Annie Appreciation: Examining The Influence of The Norwegian Pop Not-Quite-Star
Long before this year's great "The A&R EP," Annie's impact on indie music's relationship to pop was quietly huge.
Casual pop fans could easily be forgiven for not knowing who Annie -- full name Anne Lilia Berge-Strand -- is. Unless you lived in Norway, Annie's native country and the only one where she's had any sizable commercial success, you had to be a pretty devout follower of underground music to have noticed her moment in the sun in the mid-00s. Her best-selling single has sold less than 40,000 downloads after being released nearly a decade ago. But those who were around for Annie and fell for her at the time will always hold a special place in their heart for her imminently likable brand of effervescent, hooky, unusually self-aware synth-pop. Annie possessed a sound and personality that proved subtly influential throughout the '00s, both on the disco-indebted starlets that followed in her wake and on the new audience of indie rock-weaned fanboys and fangirls who were suddenly extra receptive to their charms.
In the early '00s, there wasn't a ton of synth-based, unapologetically pop-oriented music that made its way through the filters of sites like Pitchfork and other tastemakers for the indie-minded crowd. Inroads were laid by undeniable worldwide hits like Kylie Minogue's "Can't Get You Out of My Head" and Daft Punk's "One More Time" -- though it's worth noting that even DP's "Discovery" album, now heralded unanimously as a classic, was dismissed as cheesy in its initial Pitchfork review by editor-in-chief Ryan Schreiber. It's true that views toward dance music's infiltration of underground rock were softening through the success of disco-punk hybrid acts like the Rapture and LCD Soundsystem. But full-length, pure-pop releases given such acclaim were still rare -- out of the top 100 albums in the Village Voice's critic-compiling Pazz n Jop list from 2003, the closest thing to a pure pop release is Junior Senior's "D-D-Don't Stop the Beat," whose success owed as much to its gimmickry (a highly self-referential Danish duo of one straight member and one gay member) as its transcendent singles.
Annie's "Anniemal," released in 2004, was hardly revolutionary, and its impact could not really be described as seismic. The album has sold only 22,000 copies in the U.S. -- or, roughly 20 percent of what Selena Gomez's "Stars Dance" sold in its first week -- over the past nine years, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Sonically, Annie wasn't doing much that any number of U.K. pop stars -- singers like Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Rachel Stevens, or groups like Girls Aloud and Sugababes -- weren't doing already, with great commercial success in their home country. In fact, some of the producers and co-writers she used on "Anniemal", particularly super-producer Richard X, had worked with a number of those artists on some of their biggest hits. Annie didn't reinvent the wheel with "Anniemal" -- she just released a really solid collection of shimmering, danceable, irresistibly catchy pop songs. And the right people happened to notice.
Pitchfork, the biggest arbiter of cool among underground music listeners at the time (and likely still today), reviewed the album with an 8.8 score and Best New Music designation -- a ringing endorsement for any album, let alone one with a sound and signifiers totally unlike most of the site's other most acclaimed albums of that year. The album also received rave reviews on fellow tastemaking websites like Stylus Magazine, Tiny Mix Tapes and Coke Machine Glow. Notably, most of these reviews made a point of defending their love not only of the album, but of pop music in general. Scott Plagenhoef's Pitchfork review contains a long intro explaining pop as "music's culture of life," while CMG's Amir Nezar stipulates early in his write-up that "if 'pop' rhymes with 'crap' for you, turn back now, and keep your narrow-minded ass out of my club." These writers knew they were pushing a hard sell on readers listening to Interpol and the Shins, but they felt "Anniemal" was good enough to risk alienating them.
So what was it about "Anniemal" that made it such a cause among these publications? Was it just that good? Well, yes. "Chewing Gum," "The Greatest Hit" and "Heartbeat" rank among the decade's great synth-pop singles, while deep cuts like "Me Plus One" and the climactic eight-minute disco workout "Come Together" were just as ecstatic, and the whole album had a natural flow to it that made it feel like more than a collection of songs. But what really set Annie apart was the subtly winking quality to her music, a self-awareness that made her seem smarter and more in control than your average pop star (the fact that she also co-wrote most of the album's songs also helped put rockist worries about her artistic integrity at ease). "Chewing Gum," with its silly framing device of a distorted Annie asking herself about the secrets to her maneating (well, man-chewing) success, was ridiculous enough that it was obvious that Annie was in on the joke. Meanwhile, "Me Plus One" and "Greatest Hit" both had lyrical devices built around references to pop music and pop stardom themselves, giving them a kind of meta quality that showed that she didn't take herself or her would-be-superstar status too seriously.
The cause turned out to be a good one, as "Anniemal" caught on with Internet-reared music fans of the time; by the end of the year, right around the time Pitchfork named "Heartbeat" its No. 1 single of the year, indie kids were spinning the album in rotation alongside LPs by the Arcade Fire and the Walkmen at college dance parties. However, crossing over to the mainstream remained a bridge too far for Annie. "Chewing Gum" was a No. 25 hit in the U.K., but subsequent singles sputtered out, and U.S. radio, still dominated at the time by the hip-hop based sounds of the Neptunes and Lil Jon, never even gave her a second glance. Still, it was an extremely promising debut, and even if she never became Britney big, Annie seemed set for a successful career among underground pop fans.
