Fairly predictably, I suppose, I’ve been watching the unravelling Best New Bands Of 2009 business with some bafflement. Not that my taste was ever going to chime completely with this sort of thing, of course (in my ballot for the BBC poll, I did actually include Florence & The Machine, alongside Telepathe and Crystal Antlers, for what it’s worth).
It’s just that I find this headlong rush towards ‘80s synthpop a bit mystifying. It seems instigated by an industry-wide conviction that all the so-called indie landfill bands have run their course, and that consequently guitar bands are no longer mass-marketable. The idea is crystallised by a quote in this piece from my old colleague James Oldham, now an A&R.
“All A&R departments have been saying to managers and lawyers, ‘Don’t give us any more bands, because we’re not going to sign them, and they’re not going to sell records’,” he says. “So everything we’ve been put onto is electronic in nature. British guitar bands became characterised as meat-and-two-veg – dull, bland, thin gruel, whereas this is seen as sleek, modernist, exciting, a mish-mash of modern elements.”
Moving swiftly on from the fact that Oldham signed The Courteeners not so long ago, the hugeness of this sea change – which has seen Little Boots, Empire Of The Sun, Lady GaGa, Passion Pit and Dan Black, as well as La Roux, placed in the BBC Top Ten – is interesting because there seems seems little evidence that this stuff is actually going to sell.
Lady GaGa will, of course. But for all the vague electroclash signifiers that adorn her, it strikes me that she’s much closer to R&B/American mainstream assimilators of the scene like Pink – ie, like stuff that sells. A lot of the others, like Little Boots and La Roux, seem more contemporaries of Ladyhawke, Lykke Li and Annie. Like stuff that critics have endlessly described as perfect pop music which should be massive, but which hasn’t actually sold particularly well, as far as I can tell (better than most of the music I write about here, of course, but then I hope I’ve never made any huge commercial claims for, say, Endless Boogie or whatever). There’s almost an indignant presumption that this is what music in the Top Ten should sound like.
Perhaps we can ascribe a lot of this to the influence of Popjustice, since Peter Robinson’s site seems to be a hub for this scene. Robinson’s wit and energy is rightly admired (not least by a bunch of journalists who fetishise some halcyon, cheeky heyday of Smash Hits), so much so that his agenda seems to have been taken on wholesale in this BBC list, even though, like all of us, his tipping skills are hardly infallible.
I don’t make it my business to worry much about the anxieties and schemes of the music industry in general, but it does seem very weird to pin so many extravagant hopes – and, in all likelihood, money – on a group of artists who don’t appear to have a great deal more commercial potential than Roisin Murphy’s last record. If Ladyhawke didn’t become a superstar in 2008, why should Little Boots become one in 2009?
A big caveat here is that I almost certainly don’t have the specialist ears, and A&R instincts, to spot the crucial differences, and, given the way these polls are an integral part of the major labels’ marketing campaigns, there’s a good chance that the chart domination of this scene might become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If it does, I can only hope that the bands on the wing of the scene that I personally like – bands like Telepathe and Chairlift, off the top of my head – do OK out of it.. Maybe even Peaches might get a bit more love as the result of all this, which would be great.
While I’m talking about tips, though, a very early heads-up on Trembling Bells, a new British folk group forthcoming on Honest Jon’s. I’ve not heard very much, but the snatches I’ve been sent are wonderful, following a lovely solo gig I saw last year by their singer, Lavinia Blackwall. I’ll let you know when I hear more.