Clash of the Titans





In years to come, pop historians will look back at this great era of largely excellent pop music (which it is – for now) as “The Reign of the Queens of Pop”. Beyoncé, Katy Perry, Rihanna and Lady Gaga. Four different, but essentially the same singers, producing different, but essentially the same music, and making an awful lot of money as they do so. But in the Hunger Games of pop there can only be one winner (this isn’t true, obviously, but let’s play along) – so who would seize the ultimate victory if microphones became spears and clubs?

Representing the Cult of Little Monsters is Gaga. All powerful, all conquering Germanotta long-since declared herself the winner, and certainly takes the crown in the self-belief contest. She was the last to arrive at the tournament, but drew the first blood. Gaga’s presence forced our other competitors to step up their game very quickly. Love her or hate her, Lady Gaga cannot be ignored. She’s infiltrated the media much in the same way that The Spice Girls did – mercilessly and swiftly, reaching saturation to the point of bloating in less than two years. Beyoncé developed a sense of humour (see Videophone/Telephone), Perry called in a costume designer (see ET) while Rihanna went high-art for a spell (see the whole Rated R album campaign). ALL because Gaga dominated them. She’s the flu of pop.

However, Gaga’s pace could never be sustained. Tortoise and hare. Instead of taking a lovely holiday for a few months, Gaga relentlessly merged the tail end of The Fame Monster into the early throws of Born This Way, ignoring the first rule of popdom – leave them wanting more. The UK hasn’t warmed to the “message” of Born This Way quite so much as the US (who in fairness perhaps needed the message more than we relatively liberal brits) – it seems trite and more than a little patronising. In short, nothing on Born This Way reaches the dizzy heights of Bad Romance or Pokerface.

Taking full advantage of her opponent’s stumble is unlikely successor Katy Perry. After limping out of the arena with her first album between her legs, it would have been easy to write Perry off as an I Kissed A Girl one-hit wonder (Hot N Cold is quite good, mind). Personally I’m not a fan of California Gurls, but you can see why it, and successive singles from the album, Teenage Dream, have been so massive. While Gaga laments her love for Judas, and the Lebanese and “Orient”, Perry wisely reminisces about teenage love and the joy of Friday night, something everyone in the world can identify with. More importantly, IT’S FUN! Gaga could really, really do with finding the fun again. Take, for example, their recent collaborators: Gaga teamed up with fashion photographers and designers, while Perry enlisted Rebecca Black and the Glee cast. Who’s really the savvier of the two? Answer – Gaga. Perry’s choices will date faster than a yoghurt left on a counter, but in the immediate realm of pop, who’s looking at the bigger picture?

Theoretically, Beyoncé – a pop veteran of some thirteen years – should have been the no-contest winner. If this was the Hunger Games, she’d be the tribute from District One (if you haven’t read THG, just go do it now and save yourself the trouble later). However, recent evidence suggests Mrs Jay-Z might have lost her touch. An early victim of “On Air-On Sale”, where artists release their songs to iTunes as soon as they go to radio, was Run the World (Girls). The Major Lazer sampling noise-fest was Beyoncé’s lowest ever charting debut, and a brava video and performance at the Billboard Awards did little to boost its fortunes. Her label’s response to to gloss over the fail with the rushed release of mushy ballad, Best Thing I Never Had. Is it that Beyoncé recorded a song that no-one liked (see also no-one buying the similarly Diplo-produced Beat of My Drum by Nicola Roberts) or is it that On Air-On Sale isn’t working?

Finally, we mustn’t rule out Rihanna. Miss Fenty has a similar work ethic to Lady Gaga, solidly churning out new singles and albums with frightening regularity. Without a doubt, air-headed Loud is a response to the dark and brooding Rated R (which was considered a “bomb” both sides of the Atlantic). The bubble-gum, dancefloor sensibilities of Loud have won over listeners. It’s not clever, but it’s catchy. What’s more, Rihanna has stomped down hard on the PR peddle. If S&M was a dreary attempt to court controversy, the video to Man Down, which sees Ri-Ri sexually assaulted before murdering her assailant is a REALLY dreary attempt to gain column inches. Dreary or not, Rihanna is solidly whooping Beyoncé and Lady Gaga in UK charts right now. Ri-Ri has also wisely guest-starred on everyone else’s singles this year too, maximising her chart presence.