Unfortunately, the second album took a little too long to come. For years, all we heard from Annie were one-offs like "Wedding" (from her "DJ Kicks" mix compilation) and "Crush" (a fun pop/rock blast never featured on an LP), as well as guest vocals on songs by fellow Europop artists Teddybears and Ercola. News that she signed a deal with Island Records in 2007 offered hope that her album was finally on its way, but artistic differences led to a split with the label a year later, and the album was again delayed. By the time "Don't Stop" was finally released in October 2009, it had been over a half-decade since "Anniemal." Despite featuring a number of songs that were easily worthy of Annie's debut --the Italo disco tearjerker "Songs Remind Me of You," the garage rock-influenced strutter "My Love Is Better," the Motown-indebted closing ballad "Heaven and Hell" -- the album came and went without much publicity, earning generally positive reviews but making few year-end lists, and selling only 6,000 copies to date in the States, according to SoundScan.
There were a number of possible explanations for "Don't Stop's" underperformance, the most obvious being that the long layover had allowed fans to forget about or lose interest in her. The album was also uneven compared to "Anniemal"--the songs were mostly strong (even without excellent lead singles like "Anthonio" and "I Know Ur Girlfriend Hates Me," which ended up being left off the final track list), but sonically, the album was all over the place, with jarring transitions like the atmospheric down-tempo number "Take You Home" segueing into the silly Ting Tings-like pop aggression of "The Breakfast Song" (chorus: "What do you want" / WHAT DO YOU WANT FOR BREAKFAST??"). Annie's tone had also become somewhat caustic over the years: where she was playful and teasing on "Anniemal," she could be a little nasty at times on "Don't Stop," taunting peers in "My Love Is Better" and totally emasculating would-be hip dudes on "I Don't Like Your Band." It was all still enjoyable, but the light sneering might have alienated some "Heartbeat" fans out there.
There's another possible explanation for "Don't Stop's" relative flopping: by 2009, Annie had already been replaced in the hearts of many by another blonde, single-named, self-aware Scandinavian pop pixie. Robyn, once known to U.S. audiences as the teenage star behind the late '90s mega-hits "Do You Know (What It Takes)" and "Show Me Love," had re-emerged as one of the genre's most compelling underground talents, equally capable at making "Chappelle's Show"-quoting hip-hop prank jams like "Konichiwa Bitches" and heart-rending post-breakup songs like "Be Mine!" She covered Snoop Dogg, she worked with Royksopp (co-producers of Annie's "Heartbeat"), and she achieved commercial success -- in the U.K., at least, topping the charts in 2007 with her Kleerup collaboration "With Every Heartbeat."
You could certainly feel the influence of Annie in Robyn 2.0, but Robyn took Annie's synth-disco acumen and affable personality to the next level, making ultra-accomplished pop anthems that also felt like they were being performed by one of your good friends. While Annie respectfully kept her pop diva distance from listeners, Robyn wanted to let you see her entire personality, warts and all, and further endeared herself to listeners in the process. By the time she released the "Body Talk" EPs (and their much-beloved, "Girls"-approved lead single "Dancing On My Own") in 2010, it was absolutely no contest.
After "Don't Stop," Annie again disappeared for a long time, occasionally collaborating with pop peers but releasing little music of her own. Then, earlier this year, she returned with the dark dance-pop single "Tube Stops and Lonely Hearts," and just this week released "The A&R EP," a five-song collaboration with longtime creative partner Richard X. "The A&R EP" may or may not return Annie to pop prominence, but it should at the very least remind longtime fans why they fell for her in the first place. You're not too likely to find a more likable collection of five pop songs this year: Annie goes back to dance-pop basics for the likes of the Pet Shop Boys-reminiscent "Back Together," the gleefully bleep-bloopy adolescent love song "Ralph Macchio" and "Invisible," an unexpectedly acid house-influenced self-duet (back to that old "Chewing Gum" vocal trickiness, eh, Annie?). It's as imminently listenable as any of Robyn's EPs, even if they're unlikely to draw the same level of critical attention or any HBO placements.
However, with the release of her fine new EP, now seems as good a time as any to give Annie some long-overdue acknowledgment for helping to open the hearts and iTunes collections of many onto pop music. She probably didn't set out to convert the indie rock kids to synths and disco beats, and she certainly didn't do it alone, but it's telling that so many of the year's most-hyped and best-reviewed releases--Tegan and Sara's "Heartthrob," Charli XCX's "True Romance," Disclosure's "Settle," Chvrches' soon-to-be-released "The Bones of What You Believe"--are largely comprised of lush, synth-heavy female-sung dance-pop not too dissimilar from that of "Anniemal." Best of all, when you read reviews of those albums now, you won't find too many "Hey, we know it's pop music, but you should listen to it anyway!"-type defenses or apologies in the intros. Even the Pitchfork super-fans now seem to understand that pop music is as inherently worthwhile as other forms of music, and for her small role in that transformation, Annie should be saluted.