Pop music today: a soulless vacuum, void of depth and creativity, sung by auto-tuned robots and usually featuring Flo Rida? Sometimes yes, but this certainly isn’t the full story. With four writers credited for the lyrics, and production by Swedish dream-team Bloodshy & Avant, Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic’ is pop at its most artificial and manufactured. Thanks to its addictive melodic hooks, a combination of sinister strings and surf-guitar, and its frivolous sense of fun, it was also one of the best songs of the last decade. The producers behind such great pop tracks are rarely given the recognition they deserve. Along with RedOne (Lady Gaga’s partner in crime) and Xenomania (responsible for every great Girls Aloud track), one of pop’s best producers is Max Martin, who’s responsible for providing the likes of Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Kelly Clarkson, Katy Perry and Pink with their biggest hits. Without commercial teen pop stars to sing them, songs such as ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ and ‘I Want It That Way’ may never have seen the light of day.

But if the singer has contributed little to its writing or composition, can you fully connect to a song? Perhaps not, although just because one hasn’t written a song does not mean one cannot fully commit to its lyrics. Would the Max Martin-produced monster of a break-up song ‘Since U Been Gone’ have reached such dizzying heights of perfection if Kelly Clarkson hadn’t screamed out that bridge as if the fate of America depended on it? Probably not. It’s when the pop sensibility of such producers is matched with the song craft, artistic vision and raw emotion of the artists themselves that we get something as exceptional as ‘Bad Romance’.

The pop acts of the 80s brought with them a wealth of imagination and innovation, with new romantic synth-pop emerging from punk and new wave. Kate Bush made some of the most inventive music of all time, and Michael Jackson and Madonna ascended to pop royalty. From the mid-90s, it was the boom in manufactured teen-pop that was taking centre stage – most pop ‘artists’ at the time were merely products and played no part in the creation of their music. Although there was no lack of brilliant pop singles released, the albums themselves were mainly filler.

Then Gaga arrived and changed everything once again. With the best attempt at stealing Madonna’s pop crown since Gwen Stefani yelled ‘Take a chance you stupid hoe’, she has turned the pop industry upside down and made being eccentric and extrovert more than just a necessity. What makes Lady Gaga the perfect pop star is that she refuses to make her artistic statements solely through music. She channels just as much artistic vision into her outfits, music videos and public persona. The deliciously deranged video for ‘Telephone’ and infamous meat dress are as much a part of Lady Gaga as her music. Whilst the likes of Katy Perry and Ke$ha may not match Gaga in artistic vision, it’s the garish style choices, shameless lyrics and brattish vocal delivery accompanying their over-the-top personas that make their often mind-numbingly dumb trash-pop so enjoyable.

If there is one person who can rival Gaga in all departments, it is probably Swedish electro-pop siren Robyn. Both a vulnerable, social outsider and foul-mouthed femme fatale in equal measure, Robyn is one of pop’s most captivating singers, bringing lonely heartache to the dance floor with the dazzling ‘Dancing On My Own’ and giving us one of 2010’s best albums. Along with Marina and The Diamonds, Hurts and Annie, she is leading the recent trend of left-field pop that attempts to be more experimental. To truly succeed, these acts must remember that however avant-garde they try to be, they don’t forget the one fundamental element of a great pop song: a brilliant melody. From the shameless to the sublime, the flamboyant to the subtle, and the mindless to the innovative, pop music is fearless, wickedly fun, and constantly evolving. With the return of Britney and Gaga, the hotly anticipated debut from new girl in town Jessie J, and Rihanna’s continual domination of the charts, 2011 is already shaping up to be a phenomenal year for pop. Like it or not, pop music is here to stay.

James Smyllie

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