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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - COVER STORY -

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

this.”

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

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