There’s an article in the Guardian’s Friday Review this week on the current Wonky Pop tour - Alphabeat, Leon Jean-Marie, Frankmusic – all of whom are reasonably engaging and interesting in their disparate ways (although, in true chart pop fashion, there’s a heap of woeful inanity to wade through before getting to the good stuff).
It’s encouraging to see these guys picking up on what must be the most simultaneously obvious yet still relatively unacknowledged fact of the century so far: that most commercial pop music (led by feeder genres such as nu-R’n’B and garage/twostep) is typically about ten times more futuristic and innovative than anything coming out of the indie/alternative scene. Swap you the Courteeners, Babyshambles, Kaiser Chiefs, Wombats, Foals and Bloc Party for Kelly Rowland, Britney, Robyn, Beyonce, Amerie and Lykke Li any day of the week.
However, caution must be exercised here. If the Guardian piece is anything to go by, this mini-scene is in danger of becoming a full-blown media cause celebre, which of course puts it in danger of being turned very quickly into a vehicle for all manner of inverse snobbery and capricious scensterism. As soon as the London music establishment gets involved, you can bet bandwagon-hoppers will seize on this eloquent musical avowal of pop, and use it as a pseudo-intellectual excuse for all kinds of lesser commercial artists to carry on indulging in shallow corporatism and cliché-ridden cheese (am I mistaken, or does ‘cheese’ just mean ‘shit’?), a sort of media-sanctioned get out of jail free card for conservative, unimaginative people everywhere.
Also, the conceit of the article – that pop is usually regarded as lightweight and unsophisticated - is fucking irksome, as well as being a commonplace so extravagantly time-worn and facile as to render the majority of the piece (which is largely spun out of this premise) entirely pointless. ‘There’s something deeply incongruous about finding Alphabeat in these surroundings [ie. the Cardiff Barfly]’ claims Alexis Petridis, as if a pop-crossover band has never dared to venture out of the comfortable arena/academy circuit. (Just to digress, Petridis may not be the worst music writer I’ve come across, but he is some way down there on my personal ratings scale, and I feel like I must take the opportunity to say, once and for all, YOU CANNOT BE A NEWSPAPER’S FASHION CORRESPONDENT AND AT THE SAME TIME EXPECT TO BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY AS A MUSIC JOURNALIST. Fashion is an inevitable and integral part of popular music, but music is not, as many people seem to have started believing recently, a marketing tool for selling clothes. British alternative culture has suffered terribly in recent times from the unscrupulous willingness of prominent cultural figures – Jo Whiley, Mark Ronson, Pete Doherty, Conor McNicholas, Lily Allen, Johnny Borrell – to treat independent music as just another branch of the style/consumption/celebrity circus, and equating fashion with music a la Petridis is in the current climate always going to seem like a complicit extension of this trend).
There is an obvious problem with nomenclature here – pop, pop music, popular music, have always and will continue to mean vastly different things in different contexts (what is popular is not necessarily pop, and what is melodic and well produced is not necessarily marketable, etc) - it all gets a bit ridiculous after a certain point. But broadly speaking, if you’re being consciously ‘pop’, you just need to make sure you don’t go too far down the commercial path, and ensure you keep in mind at all times the genuinely useful artistic aspects of pop music – populism, spontaneity, openness, fun, directness, immediacy, compression etc. At their best these Wonky Pop acts understand this high-art approach to pop very well, even if they're not anywhere near as accomplished as fellow Scandinavians Robyn and Lykke Li. You just hope all these artists are allowed the breathing space to keep mining this promising path.