’s] Maneater or they’d need to be an electronic boyband or something.
“When you look at good pop, it always takes chances. It’s very intense, very imaginative and artistic as well as commercial. But if you look at the new Take That single, it’s technically a good song and pulls all the right strings, but it’s not very exciting.”
He believes that this present generation of pop buyers are very discerning. “The average 15 or 16 year old has grown up with all these music TV shows and they’re quite used to all the intense publicity and clever marketing surrounding the launch of a pop band” says Robinson.
Successful spin-offs from the site include a weekly club night in London (Club Popjustice) and a series of hilarious pop biographies which are modelled along the lines of the Mr Men books. There’s also the Popjustice £20 Music Prize, which is held on the same night as the Mercury Music Prize, with the winner being the best pop single of the year.
And now sees the release of the PopJustice: 100% Solid Pop Music mix album. Sugababes to The Pussycat Dolls to Scissor Sisters to Nelly Furtado, this is the perfect pop compilation that is intended for, as Robinson puts it, “people who think they don’t like pop music”. www.popjustice.com 100% Solid Pop Music is on the Fascination label