Photo: Matthew Murphy
How Broadway-Bound "& Juliet" Reimagines The Music Of Britney Spears And Max Martin For The Musical Theater: Hear The Broadway Version Of "...Baby One More Time"
"& Juliet," a new Broadway musical soundtracked by beloved pop songs of the last three decades, is reimagining Max Martin's music in a different arena: musical theater. Hear a sneak peek in this remake of the Britney Spears "...Baby One More Time."
The original "...Baby One More Time" permanently changed the sound of pop music. Now, Broadway is up next.
First heard in 1998, the memorable opening to "...Baby One More Time" — that piercing, unforgettable three-note piano riff recognized around the globe — introduced Britney Spears to the world.
Behind the historic debut was five-time GRAMMY winner and superproducer Max Martin, who wrote and produced the track that would launch Spears into the mainstream and pave the way for the next generation of women in pop.
Now, "& Juliet," a new musical that imagines what might've happened if Juliet lived at the end of "Romeo and Juliet" and is soundtracked by beloved pop songs of the last three decades, is reimagining Martin's music in a different arena: musical theater. The musical, which premiered in England in 2019 and debuts on Broadway in New York City this fall, features an array of Martin/Spears classics as well as songs like "Everybody" (Backstreet Boys), "Domino" (Jessie J), "Since U Been Gone" (Kelly Clarkson), and "Can't Feel My Face" (the Weeknd).
Ahead of the musical's debut, Martin and the "& Juliet" crew are premiering the Broadway version of "...Baby One More Time" exclusively on GRAMMY.com ahead of the cast recording's release, also out October 28.
The song, co-orchestrated and arranged by two-time GRAMMY winner Bill Sherman ("Hamilton," "In the Heights"), builds on a greater string section and nods to Martin's original piano riff; it also introduces newcomer Lorna Courtney.
"The plodding strings and drums are akin to Juliet's heartbeat as she describes the trouble that she is in and how she longs to change her path. As we were creating the overall tone and sound of the show, we thought that the string quartet could act as the glue between today's pop music and the sounds of the Shakespearean era," Sherman tells GRAMMY.com.
Read More: How Broadway's "MJ The Musical" Goes Beyond The Jukebox
Encounters with pop music in high school and college fostered GRAMMY winner Stark Sands' love for the genre. Sands plays Shakespeare, but it wasn't until he was cast that he reflected on the impact artists such as Spears had in his life.
"Those hits were ubiquitous, and my radio was always on — from my bedroom to my car to my headphones — so I walked into '& Juliet' knowing these songs backwards and forwards," Sands tells GRAMMY.com. "They already had significance and a sense of place in my life from that time. But after being immersed in '& Juliet' for just a few months, these same songs have a new and different meaning and connection to my day-to-day life. I'm really excited for fans of the show to discover the same thing."
Sands also had a positive experience working with Martin on "& Juliet." "Based on Max's track record, he could easily be an intimidating producer to work with, but of course, it's the exact opposite. He's the most encouraging and supportive person you could imagine, and having that kind of bedside manner in a recording studio, combined with his uncanny knack of crafting hits, is obviously a winning formula."
This story echoes those of Sands working with Cyndi Lauper and Billie Joe Armstrong in "Kinky Boots" and "American Idiot," respectively. They pushed his artistic limits and provided creative affirmation, which he's now bringing to his "& Juliet" role.
"Billie Joe taught me to let go and access those deep, ugly emotions that we're conditioned to repress and how to release them into a song," Sands said. "Working with Cyndi on 'Kinky Boots' showed me how to stand up for myself as an artist and reinforced my desire to constantly strive for improvement."
He hopes "& Juliet" has as deep an impact on Broadway as "…Baby One More Time" has had on music, especially after the industry's extended shutdown.
"There's a magic there that doesn't exist anywhere else — you can feel it as an audience member and as a performer."
As long as there's loneliness to confess, the message of "& Juliet" will resonate with seasoned and new theatergoers and music enthusiasts alike, regardless of age. And with "& Juliet" in tow, Martin, a singular presence in pop music, is now destined to become a torchbearer of Broadway's magic and promise.
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Photo: Kristy Sparow/Getty Images, Kevin Winter/Getty Images for LARAS, Kevin Winter/Getty Images for The Recording Academy, Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for The Recording Academy, Stephen J. Cohen/Getty Images, Gustavo Garcia Villa
Listen To GRAMMY.com's LGBTQIA+ Pride Month 2023 Playlist Featuring Demi Lovato, Sam Smith, Kim Petras, Frank Ocean, Omar Apollo & More
Celebrate LGBTQIA+ Pride Month 2023 with a 50-song playlist that spans genres and generations, honoring trailblazing artists and allies including George Michael, Miley Cyrus, Orville Peck, Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande and many more.
