Jessie J's Who You Are fails to tell us who she is

The selling of Jessie J is an attempt to will into being a British icon to take on Ke$ha, Gaga and Perry on their home turf. But an icon she isn't

What makes a great pop star? It's not quite the music, or the videos, or the clothes, the fame or even the outrages. All those things matter, but it seems to me they emerge naturally from some more basic quality. A pop star's job, I think, is to do what Greil Marcus once wrote about Mick Jagger – that he showed people "a new way of being in the world". Before him, there were no Mick Jaggers. After him, rather a lot. And to an extent his actual music played catch-up with his way of carrying himself.

This thing pop stars do goes beyond personality or charisma, into becoming a kind of template. It's quite a big thing to attempt, but not inconceivable even now. For a couple of years after Lily Allen appeared, every new female songwriter was compared to her, no matter how tenuous the audible link. This is partly because the music industry isn't very enlightened when it comes to selling female songwriters, but also because Allen turned out to be one of those jigsaw pieces you didn't realise were missing from pop.

She's still a reference point: the debut album from Jessie J, Who You Are, has attracted the comparison. There is a lot of expectation around this album, and around Jessie J herself – not just the hits, and the BBC Sound of 2011 award, but an early and sizeable push towards America. Katy Perry's hitmaker, Dr Luke, has co-written a track or two, and Jessie J will be appearing on Saturday Night Live this month – not bad going for a British act four months out from her debut single.

But does Jessie J offer that kind of template quality? Not really. Who You Are doesn't tell us a lot about who she is: she's confident, she's fortunate, she's real, she believes in herself. But these noble qualities are what everyone raised to the purple of celebrity has in common, and their forceful expression doesn't make them more interesting. Listening to the album, full of put-downs to schoolyard enemies and diary-room proclamations of "I need this!", it feels as though Jessie J won some secret reality show we never got to see. There's even, on Mamma Knows Best, its very own "big band week".

Jessie J has appeared at a time when American pop is doing well for stars, and the selling of her seems to me an attempt to will into being a British icon who can take on Ke$ha, Gaga and Perry on their home turf. And if not her, then who? Adele has the advantage of already selling records in America, but she's all about wholeheartedly inhabiting an existing archetype, not creating her own. She's leapfrogging pop, targeting a more respectable world.

Coming up on the outside is Katy B – a Brit School graduate like Jessie J and Adele, but one who shows signs of being able to offer something more idiosyncratic. Serving an apprenticeship singing on funky house records, her first solo singles – Katy on a Mission, Louder, and Lights On – showed a gift for capturing simple, exact emotions within the clubbing experience, like wanting a DJ to play one final record once the lights have gone up. Katy B isn't the finished article any more than Jessie J is, but it's that grasp of specifics which makes her more exciting. She may or may not become a great pop star, but she's already doing something they do – creating things that could only be by her.


Tom Ewing

The GuardianTramp

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