Monday, July 25, 2011

Nicola Roberts – ‘Beat of My Drum’ (Single Review)

             Two girl groups (both alike in dignity)
             In fair pop music land where we lay our scene,
             Amidst rumors and grudges break to new solo careers,
             But have judging gigs revoked or find fathers’ hands unclean.
             From forth the newfound freedom from these woes,
             A pair of clever singers ready albums (nice!).
             To produce lead singles each of them gets Diplo,
             One orders a fresh beat, the other a used one on ice.

Nicola Roberts was sixteen when she was one of five girls voted into a new band called Girls Aloud on the reality competition show Popstars: The Rivals. For the next seven years she was part of the most extraordinary success story to come from reality television on any side of the globe, as Girls Aloud quickly separated from its initial management, made it on its own and with the help of the innovative production team at Xenomania became a critical and commercial hit.

But fame wasn't easy on Roberts, a redhead (or "ginger," as they say in merrie olde England) with pale skin and little of the ostentatious sex appeal of her girl group predecessor Geri “Sexy Spice” Halliwell (who was, incidentally, a judge on the show that created Girls Aloud). She became the target of less than friendly quips targeting her hair, skin, attitude, and all of her attempts to compensate for these supposed flaws as well.  It wasn't simply her orange pate and pigment-free skin that drew negative attention, it was that those features necessarily became subject to comparison to those of the four more generically stunning blondes and brunettes in the band (see photo below). She was often described as “ugly,” “miserable,” or “mousy” (I’m still not sure what that means. I happen to think mice are darling, but it’s apparently not flattering). When asked which year of the 2000s she considered her worst, Roberts answered "2003 to 2007." Times were hard.

One of these things is not like the other...
In other words, a great artist was brewing.

It will be especially interesting to look at Nicola Roberts’ solo career from an outsider’s perspective. I lived for a year in London so I am familiar with the celebrity of Girls Aloud in the UK, but because the legend is not ingrained in me or my fellow Americans we will have no choice but to see her work outside of the cultural influences that shape it. The lead single from upcoming album Cinderella’s Eyes has Diplo’s hand, like Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls),” with the key difference that Roberts called the edgy producer to ask for his input anew, whereas Beyoncé simply took the beat off an old Major Lazer track and put a melody over it.

The single works in so many ways: it’s got a great beat and is fun to dance to and sing along with; the message of overcoming the past is a healthy one; and the hook ("L! O! V-E! Dance to the beat of my drum! Dance to the beat of my drum!") is as winkingly dumb-smart as the one Gwen Stefani rode all the way to number one (and the bank) in 2003 with “Hollaback Girl.” In the video, Roberts, who no longer bothers with fake tan or highlighted hair and looks all the better for it, plays up the shock factor. Not “shock factor” like Christina Aguilera’s not-so-shocking attempts at out-Madonna-ing Madonna (and Lady Gaga) with “Not Myself Tonight” but simply letting herself fly, starting out acting shy and uncomfortable in the way she was often derided as being, before sassily knocking over the mike stand and shaking her booty like a free woman.

It’s a great single, made even greater by the story behind and around it, and the possibility that her solo project might actually take off just when high-profile Cheryl Cole, fresh off being fired from the U.S. version of The X Factor, is finally ready for the Girls to reunite, is really blowing the UK media’s mind. Bravo, ginge.

"Beat of My Drum"
Nicola Roberts
Cinderella's Eyes
(Polydor, October 2011)

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