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Concept Album Corner - 'Electra Heart' by Marina and the Diamonds
If you were to pay me a penny for my thoughts, I would be one of the first to state how much I dislike the pop genre of music with very little hesitation. Saying something along these lines will definitely earn me a title along the lines of ‘hipster’ – which, in a case like this, is meant to indicate that somebody dislikes a popular piece of work for the sole purpose of its popularity. I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t part of the case, as I believe the reason why most pop music works is because it works on a very broad audience, watering down meaningful songs, messages, and actual art into something that is little more than advertising in its bleakest, soulless form. However, as I just explained, I at least have a reason for why I’m none-too fond of the genre. Perhaps the greatest example of this, which seems to be quite prevalent today, is synth pop.
If you’ll indulge in my personal music tastes for a little while longer, I’m a kind of person who isn’t fond of manufactured sounds. Musical artists that catch my interest are generally ones that can make a great song on something as simple as an acoustic guitar and a snare drum. Granted, there are exceptions to this rule that will make me sound like a great bleeding hypocrite. Some of the keyboard stylings of bands like Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds or Pink Floyd always catch my interest because they can add a huge level of flair to some songs that would previously be unreachable. Even some of the more avante-garde work of Brian Eno or Aphex Twin even catches my interest from time to time. The thing is, however, be it for ‘artsy’ purposes or to add style, there is a level of lyrical, emotional or even aesthetic power to these pieces. Most pop, with some exceptions, doesn’t have that. Again, as it is meant to be marketed and advertised to wide audiences, real passion and sentiment is cast aside for ‘feel-good’ tunes.
It is for these reasons that I am conflicted when it comes to Electra Heart by Marina and the Diamonds. A Welsh singer/songwriter, Marina Diamandis (stage name: Marina and the Diamonds; no, there is no backing group, it’s just her) wouldn’t seem like the kind of person who would fit in the pop genre that I just rambled on about. Having only released two studio albums so far, Marina and the Diamonds hasn’t exactly been given a big spotlight and a limousine. Her influences come in the form of alternative superstars like PJ Harvey and Eliot Smith, while also being fond of pop artists Kylie Minogue and Britney Spears. Her first album, The Family Jewels, seems to fall under the influence of the former while today’s album, Electra Heart, falls under the latter.
In a weird way, Electra Heart is a sort of parody concept album to pop music. The title character, played by Marina herself in a David Bowie-esque fashion, is meant to be “the antithesis of everything that [Marina] stands for.” Electra seems to be pop music and its audience given flesh: an ambitious but vacuous teenage girl, wild and ruthless, and covering any form of weakness or vulnerability up like hiding a blemish with some make-up. In-between going into the mindset of Electra, Marina also focuses on her dysfunctional relationships (ah, how wonderfully tumultuous young love is). And whilst going into the mindset of Miss Heart, Marina is also able to open up bottles and pour out Electra’s thoughts and emotions. Some are ambitious and egotistic, others cynical and disciplined, but all of them like fine wines.
Marina seems to be an artist who understands the machinations of pop and alternative music well. For Electra Heart, she cited Britney Spears, Madonna, Marilyn Monroe, and even Marie Antoinette as the major influences for the character, almost being used as models for the four facets of Electra’s personality (Pete Townshend would be so proud, wouldn’t he?) Marina’s attempt at most of the inner-thought sequences seemed to be to show off Electra’s personalities which, in turn, would show off personalities for the average American teenage girl today: a Primadonna (Madonna), a Teen Idle (Marilyn Monroe), a Homewrecker (Marie Antoinette), and a Su-Barbie-A (Britney Spears…maybe?). Though, once again, this is merely interpretive.
The edition of Electra Heart that I received doesn’t have all of the songs on it, even missing a key piece ‘Su-Barbie-A’, so I apologize for this being an incomplete review and an even more incomplete interpretation. The basic ideas behind Electra Heart, however, still seem prevalent enough in the edition I have.
At this point, I would usually list the tracks off one by one and analyze them one at a time. However, I’m trying something different here. For one, it’s nice to have a change of pace to see if something different is better. But mostly, deep analysis doesn’t seem to be necessary for this album. Again, like most pop music, Electra Heart doesn’t rely on subtlety or hidden meanings (for the most part). It introduces its themes and ideas openly, which can sometimes be a good thing; no beating around the bush, just getting to the visceral point of things. With that said, I’ll just go over the basic story of Electra Heart through the songs.
Again, kind of like Ziggy Stardust, the album has more set-pieces and character studies than it does story. The story follows the relationship between Electra and her lovers, of which there may be numerous ones, perhaps at the same time. ‘Bubblegum B*tch’ introduces us to the character and the beginning of her relationship. ‘Primadonna’ is her desire to have the world wrapped around her finger like a diamond ring. ‘Lies’ introduces the problematic aspects of the relationship, with the couple going through the motions and feigning love to keep the relationship together to pretend that it means something. ‘Homewrecker’ introduces Electra’s wild, ruthless side. ‘Starring Role’ and ‘Power & Control’ are subsections of ‘Primadonna’ and ‘Homewrecker’. In between the former two songs is ‘State of Dreaming’, where Electra questions how to act in the ‘real world’. ‘Sex Yeah’ seems pretty obvious. ‘Teen Idle’ introduces Electra’s vacuous and emotionless personality to hide her vulnerability. ‘Valley of the Dolls’, taking after the novel it’s named after, revolves around drugs to further numb Electra’s emotions and make her doll-like. ‘Hypocrates’ ends Electra’s relationship and focuses her anger on her lover’s ‘hypocrisy’ without really looking at her own. ‘How to Be a Heartbreaker’ seems to be the crux of Electra’s philosophy. ‘Radioactive’ is her bottled emotions finally spewing out everywhere. ‘Fear and Loathing’ ends the album, introducing the possibility for Electra to turn over a new leaf.
What do I think of the music? Marina’s lyrics and music certainly fits the tone of the album like peanut butter and jelly. The sound design throughout is laced with an artificial innocence that tastes like diabetes, almost sounding like an airy music box. And while it fits the album perfectly and there is certainly variety and meaning behind these songs, I’m still not fond of the music. Marina is certainly a well-read and well-spoken artist and it comes through in her lyrics. She uses pop tunes to great effect and backs them up with insight and wit. But regardless of how much of it there is, pop music like this always grates at my ears. I’m a person who doesn’t trust ‘joyful’ or ‘happy’ mush like all of this. To quote a popular YouTube cartoon series, “This music sounds like unicorn barf.”
This is why I am torn on this album. It is intelligent, it is satirical, and it not only holds many ideas but has enough insight to back up those ideas. But at the same time, while the execution may be done well, it’s still an execution I’m not entirely fond of. Save for the opening and ending tracks which, I admit, really catch my interest, I’d only recommend this album to somebody who truly enjoys pop music. It certainly has something to say, it has pathos and ethos to it, but overall, the sound quality still turns me off. Decide for yourselves.