Pop isn’t a dirty word, but there’s something whiffy about it.
The biggest stars of pop and their mobile think-tanks are always searching for something to stand out. Actual talent isn’t always the essential ingredient. It comes with the territory, always has.
We’ve sorta seen it all. In the ‘70s, we had guys dressing like seafarers, and space men. Elton got it done dressing like a duck and wearing daft glasses. The ’80s introduced the era of lavish music videos, and slick, choreographed dance moves, slogans (remember Frankie Says and Choose Life). Manufactured pop bands have always been a thing, from The Monkees to the Spice Girls, 1D and everything K-pop. We’ve had meat dresses, eye patches, axe-wielding creatures.
Pop has always loved looks and gimmicks
It’s never been confused with rocket science or brain surgery and that’s ok. But we find ourselves at plonked in an era where pop has overdone it, with all-star collaborations. It’s bloated from eating at the buffet and, watch out, because pop is going to eat itself.
Why do mega-collabs work? Because of the “wow” factor, yes. But the machinery is social media and streaming services. The more famous the guest artist, the more “followers,” the more potential listens and, here comes the “C” word…cross-fertilisation.
Back in the day, when a big record hit the shelves, we used to study the lyric sheet. In 2019, when a frontline international pop star’s album “drops” (and to similar extent, hip-hop and EDM long-plays) music hacks and fans immediately pour over the number of collabs.
This is pop’s new gimmick
Take for example, DJ Khaled. The former Florida radio disc jockey crunches away with eight albums, none of which bothered the Australian charts. And then, he hit the formula with his ninth effort, Major Key, and its 32 celebrity guest artists. Major Key hit the top 10.
Khaled outdid himself with his followup, Grateful, which featured 35 a-list guests and was powered by the lead single “I’m the One” and its famous faces, Justin Bieber, Quavo, Chance the Rapper and Lil Wayne.
With a few clicks, those five dudes can mobilise a staggering number of followers across their Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts. Count ‘em up. Actually, don’t bother. We already did it.
Right now, the combined figure is 454 million followers, and climbing towards the half-billion mark, all of who can be marketed to with a few clicks. Boom.
Prior to ‘I’m The One,’ DJ Khaled had never appeared in the ARIA top 50 as a lead artist.
His current effort, Father of Asahd, has 28 “assists” and is at No. 7 on the national albums chart, the same peak position as Grateful.
Watch DJ Khaled’s video for ‘I’m The One’:
Superstar Scottish DJ Calvin Harris is enormously rich with powerful friends, many of whom appear on his latest album. Precisely 21 of them joined in on Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1, which hit No. 2 on both sides of the Atlantic, and No. 5 in Australia.
It’s no mystery how we got here. Technology and smart producers enable vocalists to literally phone it in. There’s nothing new about it, just more of it.
A quick history lesson
Elton John and Kiki Dee had a hit with the cheesy but enduring soft-rock duet from 1976 “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” Dee, the first British woman to sign with Motown’s Tamla Records, recorded their lines in separate sessions. She reportedly never met Elton in person until they cut the music video. Strange but true. Nothing strange about it now.
When Ed Sheeran announced his No. 6 Collaborations Project, the conversation isn’t about the songs or where Ed’s head has been since Divide, how he conquered the world, quit Twitter and got married. Nope, the album campaign is all about his famous friends. And it’s a secret! Cool.
There used to be something fun about seeing the top geezers on a record. Bowie and Mick. Bowie and Queen. “Lady Marmalade.” It’s losing its “wow factor.”
Consider Lil Dicky and his star-studded eco-statement “Earth”. The U.S. funnyman and rapper roped in 28 giants of pop, including Sia, Bieber and Ariana Grande. “Earth” peaked at No. 17 here and in the United States.
It’s as though a hundred million pop fans checked out the clip and went, “cool, I’m hitting Tik Tok.”
Sheeran will have a hit with his 6 Collaborations Project, there’s no doubt. Whether it surpasses Divide, I doubt it. Pop music needs to find its next thing. In time, the mega-collab will go the way of The Walking Dead.
Got any fresh ideas? Because pop needs them.