What is ‘good’ music and what is ‘bad’ music? Music journalism is as much defined by what it ignores as what it embraces. In our multigeneric age, music is no longer simply defined by how it’s easiest to catalogue. There are no longer useful definitions of what should constitute, rap, indie, house, metal, soul and so on. Musical movements have long identified themselves with strict identities that dictate how you dress, dance and wear your hair. In the 21st Century our identity no longer has to be defined by what we listen to – and we can listen to whatever we want.

However, as all music fans know – beyond even the question of personal taste – some music is clearly ‘good’ and some is obviously ‘bad’. Yet good bands can make bad music, so what do we really mean? A common definition is that good artists have integrity, passion, play instruments and know about music. Bad artists are manufactured, lack talent, are motivated by fame and are image focused. But even this doesn’t help. There are plenty of great artists who can’t play instruments and who are not endowed with great technical ability. Nobody cares about John Lydon’s octave range; his vocal limitations become one of his strengths, allowing him to work within those restrictions to find a greater form of expression. Yet, those with lauded vocal prowess can produce some of the most banal and least challenging pieces of music. The influence of these artists is writ large on X-Factor where contestants insist on loading every phrase with as much sustain and vibrato as inhumanly possible, because seemingly that is the accepted demonstration of musical talent. The general rule of thumb among practicing musos is that the underground is ‘good’ and the mainstream is ‘bad’.

This brings me to Stooshe, the 3 piece girl band and Pudsey Bear botherers. You may ask what place does this group have on Louder Than War, the self confessed home of “rock, punk and alternative news”? Well, I can only imagine you’ve asked because you haven’t read our manifesto; we have no fear of the mainstream!

Really? Well, maybe we are straying too far over those ill-defined borders, away from ‘proper’ music. They don’t come much more manufactured than Stooshe, formed after their ‘mentor’ spotted them shopping in Topshop – musical ability didn’t seem to factor into it. The band even mention this story in their interviews, the popularity of reality talent shows has made manufactured music acceptable. The “Creative Director” of Stooshe is a woman called Jo Perry, who herself is part of the X Factor “music team”. Although, a mogul assembling a group of shoppers to form a band isn’t necessarily a bad thing, after all this method gave us The Sex Pistols.

Musically, Stooshe do come with some ‘underground’ pedigree. Their producers are the duo Future Cut who gained a lot of kudos in drum ‘n’ bass circles at the turn of the century with their ‘Bloodline’ and ‘Ghetto Style’ EPs, but 5 years later they had moved into the more lucrative arena of production work, churning out chart friendly tunes for Lily Allen, Shakira, Olly Murs, Sophie Ellis Bextor and Tom Jones. In fact, their output is so vast it does raise the question of how they can sustain quality. As a producer myself, I know I pump out an awful lot of mulch before I happen upon something that works.

Stooshe’s debut was originally slated for June this year but was scrapped. It was then rescheduled for November 26th, until 11 days prior to release it was announced it had been shelved again. The official statement said “”Following a late rush of creativity which has seen them write some of the best songs of their career, Stooshe have decided to delay the release of their debut album until March 2013 so they have time to record these songs for inclusion on the album. The trio are eager to ensure that the album lives up to its full potential and this extra time will allow Stooshe to make the final product as perfect as it can be.” Considering the band has been around since March 2010, it’s been a lengthy gestation period for an album. It’s a lot of effort when you consider that pop music is often treated as a disposable product. The curious thing about this last delay is that they actually got far as pressing it and distributing preview copies, one of which I have in my hands.

So what does the album sound like? Well, nothing special really. Lyrically it covers the standard topics of kissing boys and vague notions of empowerment. The opening track ‘Black Heart’ hints at something darker. It could be about domestic violence although equally it could be about a Championship footballer boyfriend with commitment issues. There are a couple of motivational anthems which are no doubt designed for montage sequences in prime-time TV shows.

 

Musically it’s an updated, polished, well produced pastiche of classic soul, the kind of thing you’d get in an advert when they don’t want to pay the royalties to use an existing song. It’s music for the PA systems of high street shops and could be any girl band of the last 10 years. The album is short, every song comes in at around 3 and half minutes – I did the washing up and made lunch in the time it took to play the first 6 songs (for the record, you can be both punk and domesticated).

The most interesting thing about the album is what’s missing. Stooshe’s first single was ‘Fuck Me’ in April 2011, a mucky ode to casual sex. They followed this in October 2011 with ‘Betty Woz Gone’, a cautionary tale about a woman of low moral standing, littered with references to drugs and sex. Image-wise, during this time, the band looked like they’d been dressed by Sue Pollard for a Fresh Prince video shoot. Neither of these songs make the album, ‘Fuck Me’ appears as the pusillanimous ‘Love Me’ and ‘Betty’, indeed, “woz gone”. The songs have even disappeared from the band’s official history, there’s nothing on their website or YouTube channel. By the time the third single ‘Black Heart’ came out the girls had seemingly endured a strict diet and makeover, appearing now as the currently fashionable, emaciated, polished and primped pastiche of femininity.

Is this why the album has been shelved? Has the band attempted to wrestle some artistic control from their handlers? My inquiries with the record company have met with a resounding silence. The early incarnation of Stooshe showed a lot more grit and social relevance. The wrangles with the album demonstrate the difficult creative process and is something we’d expect from more ‘worthy’ artists with more exacting standards, not from someone as fluffy as a girl band.

The debut wasn’t necessarily a bad album, it was an average, standard pop product and would have probably sold well, after all they don’t need to impress me, I’m not their target audience. So, have Stooshe struck a blow for those wanting the raise pop music’s game, making the stand that the mainstream doesn’t have to be bland in order to appeal to the widest possible audience? Can you still have passion and integrity on the route to fame and fortune? Or is it simply the result of the marketing department pulling the plug after negative focus group results? Perhaps we’ll know in March 2013.

All words by Frazer Cooke. More writing by Frazer on Louder Than War can be found here.

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