Having taken a huge career leap forward with her game-changing sophomore album, Electra Heart, Marina Diamandis has, somewhat perversely, already come to the conclusion that enough is enough.
From a commercial standpoint, the record marked a major breakthrough for the artist known to Billboard watchers as Marina and the Diamonds. Diamandis hit number one on the charts in the United Kingdom, and that success translated to this side of the pond, where she’s become a solid mid-tier act who sells out thousand-seat venues.
The success of Electra Heart should have been gratifying for Diamandis, who’s dreamed of becoming a pop star since studying music at Haberdashers’ Monmouth School for Girls in Wales. The 27-year-old took a calculated risk with the record, abandoning the downbeat, keyboard-based stylings of her 2010 debut, The Family Jewels, for a sound aimed squarely at fans of shiny dance pop. In turn, Electra Heart made Diamandis into a legitimate breakout star. The problem is that she ended up anything but thrilled about what she accomplished.
“When I was making the second record, I think I always had this complex where I wanted to see if I could become this big, plastic pop star,” Diamandis says, on the line from her London, England, home. “I really enjoyed doing it. But it’s not as if I see myself being that person, if that makes sense.”
Part of her ambivalence might be explained by the fact that Electra Heart went over the heads of a lot of people who heard it. Sonically, the album’s 14 hyper-slick songs are all big beats, super-size choruses, and straight-from-the-candy-store synths, which is to say that fans of Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and late-period Madonna will find plenty to love. Where Marina and the Diamonds differs from such chart-toppers is that there’s a decidedly subversive side to Electra Heart. And that’s not just because she’s messing with a proven formula by bringing everything from old new wave (“Homewrecker”) to new-age balladry (“The State of Dreaming”) to the party.
Even as Diamandis makes her big bid for pop superstardom, she’s taking shots at the machinations of the mainstream music industry. Songs find her questioning the ideas of Photoshopped beauty, celebrity worship, hyper-sexual fashion, and fame in general. On those notes, “Teen Idle” starts out with the lyrics “I wanna be a bottle blonde/I don’t know why, but I feel conned.” And then there’s the leadoff track “Bubblegum Bitch”, choice lines from which include “Got a figure like a doll/Don’t care if you think I’m dumb.”
Not shockingly, most people missed the underlying message of Electra Heart. Even when Diamandis spelled things out in “Sex Yeah” with “Nothing is provocative anymore, even for kids/No room for imagining, ’cause everyone’s seen everything.”
“It surprised me that people didn’t pick up on that subversive side, at least not in the U.K.,” she says. “Even though I had the most success with the record here, I feel that on a fan base and a media level, the record was understood much more in other countries, especially in America and Canada. It’s interesting the way that things get perceived in different countries in relation to where they are at culturally, especially when it comes to pop culture. That really influenced how the record was understood.”
She has a theory as to why the United Kingdom didn’t spend a lot of time truly thinking about Electra Heart. There, Diamandis suggests, music fans are so used to oddballs cracking the charts that they don’t spend a lot of time wondering why someone has become popular. Or, more simply put, when there’s nothing unusual about someone operating outside normal industry guidelines, that stops being newsworthy.
“The main thing in the U.K. is that what is considered pop is really, really varied,” Diamandis says. “There’s a huge range of stuff that can get on Top 40 here. I don’t know what it’s like in Canada, but in the U.S. it’s very strict, in that it has to sound a certain way to get on the radio, with the exception maybe of people like Adele and Mumford & Sons. There’s more lenience in the U.K. for what I guess you could call weird artists, which is a really good thing.”
That Electra Heart balanced mainstream-friendly dance jams with lyrics questioning the whole business of stardom and the machinery behind it shouldn’t be a surprise. Diamandis’s shortlist of all-time favourite artists is more weighted to those residing in left field than those targetting the teen market. While the singer loves Madonna and Kylie Minogue, her big desert-island–approved acts include Tom Waits, Daniel Johnston, Hole, the Distillers, Nirvana, PJ Harvey, Patti Smith, and Kate Bush. Britney Spears makes the cut, but presumably as much for her music as for the way she was cleverly positioned as both virgin and whore in the media.
In any event, Diamandis didn’t grow up dreaming about being the second coming of the Spice Girls, and clearly has little interest in becoming the next Ke$ha. That made Electra Heart a challenge for the singer, who hasn’t been shy about taking shots at other pop stars in the past.
“It wasn’t easy,” Diamandis says. “It actually took months to work up the courage to do it. Imagine you being me, basically slagging off every pop star in the industry. And also writers like Dr. Luke, publicly. And then, three months later you’re offered a [Dr. Luke] session. It was like ‘Should I do it or not?’ For me, I had to genuinely question why I was so bitter, why I hated this kind of music.
“I know this makes me sound like a dickhead,” she continues, “but I wanted to challenge my own views about what made me unhappy. I thought that the reason I was bitchy was because I wanted that kind of success, and I wanted to see if I could get it. So that’s what I did—tried to see if I could do it.”
She obviously had a pretty good idea how things would turn out. Check out “Primadonna”, whose lyrics include: “Get what I want ’cause I ask for it/Not because I’m really that deserving of it.”
Or, better yet, simply ask Diamandis about being a pop star, and then enjoy the response.
“In a fucked-up way, I was trying to use the system, to get the pop model to work for me,” she says. “And what I found out was that no matter how pop I go, I’m always going to be an alternative artist. Even if, two albums down the line, I do something and it breaks and goes really, really huge and makes me globally known, I’m still going to be on the alternative side.
“Having done a pop record has made me accept that, and I’m much happier for it,” Diamandis wraps up. “Now I don’t feel like someone desperately trying to fit into a mould which, clearly, I’m not meant to fit into.”