Gwen Stefani

I believe that Gwen Stefani’s act is actually an improvement on Madonna’s. She melds Madonna’s cool confidence with a sweetness and mastery of physiognomy to rival Rita Hayworth or Marilyn Monroe, while her deep vibrato saves her act from anything approaching saccharine. Although her career stalled after 2007, her first two eras form the bridge between Madonna and the next generation of stars including Fergie and Nelly Furtado (explored below), Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Kesha, The Pussycat Dolls and even parts of Rihanna, while the nineties’ punkish Stefani of No Doubt laid the ground for P!nk, Avril Lavigne and Paramore. Like Debbie Harry, a proto-Madonna whose influence on pop music continued for decades, Stefani’s influence is more than evident a decade after her own career dwindled.

The sometimes abrasive Stefani of No Doubt was cast away with her transmutation into pristine pop star in Love. Angel. Music. Baby. (2004-6), an idiosyncratic, wonderfully superficial era. Pop was her new home, and in the “What You Waiting For?” video she resolves her writer’s block by discovering the futuristic, fashion-conscious whimsy that now defines her solo career. The rococo “Rich Girl” video, directed by David LaChapelle, amalgamates harajuku and pirates, while the satisfyingly silly “Hollaback Girl” has echoes in 2007’s “Girlfriend” by Avril Lavigne and 2014’s “Fancy” by Iggy Azalea. The “Cool” video set in Lake Como showcases Stefani at her most Monroe-esque, a look that would inspire Christina Aguilera’s Back to Basics era the following year. While Stefani’s eye is certainly sharper than her ear, “Bubble Pop Electric” and “Harajuku Girls” are real gems from her debut album, and from her sophomore the amusing “Yummy” deserves a listen.

From the beginning of The Sweet Escape era (2006-8) there were worrying signs of the exhaustion of her ideas. “Wind it Up” is a chaotic first single which fails to justify its yodelling silliness with a joyful-enough melody. Visually the era is as stylish as the last, except there’s an airlessness in the videos produced by their overreliance on gold. Thankfully “The Sweet Escape” is a perfect pop song which marks an exquisite end to one of the most fascinating yet short lived pop acts, and here the gold works well, in one of that year’s best music videos. Since 2007 Stefani has prioritised her personal life, returning briefly with the slow, confessional This Is What the Truth Feels Like in 2016. Only “Misery” is on par with her earlier work, yet wasn’t chosen for her comeback single – in any case, it was always unlikely that Stefani would find a fresh plinth in 2016’s crowded pop world.

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The careers of Stefani’s acolytes Nelly Furtado and Fergie offer a similar warning against premature hiatuses. They enjoyed enormous success with Loose and The Duchess (both 2006-7) but their later efforts in 2012 and 2017 (respectively) made no dent whatsoever on the charts. I think their successful eras are reasonable contributions to pop, though I can’t say I think that much of Furtado’s Loose – certainly slick and sultry, the era seems tiresome now we have Rihanna’s Good Girl Gone Bad to compare it to. Fergie’s persona skirts arrogance but remains likeable due to moments of softness and the playfully exaggerated nature of her boasts – my favourite songs of hers are the summery “Clumsy” and the fun “Fergalicious” with its Willy-Wonka inspired video that Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” owes much to. A member of the Black Eyed Peas, Fergie struggled to balance her commitments as both her solo and her group’s success grew. She ultimately remained loyal to the group; Beyoncé’s vehement departure from Destiny’s Child shows the need for artists to commit to one main outlet for their creativity, or else their ventures will be addled by anxiety and doubt. Neither Fergie’s solo career nor the group’s later albums are quite as strong as they could have been, and while that isn’t quite the case for Gwen Stefani, one can’t help but wonder how much more developed her output would be if she’d departed from No Doubt a little sooner.

Avril Lavigne

The latent rock in Madonna’s act was extracted by Avril Lavigne and P!nk, who fused it with their own polished pop looks and debuted at the turn of the millennium. (As a child, P!nk in her own words ‘didn’t speak to [her] mother for a year, because [she] was sure [Madonna had] adopted [her]’.) Kelly Clarkson, who debuted in 2003, was apparently more influenced by soul than pop but created a similar sound and is part of the same picture. Of these three women Lavigne’s act is the most complete. A glance at her early persona might invite comparisons to the charmless Taylor Swift – both started their careers as teenagers, appeal primarily to that demographic and are somewhat obnoxious and vocally-challenged. But when Lavigne performs I believe her act nears greatness. Her image flirts with normality, but its pop sheen – bright blue eyes, porcelain fangs, an injection of colour – lifts her above mortals. She is almost that offbeat girl in your class, but celestial. During the phenomenally successful Let Go (2002-3) era she was undeniably an overwhelmed, guileless girl, almost as much a product of her label as Britney Spears, which just makes the dark melancholy of her music all the more enigmatic. The Best Damn Thing (2007-8), an enchanting, major pop era, revived hopes in a career which had risked becoming anodyne with Under My Skin (2004-5). Unfortunately, while her recent work is radio-friendly, the act is tired. The “Let Me Go” video is a step towards maturity, immediately reversed by the risible “Hello Kitty”.

