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

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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.

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