Pop in 2013 - Under the influence

What to listen out for this year.

These days, pop music appears to exist in three distinct worlds: young people’s, older people’s and the soul revival – a genre remarkable because a) it won’t go away and b) people download it for free and buy the CDs in just about equal measure. The ways in which we measure “big” in music today – and what that even means – are only just emerging. Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” was Spotify’s most-played song in 2012 (he’d have got about $0.009 each time) but the music press hardly touched him. Last January, the retro-soul singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka was named BBC’s Sound of 2012 by a group of industry heads but no one was talking about him by the end of the month. And we were all fed up with the concept of Lana Del Rey by the time the “physical” came out.

So grim are the results of showing too much too soon that new bands hide on the internet, generating heat by their lack of presence, racking up hundreds of thousands of hits before they’ve even got a press shot to supply. Savages and Palma Violets, two post-punk internet buzz bands yet to release their debut albums, courted anonymity in the early stages by ensuring that they hardly had anything on YouTube. The Glaswegian electro-pop trio Chvrches (one of an increasing number of young bands namechecking Prince as an influence) wrote one of the best songs of last year – “The Mother We Share” – and they’ll have an album out at some point but it remains to be seen whether people will be still excited when they’re signed.

Elton John has already been seen at a gig by the Strypes, a capable child band from Ireland who do a kind of rollicking, Cavern-era Beatles and early Stones show with two mouth organs – a redefinition of “R’n’B” for 14-year-olds.

As far as teens are concerned, there’s also Haim, three sisters from the San Fernando Valley in California who grew up in their parents’ rock band. They sing like more light-hearted versions of Florence Welch, look like Joan Jett and sound not a million miles from Eighties Fleetwood Mac. It’s kids’ music but there’s something really heartening about watching them attack old sounds as though no one’s ever been there before.

Last year, Emeli Sandé was a reasonably interesting proposition because she came from behind the scenes – she’d been part of the X Factor songwriting team. This year, A*M*E (aged 19, real name Aminata Kabba) is another antidote to the production-line methods of modern R’n’B. Her song “Beautiful Stranger” was a number-one hit for the South Korean girl group f(x); she’s signed to Gary Barlow’s label; she’s also co-written with Sandé – and while this is all just another way of saying she’s been hanging around the industry for a few years, it doesn’t matter because her music is tremendous fun: south London post-Gaga pop permeated with Pokémon aesthetics, like a Game Boy version of Rihanna or Azealia Banks, Gangnam-style.

In this postmodern age, the musicians who stand out are those manipulating multiple influences, not just pastiching one or two. The Toronto rapper the Weeknd is a well-finished concept, with his Jackson-airy voice and raw psychodramas – the critics’ll probably try to call him the new Frank Ocean.

And one of the most distinctive sounds comes from Laura Mvula, a “classically trained” singer-songwriter from a gospel background who laughs in the face of structure and draws from the well of Amy Winehouse, Jill Scott and Rodgers and Hammerstein. She did all her string arrangements on GarageBand, and then her producer dropped a real orchestra in. Young people today, and so on.

Last year was dominated by the rock veteran and it’s hard to imagine what more they can do now that Keith, Neil and Pete have done their autobiographies, the Stones have marked their half-century and Paul McCartney has done Kurt Cobain for a night. Aerosmith – the American Stones, who’ve been together for 40 years, with Steven Tyler, like Keith, still baffling people with his ability to perform despite years of well-documented self-pickling – will tour Europe in 2013 (a very rare event) and Bruce Springsteen will take his Wrecking Ball tour all over the world, minus sax solos.

Then there’s Björk, who will be performing her ingenious Biophilia album in a circus tent in Paris for six dates in February and March. It’s a show so magical and meaningful, its value will only increase over time.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman’s pop critic

Björk will be performing her Biophilia album in a circus tent in Paris for six dates in February and March. Photograph: Getty Images

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, 2013: the year the cuts finally bite

HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

Beautiful and the damned: a spellbinding oral history of Hollywood

West of Eden: An American Place by Jean Stein follows a specific tribe of people: the beautiful.

One day in LA, the showbiz tycoon David Geffen drove by the house that had belonged to Jack Warner, the co-founder of Warner Brothers. The gates were open, so he went in. “It was so grand and so Hollywood . . . It was an homage to an idea about the way people lived in Hollywood. I got caught up in the whole gestalt and I bought it.” Geffen then marvels that he paid $47m for the homage, while Jack had sold his whole studio for just $38m in 1956. You have to have a sense of irony.

