IN CONVERSATION: Caroline Sullivan

IN CONVERSATION: Caroline Sullivan

Caroline Sullivan is a pop critic of several decades standing who has written for The Guardian, The New York Times, Melody Maker to name but a few. Having contributed to various rock and pop documentaries, she has written books on Madonna, Ed Sheeran, Adele and the Bay City Rollers. I caught up with Caroline to talk about Kylie and other heritage acts, live music, Billie Eilish, streaming, radio, Sheeran, the recent acoustic ballad movement and more. 

You recently appeared on Top of the Pops: The Story of 1988. Of course, one of the people who dominated the pop scene that year was Kylie. What did you think the chances of her still being around now were thirty-one years ago? 

When Kylie first materialised, I had a flatmate who wasn’t working, which meant he spent a lot of time watching daytime TV so Neighbours was always part of his afternoon viewing and that’s where I first saw Kylie. When she came out with her first UK single ‘I Should Be So Lucky’, I just thought it was the most rubbish, cheap single that displayed absolutely no effort whatsoever on the part of either Kylie or Stock Aitken Waterman. It just sounded like something absolutely anybody could have written. Of course, in retrospect, we know anybody couldn’t have written it because if anyone could write a massive pop single then everybody would do it. It just seemed incredibly throwaway, and Kylie’s vocal deficiencies weren’t hidden by hyper-production. So of course, if someone said that in thirty years she’d still be around, and not only that but she’d be a national treasure, I’d have chuckled loudly. But now, with the benefits of hindsight and of actually having interviewed her and reviewed some of her records, I adore her as well. Even when I hear ‘I Should Be So Lucky’, I feel happy, uplifted and nostalgic. 

I was five when ‘I Should Be So Lucky’ came out and I loved it. 

I can understand why a little kid would like those songs because they’re really happy and bouncy. 

What do you think the key to Kylie’s longevity has been? 

I think it could have all gone the other way completely if in 2000 she hadn’t had a massive hit with ‘Spinning Around’ and ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ the next year. Those two songs revived her career massively, and from that point on she seemed to do everything right. It was as if the nineties were almost a write-off for her in terms of massive hits and stature. There was a huge ten-year gap between her eighties hits and her coming back as a really cool disco queen in those hotpants. She also took on a massive LGBT following. Also, by 2000 she was 32, so she was an adult, and you could tell she wasn’t just a little kid being dictated to by record producers anymore. You could see that she had a hand in her own music. She’s fun to look at, fun to listen to, you feel like you could have a conversation with her and she comes across as a girls’ girl, which is important. And when she got breast cancer, the entire nation united behind her. I think that a lot of her success is down to the influence of events that nobody could have predicted, all contributing to making her very long-lived and much-loved. 

Is Kylie’s new material something you are still interested in when it comes out? 

I quite enjoyed Golden, the country album. I reviewed her at the Café de Paris when it came out. I like the fact that even now at the age of 51 or 50 as she was then, she is trying new things. I did read in interviews that the Nashville idea was actually her A&R guy’s, but when she got over there she loved the atmosphere. It all came together really well, but it wasn’t Kylie thinking “I need to do a country album”. 

What about Madonna’s recent material? 

Not really, no. It interests me in the way that she’s an incredible woman and I closely follow her career to see how she negotiates being an older pop star, but the actual music I’m not so interested in. I know it’s the best-reviewed album since Confessions on a Dance Floor, but as a musician, she doesn’t really interest me that much these days. 

I struggle with most heritage acts. I can’t help but think all their best achievements are behind them, but I still give things a chance to see if they can surprise me. Most of the time it does seem that they’re going through the motions to me. 

