This Guardian article by the usually flawless Tom Ewing is a perfect example of how looking at pop music almost solely as a rivalry between art and business can you lead you to the wrong conclusions. Trying to explain those moments when artists make records that seems beyond not just their own limitations, but everybody’s, and then retreat to safer ground the next time out, Ewing focuses on nothing but commercial pressures. He seems to ignore the personal and emotional forces that help to create such works, and often make it impossible to create another. The history of pop music is full of the stories of artists who created groundbreaking records of seemingly limitless musical and emotional depth, and then either retreated to safer pastures or collapsed completely: Sly Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On; John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band; Neutral Milk Hotel’s The Aeroplane Over the Sea; My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless; Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks; Bob Dylan’s string of mid-sixties triumphs (three different albums, but released in the space of a year); Nirvana’s In Utero; Frank Sinatra’s Only The Lonely; Pet Shop Boys’s Very; and, of course, The Beach Boys’s Smile, which stood uncompleted for almost forty years because Brian Wilson crashed and burned in the middle of making it.
Britney Spear’s Blackout and Rihanna’s Rated R share little in terms of quality with these records (though that opinion is subject to change), but they do share comparable stories of creation, coming as the result either of traumatic events, intense personal pressures, or sudden changes in viewpoint (i.e., Brian Wilson’s discovery of LSD). Each represents an artist going farther into themselves and their music than they ever had before and would ever be able to do again. Some moved on to safer, more comfortable ideas, some collapsed and weren’t heard from again for years, or ever. Some died. But I think it’s fair to say not one of them changed course because of commercial pressure. These records were anomalies, not just in terms of pop music as a whole, but in terms of the artist’s careers. They’re the Bob Beamon’s of pop music, and I would no more expect these artists to continue on in the same fashion than I would have expected Beamon to be able to jump over 29 feet every time he lifted both feet off the ground. There’s only so far into yourself you can go, and once you have, if you get out in one piece, you would have to be the rarest kind of human being to dare and go back again.