Creator: How Santigold’s Debut Album Sparked Post-Genre Pop

The cross-pollination that fed into the making of 'Santogold'...

Ten year anniversaries are funny things. After all, artistic periods are never more critically reviled than during the five to fifteen years after they have lost their cultural cache. For the nebulous blob of musicians, writers and tastemakers that combine, Power Rangers-style, to form the 'critical consensus', it’s the trends of the preceding decade that embody everything the current one is attempting to stand against.

Music from the bloated 1970s was anathema to the catchy, concise midset of the 1980s, the manufactured sheen of which fired up the super-serious bedroom angst of the 1990s, the rampant tribalism of which loosened the bindings of genre to allow the musical cross-pollination of the 2000s.

It's unsurprising, then, that most writers currently tend to dismiss the 00s as something of a cultural graveyard, a vacant pit of white, stale maleness that coasted listlessly from 'landfill indie' to 'nu rave' via a rotating cast of skinny-jeaned hype disciples. Ask any poptimist what they remember of it and you'll probably hear something along the lines of 'Sure, the decade might have provided Beyonce and Kanye West with somewhere to start, but ugh, The Libertines, amiright?'

Ask any rocktivist the same thing they might respond with 'Sure we got Jack White, but then Coldplay and Napster killed guitar music. Also ugh, The Libertines, amiright?'.

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Whatever the specific content, the conversation will always seem to solely hone in on the first few years before moving on to the advent of MySpace and the role of download culture in transforming the music industry. We so rarely talk about the music itself, especially from end of the decade, a period of insane creativity that saw a myriad of talented artists break down already squeezed genre-boundaries to create genuinely uncategorisable music, kicking Johnny Borrell and the Kaiser Chiefs into irrelevance to drag these unholy creations in front of an temporarily open-minded mainstream audience.

2008 was a landmark year for such releases. The absence of any single dominant musical movement ('new rave' wasn't actually a trend, it was a cry for help from the NME) freed up oxygen to innovative acts such as Crystal Castles, Hot Chip and MGMT. A new generation of pop stars, like M.I.A., eschewed chart-friendly genericism in favour of daring, uncompromising tapestries of sound.

Sigur Ros were one of the most popular bands on the planet for some reason. It was a confused and confusing time, but it was possibly the only period in recent decades an album as innately strange as Santigold's debut could not only find an audience, but conquer the globe.

'Santogold', which turns 10 this week, is not a pop record (at least in the sonic sense). It is not an 'electroclash' record, as the young blogosphere of the time christened it; it is not a ska record, despite it's creator's previous role as singer of Philadelphian ska-punk band Stiffed; and it is certainly not an R&B record, and anyone who claims this is guilty of judging music by colour rather than sound.

Musically it's probably closest to indie, especially on the Bloc Party-indebted highlight 'Lights Out' (though this obviously doesn't fit into today's narrative that 00s indie was only ever the domain of guitar-toting white men).

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What really made the album stand out was not just its immaculate blurring of genres, but the way its songs connected with such a vast audience. Despite it's prettier moments and an abundance of hooks, 'Santogold' was a million miles away from the radio-friendly MOR of the day (hello Duffy).

Just listen to the dub reggae rumbles of 'Shove It' or glitched-out arcade sounds of 'Unstoppable', then imagine Santigold performing them to crowds of 70,000 unprepared Coldplay fans when she toured with them right at the height of their ‘Viva La Vida’ pomp. It must have blown their beige little minds.

This was brave, new, uncompromising stuff she was cranking out, yet the album’s weirdest song – the squeaky Switch and FreQ Nasty collaboration ‘Creator’ – pulled the same trick as Battles’ ‘Atlas’ had the year before and somehow convinced the suits it was marketing gold, bursting out across millions of TV screens worldwide in a host of advertising campaigns.

The popularity of ‘Creator’ and fellow single ‘L.E.S. Artists’, with it’s equally weird food fight music video, proved that people still craved unfamiliar, exciting things as well as infinite new singles from a freshly sold out Kings Of Leon. No-one was more aware of this than Santi White herself, who’s background as an industry A&R person helped her retain control of her image, sound and music.

She wrote and co-produced every track on the record, harnessing the powers of Diplo and Switch only when she needed their sonic knowhow to convey her clear-eyed vision. ‘Santogold’ is the rarest of things, a hit record that succeeded due to it’s creator’s commitment to her own leftfield imagination, winning over the mainstream, rather than being consumed by it.

As she summarised it on ‘Creator’, “The rules I break got me a place up on the radar”.

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'Santogold' was released on April 29th, 2008 in the United States, with the British release following on May 12th, 2008. We have opted for Santigold's current spelling throughout, retaining the original release title.

Words: Josh Gray

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