the a-z of pop
To celebrate the release of The Music Issue, we kick off the week with the A-Z of Pop. From the debate of Authenticity to Zayn Malik's single, loose strand of hair (that's probably prettier than your whole face, as a Directioner tweeted) read on to...
A is for AUTHENTICITY
Authenticity is pop's kryptonite. It hovers over it like a fun vacuum, consuming pop stars as soon as the words "I write all my own songs, you know," leave their lips. It's also used as a stick to beat them with — the boring brigade thinking it's somehow better to listen to a song recorded on a dictaphone down a well than one finessed into a perfect state of joy-giving wonder by experts in their field.
B is for BEYONCÉ
Obviously. Not just as a celebration of the deity that is Houston's finest, but also because of what she's given the music industry of late; the full Beyoncé. The term — along with partial Beyoncé and Fauxoncé — was coined by the website Popjustice after Mrs. Carter surprised everyone by plonking her fifth album online back in December 2013. It's now a template for pop stars to release their music before someone works out their iCloud password and leaks the lot.
C is for CREDITS
Obsessed pop fans care about song credits. Knowing who wrote what ahead of a song's appearance can give you clues as to what it might sound like, or, if the artist is listed as a writer and they're perhaps not known for their lyrical prowess, it can act as a warning. In Britney's case, with her eighth album, Britney Jean, it allowed her to hammer home the mantra that it was her most personal work (it wasn't, it was dog shit).
D is for DELUXE EDITIONS
As in, the more expensive version of an album that tends to go on for way too long but can occasionally include the album's best, most interesting material. They tend to come with slightly different "cover art" and if you still buy CDs (LOL) you might even get a cardboard slipcase!
E is for EVENTUALLY WORKING WITH SIA
Look, pop stars of the world, it's going to happen, don't fight it. At some point in your career you will sing a song written by Sia and it will be amazing. Don't believe me? Ask Beyoncé, Rihanna, Christina, Rita, Katy, Celine, Britney, Kylie, Shakira and, erm, Cheryl Fernandez-Versini.
F is for FEATURES
Pop stars get lonely. They'll often invite their close personal friends — be they Pitbull or Nicki Minaj — over to the studio where they'll work closely together to create something unique that draws out the best in both of them. Or, they'll shamelessly whack a rapper on a song to get to number one (Katy Perry), replace one rapper with another so they can pretend to be lesbians in the video (J.Lo's Booty) or feed off other people's star power in the hope some might rub off on them (Jessie J, Bang Bang).
G is for GETTING OLD
Pop exists in the present so it sort of makes sense that much of what makes the pop industry tick is youth. Radio 1 choose who to play based on the perceived age of an act's fan base (Kylie's out, Foo Fighters are in, for example), and judgments become harsher when a (usually female) pop star passes a certain age. But pop's central driving force always starts with the song, which can render your birthday irrelevant if it's a stone-cold, undeniable classic (see Cher's Believe, Madonna's Hung Up, Mariah Carey's #Beautiful and so on).
H is for HAIR
A pop star has to have good hair otherwise what's the point (see: Zayn Malik, Ella Eyre, Marina & The Diamonds). If the hair's not working, pop a nice hat on.
I is for INSTAGRAM
Where once it was Twitter that would unmask a moron, it now seems to be the job of Instagram. Miley Cyrus' feed is a clusterfuck of neon-hued, Blue Peter-style arts and crafts, beds covered in dogs and the odd near-naked selfie. Madonna, meanwhile, let her previous grip on every aspect of her public image slip by uploading pictures of almost every historical figure with black wire photoshopped over their faces.
J is for JANET JACKSON
Please come back, ta.
K is for KEEPING IT UNREAL
As in, let's have no more of this "girl/boy next door" business. Personally, I don't want my favorite pop star to be the same as the person I bump into at the local shop; I want them to wear ridiculous outfits, spout ludicrous nonsense and look down on us mere mortals. Pop stars are meant to be like perfectly manicured aliens. WARNING: this only works when the songs are amazing, otherwise you're just a moron wearing a flamingo hat in a supermarket.
L is for LEAKS
Leaks are just part and indeed parcel of pop music in 2015. In fact, it's nothing particularly new; I vividly remember trawling the darker recesses of the internet for the leaked version of Britney's Gimme More. But the whole thing was brought into sharper focus recently when 34 Madonna demos arrived online, the majority of them before she'd even announced her new album. Basically, leaks happen, it's how you deal with them that matters nowadays.
M is for MANAGING EXPECTATIONS
Pop is a tiered system. There are your old-school megastars like Madonna who will always be famous despite diminishing sales. Then there's the strand of modern day megastars like Rihanna and One Direction, who sell well, and can tour the world, but whose popularity also exists in areas like YouTube views, Twitter followers and Facebook likes. Below that is a strand of blog-friendly pop stars who could have a shit in the street and no one would notice. Basically, it's stupid to crow about Kylie not having top ten singles anymore, or worry when One Direction don't have nine number one singles in a row or freak out if Robyn's latest collaboration doesn't dent the Billboard chart. Things have changed, move on.
