Styles & Forms | Eighties Manufactured Pop

The term ‘manufactured pop’ is, in many ways, a red herring. Despite the changes in our perception of pop talent brought about by The Beatles, much mainstream pop has been based on the ‘Tin Pan Alley’ tradition, in which teams of producers, composers and music-business moguls find young, attractive performers (mainly singers) to front potential hits.

The term ‘manufactured pop’ does not appear until the 1980s because of pop consumers’ increasing knowledge of how pop is produced and presented. The Milli Vanilli scandal turned out to be the end of an era. From the late 1980s onwards, the pop Svengalis became more open about the lack of creative and musical input on the part of their performers. Therefore, consumers of heavily packaged pop product made an informed choice: who played and sang on the record was irrelevant so long as they enjoyed the song. In particular, two 1980s factory-pop providers were crucial in marking this change.

A S/A/W Point

Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman (S/A/W) grew out of the north-western England soul, pop and disco tradition, a blend of light, soul-based melody and pumping dancefloor beats as pioneered by Waterman’s fellow northern soul DJ and promoter, Ian Levine. Levine had virtually invented the gay club music Hi-NRG by blending his beloved Motown-derived soul with electronic Eurodisco. The S/A/W production team developed this into mainstream pop with their first major UK hit, ‘You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)’ by the Liverpool gay group Dead Or Alive in 1984. Using a true ‘hit factory’ approach, S/A/W took the manufacture of pop one step further by stitching together songs out of computerized elements, taking a title out of a pre-written list, adding a numbered bassline, drum-pattern, melody line and so on, and then hiring a session singer to demo the song before the ‘star’ added their own vocals. S/A/W went on to dominate the UK charts and crossover to the US Top 10 in the late 1980s, writing and producing a string of bouncy, unashamedly lightweight hits for Brits Rick Astley, Bananarama, Mel & Kim, Sonia, original Europop diva Donna Summer and, most famously, Australian soap opera stars Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan.

As important as the impossibly catchy music and clean-cut appeal of the stars was Waterman’s bullish, amused approach to the antipathy shown towards S/A/W by music critics. His give-the-people-what-they-want attitude revealed a great deal of self-promotion at the expense of his artists, who – with the exception of the still hugely popular Kylie Minogue – usually attempted to forge careers without his factory formula, only to fail. The manufacturer had stepped in front of the performer and the process became more apparent, reaching its logical conclusion with the Pop Stars and Pop Idol TV shows of the early twenty-first century.

Stock and Aitken eventually split acrimoniously from Waterman in the 1990s, but it was the essentially non-musical Waterman who thrived, putting together the ABBA-for-toddlers outfit Steps and presiding over Pop...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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