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End of Decade: Sound Of The Overground
(NME article, November 2009)

Posted at 4:37 PM, 29 November 2009 -

NME magazine has published a special "End of Decade" issue, celebrating the changing shape of music over the last ten years. One of the key features on this souvenir issue is about Girls Aloud and Xenomania. You can read an excerpt of the article below (the rest of it focuses primarily on Timbaland and The Neptunes):

Published: NME (End Of Decade souvenir issue)
Written by: Emily MacKay

Pop music since the turn of the century has been more exciting, more subversive, more forward-thinking and more downright danceable than ever.

When they predicted back in the '80s that pop would eat itself, they weren't wrong. What they didn't realise was that by feeding on its own internal organs, pop would only make itself stronger.

In 2002, when Girls Aloud won Popstars: The Rivals, reality TV was still in its fairly early days. Big Brother was only in its third series and the country was already well over the hysteria and subsequent undignified demise of original Popstars winner Hear'Say, but we hadn't quite reached the relentless conveyor belt of moon-faced idiots and exploitative freakery the genre ultimately descended to. It could still surprise you. That said, nothing could have prepared us for the Girls' "Sound of the Underground".

Wisely avoiding either the generic kiddy-pop route or the slough of sugary balladry that many subsequent reality TV stars have taken, it instead raced down the path the Sugababes had beat out with "Round Round" - sharp, danceable, relentlessly modern pop. The hard drum'n'bass rhythms, the ridiculous rockabilly guitar sample, the tense, abstract lyrics. Rather than trying to tack on an edge of credibility, it was made by people who knew exactly what they were doing. As a result we had the only decent Christmas Number One of the decade. It was smart, sexy, witty and it was... popular. It was a bit of a shock.

In the US, the influence of hip-hop and r&b had been pushing pop to new heights via the likes of Destiny's Child, Aaliyah and Kelis. British pop, however, had failed to meet the challenge of dance music, drum'n'bass and garage, remaining stuck in the novelty rut carved by the Spice Girls (you can bleat on about girl power all you want, but the plain fact is the majority of the Spice Girls' songs were naff as hell), Boyzone and B*Witched. "Sound of the Underground" (and "Round Round" before it) was a whole new kind of pop. It didn't glory in its own cheesiness. It wasn't wholesome Royal Variety Show family entertainment. It was shiny and sexy and perfect. While Kimberley, Nadine, Sarah, Cheryl and Nicola deserve their own credit (if you think you can give a song like that to just anyone, imagine the twins from this year's X Factor singing it), it made us start to think about chart its in a different way.

Growing accustomed as we now were to looking behind the scenes, peeling back pop's perfect skin to prod at the mechanical workings underneath, the producers of the track, Xenomania, became stars of a sort themselves. Seven years later we're excited about Mini Viva because they're produced by Xenomania. We're not excited by Xenomania because of Mini Viva. Xenomania leader Brian Higgins' previous biggest credits had been working with Dannii Minogue and Saint Etienne and writing and producing Cher's "Believe" (whose bizarre use of Auto-Tune is arguably still an influence in hip-hop today). Following "Sound of the Underground" and "Round Round", though, Xeno have sprinkled their magic dust over Kylie, Annie and the Pet Shop Boys, becoming a byword for wickedly clever, saucy, superficial, heartbroken pop. If you take all their writing and production credits together, they've had more UK top 10 hits than Madonna, Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears put together.


Brian Higgins of Xenomania on how pop got hip again

«The decade started with Hear'Say - to many people as bad as we could get. The rise of very cool pop music ties in with the decline in television. TV was the vehicle of pop and up until 2001 the Internet hadn't taken hold, hadn't become ubiquitous within culture. As a result you were still able to market things very heavily through the TV screen. People had less access and less ability to check how good something was.

«Britpop went terribly wrong. It was about four or five groups that were fantastic and everything else was rubbish. The Spice Girls and All Saints came along, freshened that up and changed it. Then you had four or five years where everybody followed on from that, so the quality was diminishing and diminishing and diminishing and it ended up with an attempt to revitalise the genre.

«We were just desperate to make uptempo dance-friendly records. It was about risk-taking, about being unpredictable, sonically, but still being catchy as hell. I feel people are much more up for taking risks sonically, which is fantastic. But at the end of the day, the number of people who can produce a strong musical idea, deliver a melody that fulfils an idea, is low. The person who can nail a great melody is a rare commodity in the music business.

«The emergence of La Roux and things like that don't give the general public enough credit - if you give them something challenging they can accept it and digest it brilliantly. La Roux is an example of a record that on the surface sounds difficult but listen to it a few times and you can pick up on the magic within it.»

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