From around 1920 there was a tribe in southern California, sometimes known as “the beautiful people”. In many cases, they were technical beauties (they appeared in dreamlets known as movies or had their photographs in magazines made of heavy, perfumed pages). Yet the true beauty talked about was a spiritual aspiration – a quest for romantic nobility, fragile elegance, or serene madness – that might offset the inner derangement, selfishness and comic vulgarity that so threatened their longing for godless class, or inscrutability. They lived within the frantic church known as Hollywood, a fierce cult or early form of terrorism (it hired intimidators, all of them called Oscar) that cherished the hopeless grail of beauty and sacrificed many lives in its pursuit.

Jean Stein is one of them; she admits as much in West of Eden, which seems to me the best book ever done on the terrifying social dysfunction of the beautiful people. Ms Stein is now 81. She is the daughter of Dr Jules Stein (1896-1981), the son of Lithuanian Jews, who became a celebrity ophthalmologist yet so loved music and show business that he founded the MCA agency – Music Corporation of America.

The marriage of medicine and ten-percenting is important to this book, and Jean Stein – who is clear-eyed, and knows where the bodies are buried – has the innate touch and scalpel smile of an expert autopsist. She does not quite write, but she composes absorbing, novelistic oral histories. In 1982 she did one on Edie Sedgwick, the Sixties model, junkie, sexpot and icon, a ghost long before her death. Now Stein delivers a calm Götterdämmerung that can be read as the fearsome annals of a haunted Hollywood, as well as an adroit response to John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1952), earlier proof of California’s soft spot for fallen angels.

West of Eden is selective and yet, by the end of its 334 pages, you feel that the light and the shadow have fallen on nearly every­one. There are just five subjects. First: Edward L Doheny, the oil tycoon who established the architecture of Los Angeles, and helped inspire There Will Be Blood. Then there are the Warners, but chiefly Jack, the youngest of four who outlived and betrayed his brothers, and who abandoned a nice Jewish wife for an adventuress and ended up being painted by Salvador Dalí and dreaded as “a character”. There is also Jane Garland, a schizophrenic child of great wealth who drifted around with various unofficial nurses and uncertain friends. Next is the teeming casebook called Jennifer Jones; and then the Steins themselves, which means Jules and Jean, and her two daughters by William vanden Heuvel, one of whom now publishes the weekly magazine the Nation.

In shaping these five windows, Stein has interviewed numerous tribe members, many of whom have memories, wounds and nightmares for which they are in therapy (or script development – the two forms are very alike). Her tone and manner are matter-of-fact, but she knows how wary those close to Eden are about trusting stories. Life is a competing set of fantasies, and given that lies have always been allowed in LA, falsehood itself, as a moral handicap, has come to mean little. Though all “true”, this book reads like a dream.

A short review cannot cover all five windows in detail, so let me fix on the one I know best: the glass or screen in which Jennifer Jones existed like a butterfly. Born in 1919 (Gore Vidal once told me she was three years older; gossip devours fact), she was the daughter of an Oklahoma showman who thought she would act – on screen, of course, but also always and everywhere. She married a young actor, Robert Walker, and they had two sons. Then in 1941 she was seen by the mogul David Selznick: he was moved by her and she was drawn upwards by her chance of stardom. Each abandoned a spouse and two sons. They became archetypes of misjudgement, though her mediocre acting never matched the skill or glow of other Selznick employees (such as Ingrid Bergman). They had a daughter, Mary Jennifer, who lived in rivalry with her mother and loathed her, and finally killed herself.

Jennifer, as Lauren Bacall reports, could be a little nutty. She and Selznick gave lavish Sunday parties: “Jennifer was busy doing her make-up and combing her hair and changing her outfit. She was kind of playing her part. She was always trying to be noticed, to have people really care about her and be there for her.”

This is not pretty stuff; maybe that is why these people were so desperate to be beautiful. Indulgence and neglect formed a damaging mixture that left bodies lining the roadside west of Eden. Lawyers and doctors catered to the stricken beauties. Shrinks played an especially devious role, though “shrink” was the wrong word; those hired to soothe mania in fact inflated their clients’ egos and dramatised their self-pity, the movie in which we all take part.

Hard to credit, often hard to stomach, this is a spellbinding record of that ancien régime. Whatever happened to the tribe? The members may be thinner on the ground now in southern California, but their ignoble nobility is everywhere.

David Thomson’s books include “Showman: the Life of David O Selznick” (André Deutsch) and “How to Watch a Movie” (Profile Books)

West of Eden: An American Place by Jean Stein is published by Jonathan Cape (334pp, £20)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war