I don’t know about the rest of you out there but I find myself fascinated, perplexed and maybe even a little bit concerned by the direction of the music and the marketing campaign for “Electra Heart”, the upcoming sophomore release from Marina & The Diamonds (due April 30th, 2012 from 679 Recordings/Warner Music Group). Of course, I felt compelled to muse about my thoughts and concerns for your entertainment and hopefully for your enlightenment.
For those of you who are familiar with Marina’s latest (admittedly wonderful) musical offerings, I urge you to read on before assuming I’ve lost my mind. First, I present some background for those of you who haven’t been following or perhaps are not familiar with her previous work.
While many see Marina & The Diamonds as a band, Marina Diamandis is a Welsh singer/songwriter and “The Diamonds” does not refer to a backing band but to her fans (as well as being an obvious reference to her surname). Marina’s first full length album “The Family Jewels” (which was preceeded by several EP’s) was released in 2010.
In an interview with NME Magazine about “..Jewels”, Diamandis said: “It is a body of work largely inspired by the seduction of commercialism, modern social values, family and female sexuality. Each song was intricately produced and written by myself, and my only hope is for it to be enjoyed and consumed as a story and theory that encourages people to question themselves.” The album was critically well-received and put Diamandis on the map as someone with a unique sound who had something to say and enough POP savviness to potentially meet a mainstream crowd without having to follow the status quo.
As a relative outsider from the UK both obsessed with and commenting on (primarily) American popular culture and its objectification and representation of women, Marina’s message seemed perfectly clear, however when details and imagery began to emerge about Diamandis’ second album lines began to get a little bit blurred.
Early buzz surrounding album number two suggested that Diamandis would be working with some of pop music’s biggest producers, including Dr. Luke and Stargate. While names of the producers alone wouldn’t necessarily dictate what this album would sound like, these are some pretty major names who have worked with starlets like Rihanna, Katy Perry and Britney Spears. (Strangely, despite the subject matter of much of Marina’s work, she cites Spears as an influence however the nature of this influence is unclear. Perhaps Spears is more of an anti-idol and is an influence in the sense that she inspires Diamandis’ voice as a feminist?)
The campaign for Marina’s sophomore album “Electra Heart” began officially, when the following video was posted to Marina’s official YouTube page on August 11th, 2011:
Stunning, right? Entitled “♡ PART 1: FEAR AND LOATHING ♡ | MARINA AND THE DIAMONDS”, this video (directed by Caspar Balslev) introduced a new sound for Marina. It was immediately evident that “Electra Heart” was truly a new era as the hype machine had suggested, accompanied by very pop-forward production with dark, edgy, introspective and what could be read as more fame-critical lyrics. (“Got different people inside my head, I wonder which one that they like best, I’m done with tryin’ to have it all, and endin’ up with not much at all.”) Not only a transformation in sound but also in physicality, in this video we see a conflicted Marina standing in the bathroom mirror (consumed, presumably with fear and loathing) as she slowly cuts off her hair – an omen of the transformation that would come as more of the album’s story was revealed.
Two weeks later, “♡ PART 2: RADIOACTIVE ♡ | MARINA AND THE DIAMONDS” was uploaded to YouTube. This video (also directed by Balslev) features Marina wearing a blonde wig (which she had teased via images uploaded to her Tumblr account) and acting as a woman on the run with her man. The duo seem rather out of control and wild as she sings breathtakingly over the Stargate-produced, euphoric dance track.
“Radioactive” however, was NOT a song criticizing the evils of fame and Hollywood but instead a legitimate, GORGEOUS pop song about a poisonous past relationship that transformed and threatened to destroy a woman before she ended it. Suddenly, Marina wasn’t just singing critically about being a pop star, she had (for all intents and purposes) BECOME a pop star.
Another track, this time a demo, was uploaded on 11/20/2011. Like “Fear and Loathing” and much of her work before it, “Starring Role” also features stunning pop production with dark lyrics that blend the themes of fame and romantic relationships common in her work.
A third, and significantly more mysterious video was uploaded three weeks later on December 14th, 2011.
A manifesto of sorts, this video features some experimental music with the following lyrics being presented in various, digitally modified voices. “Housewife, Beauty Queen, Homewrecker, Idle teen. / The ugly years of being a fool, ain’t youth meant to be beautiful / Queen of no identity / I always feel like someone else / A living myth / I grew up in a lie / I can be anyone / A study in identity & illusion / An Ode to Cindy / A living film / A Real fake / And you will never know / Love. / “Through others, we become ourselves” – The Archetypes“
(Courtesy of Wikipedia):
An archetype ( /ˈɑrkɪtaɪp/) is a universally understood symbol, term, or pattern of behavior, a prototype upon which others are copied, patterned, or emulated. Archetypes are often used in myths and storytelling across different cultures.
