Surprising link-ups are the latest pop phenomenon. Rihanna will team up with Sting and Elton John will perform with Ed Sheeran at the Grammys on Sunday — the ceremony that expects you to sit through 81 awards isn’t afraid of mixing things up.
Brit-winning upstart Sheeran has spoken of his nerves about singing a duet with a legend but he’s hardly out of his comfort zone. He’s been at the forefront of the culture of collaboration, writing songs with edgy rappers including Yelawolf and JME as well as duetting with country pop superstar Taylor Swift and penning tracks for One Direction.
Indeed, “feat.” is the word du jour — recent releases include 50 Cent feat Eminem and Adam Levine, will.i.am feat Britney Spears and Calvin Harris feat Tinie Tempah.
Harris is among the dance producers largely responsible for the trend. Lacking star power on his own, like his peers David Guetta and DJ Fresh, he needs a big name out front. Following a string of hits featuring Example, Kelis and Florence Welch, as well as the songs he composed for Rihanna and Cheryl Cole, he has been named the UK’s most successful songwriter (based on the Official Charts Company’s top 100 downloads of 2012) for the second year running.
The cast lists on tracks like his give pop music blockbuster appeal — we had Alien vs Predator, now it’s Conor Maynard vs Wiley. We’re being fed twists on the familiar, brand extensions engineered for the widest possible audience appeal — the peanut butter chunky Kit Kats of pop.
The most valuable mix-up is the older, established act giving his blessing to a newcomer, telling his suspicious, unadventurous fans that it’s okay to like this unproven talent. Elton John, who was for years music’s Daddy Warbucks, will be providing exactly this service for Sheeran at the Grammys, generously sharing his spotlight in front of a huge American audience that is just waking up to the youngster’s abilities. Then consider foetal Irish band The Strypes, who were recently tipped as ones to watch by Paul Weller; Bruce Springsteen’s guest appearances with his fellow New Jersey inhabitants The Gaslight Anthem; and Arcade Fire’s early endorsement by and later live appearances with the big Davids: Byrne and Bowie.
Almost as potent is the cooler act’s union with someone previously considered a little naff. Olly Murs steps away from his parochial geezer pop now that he has bejewelled American Flo Rida singing on his single Troublemaker. Justin Bieber reached towards adulthood by getting superstar rapper Nicki Minaj to joust on his current single, Beauty and a Beat — a far smarter way to demonstrate maturity than, say, a neck tattoo.
Minaj has almost overplayed her status as the 30-second stardust that every song requires. Even when she popped up on Madonna’s Give Me All Your Luvin’, it looked like the Queen of Pop was getting more credibility out of it than the brash young rapper. She’s undeniably talented but she’s expensive. “Fifty K for a verse, no album out,” she rapped in the early days. Now it’s: “If you need you a look, just put me on your song/But you know it’ll cost about six figures long.”
And many pop stars are willing to build bridges, without the need for help from their label. Professor Green befriended Lily Allen on Facebook before she agreed to sing on one of his singles. Example persuaded Blur’s Graham Coxon to play guitar on his latest album on Twitter, after meeting him at a gig.
It doesn’t matter if they’re not from the same scene. With young music fans largely free of restrictive tribal allegiances, we have a system of acceptable genre-hopping exemplified by Radio 1’s Live Lounge, where The xx can cover Wham!’s Last Christmas and Biffy Clyro can try We Built This City by Starship, without losing credibility.
It has also become acceptable to let outsiders into your process. The auteur model begun by The Beatles is largely gone. Acclaimed musicians such as Adele, Florence + the Machine and Bat for Lashes have lost no stature for working with songwriters who are not band members. Hip indie duo Tegan and Sara are sounding better than ever on their new album, Heartthrob, their first work with Greg Kurstin, co-writer for both Lily Allen and Kelly Clarkson. And although he is keeping quiet about it, it’s no secret that X Factor-hating Jake Bugg uses older collaborators too.
Come one, come all, everybody’s in the mix. Never mind all those bands reforming in their original line-ups — it’s pop’s new formations that are reaping the greatest rewards.
LET’S GET TOGETHER: FORTHCOMING COLLABORATIONS
ATOMS FOR PEACE
Who’d have thought it? Radiohead’s Thom Yorke leading a “supergroup”. I bet old awkward-pants hates the term too. Yet the inclusion of Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, R.E.M./Beck drummer Joey Waronker and Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich in his new side project leaves us with no other term. Their album, Amok, is out on Feb 25 on XL. See them at Oval Space, east London, on Feb 22.
Having once notoriously announced that he hoped Albarn would die, you’re now more likely to see Noel Gallagher on stage with his old Blur nemesis than his brother Liam. They’ll appear together as part of the Gallagher curated Teenage Cancer Trust shows at the Royal Albert Hall on March 23.
TAYLOR SWIFT AND ED SHEERAN
She’s the heart-stoppingly glamorous American prom queen, right; he’s the Suffolk scruffbag who looks like he works in Games Workshop. They duet on a song on Swift’s latest album, the ballad Everything has Changed, and he’ll soon be singing it with her every night, supporting her March US tour.
Veteran of the grime scene Wiley is currently giving some gravitas to schoolgirls’ favourite Conor Maynard on the pair’s top 10 hit Animal. Wiley’s next album, The Ascent, is released on March 3 on Warner and is a riot of “feats” with guest stars including Emeli Sandé, Tulisa, Chip and Kano.
The space rockers are the star attraction at this year’s War Child charity Brits gig, which takes place just before the Brit Awards, on February 18 at Shepherd’s Bush Empire. Special guests are still to be announced but given that past shows have featured Wretch 32, and Coldplay welcoming Gary Barlow, Brandon Flowers of the Killers and Bono, it could be special.