Judgement Day: Pop Heaven or Hell? – Marina & the Diamonds – Electra Heart

Forgive me, Dear Readers, for I have once again sinned.

Somehow I have yet to post my thoughts about Marina and the Diamonds sophomore release “Electra Heart”, despite having written a rather lengthy piece about it’s concept and marketing plan prior to it’s European release nearly three months ago.

In my defense, I have made multiple attempts to finish and post this piece and somehow just never managed to sort out my thoughts to complete it until now. Luckily, the album was released today (7/10/2012) in North America and since I happen to call Canada my home and native land, it’s only suiting that I post my thoughts on “Electra Heart” on the day it becomes available for purchase on my shores.

It seems that a frequent criticism of concept albums is that the music is overshadowed by the pressure to understand the conceptual context of each song, rendering a body of work “lost” in it’s own conceptual fog. Given that Diamandis has gone to such lengths to present the release as a concept album, even adopting an entirely new character & image, I feel the concept should be a significant part of the discussion despite the inherrent risk of this possibility.

Diamandis has discussed “Electra Heart” in great detail as a kind-of character study channeling four female Archetypes and telling a story about dysfunctional love, using elements of Greek  Tragedy. When analyzing the entirety of “Electra Heart” within the multi-faceted concept some may argue that it’s much easier to find fault in the project than if  you choose to disregard its concept and listen solely as a fan of pop music. In the name of fairness, I have decided to present my thoughts on the album within each of these contexts; it’s strength as a concept album and it’s strength as a body of what I believe to be rather brilliant pop music.

“Electra Heart” as a Greek Tragedy/Concept Album:

As a character study, “Electra Heart” introduces us to an over-dramatic, demanding, materialistic & fame-hungry young woman (of the same name) who, in the face of various interpersonal relationships reveals that many of these traits are merely a reflection of her own inner feelings of emptiness and insecurity.

The album’s primary themes of  dysfunctional love and rejection are told through this singular character, seemingly at different stages of her life and represented by four different elements of the female ego, referred to as “The Archetypes.” These archetypes: Idle Teen, Primadonna Su-Barbie-A and the Homewrecker represent four ways that women are portrayed in popular culture within romantic relationships. Each relates to an element of submission or aggression, of  “Power & Control.”

In an early interview with pop music blog: PopJustice, Marina revealed that the songs and the overall story of the album would play out using elements of Greek Tragedy. A few interesting facts about Greek Tragedy that seem most-pertinent to this body of work:

  • Tragedy depicts the downfall of a noble hero or heroine, usually through some combination of arrogance, fate, and the will of the Gods.
  • The tragic hero/heroine must have a tragic flaw and make some mistake in the pursuit of a goal that fails due to their inate humanity.
  • The hero undergoes a philosophical but not necessarily physical death, achieving some revelation or recognition about human fate, destiny, and the will of the gods. (“a change from ignorance to awareness of a bond of love or hate.” – Aristotle)
  • Greek tragedies were often performed in March or April. (“Electra Heart” was released in Europe on April 27th, 2012)
  • The Greek word for actor is hypokrites, which literally means “answerer.” (One album track is entitled “Hypocrates.” Ok, so I just thought this one was interesting if somewhat insignificant.)

The songs of “Electra Heart” form an undefined (but with scrutiny, somewhat linear) narrative. In tow with typical characteristics of Greek Tragedy, our heroine is introduced as a spoiled, ruthless, over-the-top narcissist who is not only hungry for fame, fortune and love at any cost, but happily demands it (“Bubblegum Bitch“). While she may wish to present the image of perfection to win a man (“Primadonna”), Electra Heart is anything but, and in the wake of an unknown betrayal at the hands of a man she allows herself to be vulnerable (“Lies”) and that’s where things begin to go downhill. Left with scars in the wake of this first relationship failure, Electra begins to handle her future romantic endeavours on the defence – finding ways to maintain control of relationships so as not to be heartbroken but to position herself as the inevitable heart breaker. (“Homewrecker,” “Starring Role,” “Power & Control” ) Of course, one can only live a life keeping others at a safe distance for so long before they begin to be consumed by regret and loneliness at a life only half lived, or half-loved as it were. (“Living Dead,” “Teen Idle,” “Valley of the Dolls” and “Fear & Loathing”)

While the story ends here for those who only purchase the standard European album, those who invest in the deluxe edition actually see this story take a turn, ever-so-slightly for the better as Electra seems to have gained clarity from her reflection. She begins to see that she’s created this world of artifice and learns to suck the poison out of these dysfunctional relationships and out of her life (“Radioactive”). With this new-found clarity, Electra starts to put some of that realism back into the world when she sees some of her former vapidity in others (“Sex Yeah!” “Buy The Stars”).

For my last bit of what you surely think is taking-it-too-far with the analysis, I’d like to touch on the significance of the archetypes as they relate to the narrative. I feel as if each of the previously-mentioned Archetypes represent a distinct stage of the life of this character and their voices are divided among the album’s tracks. While I am prepared for the possibility that my assessment here is way off, I will share it with you anyway! Think of the order below within the context of the linear narrative: 

  • Idle Teen: Spoiled teenage Electra; full of youthful angst, over-confident and hungry for fame and love.
  • The Primadonna: Matured but still youthfully naive, dramatic and demanding. Young adult Electra. Hopelessly romantic and optimistic.
  • The Homewrecker: Post-Heartbreak. The hardened, bitter Electra who out of fear and a desire for survival, becomes a bit of a man-eater, ensuring she will always have the upper hand gripped firmly round her lover’s heart.
  • Su-Barbie-A: The adult Electra, hardened to a point from years on the defence, finding life as an adult woman unsatisfying and riddled with regret and longing.

