Natural disasters occur with alarming frequency around the world to put pop music in perspective: hurricanes, nuclear explosions, famine, drought and other ‘acts of God’. The horror of the earthquake in Haiti in 2009 has been one of the worst disasters. A collective called Helping Haiti came together to record REM’s Everybody Hurts; Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister whose words had once filled the pages of the Edinburgh Student newspaper, appointed Simon Cowell (amazingly not Sir Simon yet, but he would deserve it) to round up the musicians to sing it. He delivered the usual stable of X Factor contestants (Leona Lewis, Alexandra Burke, Joe McElderry, JLS), male vocalists from both Take That and Westlife, stars of pop such as Mika, James Blunt, James Morrison, Rod Stewart, Mariah Carey, Michael Buble and Kylie, and a Scottish singer discovered on one of Simon’s shows.
Susan Boyle released her first solo album just in time for Christmas 2009. The power of TV to launch popstars was thus not diminishing. I remember the Times mentioning a Scottish singer was to appear on the show that evening with a version of I Dreamed a Dream, but I was unprepared for the world – not just Britain but the world, thanks to Youtube – to fall in love with doughty Scottish singer Susan. Here was the embodiment of a Britain that, as per Cowell’s format, Had Talent. It is her first appearance on a NOW.
Fun fact: my dad worked at a firm dealing with insolvencies of big businesses. When Polaroid called him in, its Creative Director happened to be a popstar. I thus had the thrill of seeing a photo of Lady Gaga, taken by my dad, in a funny feathery piece of headgear. ‘Very very smart lady,’ Dad told me as I was writing this essay, who ‘travelled everywhere with her two make-up artists’. The payroll of a superstar…
I also cadged a ticket to the O2 Arena to see Gaga touring her second album Born This Way. I remember it was loud, there was lots of dancing, too much self-empowerment sloganeering and, for the song You & I, a piano on fire. Such is the show of a superstar. I preferred Gaga dancing about when supporting Take That at Wembley Stadium when fewer people knew who she was. That was before Bad Romance, one of the finest pop songs of this century, if not the finest as per critic Caitlin Moran, who had a definitive interview with Gaga in The Times, which I started to read every day in about 2010, a habit that has no ill side effects to this day.
Lady Gaga is a construct, as all popstars are. A lady from New York who suffers terribly from fibromyalgia, I wish she would make more albums with the likes of Tony Bennett showcasing her vocal talents groomed in the piano bars of New York. Realising it would be more lucrative to build a persona that appealed to kids, gay men and radio programmers, she went pop. Her album The Fame was an enormous success, led by the trio of Just Dance, Poker Face and Paparazzi.
Right from the opening wordless few bars which introduced the listener to the title of the song, Bad Romance layers hook upon hook. The ‘ra-ra’ gibberish is delayed for fifteen seconds by this intro and then repeated for maximum impact with added percussion. The first verse gets going at 32 seconds, which sees Gaga banging on about wanting someone’s love, ‘disease’, ‘drama’ and ‘leather-studded kiss’; she speaks the bridge and then comes the chorus on which she proclaims that she and her paramour ‘could write a bad romance’. There follows the intro full of ‘woah’s which tumbles into the ‘ra-ra’ section, then another verse full of things Gaga wants. It is a stunning vocal backed by great percussion and synth parts, and it goes the full camp on the ‘work it’ section. It’s beyond over-the-top and is almost cynically calculated to make fans go ‘YASS QUEEN’ (my new favourite catchphrase that as a straight white man I cannot use).
Track 1 of Disc 1 is the correct playlist choice; I even asked a gay man, Adeel Amini, to prove it! Adeel helped me pick tracks from NOW 67 all the way to NOW 82 in a two-hour chat about pop that could have gone on all day.
After Gaga follow tracks that are nowhere near as good as Bad Romance: 3oh!3 ft. Katy Perry (Starstruck), The Black Eyed Peas (Meet Me Halfway), Ke$ha (TiK ToK, produced by Dr Luke) and Timbaland ft Katy Perry (If We Ever Meet Again) are all present. Rihanna two-times with Rude Boy, another Ester Dean melody, and a melodramatic ballad called Russian Roulette, which closes NOW 75 and is one of her best vocal performances.
