The boyband in the Internet era had it tough. As well as the dancing, singing and magazine appearances, a boyband member had to look good for social media and interact with fans. But what if your band had so many fans that you simply cannot keep up? Fans cry ‘MESSAGE ME’ or ‘WHY DO YOU NOT ANSWER ME’? I would have hated to have been in a boyband, but at least five young men thought it was the route to pop stardom.
One Direction will never need to reform unless finances get particularly awful. Harry Styles is the one with the nice haircut who wrote an album in Jamaica; Niall Horan is the happy chappie who will be big in Ireland; Liam Payne had a child with former partner Cheryl and had a hit with a song written by Ed Sheeran; Louis Tomlinson is a nice Northerner who seems harmless enough; Zayn Malik left the group, citing exhaustion, and split up first with a popstar (Perrie from Little Mix) then a supermodel (Bella Hadid). He remains a paragon of pop for any young British Asian and has had some hits of his own despite not touring at all due to stage fright.
Meanwhile, 5 Seconds of Summer keep touring. Unlike 1D, who were put together on TV, 5SOS emerged on Youtube which positioned them perfectly as they launched their debut album in summer 2014. It featured Don’t Stop, a brilliant pop-rock song which is on NOW 88, co-written by Calum and Luke from the band with two pop geniuses, Mike ‘busbee’ Busbee and Steve Robson. The album closer, Amnesia, was written by the Madden brothers from Good Charlotte, which makes absolute sense: when pop-punks grow up, they write for younger pop-punks.
Second album Sounds Good Feels Good followed a year later, with more Madden-penned tunes including Hey Everybody and She’s Kinda Hot. After two years of writing, 5SOS’s third album came out in June. The cast of characters is impressive, and points to you if you recognise any of these ‘backroom boys’ and girls: Julia Michaels, Justin Tranter, Wayne Hector, Rami Yacoub, Rivers Cuomo, Ali Tamposi, Andrew Watt, Carl Falk, Steve Mac and Jacob ‘J Kash’ Kasher. It’s ‘Pop by Committee’ and it will make the band and their label a lot of money. The lead single Want You Back features on NOW 99.
I wanted to pick Don’t Stop as my NOW 88 playlist choice but Polly Holton convinced me to pick a song written by a fine songwriter and performer: Sia.
There is a huge disparity between the sexes in terms of biggest songwriters of all time. Of the 118 writers or teams of writers spoken to as part of Si & Bri’s Sodajerker on Songwriting series, 24 women have appeared, including Joan Armatrading, Miranda Cooper of Xenomania, KT Tunstall, Allee Willis, Carole Bayer Sager and Cynthia Weil. No Madonna, Bjork, PJ Harvey, Dolly Parton, Lucinda Williams, Stevie Nicks, Christine McVie, Lily Allen, Carole King or Taylor Swift.
Nor have they yet spoken to Diane Warren, who is the most consistent and durable female songwriter in popular music. She gave Paloma Faith the song Only Love Can Hurt Like This, the biggest track from her third album A Perfect Contradiction (did you buy it?), which closes NOW 88. A June 2018 interview with Music Week had Diane astutely observing that Paloma didn’t have many hits from that album.
In case you don’t know Diane, her songs include Because You Loved Me (Celine Dion), I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing (Aerosmith), How Do I Live (Aerosmith), There You’ll Be (Faith Hill) and the recent Stand Up For Something (Common). Nominated nine times for the Best Original Song Academy Award, including for all five of those songs, she has yet to win. Of her 12 GRAMMY nominations, she won in 1997 for Because You Loved Me. For five years in the 1990s she was ASCAP Pop Songwriter of the Year and was the first songwriter in US chart history to have seven concurrent singles in the Hot 100 to be sung by different artists. She owns an entire studio complex named RealSongs where she works, writing words and music herself, and in 2018 she was starstruck when meeting Sir Paul McCartney, which proves that everyone you worship has their own idol.
