The monarchy is being argued about in Spain, and in pop, too: the Queen, Madonna, has been suffering the attacks of those aspiring to take her place for a few years now, and the ways that people attract fans are getting tougher and tougher. There’s a war going on out there.
These are times of change. There is a war underway between the great stars of consumer pop: the drawings on the board look more like the strategies in “Game of Thrones” than the old commercial manoeuvring and marketing within the heart of the record industry (which tended to be more direct and not as sibylline and Machiavellian as they are now). The competition is fierce and current promotional techniques - which have seen a lot of budget cuts compared to what used to be spent, as this is a miserly moment compared with the multimillion budgets spent on campaigns in the 80s and 90s - only understand the language of media immediacy. In short: brute force to achieve a goal, the quicker the better, and by any means necessary. In this war there are women avid for fame, money, and power, supported by their labels, and all of them have one goal: to wrestle the crown away from the queen. They want to take her place. The place where Madonna’s royal behind has been sitting.
How? When the music channels stopped being a playlist of videos (favouring a programme of reality TV), the clip - as a work of art - became confined to the computer screen, via the internet; that private, democratic corner. What matters is right now. There is no longer any patience for letting an album sit for three or four years; spacing out the singles within a constant stream over several months, enough for them to be heard a lot on the radio and to be on the charts. Now, to make a real impact and reach the public, someone who aspires to the category of pop royalty cannot rest and has to make noise every week, harassing fans (convinced or potential) with new promotional videos - which at this point can be low-cost - a B-side leaked on the internet, a teaser of some future event, or the typical “featuring” credit on another artist’s single. Rest is costly: if you don’t keep up this frenetic pace, the public repays you with oblivion. And with it, the possibility that if you aren’t careful, a family of midgets might spring up behind you in a matter of days.
Madonna’s shadow was long. Her throne was invulnerable and never suffered. However, everything changed when a new generation of artists arrived who also had an enormous ego. They weren’t going to let the setback of “Hard Candy” slide.
This is what has happened to Madonna. Until now she was the untouchable queen of pop, but now Ciccone has run smack-bang into her realm. We didn’t see it coming because over the course of her decades of cruel dictatorship, she has left a string of cadavers behind her - from Cindy Lauper and Paula Abdul in her early years of stardom, to the voices of the 90s, Mariah Carey, Céline Dion and the recently departed Whitney Houston. This has merit, knowing as we do that her vocal chords are nothing out of this world. She also acted as the matriarch of the princesses of the “2000 effect”: Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears, way before they could suffer the dark side of fame for themselves years later. Madonna’s shadow was long. She smashed her rivals effortlessly, playing the game in her own territory like a croupier at her table. Her throne was invulnerable and never suffered. However, everything changed when a new generation of artists arrived who also had an enormous ego. They weren’t going to let the setback of “Hard Candy” (Warner, 2008) slide, an album that should have been a big hit, and which against all odds, failed. It was Timbaland’s funeral as a producer, but it was also a chink in Madonna’s protective armour. The queen was vulnerable and many fans had lost faith.
Far from earning the sympathy of the teenage target, a sensitive age group that always needs to idolize someone, Madonna - as also happened at a certain point to Kylie Minogue - didn’t know how to connect with the generation born in the 90s. You only have to attend one of her huge concerts to see: the average age is 25 and up, just starting with those who saw her resurrection as a modern diva with “Ray Of Light” (Warner, 1998) and “Music” (Warner, 2000). Obviously, any release that she puts out will reach the top of the charts thanks to what she’s already got in her pocket, the fans that have been faithful for decades and who support any step - or misstep - in her career. For example, this is what has happened with “MDNA” (Interscope-Live Nation / Universal, 2012) in its first week of sales. But it is noticeable that in its second week, at least on the American Billboard, sales of this latest pseudo-bling creature have dropped by 87%. We might think that the pre-orders on iTunes were a mirage.
A pain in her ass
The reality is this: if we ask any primary or secondary school student who the biggest name in music is right now, we are sure to get other names besides Madonna; women who don’t yet have the calluses of hard, constant work over the course of decades, but who enter more naturally into the lives and ears of the new generation. Young people have definitely lost respect for the great icons of recent pop history. Let’s be realistic: Lady Gaga has learnt how to manage her potential fans - mad senders of text messages and young gay men - and in record time; but her arrival has also brought with it an absurd war of the faithful that borders on the totally nonsensical. If people choose to sign for peace, there’s a reason.
Gaga has connected with the members of the public who see pop as a fantastic escape mechanism for forgetting about their lives.
What has happened with Lady Gaga is that she has managed to give her public what it needed, and what the other pop stars of the moment were unable to guess at. She has nursed her “little monsters” with absurd, impossible outfits, immortalised daily in the media, and she has involved herself actively with youths who are bullied in school and know what homophobia is from a young age. Gaga has connected with the members of the public who see pop as a fantastic escape mechanism for forgetting about their lives. However, what really has merit in all of this is that she is not known only to those who have to hide their acne; her fame has even reached the neighbour on the top floor, who goes down to the bakery in the morning in her quilted bathrobe. Her tiring media presence has brought her close to every living being on the face of the Earth, and not only her gay target audience.
