Some of you might feel that it’s rather apt that it’s not too far into Jessie J’s set before Primark gets a mention. Its reference is the result of a crowd member’s quip that their top that Jessie has taken a shining to had been purchased for a pound from the high street behemoth.
The reason for this writer’s aside to that moment is because, to her detractors, Jessie J could easily be accused as the Primark equivalent of the more upmarket, imperious and heavyweight female singing sensations from across the Atlantic. It’s a charge that is easy to elicit, and even more so as you stand agog, watching her stomp around the Roundhouse stage in hot pants that leave little to the imagination,a tied-back mass of dark hair and her trademark giant gold hooped earrings in place.
However, to chide and dismiss her in such a way would also be brutally unfair; a specious ignorance of her talent and her canny nous for creating crystal clear, if albeit (very) occasionally characterless, pop.
What’s more, pedalling back for a moment, it is with a conscious consideration to the likely readership of this very site that this writer would like to align himself before the review takes place. To make this simpler, ‘he’ will become ‘I’ and I will take you on a personal journey. Please indulge me.
As much as I’ve liked to kid myself in the past, the music that I listen to most frequently is classed as ‘alternative music’ for a reason. Sure, it is clutched close to the bosom of a niche percentage of likeminded souls, but, frankly speaking, we’re not (and never will be) the mainstream. For some, that is a badge of honour. You know the types; the ones who pride themselves on securing an import 12 inch Buzzcocks Japan-only release and wax lyrical about the merits of the upcoming kickstartered Pono and/or the wonders of 180 gram vinyl. Twats, basically. Boring, pretentious audiophiles (no one wants to get locked into a conversation with them if it can be avoided).
It may have been a battle against my own instincts, but I’ve learnt that the most rational thing to do is accept pop’s place at the table. After all, no myopically minded alternative fan has ever been able to choke its grasp on the wider public anyway. And nor should it. Of course, on occasion, ‘alternative’ music has dressed itself up in its best clothes and feigned to dismantle it with a ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’ ethos; decorating itself with a po(m)p masquerade (see: mid-nineties Britpop). All the while though, pop didn’t retreat; it merely stood with a wry smile in the shadows and laughed at the feeble attempt to usurp its place.
With that preamble pushed to one side, I find myself ensconced once more in the circular walls of the iconic North London venue for the latest gig in respect of iTunes’ welcome September-long incumbency.
With a crackle of anticipation, the countdown clock appears. Once it strikes zero, the band are the first to take place up front. After a brief instrumental section, Jessie J steps forward. She kicks straight into the nagging funk of ‘Sexy Lady’ and an instant sea of mobile phones occupies the air between the throng’s head and the stage. Whilst the venue may be modest, a statement of intent surfaces that makes no concessions to such refinement. Plumes of smoke erupt towards the end of ‘Sexy Lady’; balloons cascade for the subsequent ‘It’s My Party’.
Flanked by a sturdy band, they are frequently wonderful, but to my ears, taken on a member by member basis, they often resemble the worst excesses of eighties pop rock. The guitar has the most hideous distortion. Similarly the toms on the drum kit pop rather than thump, rendering the kit as like hearing a tape cassette playback of a Phil Collins outtakes session from 1985. All in all though, as a collective, it works, and despite being an assemblage of session musicians, this troupe appear bound by more than financial contract. They are in the moment, in the groove and thoroughly enjoying themselves.
A mid-set acoustic section offers some respite from the high-octane energy. When Jessie dips into ‘Big White Room’ (the song placed on YouTube that launched her into the public’s consciousness), there are few, if any, who aren’t sideswiped by the unadorned beauty of her voice. It is a moment where the emotive wails feel at their most genuine, real and not striving for admiration; just a connection. It is honest and leaves her exposed in the best possible way. It is a spine tingling moment of shimmering prettiness.
Picking up the pace after the quiet interlude, ‘Ain’t Been Done’ explodes. Grabbing the audience by the scruff of the neck, it does its best to whip all present into a frenzy, rocking us back and forth, before spinning us around like a giant spinning top and letting us loose. It’s a wonderful taster for her new upcoming album.
Speaking of the new album, equally memorable is the next single ‘Burnin’ Up’, but despite being well crafted and catchy as hell, it is the moment where it feels as though our JJ (yes, it’s got to that point by now) noticeably surrenders too much of herself. Appearing like a pastiche, it does its best to ape Christina Aguilera. Maybe imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, but here it feels disingenuous and a little too try-hard. Not that the crowd seem to mind, as it pushes to another clap-happy chorus.
Debut single, ‘Do It Like A Dude’ still exudes the trademark whole lotta sass that become her stock in trade. Somewhat predictably, however, ‘Price Tag’ moves even the most stoic of attendees. Despite its familiarity, it remains an undeniably affecting melding of pinpoint musical construction and noble lyrical sentiment. It rocks the place and does its best to lift the roof off of the joint altogether.
Current hit ‘Bang Bang’ rounds off proceedings. It is a stirring piece of drum-driven pop and one that sits at the outer reaches of her vocal range, but she passes with flying colours… and gold confetti, which is something that douses each and every one of us present on the shop floor, clinging to our hair and clothes. Somehow, it feels like the physical embodiment of the 24 carat gold pop songs that have intermittently graced the extended stage this evening.There have been some belters.
With waves and thank yous, she departs.
I had some post-gig thoughts that struck me. Taken in the round(house), her level of self-awareness is hard to ignore. She is noticeably switched on, working the venue thoroughly, like a consummate professional. And yet, whilst she might be known for exuding a irreverent attitude, what comes across is also a surprising amount of humility too. She dances between self-assuredness and what feels like a nervous, eager to please, teenager. Whether this all part of a deliberate construction, who knows. After all, I suspect that there’s a shrewd engine working underneath that hood. She’s less the underdog than what she would like you to believe. She’s too strong and too slick for that.
This Londoner is a powerhouse of a presence, replete with a magnetic charisma and talent to burn. She’s good for her fame. Her material deserves its place within the hallowed halls of contemporary premier league pop. It’s a world that I may even venture into more frequently. Yes, I admit it; she converted me a bit. But let’s keep that amongst ourselves. For now though, I’ll head back to my beloved, but I do so knowing that I might listen to you more regularly than I would have previously anticipated, Jessie.
Thanks for a hugely entertaining evening and a ruddy enjoyable gig. Now, I just need to get all of that gold confetti off of my person.
Photo courtesy of iTunes Festival, London 2014.
The iTunes Festival continues throughout the month of September. Stay tunedto SupaJam for all the reviews and news for the remainder of the event.