The world of music is straddled by female Goliaths. Why?

Young women are achieving every kind of musical success, while the idea of the "male pop star" seems to have ground to a halt with David Bowie. What's going on with the boys?

Long Way Down (Columbia); Overgrown (Polydor); Trilogy (Republic)
Tom Odell; James Blake; the Weeknd

When the singer Tom Odell got the Critics’ Choice Award at the Brits this year, he stood out from every previous winner because he was a man. I can’t be the only one who has wondered what’s happened to men in pop – or how funny this period will look in hindsight, the world of music straddled by female Goliaths while the boys sit in the shadows under huge headphones, singing in that peculiar R’n’B voice that sounds like the cry of a mountain goat caught on a distant wind.

Young women continue to realise every aspect of the pop ideal: they’re stadium rock stars, factory-forged divas and rappers, sexy, brutal and self-sufficient. They’re comedians, chameleons and drama queens, every vanity one more proof of their right to stardom. But while anyone can join the dots between Madonna, Britney, Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Nicki Minaj, the story failed to develop into the 21st century as far as men were concerned and the concept of the “ultimate male pop star” stopped at David Bowie, as we have seen, ad nauseam, for weeks now. Ed Sheeran and Marcus Mumford are reviled for being smug and successful; Olly Murs, Bruno Mars and One Direction are considered irrelevant to anyone with a brain. The idea of “cool” has long been diametrically opposed to chart success but, somewhere down the line, this whole thing has got out of hand and young men in music can’t seem to do anything right.

Tom Odell is 22 and from Chichester, West Sussex; he moved to Brighton, formed the band Tom and the Tides and was eventually signed to Lily Allen’s label as a solo artist after a few months of open-mike nights. He differs from the species of songwriters referred to as “guys with guitars” because he has a piano, which he plays flamboyantly with one booted foot slapping the floor. Songs on his debut album, Long Way Down, have the air of indie cabaret. They’re unusual in their neediness: his big hit “Another Love” is a neat twist on the break-up song with an almost country-music sense of wit and resolution – every tentative ritual at the start of a new relationship is marred by the memory of the last girl he did it for.

Odell is a modern proposition in many ways, an emotionally demonstrative male singer mentored by girls – Lily, Emeli Sandé – happily mining his heartbreaks in the service of songs with a little less naming and shaming than Taylor Swift. Predictably, he is receiving message-board hate for being (I paraphrase) bland, cheesy, soft-bellied, posh and (wake me when this is over) from a private school.

We don’t want our male singers to “have it too easy” – a charge never levelled against the girls. Sheeran is loathed by a certain brand of “discerning” music consumer and critic because he gets nominated for urban awards when he’s white and from Suffolk – and because he’s made a ton of money and plays to thousands of girls. Young artists who aspire to real critical respect are under tremendous pressure to speak a bizarre, alternative musical language embodied by the Mercury-winners Alt-J or the xx: cerebral, bands struggling under the weight of their technical knowledge and completely unable to have fun, as their records suggest.

James Blake emerged around the same time as the xx, wore the same kind of hoodies, came from a similar London background and also wrote atmospheric indie infused with dubstep, effortlessly mixing black and white influences in a way that suggested the street (he went to a selective grammar, if we must talk about these things). His music has a distinct folk/pastoral appeal; his voice is as delicate as a butterfly wing flickering over fragile piano accompaniments. On his second album, Overgrown, the production tricks include voices reversed and tweaked to Disney-character squeakiness and “found sounds” that have you checking the electrical equipment in your house for a malfunction while the CD is playing.

Blake’s meticulous arrangements speak intelligence, creative autonomy and a sensitive character cowering from the lights; as a musical soul, he’s a bit like Frank Ocean or the Canadian rapper the Weeknd, whose three-part debut Trilogy features intense poetic reflections, drums replaced by a rec­orded heartbeat, minimalist guitar and an agile voice like a depressed Michael Jackson. In this strange, hybrid world, we are uncovering today’s romantics, the dubstep Arthur Rimbauds exploring the underside of love and excess or sketching the beauty in a grey morning. At the same time, this kind of music ticks so many boxes for the people most snobby and disdainful of mainstream artists that it’s hard not to hear something politically correct – and terribly safe – in all that sad, fashionable geek chic, too.

 

Nicki Minaj, along with Madonna, Britney, Lady Gaga and Rihanna are blazing a trail through pop music. Photograph: Getty Images

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

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear