DJ Luck & MC Neat ft. JJ - Masterblaster 2000
This has been out for some time, but I suddenly felt the urge to write about it. Why? Because it gives me another chance to talk about UK Garage of course, and because "Masterblaster 2000" is, I realise, one of the best pop singles of its namesake year.
The best thing about "Masterblaster" is how engagingly off-the-wall it is. I was always surprised at the success of Luck and Neat's previous hit "A Little Bit Of Luck" because, though insistent, it was so simple and repetitive down to the incredibly straightforward 2-step beat, that I thought mainstream audiences would actually be turned off. The subsequent rash of mindless novelty/rave tunes scaling the charts explained its strange success (audiences like something they can identify from one bar), but the fact remains that most garage pop crossovers (Sweet Female Attitude's "Flowers", Lonyo's "Summer Of Love", "Sweet Like Chocolate", "Sincere", "Rewind" "Fill me In" etc.) work because as pop they are appealingly smooth and seamless: lush but conservative dancepop with accidentally revolutionary beats.
In contrast with both approaches, on "Masterblaster" the beats are practically the last thing I notice. Oh, they're certainly there, and as fun as ever, with the basic stop-start 2-step matrix jazzed up by some nicely jittery hi-hats. It's just that the rest of the tune is so jam packed with sonic novelty that it takes a while to hear them ticking away. Organs, tubas, harpsichords, pianos and weird synth blares all make their appearance, tying together into a tune that in turns reminds me of She'kspere, Quincey Jones era Michael Jackson and primo eighties synth-pop (specifically The Cure's "Let's Go To Bed" from those synths). If it doesn't absolutely scream "weirdness", that's only because the tune is so perfect (beats the hell out of "A Little Bit Of Luck" anyway) that all other considerations are sidelined somewhat. Still, along with B15 Project's "Girls Like This" it's helped to make mainstream radio stations sound a little bit more bizarre these past few months.
I think I often talk about garage's potential to breathe new life into dance music, but "Masterblaster" demonstrates that perhaps the more important question is what garage could do for pop. The short answer is that garage is a music built around oddities - unnaturally syncopated beats, accentuated low and high frequencies, often manipulated and cut up vocals - and so if you, as Joe Popsongmaker, are going to expand your conception of pop to include these oddities, continuing to rely on bland production and saccharine commonality (the two typical weapons of yer average evil pop songmaker) seems somehow counterintuitive. Significantly, attempts on the behalf of pop to appropriate garage such as Posh Spice's stab on "Out Of Your Mind" generally have even more dynamic production than the actual underground stuff, perhaps because of more expensive studios, but also maybe because it's considered crucial that these tracks appeal to the audience whose music they're co-opting.
Of course it's not as if there wasn't already an increasing trend towards an experimental take on pop before UK Garage arrived on the scene. Where I would distinguish garage-pop is that it's a hybrid between pop and what is, unlike R&B, explicitly a dance-based genre. What this suggests is that it's not only the tastes of mainstream audiences that are changing, but also their attitudes and opinions about what constitutes pop - a fine distinction, but one I can just about will into existence. Songs like "Masterblaster", "Flowers" and "Girls Like This" don't have personalities, storylines or emotional contexts, except for that of the sheer joy and exuberance expressed through the music; pop as narrative becomes pop as experience. It's a stance that's opposed to both the limpid strains of Westlife and the blatant personality of Britney Spears, towards something more deliberately, concertedly physical. The closest comparison to the phenomenon would be when house first started hitting the charts at the turn of the last decade, only house never had such good songs.
That last bit's more of a wild predicton than an actual description of current events, but hopefully tracks like "Masterblaster" will at least open the door for garage to expand pop's conception of itself.