Si and Bri have not yet snared Sia Furler either, who is one of the many songwriters interviewed by Paul Zollo in one of his two big Songwriters on Songwriting series (Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde and Loretta Lynn all feature in Volume 2). Sia told Paul via email about Chandelier, which ‘entranced’ him the moment he heard it and contains an octave leap that is ‘triumphant and anthemic’ yet underscored a lyric that was ‘compellingly dark’. Paul compares Sia to Randy Newman, who also put sad lyrics to happy tunes. Chandelier, which I appreciated more than liked (I prefer Diamonds and Cheap Thrills), was a song Sia felt she ‘couldn’t give away’, as it was about her alcoholism (‘one, two, three, DRINK!’).
Sia told Paul, who noticed that her live performances were in a huge wig, that ‘performing takes so much time and energy, and I would rather devote that time to writing songs and making records and putting out my music into the world.’ In the last decade she has written hits for Rihanna, Celine Dion, Ne-Yo, Rita Ora, Jessie J, Katy Perry (Chained to the Rhythm), Camila Cabello (Crying In the Club) and for herself. Her success in the world of Max, Luke and Calvin is a light to all songwriters, particularly women.
As mentioned in this series, I have decided to become a songwriter and it has been beneficial to listen to what makes a hit a hit. Sometimes it’s chasing a trend – one is an outlier, two is a trend, three is a formula…when will it end? – but sometimes it’s about standing out and having a supportive record label. Someone Like You by Adele, or Baby One More Time by Britney, or Beautiful by Christina were all outliers and idiosyncratic when they hit number one in the UK.
Some of the finest male songwriters of the current decade are high up the NOW 88 tracklisting: Ryan Tedder pens Ghost with 2013 X Factor contestant (Peter Dickson voice) Ella Henderson; Ed from Suffolk has Pharrell’s help on the two-chord chant Sing; James Napier aka Jimmy Napes helps Sam Smith articulate his feelings on Stay With Me; and Joel Pott, formerly of Athlete, helps George Ezra twist the blues into a ‘gap year folk’ style on Budapest (I never liked it).
Max Martin’s daughter Doris encouraged her dad to work with Disney channel starlet Ariana Grande, who teams up with Iggy Azalea on Problem, where the song’s title is whispered; Calvin Harris wraps I Will Never Let You Down in a bow and gifts it to Rita Ora, who has another UK number one; Avicii helps Coldplay become the biggest band in the world all over again with A Sky Full of Stars; heck, even Elton John pops up, lending Aloe Blacc Your Song on The Man, which I never liked.
Then comes Michael Jackson, from beyond the grave, with Love Never Felt So Good, based on a demo he wrote with Paul Anka, the man who took the song Comme D’Habitude, wrote a lyric with the title My Way and gave the world the ultimate ‘dying of the light’ song. Michael is helped by Justin Timberlake, and the song is slight, as befits a song based on a demo. I remember seeing This Is It, the concert film based on rehearsals for what would have been the 2009 London dates for Michael, and it was like looking at an artist trying to fight his body to do what it used to do. It was clear he was in pain and also that he was 50 years old, but the world will look back on the great albums from his lifetime which influenced millions of singers including Justin Timberlake.
At the end of Disc 1 is the soaraway song of the decade not written by someone named Adele, Max, Pharrell or Ed. Robert Lopez has not just won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Academy Award (or Oscar) and a Tony; he’s done it twice, the only ‘double EGOT’. He wrote his masterpiece, Let It Go, with his wife Kristin Anderson-Lopez. ‘Conceal, don’t feel’ is a dark lyric to put in a song aimed at children, but the narrative of the movie Frozen demanded it. The song’s structure is fascinating, with a bridge that leads into the famous chorus, then a second verse that differs in structure from the first. Max Martin would surely compliment the ‘maths’ of the song, which amps up to the appearance of the chorus and is a proper musical theatre song befitting the writers of the brilliant Avenue Q.
The big smash hit in the UK was Waves by Mr Probz, remixed by Robin Schulz, which sounded like being at the beach (not that I remembered what a beach was, as I didn’t have a summer holiday in either 2012 or 2013, nor would I have one in 2014). Equally enormous was the playground chant Fancy by Iggy Azalea and Charli XCX, analysed by Chilly Gonzales the musical genius here. Fun fact: Chilly is the brother of Christophe Beck, who wrote all the orchestral music in Frozen.
