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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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