That is something I’ve always thought and wanted to write an article about, then suddenly I saw an article about it before I had a chance to pitch it. If you go back as far as the sixties and look at artists who had a massive game-changing early career, they always lose it around the age of 35 or possibly 40. Look at any band from the sixties that wrote their own material – The Beatles, the Stones, The Kinks, The Who – everything they put out during that period was incredible, then with everything after, from the seventies onwards, they never recaptured it. It’s true, right up to this current day. The Manics never really improved far as I’m concerned. Their last really good album was This is My Truth Tell Me Yours but they’ve been putting stuff out ever since and they’ve never improved on it. Look at any group that writes their own material – there’s something that happens after a period of massive success. It just seems as if the creative genes that spawned all that music kind of packed up after around ten years and never returned. 

The Manics seem to be playing more nostalgia-orientated festivals recently, including one up the road from me. I might have gone but the rest of the bill is putting me off and it looks a bit depressing. 

I’m very confused as to why they would do that. They make enough money from their own tours and putting their own albums out, so why would they do that? 

Nicky Wire used to criticise acts that lived off the past, saying he didn’t want them to become a “museum band”. 

You’re right, in the past, Nicky Wire would have died rather than head a line-up like that. Maybe they just really love festivals, but it is strange. 

Do you prefer to watch contemporary or heritage acts? 

It completely depends. I reviewed Rita Ora a couple of months ago and she was absolutely fantastic. I think that contemporary female pop stars are fantastic live and I love seeing them. I loved seeing people like Rita and Marina recently, but there are lots of artists I would see from my youth if they were touring. I loved Bananarama but I’ve never been to see them since they regrouped. It’s not an either/or situation for me – I love young female pop stars right now because they’re doing really great shows and have much higher production values. I’ve also been listening to Billie Eilish a lot – I can understand the radio appeal of her because if you’re a 14-year-old girl with your headphones on and you’re feeling gloomy, listening to Billie Eilish would probably make you feel better about yourself. You don’t have to see her live to really understand her. I’ve only seen videos of her on stage and she looks quite slackerish, but I think people are buying into the fact that she’s not perfect, and I do like the fact that she’s not perfect. 

Does pop radio still have a big role to play in 2019? Can it survive in the streaming age and are younger people still interested in it? I am in my mid-thirties and get sick of being told to go to Radio 2 when I am fine with Radio 1. 

The only contemporary pop radio station I listen to is Radio 1. As we know, the median listener age of Radio 1 is around 31. BBC Radio have brought in a Controller of Pop Music, Lorna Clarke, they are still trying to get the median age of Radio 1 down and I think around 90% of the UK population still listens to the radio so that would include a large proportion of younger people. Pop music now has no upper age limit – you can be a fan of it whatever age you are, and you don’t suddenly decide to start tuning into Radio 2 because you’ve hit 35 or 40. Even if you did tune into Radio 2 when you hit 30 or 40, you would find that a large percentage of their playlist is identical to Radio 1’s. What Radio 2 do, because their average listener age is about 50 or 51, is play songs from a 50-year-old person’s youth, so we’re talking about songs from the eighties. You’re getting a lot of stuff from the eighties which might include some early dance music but you’re not going to get things like Stormzy’s Vossi Bop because your average 50-year-old isn’t going to relate to that. 

I think Radio 1 are trying as hard as they can – they’ve got Maya Jama, Clara Amfo and young presenters. I would imagine lots of younger people hear the station when they are with their parents, especially in the car – I don’t think it’s a lost cause. I know a lot of music industry figures think that playlists have completely replaced listening to the radio, but I don’t think that’s true. Sometimes you just want to hear something that actually includes a human voice talking to you. I think hearing a human voice is a base human need. 

I also really relate to several Radio 1 presenters – these are the kind of people I would choose as friends, especially Greg and Scott. 

I absolutely adored Greg James’ drivetime show, it’s just sad that he couldn’t bring Chris Smith with the News with him to breakfast.

I’m still in mourning for Greg’s drivetime slot – I like breakfast but I loved the teatime show. His features and general approach seemed a touch more surreal and bizarre. I’m presuming Chris Smith didn’t go over to breakfast due to age, but I’m just speculating. 

