Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Authenticity and Pop Music: the cases of Britney Spears and Sia

Kira's most recent post on Florida Georgia Line sought to delineate some of the factors that earn a group near-universal disdain, taking as her examples such disdainful groups as Nickelback and Creed.  Several of the factors that Kira identified as crucial to earning this level of disdainfulness fall under the category of authenticity, or lack thereof.  The idea that artists should be 'authentic' is tied larger concepts in Western culture about the imperative of originality for the genius--in other words, we value those who come up with innovative, new ideas, and we tend to see these genii as working independently, often in opposition to what is popular.  In this paradigm, genius artists also tend to skew male, which is not necessarily within the theory, but was at one point linked to gender: since men could not create life without the help of women, their creative tendencies were channeled elsewhere.  Hideously archaic?  Yes, but this paradigm continues to govern how we talk about 'good' and 'bad' music today.  The genius paradigm helps explain why the sell-out is so reviled and why the canon of art music so heavily favors men--even when discussing contemporary art music.

I bring these notions up because I want to talk today about two artists who break this paradigm, but are still subject to its strictures.  One is frequently viewed as a sell-out with limited artistic value, yet her career has reshaped the world of pop music.  The other is an anomaly within pop music, since she fits the concept of genius in some respects, but adheres to few of the expectations that we have of pop artists.  I am talking, of course, about Britney Spears and Sia respectively.  Both of these artists simultaneously meet and thwart our expectations of what a 'genius' can do, while demonstrating how complex our understanding of pop music can (and should) be.

Britney Spears

Go ahead, hate on Britney.  She doesn't write her own songs.  She doesn't sing her own songs in concert.  She relies on auto-tune for her albums.  She can't act (okay, this one may be fair).  She is nothing more than a Disney star transformed into sexy, sultry pop star--so basic.  And yet, I defy you to name another pop star working today who has had as many iconic moments as Brit Brit.  I plan to pepper this post with random ones.

What Britney can do--and can do better than almost anyone else in the biz--is perform.  And that is what she does best.  She can do so in lives shows, as seen above, and she is famous for having done so at award shows:

I saw a documentary once where it was revealed that actually, Brit Brit is afraid of snakes.

I saw this when it aired.  And I remember where I was.  It was Notable.

She is also justly famous for iconic video moments.  Many, many video moments:

These first three are all from the same freaking video

Of all the songs above, perhaps 'Circus' best sums up what Britney does best.  All eyes do fall on her in the center of the ring and we keep watching for what she will do.  The lyrics 'Don't just stand there watching me, follow me,' with their slight syncopation, make clear that not only are we 'gazing' at her, but that she relishes the attention.  Her songs are heavily produced to be successful, but I think the 'it' factor that has kept Britney relevant is precisely her:

I don't care how many 'handlers' Britney needed around her to make these moments happen.  The end result is that she was the one who delivered (to make a football analogy here, this is like saying that Tom Brady is a 'system quarterback,' which is all well and good, but he is still Tom Freaking Brady, and he still has more Superbowl rings than any other active QB and LEAVE TOM BRADY ALONE).  She is a consummate performer.  Note that I did not say 'singer,' because I don't think that she is necessarily a consummate singer; of pop stars working today, there are better examples on a technical level, such as Lady Gaga and Beyoncé.  However, detracting from her artistry for not creating her own material has always struck me as odd.  There is no question in my mind that the 'creative genius' paradigm is afoot whenever that happens.  To say that Britney is an inferior artist because she doesn't perform her own material is bizarre.  It's like saying that Meryl Streep is somehow a bad actress because she reads other people's words.

Repeatedly bringing such striking performances to life, that is a skill. And it is one at which Britney reigns supreme.

A reminder to choose what you make iconic carefully.


Readers of SGS, I have a confession to make: in late 2012, I pretty much stopped listening to pop music.  Shocking, I know.   My primary mode of consumption was the radio, but I started noticing more and more that what was on was just....well.....bad.  Everything sounded either like Rihanna's 'Birthday Cake' (NOT GOOD) or like Lil Wayne rambling over some slow jam.  Mostly, it was a morass of sameness, badness, and channel-change-inducing ennui.  Instead, I went to podcasts, and I pretty much never went back.  Yes, I felt very old when this happened.

However, there were a few exceptions (I will admit to Drake's 'The Motto' being one of them.  Don't hate.  Canadian solidarity, man).  And a few others that I didn't absolutely hate:

These songs are not completely terrible, unlike Rihanna's 'Birthday Cake'

Connoisseurs of pop music have already noticed the common denominator here.  All three songs are, in some way, the work of Sia: she wrote the lyrics to 'Diamonds; and she both performed the vocals for and wrote the lyrics to 'Wild Ones' and 'Titanium.'  Those who are not connoisseurs may be asking who exactly Sia is.  That is a great question.  It is extremely notable that she does not feature in either video for which she provides vocals, which is highly unusual for a 'pop' artist.  In the video, many people lip synch along with the chorus in 'Wild Ones,' making it unclear who the actual singer might be, but quite clear that it is none of the people lip synching (also, can I take a moment here and point out how unintentionally funny 'Girl With Arms Up In Bandeau' is?).  Perhaps she should be better viewed as one of those background singers, like Dido to Eminem in 'Stan' or Ke$sha to Flo Rida in 'Right Round.'  But that view misrepresents Sia's contribution: she is not only a singer, she is also a songwriter and has contributed to a number of hits (in fact, Sia's version of 'Titanium' was originally meant for Katy Perry).  Furthermore, it is a bit hard to say that she is the 'background' singer in 'Titanium,' even though the primary song credit goes to David Guetta, who is a DJ.

Sia now has her first credited major hit with 'Chandelier.'  Even in this video, though, she is wholly absent.  Instead, dancer Maddie Ziegler dances in a frenetic manner, likely representing the inner torment felt by the singer while she is 'swinging from the chandelier' and barely hanging on while partying:

If you haven't seen the SNL parody yet, take a moment and do that.  Also, there is something to be said here about performance, especially at the end when the fact that this is a performance becomes clear when Ziegler bows, but I'll leave that for you to ponder.

Sia conforms in many ways to the genius paradigm (and I will argue that because I think that 'Chandelier' is a genius way of representing the tension that often exists between those who party it up and their's a broader metaphor).  She creates her own art.  She performs her own art.  Yet she is not, in my view, a pop star.  One of the most preeminent requirements in pop--as Britney teaches us--is creating notable performances.  Maddie Zielger does this in the 'Chandelier' video, but Sia remains absent. In fact, when she performed on Dancing with the Stars, Sia was 'hidden' in favor of the dancers:

What the cases of Sia and Britney demonstrate is that an understanding of pop music through the lens of the genius paradigm is inherently flawed (arguably, evaluating any type of work through the genius paradigm is flawed).  There are too many other factors that contribute to a notable and noteworthy pop experience, perhaps most importantly performance.  To subject these stars to the same critical tropes makes no sense.  Instead, we should recognize that pop depends on a wider scope of people for its success.  We are accustomed to the idea that the performer should be equated with the artist, but I am suggesting that Sia and Britney demonstrate to us that these roles can be divided.  Both make great art, but in very different ways.

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