In the vocal booths, John Martin gets a turn as a lead artist on Anywhere For You, while Bebe Rexha appears for the first time on a NOW as a featured artist on Take Me Home by Cash Cash. Tove Lo (featuring Hippie Sabotage) has the fascinating pop song Stay High, with a hedonistic video that seemed to attach a GoPro camera to the head of the protagonist who is at a party. The atmosphere of the song is spellbinding, while Tove blethers on about wanting to ‘numb the pain’. The version of the song on NOW 88 is a remix, but the original is just as good; the former has had over 300m Spotify streams, the latter 260m, which is a lot of staying high.
Appearing on their first NOW are smart Cambridge graduates Clean Bandit with their song Extraordinary, featuring Sharna Bass doing the singing, and the even better number one Rather Be, with vocals by fellow two-timer Jess Glynne, who enlists Gorgon City (uncredited) to help her write Right Here. Fellow long-haired singer Ella Eyre is on NOW 88 with If I Go, while Little Mix are loud and boisterous on Salute, ‘representing all the women’ and imagining what Destiny’s Child would sound like in 2014. Neon Jungle did the same on Welcome to the Jungle.
You know age is running away from you when the popstars weren’t even born when you were conscious. Rixton were the latest band of teenagers targeted at people born in the year 2000, and their song Me and my Broken Heart (‘Myanmar Broken Heart’ I called it) is written by the superb team of Wayne Hector, Benny Blanco, Ammar Malik and Steve Mac. Rob Thomas got a credit since it reworked the chords from his song Lonely No More, from a dim and distant NOW which came out long before Rixton were teenagers. Singer Jake Roche is the child of Shane Richie and Coleen Nolan, going into the entertainment business.
Also returning are The Vamps who two-time with the fun morning-after tune Last Night and the song Somebody To You, a typical teen-pop song which was a duet with Demi Lovato and was written by Savan Kotecha and Carl Falk. Back too are Tiesto (Wasted, featuring Matthew Koma, a drinking song) and Calvin Harris, with Summer, a big band tune that looks to Glenn Miller (nope, it’s a dance-pop song).
The latest act to namecheck their forebears and have a hit song is MKTO with Classic, a lost pop gem that mentions Michael Jackson, Prince, Marvin Gaye and Donny Hathaway. Signed to Columbia Records, Malcolm Kelley and Tony Oller (hence MK and TO) were child stars on a Nickelodeon show and had a top 20 Hot 100 hit in the USA, opening for Demi Lovato on her 2014 tour. In June 2018, happily, the band have found a new label.
Will.je.suis, meanwhile, is the latest artist to have his own record label, and signed Cody Wise to it. He produces the awful song It’s My Birthday to try to get Cody some hits; Jason Derulo gets Snoop Dogg to Wiggle with him (I never liked the song); Chris Brown, who hit Rihanna in 2009, returns in 2014 with Loyal, joined by Lil Wayne and Tyga (don’t they know he hit Rihanna?); Fuse ODG keeps his career on track with Dangerous Love, drafting in Sean Paul; Robin Thicke and Jessie J sing on the DJ Cassidy song Calling All Hearts, which is 99% Nile Rodgers but gets feet moving as befits a song that beckons people ‘to the dancefloor’.
Here is a list of dance anthems from 2014 which are on Disc 2 of NOW 88: Hideaway by Kiesza; Gecko (Overdrive) by Oliver Heldens and, with a credit this time, Becky Hill; Nobody to Love by Sigma, which borrows the line sung by Charlie Wilson on the Kanye West song Bound 2 and puts a beat underneath it; I Wanna Feel by Secondcity (more nineties house in summer 2014); Make U Bounce by DJ Fresh vs TC featuring Little Nikki that sounded like an early video game; Don’t Look Back by Matrix & Futurebound is some euphoric drum’n’bass with a great vocal from Tanya Lacey, who is credited; and Always by MK featuring Alana, remixed by Route 94.
The saxophone takes the lead on both the pan-European number one hit Jubel by Klingande and Changes by Faul & Wad Ad and Pnau, led by a massed choir of children’s voices. Touch by Shift K3Y brings back the early-00s two-step sound and married it to the current synth-led club music; it’s brill and addictive and made its way out of the clubs onto the radio. Radio 1, in particular, was brilliant at spotting trends in the clubs and the NOW compilers were equally adept at reflecting what was going on in the charts in an easy-to-purchase compilation.