Ailbhe Malone on what we learned from pop culture in 2014
Pop stars played it safe this year, while trying to convince us that they’re just like us (they’re not). But there are still a lot to learn from the pop-class of 2014 , writes Ailbhe Malone
Looking at it now, it seems like 2014 was a year when pop stars went with the safe bet. Collaborations (at best, The Boy is Mine, at worst a pop version of Buy One Get One Free) ruled the roost, from Charli & Iggy, to Ariana & Iggy or Ariana & Jessie & Nicki. We won’t even go into the barnyard catastrophe of Timber.
Even videos went down a tried and tested route (The video for Iggy Azalea’s Fancy?
Clueless? Like duh!) Groups stuck together (like McBusted) or reformed (like S Club 7). The biggest album of the year (Taylor Swift’s 1989) was billed as a huge departure, but from country to pop – not the other way around. One of the breakout stars (hiya Sam Smith) was essentially “a male Adele”. And even “bad boys” 5 Seconds of Summer haven’t done anything that Justin Bieber wouldn’t do.
The song of the summer
But the problem is that “safe” doesn’t always translate. While Pharrell’s Happy, aka The Song of the Summer, was harmless, it only made us think of the song of last summer ( Blurred Lines) – so much so that Pharrell spent all of his album G.I.R.L. explaining how much he really loved women, for real.
And although One Direction’s Steal My Girl showcases non-threatening lyrics on the surface (They’ve been in a relationship since they were 16; She likes how her parents respect them) there was still an undercurrent of possessiveness.
Meanwhile, Meghan Trainor tried her luck with a body positivity anthem with a vague message, only to realise that some matters are more nuanced than three minutes and 30 seconds will allow.
They’re just like us
In fact, 2014 was the year that tried to prove that pop stars, they’re just like us. Whether it
One Direction’s ‘Steal My Girl’ showcases nonthreatening lyrics on the surface (They’ve been in a relationship since they were 16; She likes how her parents respect them) but there is still an undercurrent of possessiveness
was Taylor Swift adorably trying to negotiate Tumblr (sample: explaining a GIF of herself burning her hand: “It’s cold out here, maybe this heat lamp will help. I think I’ll put my hand up and just – NO IT DIDN’T HELP IT JUST BURNED MY HAND WHY DID I DO THAT.”)
Or Lady Gaga and Katy Perry competing via Instagram videos of their nose piercing processes (no, really). Or even Beyoncé, filming a music video on her hotel balcony in her Y-fronts ( 7/11 of course), while ruling the Instagram roost.
Ed Sheeran and James Blunt were up to similar tricks by taking control of their Twitter accounts. Here’s a sample James Blunt tweet: “Coming upstairs now. RT @sassyfalahee: omfg james blunt is on the tv downstairs can this day get any worse!”
They’re not like us
Except, well, pop stars, they’re not like us. In the same way that Jennifer Lawrence may be goofy and clumsy, and still be a movie star, the gap between real life as presented in pop, and real life as presented in, well, real life, leads into a kind of uncanny valley.
For some stars who had previously traded on their online relatability (Lily Allen, for example), presenting an image of “an ordinary person” now falls flat. And for stars like Gaga, who over the years have allowed their fans more and more access, it means that the veil has dropped (metaphorically and literally).
The stars who gained the most were those who married an approachable exterior with a carefully curated online life.
We’re looking at you, Lorde, who led a discussion on standards of beauty by sharing untouched photos of her acne, and contrasting it to other photoshopped images. And you, Taylor Swift, who explained to Rolling Stone earlier this year that she’s always on the watch for pap shots. “You just make sure your skirt is down, and you make sure you don’t give them a terrible eating shot. I’m incapable of telling when food is on my face. It’s like I don’t have nerves in my skin. So if I get, like, a heinous piece of chocolate on my face, please let me know. I won’t be offended.”
So was 2014 the year that pop went normcore? Not quite. Think of Robyn and Royksopp’s smashing album, with the
Taylor Swift explained to ‘Rolling Stone’ earlier this year that she’s always on the watch for pap shots: ‘You just make sure your skirt is down, and you make sure you don’t give them a terrible eating shot’
brazen, fiery Do It Again. Or Tinashe’s flawless appearance with 2 On on Jimmy Kimmell, oozing 00’s R’n’B cool. Or even FKA Twigs, whose Google glass video was wonderfully strange.
Not everything went according to the pop plan. Becky G floundered, despite releasing an incredible mixtape a few years ago, and what should have been the song of this summer in
Shower (her debut album is still in the works). And La Roux’s record (with the incredible
Uptight Downtown) went largely unloved. It seems that amid all these attempts to appear non-threatening and unshowy, when actual pop stars came along, nobody was quite sure what to do with them .
Well-loved bangers in pop
But in the words of Roxette, don’t bore us, get to the chorus. There were quality bangers on the pop dancefloor this year. Give us Kiesza’s Hideaway, or Le Youth’s Dance With Me, both bringing 3am house party vibes to discotheques from Bundoran to Berlin.
The former had perhaps the best video of the year, and the latter introduced TLC to a new generation, thanks to its No
Scrubs sample. And even though there was no Rihanna single (we hold out hope that she’ll drop one after we go to press), Blood Diamonds and Grimes’s Go filled the gap nicely.
And yes, Clean Bandit may be mum-pleasers, with all their lovely string instruments, but the lyrics to Come Over are not coy. (Sample: “Since the last three months, you know you want me.”) For more post-modern pop fans, QT and Sophie combined on Hey QT (think hyper-stylised K-Pop).
As for 2015? Well, XL signing Shamir is encouraging. And the Bruno Mars/Mark Ronson jam
Uptown Funk is proof that revamping retro sounds can still sound fresh. Charli XCX continues to channel iconic 1990s group Shampoo, both in sound and in style. And we’re currently trying to see if we can join uber-cool girl group Juce.
You know us, ever the optimist.
Left, some girl who sings. Right, Mnek. Lorde, above. Top, Meghan Trainor. Centre, Nicki Minaj, Jessie J and Ariana Grande. Far right, Sam Smith. Above right, Robyn and Royksopp.