In 2006 Alex Turner, accepting Q awards for People’s Choice and Best Album (for the Arctic Monkeys’ debut Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not), took a swipe at the surprise winners of that year’s Idol Award.
“A lot of people make jokes about their having awards for no reason, just for the sake of having awards for people, a lot of pretending they were good when they weren’t, sort of thing,” he said. “I mean, I might be glad of it one day… but even I know that Take That were bo***cks, mate.”
Eighteen years later, the Arctic Monkeys have been a going concern longer than Take That were at the time of his outburst – and Turner, in his defense, later retracted his comments, telling the NME in 2011, “We love Gary Barlow. I think I really offended him a few years ago though, which I’m sorry about. I didn’t understand it then. Didn’t know what was going on, trying to ruffle some feathers.”
That in the years since then the Arctic Monkeys have gone on from their incendiary debut to become one of the most important, influential – and constantly evolving – British rock bands of the last two decades is beyond doubt. Perhaps the more intriguing question surrounds the career trajectory of the band Turner once dismissed as “bo***cks”.
Whichever way you look at it, props have to be given to Gary Barlow’s outfit. What was once five is now three. First Robbie Williams departed in 1995 after three years of spectacular success, apparently after his taste for partying with Oasis became too much for Take That’s squeaky-clean image; asked to “adhere to the band’s responsibilities or quit”, he packed his bags and went solo.
And then in 2014, Jason Orange also upped and offed, saying in a statement: “There have been no fallings out, only a decision on my part that I no longer wish to do this.”
Questions were raised at the time whether his departure was as amicable as everyone claimed, given it came just two years after Barlow and bandmates Mark Owen and Howard Donald were named in a tax evasion investigation that saw them repay £20m to the state. Barlow later said of the incident: “There’s no escape. You’ve just got to own [your mistakes].”
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Since then, Take That have not only survived, they have thrived. Yesterday (February 5), the band announced a forthcoming tour of Australia, with support from the newly-reinvigorated Sophie Ellis-Bextor. Tickets for the six-date sojourn down under are expected to sell out within minutes of going live, and follow last year’s chart-topping album This Life. That LP was the band’s ninth studio album, and the sixth since reforming after their 10-year post-Robbie Williams hiatus in 2005. All but two of those LPs have made No. 1 in the U.K. charts (the others peaked at No. 2). Back in 2006 the band’s Q Idol Award was given in recognition of their reformation as a four-piece, and subsequent No. 1 album Beautiful World.
And there’s no doubting Barlow’s talent as a songwriter. Seven chart-topping albums don’t happen by accident – and neither do the three he’s picked up as a solo artist. He’s also shifted some 50 million records, collected six Ivor Novello awards, and in 2012 was made an OBE for services to the entertainment industry. Take That’s first album was released in 1992 – to be still topping the charts and selling out stadiums over 30 years later is a remarkable achievement for a band initially modeled as a British version of New Kids on the Block.
But the question is: who exactly is buying this stuff? Three decades ago, with a breakdancing Jason Orange and Robbie Williams threatening to go off the rails at any given moment, Take That at least had a bit of fizz about them – even if outside their teenage girl fanbase the songs themselves essentially were, in Alex Turner’s blunt assessment, bo***cks.
Now, to borrow a phrase, they are the U.K.’s supreme peddlers of what has been called “music for people who buy their music in supermarkets”.
The tracks on This Life – and on 2017’s Wonderland, 2014’s III, 2010’s Progress, and indeed everything they’ve done since Robbie’s departure – are slick, polished, supremely professional… and also devoid of any real soul, passion, or genuine sensation.
They are the musical equivalent of Umberto Eco’s definition of postmodernism, which he summed up as when “a man who loves a very cultivated woman knows he cannot say to her ‘I love you madly’ because he knows that she knows (and that she knows he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. He can say ‘As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly’.”
Pop music in its purest form is a spontaneous expression of heightened emotion. There is a joy and a pathos to acts like Kylie and Britney and the Spice Girls and Sophie Ellis-Bextor for that matter, that, no matter how manufactured the songs may have been in reality, nevertheless at least feels genuine.
By contrast, Take That’s music-as-business model increasingly seems a calculated repurposing of what emotion is supposed to feel like. Uplifting lyrics, chant-along choruses, smart key changes, all the right buttons pressed in all the right places. It’s not a man telling a woman he loves her; it’s a man quoting Barbara Cartland. Feeling by numbers. Pop music by formula.
Should we care? To be fatalist, probably not. Music is a business, after all. Even the Arctic Monkeys needed to shift units to achieve what they have. And if people want their music bland and cynical, then of course that’s their right – like Frank Sinatra said, whatever gets you through the night. Good luck to Barlow and the boys for milking it so professionally and for so long.
But on the other hand, it can hardly be healthy for music as a whole.
That's not to say that there's no place for supermarket pop in the charts, but while Alex Turner may have had half an eye on an easy headline when he warned of "a lot of pretending they were good when they weren’t," 18 years later one can’t help feeling he may also have been uncannily prophetic.