N is for NOSTALGIA
UK TV show The Big Reunion has a lot to answer for. Ever since its first series in 2013, pop nostalgia's gone into overdrive. McFly and Busted have regrouped as McBusted, S Club 7 are playing arenas, All Saints were back briefly and even Atomic Kitten are now venturing out on a world tour ("the world" being Germany and the UK). It's probably time for this all to stop now, at least before the barrel's scraped completely bare with the return of EYC.
O is for ON AIR ON SALE
Brought to the UK at the start of 2011 as a way of trying to combat piracy, the fairly self-explanatory On Air On Sale never really caught on. By the summer of that year Sony stopped using it, basically because radio seemed reluctant to play a song that hadn't been championed by them in the first place. Or something. It's all very confusing and it doesn't help that some labels still use it, i.e. Taylor's Shake It Off appeared instantly and that worked out pretty well.
P is for PRE-CHORUS
The pre-chorus is that bit between the verse and chorus that ups the urgency and makes your stomach do that weird flip thing when it glides into gear. It's like sonic fairy dust. Sometimes a pre-chorus is sort of the actual chorus (see Katy Perry's Dark Horse), whereas in other cases (Sia's Chandelier) it's almost as good as the proper one that follows.
Q is for QUARTERS
The music industry finds it easier to organize itself into quarters. So Q1 (Jan-Mar) was always thought to be the quieter period in which soon-to-be-unemployed artists could score a top 10 with 600 copies sold. Q2 is that bit where second albums are usually released if the first one under-performed slightly, while Q3 is more about bands who get to play at festivals. Q4, however, is notoriously the one pop fans get wet for, with all the proper megastars unleashing their latest opuses. Unfortunately Q4 2014 was a total letdown, chiefly because of Rihanna, making Q1 the new Q4.
R is for RIHANNA
See above. There we were, waiting patiently while Rihanna appeared on magazine covers talking about shepherd's pie, teased clips of herself in the studio and then promptly did absolutely nothing. But you have to forgive her because, well, she's Rihanna, the defining pop star of the last decade and the one person who can make being a pop star seem like the best job in the world.
S is for STAGGERED RELEASE SCHEDULES
Major labels seem to have some sort of problem with the UK, making them wait patiently while the rest of the world gets to enjoy a song or an album months in advance. Charli XCX's Sucker album for example came out in America in December but didn't hit the UK until February. It happens with songs too. The most ludicrous recent example being Sia's Chandelier, which premiered in March last year but wasn't available to buy in the UK until June!
T is for TEASERS
From video countdowns, to song snippets, to album title reveals drawn out one letter at a time on Twitter, pop isn't always quick to get to the point. Social media has added a whole new dimension to stringing people along (oh Lord, the hashtags!), with the desired anticipation buildup negated by the fact that most people, quite literally, haven't got time for that shit.
U is for ULTRAVIOLENCE
As in the 2014 album by moody chanteuse Lana Del Rey. The followup to the monumentally successful Born To Die, it's included here because of what it represents. Sometimes an album can be so big and so defining it can be hard to follow up. You either carry on directly down the same path and become a caricature, or you retreat slightly, tone everything down and make an album that re-calibrates you as an artist. Rumor is Lana's next album, Honeymoon, will see more of a return to the noir-ish sound of that debut. All she needed was a little break.
V is for VARIOUS ARTISTS
Album sales are dwindling, but fear not because the continued love for individual tracks has ushered in the superstar-stuffed soundtrack album. Last year Lorde curated the Hunger Games soundtrack, roping in mates Kanye, Ariana Grande and Charli XCX. The latter, meanwhile, is also on the soundtrack to a forthcoming animation starring Rihanna, who will also have a bit of a singsong herself. There's also the forthcoming musical accompaniment to the S&M Olympics, aka Fifty Shades of Grey, featuring Beyoncé, Ellie Goulding and Jessie Ware.
W is for WALKING
The perfect pop star walk is essential. When Meghan Trainor performed on the live final of last year's X Factor she walked like Brenda in accounting sidling up to the printer. No. An amazing pop star walks like they own the place, oozing an almost illegal amount of sex appeal and looking like they invented the very act of walking itself.
X is for X FACTOR
The X Factor has given the world Leona Lewis, One Direction, erm, Olly Murs, wait... Alexandra Burke! Union J! Hold on, there was Sam Bailey wasn't there? That guy who went on to make a classical Christmas album. Basically, The X Factor has given us some good pop but it's mainly just been an amazing way to waste the last three months of the year.
Y is for YAAAAAAS
This is really about "stans," but I'd already written the one for S. Apols. Basically, "yaaaaaaaas" is the elongated sound made by one particular Lady Gaga super fan (or stan) in her general direction (there's an amusing compilation video of all the best bits here). It's since become the default reply whenever a pop star appears on Twitter, sometimes followed by "slay," "sit on my face," "kill me and then bring me back to life and then kill me again" or "come to Brazil." It is, let's be honest, really exhausting.
Z is for ZAYN
The hair! The pouty voice! The two left feet! Terrible tattoos! Zayn could well be pop music's dark horse in the next few years so do keep an eye out.
Text Michael Cragg
Photography Mark Lebon
The Sexsense Issue, No.15, May, 1984