Pop: The Noughtiest Decade

The 2000s have been an interesting decade for both pop, and for the charts in general. The charts have undergone some interesting changes. The 1990s had seen a shift towards “instant” hits that charted high and then sank quickly due to a policy of heavy promotion and reduced CD prices in the week of release. The inevitable consequence of this was a progressively higher turnover of Number Ones in the latter half of the decade. 2000 proved to be the culmination of this, with a staggering 43 different chart-toppers in that one year, most of which, of course, were only Number One for seven days – including one with that very title, plus others that have in many cases been long since forgotten (Same Old Brand New You by A1, anybody? Yes? No? Okay, thought not). There were one or two gems that snatched glory, but the fact that the year was topped by Westlife and tailed by Bob the Builder was pretty indicative of the general standard.

2001 proceeded in much the same vein, the struggle for supremacy fought between insipid pop, stale dance and the horrors of rap-rock and their ilk. Meanwhile, March saw the group Hear’Say, who millions had seen put together on the ITV reality show Popstars, break the record for the fastest-selling debut single of all time, and giving the first indication of a trend that would come to define the decade in entertainment as a whole. Then, pop got its much-needed shot in the arm in the autumn of that year, and from a past mistress. Kylie Minogue had already confirmed her return to pop, golden hotpants and all, in the previous year’s Spinning Around. However, whilst delightful in its own way, it was put in the shade by Can’t Get You Out of My Head, a stunning marriage of Kraftwerk, seductive vocals, a na-na-naggingly insistent tune and sharp visuals. It was the first bona fide pop classic of the decade.

If Can’t Get You Out of My Head felt retro, yet utterly modern, then it was a direction taken to a further extreme in 2002 by Richard X. The producer had scored an underground hit with a bootleg mash-up of Adeva’s Freak Like Me and Tubeway Army’s Are Friends Electric. Due to demand, he then re-recorded the vocal with the then line-up of Sugababes (whose debut single Overload had been one of the rare pleasures of 2000), the song was issued on a major label and the result was a monster hit, one that would also send the Sugababes’ career into orbit. The side-effect was that everyone then wanted to do a modern pop/80s electro mash-up, and these efforts would inevitably obey the law of diminishing returns (the most positive thing one can say about Jamelia’s Beware of the Dog is that it makes one want to listen to Personal Jesus). The exception to this rule was a Norwegian popstrel by the name of Annie Lilia Berge Strand. Having started off at the turn of the millennium with the Madonna-sampling Greatest Hit, it took a few more years before a sprinkling of Richard X magic resulted in the glorious single Chewing Gum and its even more fabulous parent album Anniemal.

Taking things to the next level on the production front were Brian Higgins and Xenomania. Higgins had his big breakthrough producing Cher’s monster hit Believe in 1998, and scored another Number One with the Sugababes’ Round Round in 2002. However, his most fruitful collaboration proved to be with a group who had come into being, like Hear’Say, as a result of a reality TV show. However, whereas the original series of Popstars presented Hear’Say as a fait accompli, Popstars: The Rivals gave the audience the opportunity to decide who would become the members of a boy band, One True Voice and a girl band, Girls Aloud, both of whom would have their debut singles released in the week before the all-important Christmas chart in December 2002. It was Girls Aloud who won the battle with Sound of the Underground which, contrary to the sappy ballads and by-numbers cover versions given to all other singing contest winners, was a dynamic, driving piece of pop music. After that, the Girls Aloud/Xenomania bandwagon was unstoppable. Single after single proved to be classic after classic – No Good Advice, The Show, Love Machine, the list goes on. Of course, the Girls weren’t averse to the odd sappy ballad and by-numbers cover version themselves, but even these felt like breathers between the pinnacles of pop brilliance.

So Girls Aloud had vaulted ahead, and it was now the job of the rest of pop to catch up, or at any rate find a new direction. R&B led the way with its exciting, futuristic production. This had been initiated arguably by Missy Elliott’s music-melding, mind-melting Get Ur Freak On, and progressed through the innovations of Timbaland and the Neptunes, ending up with Kanye West’s much-parodied abuse of the Auto-Tune function. Whilst R&B looked forward, indie music, as is so often its wont, looked back, although this time to the late 1970s rather than the late 1960s. Indie music in Britain had gone off the boil long before Britpop’s last days, and the late 90s/early 00s were unremarkable, so much so that when bands such as the Strokes and the Libertines were wildly feted in the music press, you suspected it wasn’t because they were really good (which, apart from one or two decent tunes, they weren’t), but because everyone was so weepingly grateful that they weren’t Limp Bizkit or Linkin Park.