When her latest album, “ Born This Way” (Interscope, 2011), was about to be released, Lady Gaga kept going on in the interviews about how she was going to give us the best album of the decade. In the end, she gave us a handful of songs produced carelessly and with a dirty sound. It was relatively risky for someone of her kind - more than a light pop album, Gaga’s second album fraternised with EBM and the industrial sounds of 90s clubs. With her strong voice - which is more than proven when she does without the thumping bass and gives us her unplugged versions - and her predisposition towards continual exhibitionism, Lady Gaga is the most well-rounded candidate for taking over the crown when Madonna’s throne empties. That is, of course, as long as the Revolutionary Tribunal doesn’t put an end to her megalomaniac aspirations, as happened to Marie Antoinette.
The arrival of the dance hordes
But this isn’t just a battle between two people. The danger comes from all sides. Like on a chess board, there are other pieces who challenge the Queen’s position. There is Rihanna, for example, who has been bringing beauty to the struggle since 2005, when she put out her first hit, “Pon de Replay”. Barely 24 years old, she already has the material necessary to put out a greatest hits album that thousands of people can sing along to. She lacks skill onstage, and her dance style leaves much to be desired (beyond gyrating up close to her herd of dancers’ sex organs), but the performer from Barbados has been good at stringing together singles and releasing lesser albums year after year. Whether they are radio formula ballads ( “Hate That I Love You”) or a homage to her Caribbean roots ( “Man Down”), or illustrious banger bombs like “We Found Love”; the all-you-can-eat buffet of singles has allowed her to do a real-time market study of the demands of the common crowd.
All of the divas of contemporary mass pop have benefited from the popularity of commercial dance music in the United States, and nobody dares to put out a single anymore if it isn’t intended to be worked out to in a spinning class.
And what do people want to dance to now, much to our dismay? A good house or trance bass put out by David Guetta or any of his disciples or imitators. All of the divas of contemporary mass pop have benefited from the popularity of commercial dance music in the United States, and nobody dares to put out a single anymore if it isn’t intended to be worked out to in a spinning class. “Starships”, on Nicki Minaj’s latest album, could easily have been on Britney Spears’ “Femme Fatale” (Jive, 2011) or one by Rihanna, or Madonna - there’s a reason why Benassi and Martin Solveig were hired for her latest LP, a clear sign that this is how ordinary fans are seduced these days. It’s also typical of the type of song that a legion of also-rans adopted as singles: Ke$ha, Kelis, Kelly Rowland, etc., also looking for their piece of the pie. At some point, we’ll probably see this hackneyed trend towards trance and David Guetta-fication as a hedonistic resource in times of crisis; and it will disappear when we least expect it, never to return. But keeping in mind the power that it is having - not only in pop, but also among those rappers that are all over many students’ school folders - this way of working seems to be assured for some time to come; at least a couple more seasons, however idiotic it might seem to us.
The respectable options
Only Katy Perry seems to be inclined to continue betting on harmless, silly pop. However anyone who has put up with one of her live performances knows that she has made croaking and singing out of tune into her reason for being: the title of diva is too much for her. But this hasn’t kept her “Teenage Dream” (Capitol, 2011) from equalling Michael Jackson’s record - getting five songs from a single album to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 (the litmus-test of winners and losers in this harsh battle for popularity). The fact that she is a former church choir singer with a sense of humour (something altogether unheard of in the transgenic pop spectrum) has been of great help to Perry in earning an exceptional position among the young and not-so-young who dream of a future cover financed by Hugh Hefner.
In the same match - but on the bench - we have people like Robyn, Annie or any female supported by Xenomania, Max Martin or Richard X (Sophie Ellis-Bextor will always have a place in our hearts). All of them, although they sound more contemporary and constantly give lessons in good taste, will have a harder time getting into the Champions League and knocking Madonna off her throne. It’s a similar case with Minogue, beyond her native Australia and the confines of Europe. Even Nicki Minaj is showing her teeth in this contest, although we suppose that in the future she will have to settle down and decide whether she wants to focus on making schizophrenic hip hop, or duke it out with Rihanna.
Anyway, while we wait for new candidates to do something to make this imaginary war to dominate pop more interesting, the battle is coming to a boil. Madonna releasing an album like “MDNA”, full of discotheque songs with pumping drums and euphoric choruses is proof: it is an album on the defensive, made to answer a crisis situation, for a present that she no longer controls. Before, Madonna set the trends; now she has to follow them to defend her territory. How will this war for domination end? It’s hard to say. Successful singles always look good on your CV, but one can only claim to be an icon for all ages - with a legacy that speaks for itself - if you will go down in the history books as a point of reference for a generation. Whatever she does from here on in, Madonna will already have a whole volume for herself. With time, we will see who else holds the same fate: it won’t be easy to take her place.