Back in the real world, my favourite thing about music is that there’s plenty of room for everyone. My only worry is that the recent output of the four titans hasn’t excited me in the slightest. None of it’s sounding new, and as pop musicians turn to David Guetta and Benny Benassi to create a more “IN THE CLUB” sound, I fear that we are where we were at the end of nineties: The Spice Girls and Take That fell to Alice DeeJay and The Vengaboys, and before you knew it we were in the reign of Keane and Razorlight. I refer to that time as The Dark Days.

There is only one thing that can stop this decline. I propose the four queens of pop unite and form the world’s most powerful girlgroup. Make it so.

Too Far/Not Far Enough?

So, the story so far. One Meghan Cox Gurdon wrote in the Wall Street Journal that Young Adult (YA) fiction has gnawed through the bottom of the degradation barrel to writhe around in the filth below. She tells the tale of an unsuspecting mother who, on trying to buy a gift for her 13 year old daughter, met a barrage of seductively jacketed tomes depicting lusty vampires, suicidal teens and graphic self-harming. How dark has Dark Romance become? she asks; “Darker than when you were a child, my dear: So dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18.”

As expected (and one suspects, desired), authors, readers and bloggers took to the Internet, using the YASaves hashtag to defend our much-loved genre on Twitter. The fact of the matter is, if these books didn’t sell by the bucket-load, authors wouldn’t be asked to write them. This isn’t evil publishers brainwashing teens, it’s teens seeking out subject matters close to their hearts. I certainly haven’t read anything that promotes the aforementioned “sins of fiction”, only authors seeking to empathise and educate. Sorry, Meg, but incest, rape and self harm are out there. They affect a lot of kids. In the UK alone, it is thought some 33% of 14-24 years olds self harmed in 2008. I strongly feel writing about such issues in an honest, sensitive way enables youths to identify and seek help. We cannot “normalise” such behaviour. It is already “normal”. That said, I have massive issues with the word “normal” at the best of times. Furthermore, I’d argue that the mother in Cox-Gurdon’s article may also wish to throw the TV out of the window, as soap operas such as Hollyoaks have been handling these areas (often in a hamfisted way) for many years.

As for vampires. I mean, really?

On to Cox-Gurdon’s final point about the slippy slope to Hades modern YA finds itself on. For one thing, this is a relatively new genre. A genre, in fact, which was devised with an eye to deliver content unsuitable for younger children but more immediate than adult fiction. As there were so few tailored books for teenagers when I was younger, I skipped pretty much from The Worst Witch to James Herbert. This was an eye opener to say the least. Cox-Gurdon must recognise that teenagers have a hunger for more adult fiction, and we as YA authors try to deliver in an appropriate forum (more on that later).

I’d also argue that this supposed degradation is fiction itself. Exhibit A – Judy Blume’s Forever (1975 – yes, 1975). This book taught me what sex was in 1991. I was ten and I’m eternally grateful that I learned this from a YA author and not James Herbert (again, shudder). Exhibit B – while in Leeds to visit my mum, I dug out my old Christopher Pike books. Remember him? Just pre-Point Horror and especially for teens. In fact, Pike is perhaps a father of the YA movement with RL Stine and LJ Smith (that’s right, let’s not forget The Vampire Diaries were first published in 1991). Taking one example, Die Softly (1992), the reader can expect murder, nudity, sex, cocaine use and incest.

I read Die Softly in the 90s and have never taken coke or slept with a family member. I survived the book ordeal. At the time I didn’t bat an eye-lid. Why is it then, that as an author I’m so wary of going too far? Hollow Pike has a “sexy bit”. This scene is one of the most tweaked and one that is the focus of much discussion with Orion. Even before I was signed to Orion, I self-limited the content of these scenes, which is insane! The characters are 15 and 16 years old – of course they’re encountering the first pangs of teen lust! So it’s interesting that while Cox-Gurdon believes I’m leading teens astray, I’m actually at home deleting nipples from my manuscript.

It’s a question of authorial responsibility. We should not try to shock for the sake of shocking (or worse, publicity). I want to paint sex as an incredible experience between two people who dig each other, in which people don’t immediately die or fall pregnant (if they use condoms). I want to acknowledge that drinking alcohol and taking drugs is going to happen, so we can advise how to do it sensibly. I want to talk about what to do, who to go to, if there’s an issue with food; or sexuality; or self-harm; or abuse. As I said above, I think most YA authors are striving for the same. We are our own “gatekeepers”.

My question to Meghan Cox-Gurdon is simple. What would you like us to write about?