Teenage life in the 2010s is beset by misery, bullying, pressure in exams and the uncertainty of the future. So were my teenage years in the 2000s but now we have the added cocktail of 24/7 social media online existence. Teenagers have never been so sad.
How refreshing that the big star of this era, for the under-20s, is not called Beyonce, Taylor or Ed (or even a Youtuber) but a girl from New Zealand who was astonishingly young when her song Royals topped the charts all over the world. But what is it that makes Royals so magical?
The first verse puts Lorde’s voice upfront with echoey percussion on the offbeat. What is she doing singing about ‘postcode envy’? The song references lots of hiphop clichés including ‘tigers on a gold leash’ and ‘Cristal’ champagne. Yet in the chorus Lorde denies these desires: ‘We crave a different kind of buzz,’ she sings, and wants love and friendship. ‘My friends and I, we’ve cracked the code’, she sings as they head off to parties, not to go ‘trashing the hotel room’ but just to hang out with each other.
Royals appealed to millions around the world and, incredibly but not surprisingly, Ella Yellich O’Connor (and Joel Little who co-wrote it) had a number one song in Belgium, Canada, Ireland, Israel, Italy, New Zealand (her home), Venezuela and on both sides on the Atlantic. It ruled (ruuuuuled) America for nine weeks; Blurred Lines did it for 12. Only one of these songs sounds good today.
Another number one was a self-empowerment song written by Dr Luke and Max Martin, with help from Bonnie McKee, Henry Walter and its performer, Christian girl Kathryn aka Katy Perry. Roar is about having ‘the eye of the tiger’ and being the ‘champion’. It’s as if Max and Luke sat down and said: ‘Let’s write a song that all girls [including Max’s daughter Doris] can sing along to.’ Better still, it made Max a lot of money to make Doris’s life even more amazing. That kid must have met every popstar of note in the last 20 years; her birthday parties must have been rad, as the kids say (!).
In August 2013 Miley Cyrus had become the second person after Iggy Azalea to suffer from the vogueish trend of folk attacking white people for doing something black people do, in Miley’s case ‘the twerk’ with a foam finger at the Video Music Awards. After three years away, she returned with We Can’t Stop, co-written by Mike Will Made It; the song was a number one in the UK but a ‘terrific two’ in the US behind Blurred Lines, another song with a risqué video. I was annoyed because Mike Will (‘my quill’) was my songwriter alter ego in an early podcast series.
Aside from We Can’t Stop, the only songs on NOW 86 to really benefit from the visual aspect of how they were sold are at the end of each disc. Disc 1 ends with that year’s John Lewis advert song, a cover of Keane’s Somewhere Only We Know by Lily Allen. I wanted to put this into the NOW playlist to commemorate the power of the TV sync, but Polly Holton convinced me otherwise. You can hear the 11th of 12 podcasts at www.soundcloud.com/jonny_brick. Disc 2 ends with The Fox (What Does the Fox Say) by Ylvis, the Norwegian Ant & Dec (or Keith Lemon). The song is produced by Stargate, which would be like Guy Chambers or Fraser T Smith producing a song by Keith Lemon (or Ant & Dec).
The other songs Polly and I could have chosen for the playlist were also big hits at the end of 2013. Three of them are by Ryan Tedder: Burn by Ellie Goulding was produced by co-writer Greg Kurstin; Bonfire Heart was written with its performer, former serviceman James Blunt; and Counting Stars by his band OneRepublic (with no space between One and Republic).
Ryan told Ross Golan’s And the Writer Is podcast that when he played Counting Stars live in Morocco, the audience went wild and he realised it was his next huge hit. Like Royals, it was about ignoring money: ‘instead of counting dollars, we’ll be counting stars’, ‘take that money, watch it burn’ and ‘everything that kills me makes me feel alive’ are all great lyrics. Also odd about Counting Stars is that it’s a solo composition: Ryan wrote the music and the lyrics all on his own.
Only one other track on NOW 86 shares that status and it’s an instrumental dance composition by teenager Martin Garrix called Animals. Avicii two-times as he put out his debut album True in 2013: Tim Bergling is on Disc 1 with his UK number one Wake Me Up, written with the vocalist Aloe Blacc, and on Disc 2 with You Make Me. Disc 2 contains dance bangers about summer: Sonnentanz (Sun Don’t Shine) was performed by Klangkarussell with the vocals of Will Heard; Summertime Sadness was a Lana Del Rey song given a remix by Cedric Gervais (no relation to Ricky). She just sounds bored, so why should I be interested? Her albums remind me of F Scott Fitzgerald novels, which were populated by careless people. I appreciate others may have fallen for Lana; some people like Marmite, some people do not.
Three new British names appear on NOW 86. I once met Becky Hill in the same West London studio complex used by Fraser T Smith; along with the Zelig-like Talay Riley, Becky co-wrote Afterglow, which is solely attributed to Wilkinson. It is her voice on the track, which was first heard on The Voice UK. Louisa Allen recorded as Foxes and her track Youth is on Disc 1 sandwiched between Lorde and Lady Gaga.