Despite missteps and missed opportunities, Lavigne’s influence – evident in Swift, Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato and Kesha among others – exceeds that of P!nk or Clarkson. P!nk, although one of pop’s most impressive entertainers, has never closed in on pop greatness due to her artistic complacency, lack of charisma and her monotone, raspy voice. Had she the natural flair of Annie Lennox or her idol Janis Joplin, she’d be an extremely important artist – she doesn’t. She attempts to conceal her insecurity about her status as a pop star (seen in the contempt-filled “Stupid Girls” video) with a sexless goofiness that is untrue to both pop and rock. Her best pieces in my view are the piercing ballads “Glitter in the Air” – the live performances of which are glorious – “I Don’t Believe You”, and “Who Knew”. Her strongest era is undoubtedly Funhouse (2008-10), with its sparks of innovation in an otherwise static career. (None of this is to say that she isn’t eminently likable as an entertainer.)

Clarkson, although unexciting, shouldn’t be completely overlooked. Numerous Clarkson songs – “Miss Independent”, “Since U’ Been Gone”, “Because of You”, “I Do Not Hook Up”, “Mr. Know It All” – contain the effortless, searing power which mostly eludes P!nk, and her songs’ progressive messages have a genuine avuncular charm. While it’s difficult to take seriously a pop star who eschews so many of the visual and performative components of her craft, Clarkson’s album covers – with the exception of the recent Meaning of Life – are attractive, and successfully frame each of her eras. I suspect that Clarkson, because her music is simply better than P!nk’s, has a better shot at a legacy, but neither reach the heights of Lavigne, whose unique creation played a role in the internal narratives of so many.

Beyoncé and Alicia Keys

With superhuman talent and stamina Beyoncé achieved immortality in the music industry long ago. By 2010 her ambition to merge Madonna pop with the diva tradition had been fulfilled on a grand scale. What followed was a premature, craven retreat from the charts and an aggressive courtship of critical acclaim. She’ll be remembered for “Crazy in Love” and “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”, two of pop’s best singles, and for Destiny’s Child which I believe is as culturally significant an act as her solo career.

Interview and behind-the-scenes footage of Destiny’s Child show an unguarded Beyoncé who’s fiercely competitive and single-minded, endearing qualities she needn’t have dissembled later on. The elaborate calculations behind her solo act prohibit even the impression of spontaneity – a thing Madonna and Michael Jackson knew they needed to become the most successful pop acts ever. But due to her superlative talent Beyoncé might have got away with mechanicalness and ascended to their level if she’d continued to innovate on every other front. Dangerously in Love (2003-4) and B’Day (2006-7) are her magnificent early eras which show an indomitable Beyoncé free from the constraints of being in Destiny’s Child (but without the cultural potency of a group of three such liberated black women). Bemoaned by her fans for straying too far from R&B, 2008-9’s I Am… Sasha Fierce remains her most ambitious era, from the “Single Ladies” video to the tour’s glimmering outfits which beckon Lady Gaga’s The Fame. Critics complained that the album chased singles success, but successful singles are required for a complete era and for pop immortality. (In any case the album sounds excellent. “Disappear” – my favourite Beyoncé song – is a masterpiece of mystical melancholy, resolved in the soaring “Smash Into You”, while up-tempo tracks like “Radio” and “Sweet Dreams” maintain the same lavish ethereality.) The era’s obvious weakness is the flimsiness of the Sasha Fierce alter ego on which it’s predicated, but overlooking that it’s a daring and authentic project, improved by other imperfections.