Spring 2010 saw me finish my thesis on English translations of Homer’s Odyssey, a glorious failure, and avoid looking for things to do after my Final exams. I enjoyed the last few months of being a student with two hours of lectures a week, and admittedly didn’t listen to much pop music. I did hear Joe McElderry singing The Climb, his winner’s single that finished second to Rage Against The Machine over Christmas 2009. The song was co-written by Jessi Alexander for Miley Cyrus and I met Jessi in 2016 at a country music festival; she is also responsible for I Drive Your Truck, the song that convinced me to call myself a songwriter. If ever the movie It All Begins With a Song is on a streaming service near you, watch it. Bring tissues.
Two other X Factor contestants appear on NOW 75: JLS sing Everybody In Love (‘put your hands up’) while Alexandra Burke sashays with Broken Heels, co-written by Savan Kotecha and produced by RedOne, who once more helped Gaga create her brand on Bad Romance. Fun fact: RedOne is a Moroccan guy named Nadir Khayat who signed Jennifer Lopez to his record label and then helped Nicki Minaj have hits like Starships, which I never liked. I preferred the JR Rotem-produced (hence ‘J-J-JR’) Replay for Iyaz, a UK number one which I have performed as part of the 100 Songs from 100 NOWs series at soundcloud.com/jonny_brick, as well as In My Head, a track JR Rotem wrote with Jason Derulo, who was still shouting his name. DJ Khaled was taking notes.
It’s a good NOW for the girls. Cheryl Cole, with help from her future fellow TV talent show judge Will.je.suis, says 3 Words, Gabriella Cilmi is On a Mission (full of vintage synth stabs), Sugababes sing About A Girl (not the early Nirvana song, alas, and another RedOne special) and Saturdays have an Ego. I don’t remember any of these songs but I do remember overwrought ballad Cry Me Out by Pixie Lott. Florence + The Machine took Dog Days Are Over to commercial and BBC radio. It’s the best song from her first album even if it contains the line ‘happiness hit her like a train on a track’ which does not sound like happiness.
Marina & The Diamonds are ‘Popjustice pop’, to coin a genre, taking the quirkiness of the Xenomania stable of music and putting an interesting singer up front. Marina had finished second in the BBC’s Sound of 2010 poll to Ellie Goulding, whose magnificent debut song Starry Eyed showcased her scant voice, especially on the lyric ‘next thing…we’re touching’.
Also on the longlist of 15 acts were Stornoway, put together by PhD students at Oxford (my friend Lauren knew of them as far back as 2008, and I loved their song Zorbing), Rox (whose sound was similar to that of Noisettes), Hurts (a sort of Pet Shop Boys from Manchester), Everything Everything (a sort of Talking Heads from Manchester), Giggs (a rapper from Peckham) and the only one of these acts to make the NOW 75 compilation, a bedroom musician from Minnesota named Adam Young whose song Fireflies, released under the moniker Owl City, topped the UK and US charts in 2010.
Chipmunk brought in Talay Riley on Look For Me, which borrowed the on-the-beat rhythm from I Gotta Feeling. Talay had written Chipmunk’s number one Oopsy Daisy and would go on to write some remarkable hits: Reload for Wiley, Levels for Nick Jonas, Afterglow with Wilkinson and Young Dumb & Broke with Khalid. A man named Patrick Ogokwu chose the moniker Tinie Tempah and teamed up with producer Labrinth on the extraordinary number one Pass Out, which namechecked the UK town of Scunthorpe, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Uncle Fester from The Addams Family. Ben Drew abandoned his politically minded rapper Plan B to record a concept album as soul singer Strickland Banks, of which Stay Too Long was the remarkable first single which sounds like rock, rap, r’n’b, hiphop and soul thrown into one kitchen sink.
The end of Disc 2 includes songs with an urban feel, including BedRock by Young Money ft. Lloyd (as in ‘I can make your bed rock’ on a song which contained that drum sound that sounds like a cabasa), Opposite of Adults by Chiddy Bang (which cut up Kids by MGMT and rapped over it in the most irritating manner possible), My Name by McLean (dull beyond belief) and The Way Love Goes by Lemar (from his Greatest Hits, another Biff Stannard tune). I remember none of these, nor do I recall Riverside (Let’s Go) by Sidney Samson ft Wizard Sleeve. Why Don’t You by Gramophonedzie is the song which samples Peggy Lee’s version of Why Don’t You Do Right, puts an irritating beat behind it and cuts up the vocal. It was all over radio at the time as is a clever use of catalogue.