One problem that arises with this type of concept album is the ever-debated question of fact or fiction. To a degree, one could argue that all art contains a hint of autobiography, but when an artist chooses to present a body of work as being a character study the truth of it all is suddenly brought into question. An artist may choose to represent a work as fiction in order to sustain some sort of image or reputation but when by her own admissions, many of the songs were written about a real-life relationship, is the voice or point-of-view she’s chosen to exorcise these demons significant? Can these feelings be expressed through a fictional third party, or is Electra Heart truly just an extension of Marina Diamandis and not just a role she’s playing to make a statement?

Diamandis has stated: “Electra Heart is the antithesis of everything that I stand for. And the point of introducing her and building a whole concept around her is that she stands for the corrupt side of American ideology, and basically that’s the corruption of yourself. My worst fear—that’s anyone’s worst fear—is losing myself and becoming a vacuous person. And that happens a lot when you’re very ambitious.” Despite these words provided in defense of this album’s visual and sonic concepts, many critics have written off Electra Heart as an attempt to criticize the zeitgeist as a method of infiltrating and assimilating into it.

Truthfully, until Marina releases album number three, there is no way to know where this campaign is headed in the grand scheme of her career path, so let’s give Marina a fair trial and focus on the music for a moment, shall we?

“Electra Heart” as a body of POP music:

Selections from “Electra Heart”courtesy of Marina’s Official SoundCloud Page:

I must admit that I was not explicitly familiar with Marina’s previous offering: “The Family Jewels” before being exposed to “Electra Heart.” In light of many naysayers claiming this album to be an extreme and disappointing departure from Marina’s indie beginnings, I recently gave it a listen-through. I personally feel that there is enough similarity in this body of work that the transition should not be terribly jarring for fans of her debut. One can easily see a progression and common thread from album-to-album, with Marina now masquerading as the very subject of her early work, becoming as she sings in “.. Jewels” single “Oh No!“, a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” (Is it possible that despite her awareness and criticism of the evils of fame and fortune that deep down, Marina just wants to be a pop star?)

The fact is: as a pop album, “Electra Heart” is brilliant in a lot of unconventional ways, mainly in its using both sonic and lyrical conventions of modern day popular music on songs that make striking commentary about the effects of popular culture on both our romantic ideals and consequently our own self-worth. The project enlists heavyweight pop producers Diplo, Dr. Luke and Stargate as well as long-time collaborator Greg Kurstin as Marina sought out collaborative situations that would force her to surrender control over different aspects of the songs that she had previously been very present for. This act of submission is of interest when considering the themes of power and control that are present in some of the lyrical content.

Despite adopting pop trends and convention, “Electra Heart” stands alone with a distinct voice and point-of-view that sets it apart from any other releases thus far in 2012. None of the tracks borrow from each other, despite the who’s who of high profile pop producers, some of whom have recycled their own compositions in the past. Despite the number of creative minds in the pot, the whole of “Electra Heart” is cohesive, atmospheric and evocative. Rarely has a pop album ever been so lyrically frank and I would be hard-pressed to come up with another artist whose vocal tone and arrangements even come close to sounding like Marina’s. While much of the subject matter of the album is dark and heavy, the material still manages to be highly listenable and enjoyable, to my ears at least!

“Electra Heart” (European Release)

The standard European release contains tracks 1 through 12 listed below in the Judgement Day Scorecard. Tracks 13 through 16 were bonus tracks on the deluxe edition, which I would recommend as many of these bonus tracks were instant favorites! Truthfully, this scorecard was put together when the album was first released in April and my opinions have evolved to a point where I honestly love every track, start to finish. Consider the following to be a visual representation of my first impression:

“Electra Heart” (North American Release)

The sole addition to the North American release of “Electra Heart” is the upcoming second US single (and recently announced 3rd single in the rest of the world) “How to be a Heartbreaker.(Does this mean Europe is getting a re-release?)

Produced by American hit maker Dr. Luke, “… Heartbreaker” practically serves as an Electra Heart manifesto, somehow marrying the archetypes into one song but fitting nicely into what I theorized would be the Homewrecker section of the album, which tragically drops the amazing track “Living Dead” as well as melancholy European bonus: “Buy The Stars.”

Of all of the songs on the album, “How to be a Heartbreaker” is the most likely to stand a chance of breaking North American radio, which means it was a very smart move on the part of Diamandis and her record label. This is not to say that the original tracklisting is not well-written or well-produced but as fellow pop blogger David at Vertigo Shtick asserts in his recent review of the single, they often lack a sense of fun that seems to be a pre-requisite for success on pop radio in these tough economic times.

Overall, the changes to the tracklisting do not really affect the album’s narrative, and the inclusion of “… Heartbreaker” helps to make the similarly clubby “Radioactive” feel more at home in the set – reconciling the reason it was only included as a bonus track on the European release despite it being a promotional single (and an album standout).

All conflict surrounding the fact or fiction behind the concept of the album aside, “Electra Heart” by Marina and the Diamonds is…

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