The “Single Ladies” video, her most important moment, is just a suggestion of what could have been had Beyoncé the aesthetic sensibility of Michael Jackson. As well as the appearance of spontaneity in Jackson’s dance which made him likable to millions, his otherworldly image was distinctive enough to impose itself on the collective imagination; so that in spite of his talent and strangeness – which should seem so distant – we believe he embodies some figment of our imagination. He found an ideal balance between iconicity and reachability that’s reflected in all his work – in many of his videos, for instance, the mythical man dances through ordinary urban or suburban streets, encouraging the fantasy that Jackson might be lurking down your road. We are close to him because, like Charlie Chaplin and Santa Claus, he demands ubiquity, he lingers in our minds. Beyoncé, just as talented and narcissistic as Jackson, has not bridged her talent and persona with audiences in this way. ‘Sasha Fierce’ came closest, but that was jettisoned. A glance at Janelle Monae’s ongoing project indicates the kind of boundless creativity and raw energy that was required of Beyoncé in the latter chapter of her career.

4 (2011), while full of obviously superb songs, is slight as an era. Beyoncé (2014) is an immaculate record, but its surprise release denied songs like “Blow”, “Drunk in Love”, “XO” and “Partition” the global success they deserved. The gullible would object that this era marks Beyoncé’s graduation from ‘mere’ pop star to ‘artist’, but she was always an artist. I don’t believe writing camps matter in pop, except when the star masquerades as auteur; Beyoncé is inescapably a pop act, which relies on a broad synergy of esteemed producers and writers. Many stars have taken creative control at a later stage of their career, which might be commendable in some ways but doesn’t necessarily improve their act, but rarely has a star so striven to create the illusion they’ve taken the reins and hold a serious world view. She’s obdurately refused interviews since 2013, because every time she appeared as interviewee before, any notions of a sharp and intellectually-coherent Beyoncé were shattered – which was quite all right; pop stars don’t have to be thinkers, and Beyoncé has always expressed her keen intelligence somatically. Her ego has now transcended her act, when it should be the other way round.

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I don’t mind her appropriation of feminism, inspiring to fans and very marketable, but it’s not without problems. She’s either at the centre of a mass media intent on reducing that whole ideology to a hollow word, or she promotes a hyper-materialist wing of feminism which celebrates competition and sisterhood without attempting to reconcile the two. Madonna’s political statements, however iconoclastic, were a natural part of a controversy-seeking persona. Beyoncé’s on the other hand seem driven either by cold calculations or a megalomaniacal desire to be viewed as a political figure. Her blithe assimilation into hip hop – the most testosterone-fuelled genre since rock – also jars with the feminist sentiments she plays to. I suspect that Beyoncé’s decade of self-aggrandisement is in part due to the spectre of Adele’s artistry and meteoric rise in 2011. The contrived candour of Lemonade (2016) seems like an attempt to rectify the lack of emotion listeners have always perceived in her technically-peerless voice, and the soap-like drama that plays out between ruthless-billionaire-superstars Beyoncé and Jay-Z is far too mundane to convince.

Lemonade certainly sounds tremendous – just as polished as its predecessor yet more thematically cohesive, I’m most intrigued by “6 Inch”, which invites every female listener into a fantasy narrated by the superstar. The Lemonade film is beautiful, save for the grandiloquent poetic voiceovers that flank the songs, and there’s a smallness to the videos, disguised as authenticity, which mirrors her retreat from the mainstream. Much has been made of the album’s celebration of blackness, but through being the most talented individual in the music industry Beyoncé has always celebrated blackness, with her R&B- and gospel-infused act. By deftly capitalising on American progressive political currents with Lemonade, she guaranteed herself the kind of critical approbation which bordered on idolatry in the most effusive or politically-correct critics. Despite the hype, the era was her least successful commercially, with no true hits, and while its spectacular tour was a true force (almost outgrossing those of teen idols Justin Bieber and One Direction) it represents a reputation plateauing far too early. I’d advise her to stop demanding a straight-faced credulity in her audiences, to lose all affectation and embrace her pop stardom. I think “Daddy Lessons”, for instance, comes alive with the line ‘Daddy made me dance’ (referring to her domineering father who groomed his daughters for fame), due its honesty. While the regal “Flawless” fails due to its heavy-handedness (‘bow down bitches’), not redeemed by a feminist speech being shoehorned in, there are some examples of Beyoncé getting the balance just right. In 2015 she uploaded a YouTube clip entitled “Darling Nicki (Minaj)” to promote her concert appearance with the rapper. Beyoncé sings a playful jingle mythologizing Minaj, as the pair’s silhouettes mingle on stage. It’s a tantalising exchange between stars which shows the Beyoncé legend at its best – let’s hope she can surprise us next era with something well-managed and imaginatively rich which unapologetically pursues chart domination.

