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“Is it better, is it worse?”

Cheryl Cole’s new song is really quite incredibly good:

[audio:http://blog.voyou.org.nyud.net/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/01-Fight-For-This-Love-Main-Version.mp3]

It reminded me of something about pop music that occurred to me when The Saturdays’ album came out. I thought, while listening to the album, that it sounded like the Sugababes, which then struck me as odd, as there are obvious ways in which the group are more like Girls Aloud. But while their may be some stylistic similarity between Girls Aloud and The Saturdays, there’s what seems to me to be a more important difference of affect, adds some further distinctions to the concept of cold pop.

What many Sugababes and Girls Aloud songs share (and of course they’re not the only two groups that share this, but they may be the primary contemporary exponents) is an emotional texture built around a tension between the lyrical themes and the downbeat melody. But for the Sugababes, the sadness of the music is simply contradicted by the explicit positivity of the lyrics, built around uplifting themes of strength, recovery, moving on.  The effect is a kind of musical version of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, in which the false emotion of the music is corrected by the rational judgment of the lyrics. This is also the predominant affect of The Saturdays, as might be predicted from the fact that their biggest hit is titled “Up” (which is an excellent track; it’s surprising that it’s not surprising that a top-ten pop hit can be constructed out of the sound of heart monitors and reversing trucks).

One of the most marvelous and remarkable things about Girls Aloud is that they generally resist this compulsory positivity. Instead, the tension in Girls Aloud is between the musical representation of sad passions, and the power that comes from the objective recognition of these passions in the lyrics: a genuinely Spinozist music as opposed to the cut-price Spinozism of CBT (this, I think, also explains why Girls Aloud’s covers are almost always failures, as the conventional pop ballads that have been chosen don’t share Girls Aloud’s unusual affective strategy).

If we have on one side a counterfactual (“it seems bad, but it will be OK in the end”) and, on the other side, the joyful resignation of the sub specie aeternitatis (“I can’t go on, I must go on, I’ll go on”), “Fight For This Love” occupies an interesting middle ground between the two, an ambiguous determination between reassurance and resignation. What’s so great is that this is accomplished via a fascinating manipulation of a contemporary R&B trend. Lots of R&B tracks at the moment take dance synths and apply a kind of shimmering, dissociative fuzz (I suspect the influence of Robitussin). The result alternates between narcotic high and depressive withdrawal. “Fight For This Love” drapes these fizzing synths in strings and dusts them with ringing glockenspiel, the most sugary of R&B tropes. The effect is of a great blanket of candyfloss against which the vocals valiantly struggle. The question becomes not, am I ecstatic or melancholy (two sides, in fact, of the same coin of detachment), but, how can I act in the face of the smothering effects (affects?) of compulsory positivity?