Comment: Why pop is poorer for Aaliyah's loss

R&B star Aaliyah died in a plane crash on Saturday aged only 22, but already her career had been one of unusual daring. Alexis Petridis explains why pop music is the poorer for her loss

Most of the tributes paid after Aaliyah Haughton's death on Saturday night made some reference to the 22-year-old singer's potential to become a major star. One in particular, from her former publicist Bill Carpenter, stood out. Carpenter told reporters that as a result of Aaliyah's death, "black entertainment... has lost the woman who would have eventually become the Diana Ross or Whitney Houston of the twenty-something generation".

The implication is that Aaliyah was on the cusp of becoming a cosy all-round family entertainer for whom music was merely a minor concern. Bearing in mind that she had three film projects pending at the time of her death, it seems a fair assumption. If her career had taken that path, however, it would have been pop's loss.

Aaliyah could certainly act, but her first major film, last year's slick martial-arts thriller Romeo Must Die, was hardly cutting-edge cinema. By contrast, the song she recorded for the soundtrack, Try Again, was one of the most remarkable and forward-thinking pop singles of 2000. Her frequent collaborator, producer and songwriter Tim "Timbaland" Mosely, constructed a sparse, audacious sound around Aaliyah's honeyed voice: disembodied backing vocals, electronically treated string and flute samples, speaker-rumbling bass, and the sort of grinding synthesiser riff more usually found on late-1980s acid-house records. The overall effect managed to be mould-breaking, slightly sinister and effortlessly commercial at the same time.

Timbaland and Aaliyah had repeated the trick on recent hit We Need a Resolution. Compared to most of the records it featured alongside on daytime pop radio - indeed, compared to most records that are currently passed off as "alternative" - We Need a Resolution sounded like an unhinged experiment in sound, one that just happened to have an insistent, catchy chorus attached.

While Aaliyah neither wrote nor produced her own material (the strangeness of her recent singles was Timbaland's work), she was prepared to release musically risky singles into a notoriously fickle pop market. In interviews conducted earlier this year, Aaliyah was discussing a bizarre-sounding collaboration with Trent Reznor of industrial gloom-mongers Nine Inch Nails: hardly the behaviour of an artist concerned about conforming to the stereotypes of the marketplace.

In fact, Aaliyah belonged to a select band of black American artists - also including Missy "Misdemeanour" Elliot, Destiny's Child and Kelis - whose singles gracefully walk a line between commerciality and experimentation. Their records are never burdened by self-concious artiness. Singles such as We Need a Resolution, Kelis's Caught Out There and Elliot's Get Ur Freak On were designed to make the charts, not to impress the avant-garde. Their route to the top 10 was simply via ear-grabbing originality, rather than slavish imitation of current trends.

If it's difficult to imagine what Aaliyah's collaboration with Trent Reznor would have sounded like, it's impossible to picture a homegrown pop artist considering anything similar. Samantha Mumba to work with Cradle of Filth? It wouldn't happen, for precisely the same reason that Atomic Kitten or A1 are unlikely to make a record as innovative as Try Again or We Need a Resolution.

The concept of a major pop act taking any kind of musical risk, in fact, is utterly alien in the UK. Here, the notion of a groundbreaking or experimental pop single seems oxymoronic. "Pop" has become an insult. It is mocked by august figures such as Bono and George Michael, and artistically devalued to the point where no one bothers seriously discussing the music any more. Press for pop artists is generated by new haircuts, outfits and stunts.

British pop stars will apparently do anything to simultaneously create publicity and detract attention from their actual music. They'll perform yoga in public, let cameras follow their every movement for months, take their clothes off, confess to drink-and-drug misdemeanours and appear in party political broadcasts. It's impossibly cynical and contrived, but it seems to work. What Victoria Beckham's forthcoming solo single actually sounds like doesn't matter, because she pretended to have had her lip pierced, and the top 10 therefore awaits.

By contrast, Aaliyah was a rather remote figure. When she released her first album in 1994, a storm of controversy erupted. Provocatively titled Age Ain't Nothing But a Number, it contained songs like No One Knows How to Love Me Quite the Way You Do - innocuous enough by the bump'n'grind standards of R&B, but faintly troubling when sung by a 14-year-old girl. A rumour emerged that Aaliyah was involved in a relationship with the album's producer, singer R Kelly. She quashed the rumour by severing links with R Kelly, teaming up with Timbaland and dropping the nymphette posturing for her vastly superior 1996 album, One in a Million.

She spent five years working on the follow-up. Her interviews were guarded and platitudinous: at 22, she was still refusing to discuss whether or not she had a boyfriend. After an inauspicious start, she could never have been accused of harbouring an insatiable hunger for publicity.

When a star dies early, their career still in the ascendant, the tendency is to eulogise them for their unfulfilled potential. Aaliyah may indeed have become a Hollywood star, the "Diana Ross or Whitney Houston of the twentysomething generation", slipping into a long and comfortable career as a middle-of-the-road entertainer. The handful of records she made in recent years, however, are a fitting epitaph in themselves. They're pop music as the Beatles or David Bowie would understand it: a perfect balance of commercial appeal and futuristic innovation. At a time when pop is at its lowest critical ebb for years, Aaliyah's records proved that there's more to life than Hear'Say.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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