Alicia Keys was viewed as a more dignified artist for many years, and served partly as an antidote to Beyoncé and Destiny’s Child’s stomping performances. The purity and simplicity of Keys’ voice and act (practically the same thing) instantly affect, although her lyrics and repetitive melodies don’t always stand up to scrutiny. Her best era in my view is The Element of Freedom (2009-10), with its stunning cover and quietly strong songs such as “Empire State of Mind (Pt. II)”, “Doesn’t Mean Anything”, “Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart”, and “Put It in a Love Song” featuring Beyoncé – the video for which was shot but, sadly, not released. But there’s no getting away from the fact that, even at her best, Keys is just a bit dull. Her legacy is most apparent in her British clone Emeli Sandé, whose successful and soporific debut era Our Version of Events (2011-12) was nothing more than a marketing triumph. So a look at Keys, who was actually considered equal to Beyoncé throughout the 2000s, shows how effectively Beyoncé, even if she hasn’t yet realised her full and dizzying potential, has remained one of pop’s brightest icons.

Britney Spears

Few musicians have had a career as wild, overpraised and destructive as Britney Spears’. While I consider her marginal as an artist, she is of interest to me because her story and downfall reflect the excessive celebrity culture of her nation better than almost anyone else’s. Beginning as a sparky girl who strode into the eye of an empire, she was gradually consumed by fame until she became a shadow of her former self. It’s not surprising that Lana Del Rey, who fetishizes melancholy in the same way the media exploited Spears’ sadness, admires her. The way an ordinary-looking Spears was described as a great beauty in her early years reflects America’s desire to mould her into their idea of perfection. While at the beginning of the century Madonna and (to a lesser degree) Beyoncé asserted their sexuality boldly, Spears’ attempts to be sexy appear forced. So controlled by her label, so lost in the glare of fame, in contrast with her empowered peers she seems of a much earlier era of the female star. In the first decade of her career, a tragedy unfolded.

Her first three (and best-selling) albums are poor. Their success relied on exploiting the nascent sexuality of a teenage girl, as in the “…Baby One More Time” video which disturbs me due to Spears’ evident vulnerability and the sexualised, male fantasy it represents. When compared to her (inexplicably) less successful contemporary Christina Aguilera – whose lavish eras, colourful videos and fierce, melismatic songs conduce to an impeccable pop act – Spears’ anonymous voice and minimal charisma seem all the more wanting. As we’ve seen, she’s annihilated by Madonna in the “Me Against the Music” video, and while her “Toxic” video from 2004 does display an increased artistic agency, it’s ultimately an attention-seeking, flawed production. Her surface confidence still fails to convince, although her feminine appropriation of science fiction – which suggests a dislocation from reality mirroring her life in the spotlight – compels, and its influence in the music video field must be acknowledged.

Blackout (2007-8) is Spears’ one flash of brilliance. The hook of “Gimme More”, ‘It’s Britney, bitch’, marks an extraordinary if momentary transformation from victim into defiant and autonomous woman. The strip club video, while on the whole unimaginative, reflects the burgeoning internet with its lurid lights – the utopian system through which celebrity moments such as Spears’ earlier mental breakdown were increasingly experienced. The following single “Piece of Me” is her sole masterpiece. Auto-tune reflects the erosion of her private life, but also knowingly obfuscates the true Britney, reclaiming her right to privacy and encapsulating the paradox of fame. The forthright lyrics which narrate her surreal, remarkable life could not be better. The video certainly could be, but the constant flashes from the paparazzi successfully define her as America’s most famous woman, and the high-trash style celebrates whatever beauty there was of that small corner of time when Spears, Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan captivated millions. Other atmospheric electro-pop tracks from the album – “Radar” and “Break the Ice” – achieve a similar effect. The animated “Break the Ice” video cleverly employs the secret agent persona from the “Toxic” video, demonstrating how pop stars can enliven their oeuvres with such self-reference and mythology building, to which glittering music videos lend themselves so well.

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Sadly Spears then drifted into indifference and triteness. Circus (2008-9) is nothing more than a confection, albeit with a rather dazzling tour. As far as I’m concerned the odd and sunny “How I Roll” from Femme Fatale (2011) is her only song from the last ten years which achieves beauty. Despite apparent happiness and health, whatever light Spears might have possessed has been extinguished. A footnote artistically, the great lesson of her career is monitory.

Introduction

First there was Madonna. To explore how she shaped the music industry as we know it today… to explore how with the “Material Girl” video Western woman evolves before our eyes… to explore that four-decade long artistic project which surpasses Andy Warhol’s in scope… would take another, much longer blog. I’ll instead focus on her descendants who’ve emerged this century and built on and diversified her vision, while touching on her confused dialogue with them.