The third new name are an old name. Finally, eight years after their debut hit, Arctic Monkeys are on a NOW with Do I Wanna Know, the song that broke them in America. The band headlined Glastonbury in 2013, with singer Alex Turner putting on a musichall persona, treating thousands of people as if they were in a small club. ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ he purred, grinning, while playing a tremendous back catalogue along with his mate, Matt Helders, one of the finest drummers in Britain.
Here are some familiar names on the compilation. Dizzee Rascal is joined by will.je.suis with Something Really Bad, who two-times with the woeful Bang Bang which starts burlesque and quickly becomes will.je.suis-by-numbers; The Saturdays sing about Disco Love; Wayne Hector co-writes Big Where I Was Little by Eliza Doolittle; John Newman appears with Cheating, a radio smash, and Rizzle Kicks use the co-writer of Cheating, Emily Phillips, on Lost Generation, laying bare the fact that Jordan from the band was active in youth politics before becoming a Rizzle Kick.
Naughty Boy and Emeli Sande reconvene with Lifted, and Tinie Tempah borrows John Martin from Swedish House Mafia on Children of the Sun. With It’s My Party, Jessie J returns to the kind of fluorescent pop she sung on Domino, either confirming her versatility or her ability to do whatever the record company told her to do. Lawson sing about Juliet on a tune co-written and produced by Max Martin’s mate Carl Falk, while The Wanted’s song Show Me Love (America) is produced by Fraser T Smith. His songs, like those of Ryan Tedder, are strong on singable melodies and this is no exception.
The DJ is still making money in late 2013, thanks to the domination of dance music in the US. The club banger Earthquake, a song that tells you to shake your tush within the first ten seconds, is credited to DJ Fresh vs Diplo featuring rapper Dominique Young Unique, and Diplo will return as part of a supergroup of DJs very soon. It features an anti-drop, pulling back a bit for the dance break. Newcomer Ben Pearce provides some chilled house with a top ten song called What I Might Do, and two Dutch brothers recording as Showtek put out Booyah, featuring We Are Loud & Sonny Wilson. Ray Foxx enlists Rachel K Collier on Boom Boom (Heartbeat). Better than all three is Count On Me by Chase & Status, with a killer riff cycling behind the vocals of Moko, which I recorded as part of the 100 Songs from 100 NOWs project.
Calvin Harris two-times on Disc 2: he remixes Eat Sleep Rave Repeat (a song credited to Fatboy Slim and Riva Starr featuring Beardyman, who is the beatboxing brother of the comic Jay Foreman), and drafts in vocalist Ayah Marar on Thinking About You, one of his best and the ninth single (9th single!!) to be taken from 18 Months, all of which I think were on various NOW compilations.
Truly this was the Era of Adam from Dumfries, who had taken over from Max and Luke, who had taken over from Xenomania, who had taken over from The Neptunes, who had taken over from Max Martin, who had taken over from The Spice Girls, who had taken over from Noel Gallagher. Taking over from Adam would be Aubrey from Canada. Drake returns to a NOW with his song Hold On, We’re Going Home, from the period when he still used melody as a way to sell his songs, rather than the drawling ‘human meme’ he would later become (see future essays).
Jason Derulo, meanwhile, had a hit song with the rappers 2 Chainz called Talk Dirty, a fun enough song with a stupid (in the best way) hook. Lady Gaga was living for the Applause (never liked the song) from her third album Artpop, while Bruno Mars banged his chest like a Gorilla. His marvellous ballad When I Was Your Man was never on a NOW, which is a shame as it is astonishing; he would repeat the trick co-writing All I Ask for a big-selling album of 2016 called 25.
Simon Cowell had decided that James Arthur needed an urban edge, and his debut single You’re Nobody Til Somebody Loved You seemed like it was being sung by a deer who got lost on the way to the river. One Direction stuck to the formula – jumping around, singing ‘woah’ and being blank canvases – on the song that featured at the end of the This Is Us movie. Best Song Ever, which is 99% Baba O’Riley by The Who, is nowhere close to the best song written by any of the four chaps who wrote it: Wayne Hector, Ed Drewett, Julian Bunetta and John Ryan.
Again proving that the market didn’t just need one boyband but four, The Vamps emerged playing their own instruments on Can We Dance, a song co-written by Philip Lawrence, one of the Smeezingtons. Also in ‘hot sexy guy’ news, Labrinth co-writes R U Crazy with its performer Conor Maynard (great middle eight, very catchy song) while Sean Paul releases Other Side of Love, a song with quite a tragic lyric about fighting (‘how did we get here?’). Sean starts the song singing over a piano like Ne-Yo or Usher or any black performer in the 2010s. He had come a long way from Get Busy and Gimme The Light back in the very early 2000s.
Since you asked, I spent autumn 2013 at law school in London. Why? I had run out of excuses not to go.