I know – I loved things like the Mayor of Where. I don’t really listen much on breakfast as I’m normally working, but Grimmy is not really a replacement. I read somewhere that Grimmy isn’t really into it? Why is that? This is presumably someone that’s always wanted it – he seemed to hate getting up for breakfast because it was interfering with his lifestyle, whereas Greg James is a radio man through-and-through, and if he has to get up at 4:30am he will gladly do it. Shouldn’t this be Grimmy’s absolute dream job? Also, why would Chris Smith’s age make a difference? He’s just the news guy. 

Scott was talking about things I’m sure he would never get away with on Radio 2 recently – though he has been covering on there more.

Well, I do have Radio 2 on in my bedroom, and every now and then I will catch a bit of Ken Bruce, and there is some naughtiness and cheekiness to it. Rylan Clark-Neal does do Saturday afternoons on there, and I think he’s possibly the worst professional radio presenter I’ve ever heard. You can see that this is Radio 2 attempting to pull in a younger crowd – he was broadcasting from Ibiza recently and playing a lot of dance music, so the station does see that there are people who want to listen to that. One of the things about being a radio presenter is being able to think on your feet, and he can’t think quickly, and he also has a horrendous feature where he has his mother on. He has no game, chat or banter, whereas Scott Mills does have banter and is quick-witted. This is giving him untold exposure, and I don’t understand what the original thinking was behind getting him on there. He seems to have gone a very long way for someone who doesn’t have the talent for what he’s doing. 

What are your feelings on the wave of young, male, acoustic guitar-wielding balladeers in the charts? I call them ‘Tattooed Toms’.

I was going to say that it’s an interesting coincidence that they’re all around, but of course, it’s not a coincidence. Was it Tom Walker who was the first before labels identified similar ones on their roster and decided to promote them? 

I’d say it goes back to Ed Sheeran. You have actually written a book about Sheeran – I spend a lot of my time feeling annoyed about his omnipresence, so can you present the case for the defence? 

Well, Sheeran’s been around for around eight years now, and this cluster that we’ve got now only popped up in the last couple of years. There’s a lot more to Ed Sheeran than gloomy acoustic music – in fact, he’s generally not gloomy acoustic music. Clearly, Sheeran made his career on seeming ordinary, but he is actually not ordinary. There’s a lot more to him than people actually think. He’s got a huge musical palette, he’s fascinated about music generally and is a huge fan of it, particularly grime and hip-hop. I’ve got a lot of respect for him, even though when people review him it’s like they’re shooting him in a barrel. 

You can’t make an Ed Sheeran – he evolved because he loves music. As for these other guys that have followed him in the past couple of years such as Lewis Capaldi, if you are a young male singer-songwriter starting out, the easiest thing to do is to sing ballads with an acoustic guitar and bare your soul. You then get a cluster of people doing it. Also, dance music has reigned supreme for the past fifteen years or so. There’s always a reaction to whatever the current musical phenomenon is, and I think these acoustic guys are that reaction. When they come up with an okay song, I don’t mind listening, but I can’t actually tell them apart and the fact that there are so many of them called ‘Tom’ doesn’t help.    

I wrote a book about Ed Sheeran about two years ago so had to do a tonne of research into him and I just got to like him a lot, even becoming slightly jealous that he married his childhood sweetheart rather than me. There’s a real breadth of stuff on Collaborations No. 6 – there’s grime and hip-hop, but there’s Latin, rock and more. He might be benefitting from the rise of Latin music, but Shape of You – which is tropical house – probably had its own impact in popularising Latin music. The other thing you have to ask yourself if you’re going to diss Ed Sheeran is why do so many incredible people want to be on records with him? It’s not because they want to raise their own profile. People like Stormzy do not need to be on his records and yet they are. It’s like the way that Phil Collins is so adored by various R&B stars because they love his drum sound. A lot of grime and hip-hop artists just really like Ed Sheeran and really admire what he’s doing.

Check out some of Caroline’s recent reviews and articles here

This interview was orginally published here:

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.