There's no magic formula for chart success in the United States, as many a qualified singer has learned. There is, however, at least one basic truth about breaking onto the US pop charts, and with her new single "How to Be a Heartbreaker," Marina Diamandis of the fictional "band" Marina and the Diamonds seems to have finally figured it out. "Rule number one," she sings, coolly, "is that you gotta have fun."
Marina has had a fraught relationship with "fun." On her debut album, The Family Jewels, she served a batch of largely well-written pop songs like an omelet made from eggs laid by hens in the coop she'd built in the backyard from toothpicks and superglue and cooked on a stove she powered by riding a bicycle backwards, dyed green, put sprinkles on top and a smiley face made of ketchup, and served on roller skates dressed as Bugs Bunny. So hard did she beat the music over the head with the "fun" sledgehammer (when she wasn't using the "avant-garde" mallet) that it didn't seem like she was really having any fun at all, and it was certainly exhausting to listen to, which is not to say it wasn't at all entertaining.
Then the singer, indulging in her passion for Hollywood mythology and melodrama, developed a complicated concept and alter ego for her sophomore album, both called Electra Heart, and Electra is not fun. She's too unfocused and bitter to have fun, and Marina is too conflicted between her concept, her character and herself to have fun either. It's possible to have fun doing satire - Nicki Minaj and Ke$ha have proven that - but Marina lacks their carefree emotional detachment from her subject matter, and this kills Electra's conceit before it gets going. Take her nonstarter of a lead single, "Primadonna," which fizzled despite the much-touted involvement of Dr. Luke. Admittedly, it is not his best work by any stretch, but the song was doomed without his slipshod production in terms of the radio and chart success Marina's label wanted. It was too cynical and Marina's delivery too lifeless and devoid of personality to sell it. Nobody, it seems, had much fun with "Primadonna."
"How to Be a Heartbreaker," on the other hand, suggests that Marina took notes as "Primadonna" flopped and returned a bit later, having plugged as many of the holes that had kept her bucket from holding water as she could while still remaining Marina and the Diamonds (and gotten a much better effort out of Dr. Luke). The track opens with a strumming guitar that at first threatens to devolve into yet another "Last Friday Night (TGIF)" clone, but then when the full production comes in after the first eight bars it deviates from the "TGIF" formula by having the bass follow the guitar's rhythm rather than throwing in the four-to-the-floor beat, and by the chorus Katy Perry is forgotten and the song is truly Marina's.
It's a good song, too, reminiscent of "Radioactive," the best single released in promo for the album in the UK, in terms of writing and catchiness but not in tone. Where "Radioactive" was about as detached and effortless as Lady Gaga in Born This Way (which is to say hardly), "Heartbreaker" is playful, savvy and mildly snotty like Gaga in The Fame. "Heartbreaker" is fun because Marina is having fun, or seems to be; the chorus' spoken punch line is delivered alternately in a haughty whisper and a mock-dumb blonde American accent that sounds amusingly like Gaga speaking. And anyway, she's not trying as hard, nor is she being subdued or lazy. She's detached without being oblivious.
From the context of "Primadonna" and the remainder of the album it's clear Marina is satirizing a type of person she is not exactly but has been hurt by and/or half wishes she could be were it not for her conscience and self-awareness. The only way that conceit can work is if it's completely free of vulnerability. Robyn, who has no difficulty sounding hurt when she wants to, sold the "other woman" character on "Call Your Girlfriend" by playing it straight, even slightly sympathetic, and those who wanted to see her that way were allowed while those who didn't could see what she was doing simply by the sharp contrast between it and her other work. Of course, Marina doesn't have as much other work as Robyn, which is one of the weaknesses of the Electra Heart concept, but she still boldly adopts the attitude of "Heartbreaker" without qualm or quiver, trusting those who care to know what she's getting at not by explaining it to death but simply doing it all the way. It's probably easier to adopt the "Heartbreaker" role than the "Primadonna" role, since one is bad like Heidi Montag singing about being superficial and one is "bad" like Katy Perry kissing a girl.
The Katy Perry comparison is apt, because another interesting technique the single uses in an effort to win over as many and alienate as few as possible is the Bridge of Absolution, if you will, that Perry and notably Britney Spears use to excuse themselves from blame for scandalous thematic content while still benefiting from the shock value and innuendo. (Perry's "Ain't no big deal/ It's innocent" on "I Kissed a Girl;" Spears' "What we do is innocent/ Just for fun and nothing meant" on "3," which leads into an impressive crescendo of salaciousness that immediately throws the song back into the gutter before the chorus returns.) Marina's mercifully dubstep-free bridge is more of a rationalization: "Girls don't want our hearts to break/ In two, so it's better to be fake," she sings, at once more relatable and believable than Perry' or Spears' cartoonishly implausible reassurances, but then Marina's character is hardly as extreme. This bridge allows Marina to play this role without moral conflict or worry about being taken at her word, since she covers both contingencies. It may not be the most creative or erudite technique, but hit singles don't need erudition or creative technique - they need to be simple and easily understood. It will always be true that a hit should require as little thought as possible.
There are a few factors that may still lie in the way of "How to Be a Heartbreaker" becoming a chart success, but they won't be missteps by Marina and the Diamonds. It's possible that a song about breaking hearts requires a singer with more cache than Marina in the US (or a male), because girls may not want to trust the newcomer saying "let's go be players" because what if she's a slut? It's possible that Marina's presence, as dialed down and accessible as it is here compared to The Family Jewels, may simply not appeal to an audience that likes female singers they can relate to or not care about at all beyond the song. It's possible that her label doesn't know someone at Clear Channel to bribe into putting it into rotation.
Still, "How to Be a Heartbreaker" is a commendable accomplishment - a well-designed, well-executed and legitimately fun single from an artist who has clearly done her homework and demonstrated her freshly acquired mastery without sacrificing dignity or artistic credibility. If Marina and the Diamonds retains these lessons going forward, she might fulfill the potential for pop greatness her debut album suggested - could she be the UK's answer to Katy Perry?
Electra Heart will be released in the United States on July 10, 2012 and is available now for pre-order on iTunes. "Primadonna" is available on iTunes and Amazon.