Fortunately, a band genuinely deserving of attention arrived at the end of 2003: Franz Ferdinand. The Franz were indie (and properly rather than generically so, as they were signed to Domino), but they also made it their stated manifesto to “make music for girls to dance to.” Finally, indie once more intersected with pop. Their breakthrough came in early 2004 with the single Take Me Out, a Top 3 hit, with their self-titled debut long-player topping the album charts in February. Their biggest effect was to open the gates for a slew of other British bands, as what was imaginatively titled “Britrock” became the new trend. Initially, this meant success for bands of genuine merit, such as Kaiser Chiefs and Arctic Monkeys (as well as bands like British Sea Power who have never really been part of any trend but exist in their own glorious world); but, like all trends, it also meant that the mediocre hangers-on got a taste of the action. Just as Britpop had Menswear, Shed Seven and Northern Uproar, so Britrock had Hard-Fi, the Ordinary Boys and the Pigeon Detectives. Worse still, these successors to the mantle of mediocrity rapidly defined the increasingly laddish, boorish aspect of Britrock, the subject matter of their songs effectively limited to two areas: 1) my horrible little provincial home town, usually long since vacated by said band in favour of the big city, and; 2) my girlfriends (and, by apparent extension, all women) are rubbish. This latter signalled another one of those periodic spates of misogyny that are apparently okay because “it’s ironic”.

A corrective to this increasingly laddish trend came in 2006, when Lily Allen blew like a fresh breeze in that year’s hot summer and presented us with her vignettes of London (or rather LDN) life. The Mockney stylings and man-bashing grew tiresome after a while, particularly when she, like all other trailblazers, attracted a load of substandard imitators. Step forward Kate Nash, Jack Penate and Jamie T. Then step back again, back into the shadows from whence you came. Hardly surprising that, given the above, the quest for decent indie music has led many of us to look across the Atlantic to the beautiful folk-tinged sounds of the likes of Sufjan Stevens, Fleet Foxes and Andrew Bird et al; or the Wainwrights (Rufus and Martha), Antony Hegarty and Joan As Policewoman, with their work informed by not only great intelligence but also a theatrical sensibility.

Crucially, Lily Allen represented the new online generation as an artist who had achieved fame via her MySpace page, just a few months after the Arctic Monkeys had pulled the same trick. And not only were new sounds being created and made available online, but so were the songs for sale. Music downloads had been the subject of heated debate at the start of the decade, as most were only available via illegal file sharing sites. However, their rapidly increasing popularity meant that legal options had to become available. By the middle of the decade, legal online download sales were sufficient in quantity to warrant their own chart. A chopping and changing of the chart rules then ensued, ultimately leading to full integration of downloads, as before long they had overtaken physical singles sales, with odd album tracks also chart-eligible, not to mention golden oldies making a return on the back of their use in film and TV soundtracks. Another upshot of this change was a return to a chart more like that of 20 years ago, with songs entering low and then climbing over weeks to their eventual peak. The turnover of Number Ones slowed dramatically as well, no more so than in mid-2007 when that year’s washout summer was soundtracked by the ten-week reign of Rihanna’s Umbrella.

Once the wave of fake Sarf Lahndahners had subsided, Lily’s legacy was nevertheless still apparent, as pop’s new stars issued forth sounds created, not in the recording studio, but in their own bedrooms: Calvin Harris, Frankmusik et al. And with the synthesiser being the bedroom pop star’s most user-friendly instrument, this and the 1980s revival that never really went away meant that this pop decade’s last development was perhaps inevitable. Before 2009 had even started, it was already being hailed as the year of the Electro Girl. Given the dominance of Ladys Gaga and Hawke, as well as La Roux and Little Boots, it’s hard to disagree with this. Another key influence on young female solo artists has been Amy Winehouse, whose Back to Black is one of the great albums of the decade; unfortunately, its lyrical inspiration – a troubled relationship with her partner and various substances – has increasingly overshadowed Amy’s artistic endeavours. Pete Doherty preceded her on that front, the difference being that a new album from Amy Winehouse would actually be welcome.

So, to sum up, the Noughties has been an eventful decade in the pop charts, one that has seen innovation, repetition and not nearly enough deviance. Indie became the new pop, and now it feels like pop has become the new indie, and therefore the new pop. Paper publications have largely been replaced by websites like Popjustice and various imitators, all full of countless voices sounding their opinions. Those paper publications that are still around, and which deal with music in general (as opposed to more specialist areas such as heavy metal or dance), tend, NME aside, to look to the past as much as to the present: Q, The Word and Mojo (aka The Beatles Monthly). The question is one of how long they can keep on going: producing a glossy, substantial monthly magazine is an expensive undertaking, and the core readership for these publications (35-50 year-olds) will, in 20 years time (if not sooner), be many of the people who currently devour most of their new music and new music writings online. As for where music itself might be headed in the Teens, who knows. Movements are coming and going at ever-increasing rates, to the extent that music journalists can sometimes give the impression of chasing their tails in an effort to keep up. Maybe this decade, pop really will eat itself…

Well, that was an overview pop in the Noughties – stay tuned for the Top 100 singles of the decade and the Top 100 albums…

Chris x

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