Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Why the UK needs a star like Jessie J

We need her. We do. That’s right, the lady who’s most definitely ‘not about the money’, the one with the bob haircut off The Voice – whichever incarnation you most affectionately view her as, Jessie J’s importance (if we can call it that) is sort of indisputable at the moment. And to affirm it, this week she made UK chart history by becoming the first British solo act to achieve six Top 10 hits off a single album.
Put aside the fact that two of the hits are from a re-released version of the star’s Who You Are effort, because frankly, Jessie’s record stands up as the kind of stat normally only reserved for your big US stars – your Rihanna’s or Katy Perry’s. What’s more, if you throw in the underrated Who’s Laughing Now (Jessie’s only single to miss the Top 10), that actually makes seven Top 20 hits off the same album. It’s a veritable squeezing of the record for all it’s worth, pumping every last bit of pop juice from the ripeness of the fruit. What lies behind this chart dominance, this longevity to an album campaign in an age where most acts will draw proceedings to a close after just three singles?
At the heart of it, there’s the simple fact that Jessie has absolutely nailed the ‘current’ sound – that concept as mutable and formless as the elusive ‘X Factor’. It’s that blend of a cracking pop chorus, dressed up with a dash of the urban and the right dash of credibility that stems from Jessie’s street-wise attitude and obvious vocal talents. Her OTT ad-libs (or ‘runs’ as she seems to love calling them on The Voice) might not be to everyone’s taste, but the fact that Jessie J is the big mainstream ‘POP’ act that can ‘sing good’ deals a very attractive hand for herself. It was a kind of pop that appealed to everyone, not just niche audiences, and that vital market; Radio 1’s massed audiences who’d normally much rather be worshipping at that altar of modern taste: Mumford & Sons.
And while Jessie’s album might have failed to live up to the daring, bratty, up-tempo promise of Do It Like A Dude, the likes of Price Tag and Nobody’s Perfect preached a gospel of pocket-book advice that seemed oh so relevant in a troubled Britain plagued by daily stories of financial woes and social malaise. She was the star we could look to for solace – the example of a young person who had gone out and achieved her dreams, but who had the gutsiness and face-value normality to still appear like one of us. Of course, it’s a formula many pop acts have played to in the past, but with Jessie it seemed to beat with particular vibrancy. Her shtick, as much as it might sometimes resemble a hyperactive kid dosed up on too many sweets, was refreshing, for its honesty and individualistic pizzazz, if nothing else.

Last week came a wash of tabloid coverage, touting ‘revelations’ about Jessie’s sexual preferences, most of it we had already heard first hand from Jessie’s mouth months ago – after all, she’d always been open about it all. No, if there was anything really troubling at the heart of the whole thing, it wasn’t who Jessie was into sleeping with, it was that she might have been pushed down a certain route to appear more ‘trendy’. Would we really, in our day and age, have been less likely to buy Jessie’s music if she had been ‘100% lesbian’? But lesbian or bi, the fact remains that Jessie’s position as a musical act that can simultaneously appear on a compilation like Pop Princesses and be seen as an element of pop-culture feminism stands as an incredibly reassuring sign of the kind of artist the youth of a nation are willing to buy into. The Guardian’s Sophie Wilkinson does an excellent job of summing up why Jessie is such an important role model for teens, but it’s also worth noting just how much that slippage between role model and musical star is one of the real cornerstones of any young person’s life, and has been since the days of the Beatles.
The passion we invest in our favourite musical acts during our formative years can’t be underestimated, and Jessie’s remarkably consistent chart success is the measurable proof of that. For a 24 year old to take on this kind of position, not just for young people, and British music, but our nation as a whole, serves as a thrilling reminder of the ambassadorial powers of the pop star in contemporary culture. People don’t just buy into Jessie J’s music, but the essence of her nature as a ‘star’ too – and all in a way faceless guitar band entities can rarely, if ever, achieve. We need these people to look up to, to hold our hands, to tell us that everything’s going to be alright.
Yes, Jessie might be playing the role of a Tulisa or Cheryl on The Voice – the bit of ‘hot totty’, but the fact an artist who no-one had even heard of two years ago can now be the star attraction of a prime-time TV show can only be admired. And again, it helps to remind ourselves – she’s only 24. When Alan Sugar talks of the entrepreneurial spirit of Britain’s youth, Jessie J would make a fresh-faced poster star for the ideology. Who You Are might have been a flawed product, but what it lacked in sheer song quality, it more than made up for in personality. And personality is a quality Jessie has always possessed in impressive excess.
Her dubbing of her fans as ‘Heartbeats’ might have more than a whiff of sickly sweet over-indulgence to it, but its inclusiveness to her army of fans owes itself once again to the acceptance at the heart of her music. There’s a ‘You’re alright with me!’ fighting spirit to the Jessie J manifesto that at times can be incredibly irresistible. I remember being unsure at first of how good Katy Perry-aping single Domino was, but after the video premiered, I was hooked. It was like the Cool Britannia movement of the mid 90s all over again, that slight eccentric quirkiness given a quick glossy makeover to bring it into the oeuvre of mass-market tastes. And that was Domino, and Jessie J, in a nutshell. 60 Million YouTube views within only four months – the mind boggles at such figures, but love her or hate her, for the UK to be able to call a star capable of creating those degrees of success their own is to be wholly celebrated. When the upper reaches of the UK charts are so often flooded with the incomparable scale of big US releases, it’s nice to know we have one home-grown star that can operate on similar levels, to hold her own amidst the heavy hitters, and oh, yes, bang out those David Guetta collabs with the best of them.

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