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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Back to the future – mankind’s new ideas that aren’t new at all

Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas by Steven Poole reviewed.

When Steven Poole writes a book review, he likes to lie to himself. His only conscious decision is to jot down a few notes as the deadline approaches. There is no pressure to think deep thoughts, he tells himself, or to reach the required word count. Then invariably, in a few hours, he has written the entire review. This happens time and again. No matter how many times he convinces himself he is merely jotting and thinking, the result is a finished article.

Human beings are extraordinarily good at deceiving themselves and possibly never more so than when they think that they have had a new idea, as Poole makes clear in this fascinating compendium of new ideas that aren’t new at all. He digs deep into subjects as various as cosmology, economics, health care and bioethics to show that, as the writer of Ecclesiastes put it (long before Poole), “There is nothing new under the sun.” This is demonstrated in the re-emergence of ideas such as therapeutic psychedelic drugs, inherited traits that aren’t programmed into the genome, cognitive behavioural therapy, getting our protein from insects, and the multiverse.

Poole explores these propositions deftly enough, but they are not what interest him here. Rather, his subject is the way that we have seen them all before. He ties together what he concedes is a “highly selective snapshot of the looping evolution of ideas” with the observation that: “Any culture that thinks the past is irrelevant is one in which future invention threatens to stall.” Originality, he argues, is overrated.

The book might be something of a downer for those who like to gaze at “progress” with wide-eyed admiration. The starkest takeaway is that we are clearly hopeless at putting good ideas to work. In his discussion of artificial intelligence, for instance, Poole mentions the emerging idea of a universal basic income, which is likely to become a necessary innovation as robots take over many of the least demanding tasks of the human workforce. Yet he traces it back to 1796, when Thomas Paine first published his pamphlet Agrarian Justice.

Maybe this tells us something about the limits of the brain. It has always innovated, thought through its situations and created solutions. But those solutions can only be drawn from a limited pool of possibilities. Hence we get the same ideas occurring ­inside human skulls for millennia and they are not always presented any better for the passing of time. Richard Dawkins and his ilk provide a salient example, as Poole points out: “Virtually none of the debating points in the great new atheism struggles of the 21st century . . . would have been unfamiliar to medieval monks, who by and large conducted the argument on a more sophisticated and humane level.”

So, perhaps we should start to ask ourselves why so many proposed solutions remain unimplemented after what seem to be thousand-year development programmes. It is only through such reflection on our own thinking that we will overcome our barriers to progress.

Sometimes the barriers are mere prejudice or self-interest. After the Second World War, Grace Hopper, a computer scientist in the US navy, created a language that allowed a computer to be programmed in English, French or German. “Her managers were aghast,” Poole writes. It was “an American computer built in blue-belt Pennsylvania” – so it simply had to be programmed in English. “Hopper had to promise management that from then on the program would only accept English input.”

It is worth noting that Hopper was also a victim of postwar sexism. In 1960 she and several other women participated in a project to create COBOL, the computing language. Critics said there was no way that such a “female-dominated process” could end in anything worthwhile. Those critics were
wrong. By the turn of the century, 80 per cent of computer coding was written in COBOL. But this is another unlearned lesson. A survey in 2013 showed that women make up just 11 per cent of software developers. A swath of the population is missing from one of our most creative endeavours. And we are missing out on quality. Industry experiments show that women generally write better code. Unfortunately, the gatekeepers only accept it as better when they don’t know it was written by a woman.

Solving the technology industry’s gender problems will be a complex undertaking. Yet it is easy to resolve some long-standing difficulties. Take that old idea of providing a universal basic income. It appears to be a complex economic issue but experimental projects show that the answer can be as simple as giving money to the poor.

We know this because the non-profit organisation GiveDirectly has done it. It distributed a basic income to an entire community and the “innovation” has proved remarkably effective in providing the means for people to lift themselves out of poverty. Projects in Kenya, Brazil and Uganda have made the same discovery. As Poole notes, even the Economist, that “bastion of free-market economics”, was surprised and impressed. It said of the scheme: “Giving money directly to poor people works surprisingly well.” You can almost hear the exclamation “Who knew?” – and the slapping sound of history’s facepalm.

Michael Brooks’s books include “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” (Profile)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt