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What sucks, who sucks and you suck

Made by RCA

Have you heard it yet? You know, that song that bounces along while the singer trills about “X’s and O’s, they won’t let go”? Catchy as hell. Sounds like Paloma Faith, or maybe Amy Winehouse or … well, one of those types. Bound to have been on a radio near you lately.

Welcome to RCA’s newest product, skilfully developed through years of painstaking effort by trained professionals: Elle King.

John Seabrook’s book Song Machine has been picking up notices for its rivetting exploration of the extreme calculation and refinement that goes into tooling a modern pop hit - the megaselling likes of Taylor Swift, Katy Perry or Rihanna. But this 360 degree strategising - the handpicked writing and production team, the careful audience targeting, the meticulously planned release campaigns - is making its way into other genres, even ones that may previously have been viewed as more “authentic”. That word may not have been entirely valid in the modern music world ever since Elvis signed with Colonel Parker. So let’s say we’re talking about acts whose own well of natural talent, however deep it may be, is swamped by an entire reservoir of outside assistance. That hot new rock band whose first full length album you’re eagerly looking forward to in six months time after a string of edgy EP releases? They were carefully tweaked, drilled and honed for months before you got a look at them, and then launched at the precise moment and place so as to immediately commence gaining attention from key influencers, ensuring that word would build ‘organically’ and yet couldn’t fail to pass your notice. This is how your neighbourhood drug dealer would do it if they had the promotional budget and manpower.

But now, with the likes of fiery powder pot Elle King, that spadework is front and centre in the campaign. This comprehensive piece in, most appropriately, The Wall Street Journal, details the four years that RCA invested in their signing, trying out a number of styles and songwriting partners for size as they painstakingly evolved her from a girl with a banjo (who also happened to be the child of celebrity parents) into a surefire prospect for commercial payback. It’s like RCA want you to know the full pedigree of the prize racehorse they’re hoping you’ll put all your earnings on. No doubt it helps that King herself comes over as fairly raw and down to earth, obligingly drinking and cussing and being candid in interviews (meaning of course, talking about sex). But RCA paid handsomely for the elaborate set she performs from within. Some choice quotes:

“I thought I’d get signed and boom, start making albums,” she says. “Apparently that’s not how it works.”

Ms. King didn’t fit the mold of the sensitive singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar. Instead, given Ms. King’s tattoos and gritty influences, a better touchstone was the elemental rock of the Black Keys.

[Note how she’s being slotted into one of the limited set of defined templates for female artists here.]

RCA delayed the release to add a song from Jeff Bhasker … For Ms. King, he had earmarked “Last Damn Night,” a stomping tune in the live-fast, die-young tradition.

…And when they came to record that last cliché, they got in the drummer from the Black Keys and Mark Ronson to play guitar. Ronson is known primarily as a DJ/producer - very much in the mold of the Swedes documented in Seabrook’s book - and more specifically as the late Amy Winehouse’s producer. What his chops are as a guitarist, I have no idea. No doubt he’s generally a very capable musician, but I doubt whether his contribution to the King track was any more crucial than another decent session guitarist’s might have been. But that’s not the point, is it? RCA was buying vital credibility here, explicitly drawing a reference point and link for Winehouse fans and gaining another bullet point for the press release.

You’d best believe that the resulting album, Love Stuff, covers all the bases: enough rock to be credible with ‘proper’ music fans, enough roots influence to paint her as an authentic all-American musician, enough retro appeal to draw in the older listener who wants it to sound like ‘real music from the 60s and 70s’, and all wrapped up with sufficient pop nous to ensure radio play and decent sales. It’s got your country and your western. Gin Wigmore, who’s been ploughing a similar furrow for slightly longer to less effect, must be kicking herself (in fact, I think she is in that video). But then, she only had a second tier Universal budget.

(The album, incidentally, was released back in October 2015 but the UK campaign, centred around insanely infectious lead single Ex’s and Oh’s, appears to be kicking off afresh this month. Note from Wikipedia that the single has already had three separate and widely-spaced releases in America, which is an indication of how carefully these things are built up. There’s an interesting piece on Popjustice anticipating its performance.)

In a further irony, due to a quirk of Amazon’s cataloguing system, you can actually find a listing for “Love Stuff by RCA” on their site, which is probably a much truer reflection of its authorship than the cover betrays.

If, as I did, you wanted to check some independent reviews of Love Stuff, then I wish you luck: most of the top hits on Google point to music blogs and similar sites whose editorial stance and funding is unclear at best. If their reviews weren’t paid for and written by the record company - and I have no evidence that this is the case, nor am I claiming it is (m’lud) - then they might as well be. Note how most of them seem to clearly identify the various influences and styles track by track (from, he smirked as he dragged that cheap gag out for a second time, country to western). I’d certainly be surprised if many of these weren’t at least seeded by passing release copies and promotional collateral to carefully selected sites. OK, we’ve known for some time that this practice is common and to be fair, many sites are upfront about it, but my impression is that the music blogosphere is now saturated by it. I mean, I’ve heard extracts from the album and it’s certainly an exemplary work of its type, but hardly as flawless as these reviews would lead you to think.

Does all this matter if the music’s good (i.e. at least listenable, if not exactly a bastion of originality)? Maybe not. So few of our cultural choices are unmediated and spontaneous now, and in an industry of high overheards suffering declining sales, businesses have to focus their efforts to maximise their investments … and someone has to be thrust before your eyes - might as well be Elle King. But the other day I was on Youtube when, among the search results for some tried and tested rock acts that I was idly enjoying again, popped up a new video for a band whose backstory and timing seemed oddly familiar, or perhaps I should say well trodden. Suddenly, I felt as if I’d been targeted as surely as one of those poor souls in the Middle East about to experience a drone strike.

And that hardly feels like rock ‘n’ roll.

Other bubbles

  • …And by following the trail of ‘similar artists’ in Amazon and Google Play, we can build this.