A revolution has swept the charts, and three women are in its vanguard. But, while they outwardly appeal in distinct ways, each has skilfully exploited our desire for genuine star quality
Between them,Beyonc’e ,Adele and Lady Gaga have pop sewn up tighter than a tumble-dried Spandex bodysuit, according to Sasha Frere-Jones, august pop critic of the New Yorker magazine.
“Who run the world?” asks Beyoncé Knowles on Run The World (Girls), the lead single from her latest album, 4 (released tomorrow, although it did leak three weeks ago).
“You do, Beyoncé,” Frere-Jones appears to confirm – or, at least, confirms that she runs the pop world as part of a trio of female queens.
In the eye-popping video for Run The World(Girls) Beyoncé seems to be positing a kind of all-girls-together, cod-orientalist version of sisterhood that many feminists have, frankly, struggled to embrace. But the wider point rings true. The soundtrack to pop in 2011 has three extraordinary female lead vocalists soloing all over it, drowning out much else.
It’s still only June, but it is probably safe to assume that Adele will finish the year as the Anglophone pop market’s biggest-seller (around seven million albums sold worldwide to date). Gaga’s Born This Way is the fastest-selling album of the year thus far and it is only part of her vast cultural reach. With more than 11 million Twitter followers, she has now out-twitted social-media princeling Justin Bieber.
We will learn in time whether the album leak will impact on Beyoncé’s numbers significantly. But the R&B , was posting total figures of 75 million records sold back in 2009 (and her fourth album is stronger than the perfectly OK I Am… Sasha Fierce released that year).
For those not au fait with Beyoncé’s inner workings, Sasha Fierce is the amplified persona Beyoncé adopts as a pop star; it is tempting to believe that Beyoncé needs Sasha. The sleek, blank and unknowable Knowles rarely gives the impression of having blood and bones, despite the evidence of the coups she conducted for control of Destiny’s Child, her previous band. Lady Gaga may go out of her way to appear like a cyborg, but actually, it is Beyoncé’s persona that is the more shiny and mechanised.
You can’t, of course, discuss Lady Gaga without some mention of Madonna, whose blond ambition now seems positively classy next to Gaga’s hell-for-leather brazenness. The parallels between the two Italian-American pop mavens have been traced countless times – the S&M chic, the blasphemic appropriations of religious iconography, the constant visual reinventions. Where they differ, though, is where the fascination lies. Gaga is far, far stranger, more performance art than disco dominatrix.
Madonna, too, had her own three-way fight to contend with. You might easily remember the 80s as an almighty game of oneupmanship between Madonna, Michael Jackson and Prince, two hypersexualised “freaks” and one deeply peculiar man-child. In reality, memory is a deceptive thing, and Prince’s sales figures are nothing on Whitney Houston’s, whose dance of wholesomeness and perdition has made her seem in hindsight more interesting than her dully canonical soul works did at the time.
With music sales pale ghosts of their former numbers, is it significant that it’s a woman’s market right now? Probably not. You could optimistically try to draw some sort of link between the economy, hemlines and pop-cultural artefacts but, in this case, it would look like a cat’s cradle gone wrong. We could be thinking too hard about this. Adele’s numbers are almost certainly swelled by irregular music fans buying their token new CD of the year. But hegemonic pop – the stuff that is everywhere – is really rather good at the moment, thanks in no small part to this distaff trinity.
It’s always tempting to render pop as taxonomy – who fits where, in relation to whom; and what it is that specific genre choices say about their adherents. There is an almost Linnean urge to organise the cacophony of popular music in a schematic way… it’s called “marketing”, I believe.
You could – and Frere-Jones does, to some extent – assign roles to these three singers. He’s got Adele – classic, mature (in sound if not in age) – reserved for the soccer moms who buy CDs in Starbucks. Beyoncé is America’s sweetheart, while Gaga is, broadly, for the freaks. This is a reductivist take, but let’s examine it all the same.
He’s pretty right about Beyoncé. Despite disporting herself like an Amazon in heat in her videos (that’ll be Sasha Fierce), she is the sort of smiley, uncontroversial figure who’ll help Michelle Obama out with a campaign against childhood obesity. You’re unlikely to find Gaga doing that.
Oh, but wait: that high-concept space oddity has a socially conscious agenda of her own. Even before Born This Way, few mainstream pop stars have trumpeted the rights and joys of gay culture quite so loudly.
Adele hasn’t got a big drum to beat, but packing all the signifiers of vintage authenticity, she theoretically rises above the fray. Her second album, 21, is, in truth, a little lacking in grit for me, but here’s the thing: Adele’s wise-cracking, ebullient normality off-mic puts Beyoncé’s doe-eyed absence in sharp perspective.
Gaga doesn’t have exclusive rights to the LGBT crowd, either. You can imagine even her constituency of transgressive night-creatures might like to curl up and have a wobble to Adele’s Someone Like You. Indeed, there will be millions of people who will own all three stars’ records, music obsessives and floating voters alike.
Where these three albums differ, really, is at the level of production. Beyoncé began her career at a time when pop (by which we mean R&B) was being produced more or less exclusively by a generation of superb African-American sonic innovators: the Neptunes, Timbaland, Kevin “She’kspere” Briggs. This remains her core sound.
Around the same time as Beyoncé emerged, however, another pop sound was being honed across the Atlantic by Swedish producers like Max Martin, Bloodshy & Avant and, latterly, Moroccan-born (but Stockholm-schooled) RedOne, using singers like Britney Spears. Lady Gaga exemplifies the Swedification of R&B. The dominant American pop mode is something you might now call Euro&B: a clubby, trancy distillation of US urban music put through a Scandinavian rinser.
Ultimately, though, our token pie-split feels like a fastidious discussion of sonic nuances, and more like the kind of thing you might find in a women’s magazine. Answered mostly As? You are Adele: comforting, righteous, timeless. Mostly Bs? You are Beyoncé: lusciously inscrutable. Mostly Cs? You are Gaga, barmy vagina dentata on legs with really very orthodox tunes.
None of the above? Then perhaps you favour the Barbadian elephant in the room. Loud, Rihanna’s fifth album, came out last autumn but its tail has been long, selling something like 1.3 million and still sounding inescapable.
Why do we need to stratify this sonorous state of affairs at all? There will be Adele fans who loathe Gaga’s porno-schtick, Beyoncé believers who look down their noses at Adele’s hijacking of soul. Tribalism is traditionally held to be a rock thing, but emotions run ever higher in pop, as the febrile comments under YouTube videos attest.
Perhaps all this is ultimately predicated on a mercantilist’s view of pop, on the divide-and-conquer tactics of people who see music as product –material – rather than music. Most of us are not in marketing. We just like music. And we are not naïve: we know this stuff is made by committee, probably by about two dozen, predominantly male writer-producers in a kind of digital Brill Building erected in the internet. We know that this glorious female takeover of pop is, therefore, pretty illusory. We know that Beyoncé’s songs about female empowerment are not the same thing as feminism. We still like them.
And however much Adele, Beyoncé and Lady Gaga might dress up what they do in the clothing of authenticity, transgression or whatever it is that Beyoncé actually does (raunchy sexlessness, is it? “Spritzy competence,” offers the New Yorker‘s Frere-Jones), all three of these pop divas are playing versions of the same game, with levels of skill as vertiginous as their heels.
Kitty Empire/UK Guardian