What Happens When a Major-Label Pop Star Writes Her Album Herself? 


Written by Marina alone and produced with only one collaborator, Marina and the Diamonds’ new, icily technicolor, Italo-disco-and-alt-rock-tinged FROOT is a major anomaly among major-label pop albums: Today’s biggest female pop artists are almost to a rule great songwriters, but not a single one of them would turn out an LP alone.

Take Taylor Swift, who wrote almost everything on 1989 with Shellback and Max Martin; or Katy Perry and Ke$ha, instinctive writers whose discographies are splashed with big names: Martin again (always), Dr. Luke, Cirkut, Benny Blanco. Hook genius Charli XCX has three co-writers on average for every song on Sucker; Sky Ferreira’s overwhelmingly personal Night Time, My Time was co-written by Ariel Rechtshaid and Justin Raisen. Even Sia and Robyn, self-directed artists and veteran songwriters, are heavy collaborators: the only solo writing credits on Body Talk are from Teddybears’ Klas Ahlund, and Sia has a co-write on every track of 1000 Forms of Fear, which was produced almost completely by Greg Kurstin.

It would be easier to list the #1s these pinch-hitting male hitmakers didn’t co-write or produce; name any female-fronted pop hit and you’ll likely name one of them too. The playbook is repetitive, and it works; and, Marina’s already used it, on her second albumwhich is what makes FROOTsuch an interesting refusal.

On that album, Electra Heart, she brought in Cirkut, Dr. Luke, Greg Kurstin and Diplo, turning out the hits “Primadonna” and “How to Be a Heartbreaker.” They were big, cupcakey, slightly overheated smashes, all sung from the perspective of her titular alter ego—a high-concept, cherchez-la-femme, cheerleader-gone-Marie-Antoinette persona that most audiences couldn’t distinguish from the artist herself. When you give, I want more, more, more/ I wanna be adored, she trilled on the “Primadonna” pre-chorus. In theory, it was Electra Heart singing; in theory, the character would absorb and deflect the work of the female pop star—exploiting and (ideally) subverting the kittenish, vulnerable, and demanding positions a girl must sometimes put herself into to be, as the song put it, adored.

In practice, the lines didn’t quite line up. “This album is a subversive album in the sense that I’ve ticked every box in the pop model that means in our current day that you are a star or pop star,” Marina told an interviewer; she’d gone blonde, played the characters, gotten all the co-writes. But that have-it-both-ways insistence meant that the only possible source of subversion was Marina’s own ambivalence, which instead of complicating the album flattened it. Desire is the site where a pop star persona melds with the artist behind it—avant-garde grandiosity for Gaga, power for Sasha Fierce, all-American likability for Katy Perry—and Electra Heart and Marina didn’t seem to want the same things.

“It’s a tongue-in-cheek record,” she said in that same interview, “but it also deals with the truth about love and commercialism.” And one truth about those things, anyway, is that they’re are an uneasy fit. Pop asks both the artist and the audience to love commercialism, but in a way, the artist is the one commercializing her love. Rule number one is that you gotta have fun, begins “How to Be a Heartbreaker,” but when you’re done, you gotta be the first to run.

And so Marina ran, and landed at FROOT, where there’s no room for hiding. Two of the easiest ways to discredit a female pop star is to say that she’s “over-the-top,” or that she can’t write music: as with women in general, a female pop star is seen as inauthentic only when you can see the scaffolding. With FROOT, there are few handholds, no deflection. The songs are Marina’s, and if the main criticism that dogged Electra Heart sticks around for this one—that it’s affected—the affectation is all hers too.

Still, these negotiations take place far under the surface, and the surface is really what marks the pop star. In terms of the manner of production, Marina’s peers are Angel Olsen, Laura Marling, Courtney Barnett—artists whose visual positioning and signaling are diametrically opposed to the cyber-siren image Marina’s been working for album promo, a high-drama, slightly acidic, “sci-fi Sophia Loren.” She’s commanding audiences like a pop star, too: her first New York show for FROOT sold out in two minutes, and the teens lined up to wait all day in the rain. On the last night of SXSW, she performed a late set, eliciting not the indie singer’s intimacy but the diva’s full-on awe: she held a final note, the whole audience held their breath.

And despite the fact that the album’s instruments were recorded live, and Marina’s co-producer (David Kosten, best known for producing Bat for Lashes) is well out of Dr. Luke territory, there’s still enough frothy, high-gloss cinema about FROOT itself that it takes a few listens to understand that it’s not really a pop star’s album at all. The bones of the songwriting are curved, kinked, buried, and genuinely weird; Marina and the Diamonds on FROOT sounds more like Marina Diamandis, introspective, isolated, recording GarageBand demos at home.

Those demos were discovered in 2008 (and, full disclosure, by a close friend, whose label is now releasing FROOT under Atlanticwhich is how I happened to see Marina’s live set a few times in Austin, and subsequently start thinking about this album). “Obsessions,” among those early tracks, would end up on her first album The Family Jewels, but I easily prefer the demo version. It’s absolutely minimal, barely produced—and also an instant signal of Marina’s particular, outsize talent, which the major-label muscle of Electra Heart almost concealed and certainly didn’t strengthen.

In this demo you can hear her voice so plainly—a distinct quaver, by now developed into an instrument that swings up the scale from from low hoopy gulps to a taut midrange, belling out into a beautiful soprano, all manipulable from cotton candy ethereality to a ribbon pulled tight. It’s a vocal style shaped by and suited to her style of songwriting, which is off-kilter, pensive, looping, full of big jumps, unexpected openings, strange payoffs—more Kid Harpoon than Katy Perry, and the songs sound more like the former on this album too.

FROOT is a breakup album, told from the perspective of the injurer rather than the injured, and it’s also a breakup album in the larger sense, too. In the minimal, pretty opener “Happy,” Marina sings, I found what I’d been looking for in myself—the first of many metaphors that function both at a romantic and a business level. (Another: You can paint me any color/ and I can be your clown/ But you ain’t got my number/ no you can’t pin me down, from “Can’t Pin Me Down,” which also includes the lines You can’t call my bluff/ Back the fuck off, motherfucker/ Do you really want me to write a feminist anthem/ I’m happy cooking dinner in the kitchen for my husband.)

The title track is built out of the slightly ominous, neon chord palette that feels like the album’s resistant signature—softened and brightened in the play-organ that opens “Blue,” taken to the beach for “Gold.” And the best songs come in a row: “I’m A Ruin,” an ambivalent, self-enchanted pre-breakup track; then “Blue,” a catchy and teasing post-breakup come-on, wide as a rainbow, the most radio-friendly song on FROOT; and then the propulsive, idiosyncratic “Forget,” which is my favorite track. Marina’s odd, personal lyricism shows up in full force (I was born to be the tortoise/ I was born to walk alone) and the melody—curious, rotating, switching floors—is the best of several alt-rockish ones on the album.

So what happens when a pop star writes her whole album herself? The result, in this case, is a genre-resistant, enigmatic, still-candied FROOT—no instant songs of summer, no sense that the artist is chasing the singalong radio smash. Like its title, the album is on its surface a resolutely self-contained blend of the inorganic with the real, in its deeper workings a new argument about how the former can lead to the latter. And “pop star,” that major label, is finally subverted. The last line in the album is Keep me alive; the line before that is Everybody dies.

Image via Atlantic Records

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