Super-groups typically have a handful of members; Japan’s most popular girl band has over 100. Little known outside Asia, AKB48 (above) is one of the world’s most successful pop acts. The rotating members have their own manga series and newspaper; the government has even enlisted them to sell state bonds. Their latest song, Kimi wa Melody, is typical: it’s as fizzy and nutritious as a soft drink. But the group’s flirtation with underage sexual imagery has stirred controversy. Some see them as a symbol of Japan’s lack of strong female role models, despite the government’s stuttering efforts to champion gender equality. AKB48, of course, is managed by a man.
It wasn’t until 1989, when Cui Jian’s gruff ballad Nothing To My Name became the unofficial anthem of Tianamen Square protesters, that the Chinese government learned to be wary of rock’n’roll’s incendiary power. Cui was banned from performing at large venues for years; his fellow musicians learned not to cross the state’s red lines. But, still, they strive to live up to rock’s rebellious spirit. Cui recently released “Frozen Light”, his first album in 11 years. Featuring sweeping orchestration and his signature grating vocals, the numbers combine Western rock styles with traditional Chinese instrumentation. A longing for political freedom in spite of China’s economic prosperity can still be detected in the lines of the title track: “Outside the light is a rigid shell/It makes the air resemble a prison.” Perhaps it was Cui’s cryptic lyrics that kept the songs away from the censors’ scissors.
With braces and a wobbly stomach, 22-year-old MC Bin Laden is an unlikely frontman (with an even less likely name) for Brazil’s latest obsession. Tá Tranquilo Tá Favorável is the song of the moment, and the video has spawned a dance craze. From celebrities to TV personalities, everyone is making the “hang-loose” hand gestures Bin Laden bumps across his body (and which were inspired by the signature move of Brazil’s star player, Ronaldinho).
At the time of writing, The Weeknd’s The Hills had been in the Billboard Hot 100 for a staggering 47 weeks. Staggering not because that’s a long time for a hit, but because that’s a long time for a song that is so grindingly slow and depressing it makes you want to pull over on the side of the freeway and weep. Now that The Weeknd is one of the biggest names in pop, doomy late-night R’n’B is starting to feel like the sound of our times. Why? The youth of America have picked a new genre through which to express their misery. Alt-rock is for dads now. Taylor Swift tyrannises the pop landscape with her irrepressible, asexual cheerfulness. R’n’B is producing gloomy, sexy anthems when nobody else is.
The latest single from the pop star Emma has at least two layers of meaning. Io di te non ho paura (“I’m not scared of you”) is about a woman trapped in an abusive relationship. It echoes growing concern in Italy over domestic violence. But it is also about confronting one’s personal demons and its theme of defiance – underscored by an insistent beat and Emma’s bluesy vocals – is as applicable to the 31-year-old singer’s own life. Seven years ago, she revealed she had uterine cancer. It was meant to have been cured. Four years later she had to undergo a second operation.
“I want to be rich, I want to be famous, I want to have lots of, lots of money.” The opening refrain of Sauti Sol’s Live and Die in Afrika might well be a manifesto for the young hustlers of Nairobi, where the music video is set. This Afro-pop tune is a paean to life in Africa’s entrepreneurial cities, places where life is tough but newcomers dream of fighting their way out of the slums. Sauti Sol, unlike many of their listeners, have succeeded: their faces now plaster buildings in Nairobi, selling beer and confidence in Africa’s future.
Two days after a bombing in Lahore killed over 70 Pakistanis at an Easter gathering this year, the pop duo Zeb and Haniya released Dadra, which they dedicated to their beloved city. It’s a sweet lullaby of lament, the Urdu lyrics guided by an electric guitar’s undertow. Zeb and Haniya have found an especially strong following in south India. Zeb says she was surprised and touched by how many Indian fans wrote with sympathy from across the border.