Marilena Papalamprou the intersection between art and politics in a fascinating musician’s work
Even though music and politics share an undoubtable bond (one recalls, for instance, the protest songs of the 1970s and the rise of rock’n’roll in the 1950s), mainstream pop music in the 2010s could not have made such a claim. Apart from the occasional, frequently saturated, political message here and there, the majority of popular western artists produced either romantic or upbeat but vacant hits, aiming for immediate, but ephemeral, success. The music industry seemed desolate of thought-provoking hits. So, when Marina and the Diamonds entered the music scene in 2010, with her debut studio album titled The Family Jewels, Hollywood was introduced to a fresh version of the pop star archetype, one which was to influence the political tilt we see in many pop songs today.
Upon first listening to Marina’s music, one may not grasp the deeply political essence of her art. An exceptional synth-pop creator, with an impressive vocal range and an excellent control between her different vocal tones and textures, her music is highly quality pop at its finest. But due to the upbeat sound of many of her songs, it is easy to initially miss her provocative temperament. But even since her first album, still kind of unrefined, she did not hesitate to touch upon issues pop artists usually ignore. In “Hollywood” she writes “Hollywood infected your brain/ You wanted kissing in the rain/ Oh oh, I've been living in a movie scene/ Puking American dreams/ Oh oh, I'm obsessed with the mess that's America”, while in “Oh No!”: “If you are not very careful/ Your possessions will possess you/ TV taught me how to feel/ Now real life has no appeal”. It is a bold entrance into the mainstream music industry, especially if we compare her to 2010’s hit songs, like “Tik Tok” by Keisha and “Rude Boy” by Rihanna. Marina came in like a hurricane, and even though she did not make it into the charts (Kate Nicholson observes that she “has sat on the precarious fence between mainstream and underground pop: someone with that curious, 21st-century kind of fame where you can rack up tens of millions of streams without ever having a Top 10 single”), she has something many pop artists lack – timelessness.
With her second studio album titled Electra Heart, Marina created a persona who would, perhaps, better be suited to Lana Del Rey: a vain starlet, toxic, depressed, and sensual, her mind poisoned by the American dream, blonde wig and pink outfits included, who would do anything to achieve the Hollywood reverie, and who eventually overdoses on pills. Her most streamed single, “Primadonna”, is of this album, with more than 100 million views on YouTube, and is also excessively political: “And I'm sad to the core, core, core/ (Yeah) Every day is a chore, chore, chore/ (Wow) When you give, I want more, more, more/ I wanna be adored”, sings Marina’s alter ego, commenting once again on the vanity of Hollywood dreams. Perhaps the public did not grasp the sarcasm underlying Electra Heart, perhaps Marina was not able to deliver her persona effortlessly (she has said, after all, that Electra Heart felt like she was “being pushed into it”, that she had to alter herself a little bit too much), or perhaps the music industry was not at the time ready for political pop, but despite her numerous loyal fans and pop culture value, she had not reached the level of a mainstream icon just yet. Is this about to change with her 2021 album?
Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land is set to be released on the 11th of June. In November 2020 Marina (who is, since 2018, going by the stage name MARINA instead of Marina and the Diamonds, possibly indicating her finding herself and shifting towards a new artistic direction) released the first song of her new album, titled “Man’s World”. To date she has released two more, “Purge the Poison” and the title song “Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land”. She is gradually immersing her audience into her new creation, which promises to be straightforwardly and unapologetically political. While she has always touched upon profound subjects, to a large degree relating with Hollywood and pop culture, in these three songs almost every line is a political comment, an open provocation. In “Man’s World” her references to the hypocrisy of the showbiz reappear, but this time her words are much more caustic: “Marilyn's bungalow, it's number seven/ In the pink palace where men made her legend/ Owned by a sheik who killed thousands of gay men/ I guess that's why he bought the Campest Hotel in LA then”, while the refrain is indicative of the song’s environmental feminist character: “Mother nature's dying/ Nobody's keeping score/ I don't wanna live in a man's world anymore”. In “Purge the Poison”, where she speaks on behalf of Mother Nature, she adds more political commentary: “Need to purge the poison, show us our humanity/ All the bad and good, racism and misogyny/ Nothing's hidden anymore, capitalism made us poor/ God, forgive America for every single war”, and in “Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land”, once again speaking as a being one with the Earth and the universe surrounding us, she sings “You don't have to be like everybody else/ You don't have to fit into the norm/ You are not here to conform/ I am here to take a look inside myself/ Recognize that I could be the eye, the eye of the storm”. All the songs additionally have a nostalgic tint to them, for the music is classic Marina, reminiscent of Electra Heart and her 2015 album Froot, released while she still had her Diamonds. They are “girly” synth-pop at its finest – upbeat, eerie, melodic, introspective, and fun all at once. She reintroduces the glamorous pop sound which made her famous after Electra Heart, but with a sincere and unafraid political essence in it.
Marina is now 35 years old, and she has succeeded in something many pop artists unfortunately fail at – she has matured. Still in the intermediate between a pop icon and an underground artist, Marina has evolved musically, making her songs relevant both to her age and to the age we live in. She is no longer the 25-ish-year-old singing about depressing glamorous illusions, but a fiery, confident woman who openly expresses her opinion and has faith in her political knowledge and potential for impact. To put it simply, she has found her voice. In a way, Marina has always held a political stance, but I do not think mainstream media was ready for her. She was too “loud” for the 2010s, and she was also less musically polished. Her new creations feel perfected. Will 2021 bring political pop into the forefront and Marina into the mainstream? I hope the former happens, but for the latter I think maybe it will be better for her to remain with one leg into the alternative. Whatever this year holds in store for Marina in particular and the music industry in general one thing is for certain – we are in for an amazing new album!