In psychology, an archetype is a model of a person, personality, or behavior. In the analysis of personality, the term archetype is often broadly used to refer to:
On February 27th, 2012 – Marina released another album track to the world via a free download on her official website. This time, the track was named after one of the archetypes she name dropped: “HOMEWRECKER”. Reactions were mixed as “Homewrecker” is yet another pop banger with lots of spoken word bits only slightly reminiscent of recent pop artists like Ke$ha and Dev. (Again, I stress – SLGHTLY as it’s really not like either of those artists.)
Most recently, on March 1st, 2012 Marina released the official track list and cover art for “Electra Heart”, the former of which left many fans scratching their heads as “Radioactive”- originally touted as the album’s lead single was not included.
As you can see, the track list is rather telling. This album seems to have a message and it’s not necessarily a pretty or positive one. While it was soon announced that “Radioactive” would appear as one of four bonus tracks on the Deluxe Edition of the album, it remains to be seen why a UK top 40 single used to market an upcoming project would be left off said project. (Was it ultimately not cynical and dark enough for this track list?)
Instead, fans were promised a new lead single titled “Primadonna” produced by American hitmaker Dr. Luke to be released on April 16th, 2012. To date, “Primadonna” has not been leaked in demo form or even in part and remains a mystery. (Will it sound like all of Dr. Luke’s other recycled beats and melodies?”)
So now I’ll get to the point. Being a new fan of Marina, who was aware of her previous music but truly only roped in by the beauty of “Radioactive”, it’s a strange feeling to be absolutely in love with all of these new songs but to also feel conficted about the project as a whole.
“Electra Heart” is said to be an album about relationships but within a conceptual framework of the singer/songwriter taking on many “fake” personalities lyrically, musically and visually, I worry that Diamandis will become the “Queen of no identity” she alluded to in The Archetypes video, as it will be hard for new fans to relate to her as an artist when she’s wearing so many masks. While her earlier material was pop enough that I don’t foresee her losing a lot of fans from the ambiguity of this project, some pop fans who haven’t previously had the pleasure will probably fall in love with many of these songs and perhaps not recognize the statement that Marina is trying to make. Some of you might even still be asking what that “statement” is…
Hardly a new concept, Marina seems to be taking on female stereotypes in popular culture by “becoming” them. She’s adopting conventions of popular music (where women are often represented in hyper-realism) and creating imagery as an ode to great feminist artists of the past. For those of you who didn’t put themselves forever into student debt to study the fine arts, you may not realize that the “Ode to Cindy” she refers to in “The Archetypes” is likely Cindy Sherman – a prolific, American photographer who rose to fame in the late 1970’s and 80’s for her decidedly-feminist self-portraiture where she too, posed in various disguises and portrayed various female archetypes.
Other musicians like Tori Amos have used this type of mise-en-scene approach with female archetypes to create concept albums in the past (See “American Doll Posse” and “Strange Little Girls”), however even as a Toriphile I have to admit that concept albums of this magnitude can easily get lost in their own mythology (much like both Amos works) and this is where my concern for “Electra Heart” comes in.
While some will embrace the concept, some may argue that Diamandis isn’t making a statement at all, but in fact selling out under the guise of transgression and feminism. To others, that may seem like an outlandish idea, but she wouldn’t be the first female singer/songwriter from the fringes of pop music who used a project that started as a comment on popular culture to find that the simulation of it all resulted in their becoming the very thing they aimed to critique. Lest we forget this “gem” from 2003:
Jewel’s “Intuition”, while a top 20 hit, was the move that nearly destroyed Jewel’s career when she went from barefoot, girl-next-door singer/songwriter to vamped-up, busty pop star on her fourth studio album “0304”. It is still unclear if the direction of the album campaign was intended from the start or if it was a joke gone horribly wrong. Had the artifice stopped with this video, it may have been accepted for what it was, however Jewel went on to maintain this glamourous image for much of the album campaign, including multiple sexy magazine cover shots and an uncalled for stint on VH1 Divas. The song also went on to be used in a long-term campaign for the Gilette ladies razor by the same name later that year, mirroring the exaggerated product placement used in it’s music video counterpart.
My concern for Marina isn’t that I think she is necessarily aiming to become a full-blown, Hollywood-style pop starlet but that in portraying herself as one while working in the sonic oeuvre and conventions of pop, that people who aren’t into concept-heavy work will simply see her as the vapid, female stereotypes she’s portraying and that – perhaps indirectly – she will be reduced to that.
Truthfully, until we’ve heard the entire album and perhaps more commentary from Diamandis herself it’s hard to know exactly what her platform is behind all of this artifice. Until then, I’m going to try and enjoy these amazing songs and hope that the concept of it all isn’t so convoluted that it spoils what could be one of the best albums of 2012!
As always, I invite all of you to submit your comments and feedback! I love discussion! Thanks for reading!!