Something’s been happening in the world of pop this year. Well, duh. Let me rephrase. A lot has been happening in the world of pop this year. From Beyonce’s sly-dog release of Beyonce, to the alarming growth that’s firmly attached itself to Nicki Minaj’s behind, to Tay Tay getting busy exacerbating racial stereotypes while she’s shaking it off to Lily Allen’s comeback tour, it’s been a busy year for pop and its chart toppers. Controversial MTV appearances and obligatory twitter beefs aside though, what’s really interesting is that, in its fatigued 2014 state, pop just isn’t pop anymore. Blame exhaustion or simply growing out of that awkward preteen stage, pop is increasingly becoming less and less like the pop of the the late '90s and early 2000s.
Once guarded by boy bands in matching outfits and bad die jobs, pop was a pristine domain reserved for the Britney Spears’ and Christina’s -before she was X-tina - of the world. A clearly defined realm, with the occasional true diva slash pop princess flourishing amongst a sea of Mandy Moore’s and Jessica Simpson’s. This year however, those same pop princesses that, in say 1999 or even 2009, would’ve been left to their preordained place on So Fresh of Summer and Ryan Seacrest’s weekly Top 40, have become, for all intents and purposes, transcendent. Chameleon-like, female pop artists of 2014 are opting to work with some seriously unlikely producers, and no, we’re not just talking about the David Guetta’s and Calvin Harris’s of the world. Suddenly, Ariana Grande is bosom buddies with Cashmere Cat and Miley’s a female rebel with Alt-J. And, do you know what’s even more interesting? As pop fatigues of its own pop game, and grows out of its own pop boots, those same unlikely producers are choosing to work back and undeniably helping to carve a new path for the future of a now more mature, dynamic pop. Here we have a look at just 5 unlikely pop princess pairings released over the last year that are helping to push the boundaries of the genre ever onward.
Ariana Grande and Zedd: Break Free
When Break Free dropped earlier this year, Grande’s Zedd produced mega hit broke all the rules on its way to freedom. Music camps everywhere sat perplexed facing the same conundrum, to like or not to like. Here was a song with undeniable pop appeal. With vocals bellowing out from yet another sequin-clad Disney Channel escapee, and a house-anthem quality to its thumping bass and roller coaster rise and falls, this song was surely destined for Top 40 success, buoyed by the starry eyed 12 to 16 year old girl market, while simultaneously anticipating ridicule from more discerning music snobs. Remarkably, however, it wasn’t just the aspirational tweens that found themselves crooning along to Grande’s grammatically incorrect chorus. Zedd’s production gave not only the song a level of unexpected credibility, but Grande herself. Instead of lampooning the 21-year-old for, well, what else are Disney graduates for? Pitchfork evoked comparisons to “Swedish pop mastermind, Robyn,” while noting Grande’s “sky scraping voice” was in top form. And Slate called it a “soaring pop ballad... propelled by synth chords and a pounding bass beat.”
Ariana Grande and Cashmere Cat: Be My Baby
Grande’s debut album My Everything is riddled with collaborations from Nicki Minaj and Jessie J, to The Weeknd and Childish Gambino. It’s well and truly old news, but in case you’ve been living under a rock, everyone wants a piece of this intergalactic pop princess. Perhaps the album’s most unexpected cameo however is by Norwegian producer Cashmere Cat who, not only produced Be My Baby, but in more recent weeks has released an alternative version to the sanitised edit that made its way onto Grande’s album. Brimming with blippy synths, all out gun shots and punch-packing chorus breakdowns, Cashmere’s re-edit is effortlessly cool in a way that the original could never be. While superficially the two artists find fans in diametrically opposed walks of life, collectively the same-same-but-different tracks somewhat unashamedly demonstrate a rumbling conversation currently taking place between chart toppers and the underground. It seems intrigue and a genuine desire to bust genre wide open is a priority on all fronts at the moment: Alien-pashing pocket rocket or super-side fringed cat alike.
Miley Cyrus and Alt J: Hunger of the Pine
Of all the pop princess collabs on this list, Miley’s sample on Alt-J’s track Hunger of the Pine was critically the least well received. Lifted from 4x4, a non-single track on Cyrus’s Bangerz album, Sam called the sample “beyond clumsy,” while Bianca vilified Cyrus for bringing her “big wrecking ball” in and ruining the track’s chance of truly “happening.” Billboard simply lamented Alt-J’s oversight in not sampling Nelly’s verse from the same song. A non-appearance by Nelly on any track is already disappointing enough, let alone when it’s replaced by Miley. Hunger of the Pine remains however, a crystalline example of how reworks, samples and collaborations between unlikely bedfellows attribute a fresh sense of credibility artists and their music. Suddenly Miley was not just Miley of Robin Thicke infamy, but Miley, an artist in the eyes of incomparable (thank god) Alt-J.
Jessie Ware and Cyril Hahn: Tough Love
Labeled breakout producer of 2013, Cyril Hahn has steadily been making a name for himself remixing and sampling the lofty vocals of female artists at the top of their game. From Destiny’s Child, to baby sister Solange and Californian outfit HAIM to a truly x-rated, quivering pants-party rendition of Mariah’s Touch My Body, it’s not surprising that the Swiss R&B re-animator quickly turned his hand to Jessie Ware’s Tough Love. Described as “the missing link between SBTRKT and Sade,” Ware was praised for the release of her down-tempo R&B, synth-infused pop album (yes, there is such a thing), Devotion, earlier this year. While there ain’t nothing tough about the original Tough Love, when in Hahn’s hands, the breathy pop-ballad is easily transformed into a house beat that bubbles frenetically under a vocal tapestry rich in high highs and slow burn crescendos. A Hahn remix is quickly becoming the tell tale sign of a true pop princess. Watch out Ariana Grande, he’s coming for you.
Sia and Four Tet: Chandelier
Sia’s Chandelier caught attention for a myriad of reasons. Firstly it was her bold, unapologetic announcement of return after an extended hiatus between albums. Secondly, dat video clip, am I right? And thirdly, the incredibly powerful press and TV talk show performances that accompanied its debut, all seeming to herald the return of this unique artist, while firmly maintaining her shadowy space, just beyond the limelight's desperately creeping finger tips. Read, Lena Dunham’s doppleganger act on Late Night with Seth Meyers and her back-to-the-camera recreation on Ellen. Pitchfork claimed Chandelier made “her previously released solo material seem impossibly minor by comparison,” while our own writer Sam noted a presences of guts in Chandelier absent in the work of contemporaries like Katy Perry. In the face of such pop stardom, producers and DJ reactionaries have two choices, run in the opposite direction, save daring to take on soon-to-be pop classic or conversely dive straight in, rework and take the track in a totally new direction. For his take on Sia’s Chandelier, British producer Four Tet chose the latter. Stripping out the instrumentals, Four Tet left Sia’s impossible audio intact, twanging over an fresh hip-hop inspired beat and softly sparkling keys. Like the Cashmere Cat re-release of Grande’s Be My Baby, Four Tet’s Chandelier is more than a remix or mere dialed up BPM. It reinforces pop's sky rocketing power to transcend what has been a chaste genre and a willingness on the behalf of certifiably non-pop producers to encourage this fresh approach to limits and genre. As Sam says, the Four Tet interpretation just “adds extra edge as if to take it from the hands of Commercial Radio and plop it in Triple J’s lap.”