British Asian musicians are once more all over pop music. Jay Sean teams up with both Sean Paul & Lil Jon on Do You Remember (nope), while there is the first appearance of a man named Shahid Khan. I’m from Watford, a town associated with Elton John and footballer Kelly Smith, but in 2017 Rak-Su put us on the map(!) with their X Factor win. They have been busy in 2018 working on their debut album with Shahid aka Naughty Boy. Famously winning money on the TV show Deal or No Deal, Naughty Boy built the home studio in which he recorded Never Be Your Woman, which sampled his fellow British Asian musician White Town and added Wiley and Emeli Sande. He seems a really good egg and I am proud to be from the same British town as Shahid. We’ll meet him again soon.
We will also meet Justin Bieber again, a teenager who uploaded Youtube clips and was shepherded to stardom by Usher and Scooter Braun. One Time (co-written by one of the guys who wrote Umbrella for Rihanna) was his first single, which I do not remember because I was 21 and not a teenage girl. The British Justin Bieber (or at least he was in 1992), Robbie Williams, delivers a triumphant song called You Know Me; we still don’t, despite a second well-received memoir called Reveal to follow the one called Feel, released during his Imperial Phase. I remember this because it was all over Radio 2, which I listened to despite being 21. The station is aimed at the over-30s, notionally, but the average listener is over 50.
NOW 75 sees the first appearance by Elliot Gleave, who records as Example. I first heard of him on the song You Can’t Rap (‘you’re white and you’re from Fulham’) which was playlisted on Fresh Air, but he had gone away and refined his style which captured the EDM boom. Won’t Go Quietly was his first of six UK top ten hits. N-Dubz were still having hits of their own, including Playing With Fire which featured Mr Hudson, who two-times by singing the hook on Young Forever, a track by Jay-Z, who never had to work again.
Jay had another big hit with Empire State of Mind, in which Alicia Keys sung of living in a ‘concrete jungle where dreams are made’. Alicia had her biggest hit in many years with Empire State of Mind (Part II), which replaced Jay’s rap with a silky melody about travelling through town with her ‘pocket full of dreams’ which still sounds great today.
If it wasn’t obvious, rock music was a heritage genre in 2010, but Biffy Clyro were one of many acts to break into public consciousness with songs like Many of Horror. Again, Mon the Biff. We’ll hear the song again soon in a watered-down version. On the same compilation we get both an original rock song and its watered-down version, thanks to a new TV show from Ryan Murphy. In the pilot to the show Glee, which introduced viewers to characters who were stock types (Hunk, Cutie, Black, Gay, Bully, Inspirational Teacher, Wheelchair User), the Glee Club sang a version of Don’t Stop Believin’ (WITH NO G!!!). It began with an a capella part before bursting into life with pop-dance instrumentation. Two of the people who sang it (Hunk and Bully) are now dead.
At the same time, the original version of the song was downloaded by thousands who were too young to have heard the song either in its original release or on the last episode of TV show The Sopranos. Journey’s version charted too. The power of downloading made it so, and Glee would bring multiple songs to the attention of its young audience. Ryan Murphy signed a very big deal with Netflix in 2017 and is one of the key figures of American television this century. Journey are still touring, spending summer 2018 on the road with Def Leppard (never on a NOW).
And I nearly got through this essay without mentioning the massive stars of culture in 2009, whose version of Under Pressure brought Vanilla Ice back to public attention and features on NOW 75. Louis Walsh, for all his brilliance at bringing country music to UK ears via Ronan Keating, knew exactly what he was doing (in cahoots with Simon Cowell) when he promoted two Irish twins with funny hair on The X Factor who went on to represent Ireland at Eurovision 2011. Joe McElderry won the show, but the real winners financially were John and Edward Grimes. If only there were a way to combine their first names in one easy moniker. It’ll come to me.