At the risk of sounding like Donny Hathaway, great pop music has to be something. That something can be almost anything, but it can't be nothing. It can be edgy, aggressive, exciting, romantic, strange, glamorous, scary, melancholic, sexy – any of these will do. Unlike folk or rock (or indeed folk-rock), which aspire to integrity and a certain seriousness that sometimes falls into desperation, pop music has its own brand of pretentiousness that answers only to itself, to its own illusions, drama and passing mythologies. This is not a matter of good and bad or better and worse. The most wonderful thing about music is that you can always have your cake and eat it.
To illustrate this theory I could, and perhaps should, have written this about the ‘owoo owoo’ in the song Mirror Man by The Human League. That single phrase, warbled by Susan Sulley and Joanne Catherall, embodies 40 years of the best pop music, coming from the beautifully weak voices of these two working-class heroes during the opening bars of the 1982 hit.
I could have written about their 1981 Christmas No1 Don’t You Want Me, which is as perfect a pop song as anyone could ever wish for, or Blind Youth or Being Boiled, from the earlier but just as fantastical version of the group, whose music – with Phil Oakey’s vocals – offered an ongoing tribute to JG Ballard and Kraftwerk. But instead I'll go for 1983’s (Keep Feeing) Fascination. I have a weakness for a song title with brackets, themselves a manifestation of pop’s hunger for affectation.
The synth pop of the early 80s has a direct lineage from Merseybeat, the golden year of 1966, Motown and glam. These relatives may have come via a different road – in synth pop’s case through art rock, Krautrock and Bowie – but they reached the same destination: hymns to youth and romance for which persona was everything and three-minute dramas stood in for harsh reality. Great pop is lightning in a jar.
There are some groups that just make you like them. I’ve always felt that way about The Human League. Phil Oakey is a grand figure in British pop music; a father of the church, who read his way to enlightenment during menial jobs in Sheffield before Martyn Ware – the founder of The Future, renamed The Human League in late 1977 – asked him to join him and Ian Craig Marsh. Ware identified the vital mix of warm star quality and fearsome commitment in Oakey, although this arrangement lasted only three years and two albums. Oakey was, it seems, as hell-bent on pop success as on electronic innovation.
(Keep Feeling) Fascination walks in the room with a plodding baseline but then starts leaping all over the place with what appears to be a discordant, jarring synth riff. But listen again – rearranged with a horn section, it would sound like the opening bars of a Stax or Motown showstopper.
Even the lyrics, consciously or otherwise, allude to this incongruity: that synth pop from the English regions and forgotten industrial towns (the bane of every music-loving parent who’d grown up in the 60s) had a meaningful relationship with its forbears. ‘Just looking for a new direction in an old familiar way’, they sing.
Sulley and Catherall’s vocals were wondrous precisely because it was what the girls in your school sounded like when they sang along to it. Every time I saw Sulley’s blonde flick on the head of a supermarket checkout girl or through a hairdresser's window, I thought of her and of what her group meant. Their fantasy of the high life was exactly the same as yours.
Boy George had caused a million dinner trays to be overturned when he first appeared on Top Of The Pops in 1982, but Oakey’s heroic fringe had done much the same thing two years earlier. Oakey was all drama, quietly spoken but a tall baritone fit for England’s urban operas. When he sang ‘And so the conversation turned until the sun went down’, he was echoing the symposiums from a million teenage bedrooms: that time and place where young people make their first profound connections, where they learn together, where innocence slowly turns to experience.
Just like any great pop music, (Keep Feeing) Fascination seemed new at the time to the people who mattered, namely, the people who didn’t know any better. They are who pop is for. The something, in this case, is joy. The whole message of the song is just that: fascination, passion, love, moving on. It’s only when we stop moving on that we start to see this kind of music as throwaway, silly or unsophisticated. And what a tragedy that is.
George Chesterton is chief subeditor and a contributor at GQ magazine and GQ.co.uk – Follow him on Twitter at @geochesterton