A Madonna-inspired pop experience is not an album but an era, spanning music, visual art, dance, fashion and more. An era is usually spearheaded by an album, but doesn’t conclude till the last single is released. Eras are appraised by their coherence and meaning, each one possessing its own delicious taste, and the transition from one era to another should be natural and seamless. The young artists I’ll explore are visual artists, only satisfied once they’ve achieved beauty… they flit between personae, though beneath their masks should have a recognisable identity which suffuses all their work… their music is ingenuous and melodic – it’s not literature as the lyrics are secondary to the melody, which is pop’s poetry, the world’s new poetry. Theirs is an extravert’s medium, and is democratic – most of them are visionaries who’d have been excluded from art in an earlier age due to their background and lack of formal education… their broad education consists in experience, fashion magazines and Madonna, and their aliveness is seen in their dance and their eye. They reject the stultifying side of modern life and champion a transgressive wildness that was once the territory of novelists… they’ve done more to empower the masses and advance social views than any other figures in our culture… they’ve consciously, successfully defended the sexual revolution, all while retaining a negative capability, and they embody that superposition of irony and earnestness that is the hallmark of our digital, mass-media-driven age. A carefree appropriation of anything and everything is part of their incarnation of liberty, and while their world is sensuous their greatest work makes us think – as they work in such a young tradition we haven’t yet trained ourselves to see all its meaning. Contrivance is a charge often levelled at them, but art is contrivance… their best work reflects the vitality of being alive more than most things in modern culture. The staggering logistical complexities of all aspects of the pop experience – particularly touring – demonstrate how a pop act is a vast alchemy in which the star herself is in some instances just the beguiling figurehead… and she’s always an entertainer… not precluding art! The degree to which artists can take themselves seriously while avoiding pretension depends on their talent, certainly, but the very best ones never lose their sense of fun. I’ll ignore unsuccessful ‘pop’ acts as pop is by definition popular… if an artist wants to endure, the more time they spend in the stratosphere of mainstream consciousness the better, and if they’re serious they’ll do everything in their power to ensure their truth touches as many people as possible.

Back to Madonna. Her work from the 2000s, while deserving of critical attention, is blemished by her anxiety over the younger women who offered up their own fresher identities with the confidence and tenacity that previously only Madonna had had. At times, she takes her reputation in her stride. In the great “Me Against Me Music” video from 2003, an elegant, mature Madonna looms on screens over the young Britney Spears, who tries to prove her worth with a lively dance routine. But when the unwitting Spears searches for her mentor she’s teased and evaded, finally vanquished and left to agonise over the greater star’s influence. Confessions on a Dance Floor (2005-6), an unabashed dance record, succeeds by refusing to compete with younger contemporaries who were expanding pop sonically. Instead it innovates within its subgenre, borrowing from Kylie Minogue (always a more interesting Madonna clone than Spears), and such a concession allows Madonna to find her last true nirvana. She also cultivated an angelic image around that time, compounded by her high-profile philanthropy, which entrenched her status as the divine mother of pop:

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The beginnings of her slide into denial over her age are seen in Hard Candy (2008), a sleazy, slightly desperate era which apes and exaggerates Nelly Furtado’s Loose (2006-7). But Madonna’s most extraordinary achievements in the flawed final chapter of her career are her tours, where she can most uninhibitedly celebrate her legacy, and where her money and unrivalled position in the industry result in far more ambitious productions than those of any starlets. I believe her performance of “Vogue” on the Sticky and Sweet Tour displays more energy and beauty than anything we’ve seen from Beyoncé or Lady Gaga. It’s also worth acknowledging that Madonna’s continued stamina throughout the decade demonstrates the consciousness of her entire artistic statement. Whereas Michael Jackson, whose embodiment of mystery was at first so magical, was drowning in personal traumas by the 2000s, Madonna’s focus and reinvention confirm how she pursued fame in order to prod it; from her exalted position she could play to and challenge the general public’s conceptions of celebrities and icons. But, again, that’s an exploration for another time!

Over a decade after “Me Against the Music”, “Bitch I’m Madonna” (Rebel Heart, 2014-5) shows her identity crisis unresolved, although her palpable frustration in the song and video are offset by her effortless appropriation of the artists who feature in the latter, including Katy Perry and even Beyoncé. It points to what Madonna has always known: that she must never apologise for being herself, an artist to whom every woman pop star and a great many other women today are indebted.