In the past year, artists in the LGBTQIA+ community have continued to create change and make history — specifically, GRAMMY history. Last November, Liniker became the first trans artist to win a Latin GRAMMY Award when she took home Best MPB Album for Indigo Borboleta Anil; three months later, Sam Smith and Kim Petras became the first nonbinary and trans artists, respectively, to win the GRAMMY Award for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance for their sinful collab "Unholy."
Just those two feats alone prove that the LGBTQIA+ community is making more and more of an impact every year. So this Pride Month, GRAMMY.com celebrates those strides with a playlist of hits and timeless classics that are driving conversations around equality and fairness for the LGBTQIA+ community.
Below, take a listen to 50 songs by artists across the LGBTQIA+ spectrum — including "Unholy" and Liniker's "Baby 95" — on Amazon Music, Spotify, Apple Music, and Pandora.
Photo: (L-R) Kevin Winter/Getty Images for The Recording Academy, Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Live Nation, Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic, Courtesy of Christina Aguilera, Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic
2022 In Review: 8 Trends That Defined Pop Music
Pop music continued to showcase its versatility this year, with newcomers and legendary mainstays alike shaking up the industry — which has led to major hits and even bigger cultural moments.
If there's one word to describe this year in pop, it would be "unpredictable." Take fan favorites Beyoncé and Rihanna for starters: as fans began pondering when they'd hear new music again, both superstars made significant returns to their solo artistries, further elevating their statuses as elite pop divas.
Pop's unexpected nature is what makes it so beloved, especially in 2022 as artists showcased just how far their versatility can stretch. TikTok showed off its influence once again, with songs like Nicki Minaj's "Super Freaky Girl" birthing endless viral dance challenges. There was plenty of dancing outside of TikTok as well, as artists like Drake, The Weeknd and Beyoncé had everyone grooving under the disco ball.
From pop stars unleashing their naughty sides to singles that transported us back to the '2000s and beyond, there were several major moments in pop music this year. Dive into eight of the genre's most dominant trends below.
Y2K Pop Divas Made Comebacks
Throughout 2022, the influence of late '90s and early '00s culture was reflected on fashion runways, TikTok and even a multitude of television reboots. So it was only natural that it also seeped into the music realm, with some of the era's biggest pop stars having a refreshing revival.
More than two decades after the release of her debut Spanish-language album Mi Reflejo, Christina Aguilera returned to her Latina roots (Aguilera's estranged father is an Ecuador native). The long wait was worth it, with the star sounding more confident than ever before as she celebrated her rich heritage. After starting this new era with the female empowerment anthem "Pa Mis Muchachas" (alongside fellow Latina artists Becky G, Nicki Nicole and Nathy Peluso), Aguilera continued to flex her versatility and vulnerability with songs like the impassioned Mexican ranchera "La Reina" and the somber "No Es Que Te Extrañe" that found the artist healing her childhood trauma.
Y2K pop sweetheart Mandy Moore, who returned after an 11-year music hiatus with 2020's Silver Landings, kept the momentum going with her seventh album In Real Life. The folk-inspired record showcased Moore's strength as a songwriter and new motherhood.
But arguably the most unexpected return came from Britney Spears. Following the official termination of her conservatorship last November, the pop star freed herself from a decade of restrictions. Spears found her way back to the studio for the first time since the release of 2016's Glory album, and joined fellow pop legend — and longtime supporter — Elton John for "Hold Me Closer." The song draws elements from John's classics like 1971's "Tiny Dancer," 1976's "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" and 1992's "The One," but adds a modern twist with shimmering dance melodies. "Hold Me Closer" debuted at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100, proving that Spears can still score a hit with ease.
R&B Artists Danced Under The Disco Ball
Pop has seen a disco revival seeping in over the last few years (even including the return of ABBA!), but what made this year so different is witnessing more R&B-leaning artists putting a fun spin on dance music as a whole.
Leading the charge was Beyoncé, who ignited a full-on dance party with her latest album (and first since 2016's Lemonade). After trying her hand at Afrobeats with 2019's soundtrack album, The Lion King: The Gift, Queen Bey transformed into Queen of the Dance Floor with 16 hip-shaking tunes whose influence call back to Studio 54 and Black ballroom heydays. The album is not only a tribute to her late Uncle Johnny (who she credits for introducing her to house music), but Black queer culture as a whole.
Nearly two years after 2020's After Hours, The Weeknd aptly kept the club open until sunrise with his fifth album, Dawn FM. Jam-packed with '80s elements from new wave to synth-pop, the record is an energetic joyride kookily narrated by comedian Jim Carrey.
While he's widely known as a rap superstar, Drake channels his R&B crooning alter-ego from time to time. His seventh album, Honestly, Nevermind, arrived as a surprise in June — and he was clearly ready to kick off summer with a party. The album found the artist at the center of the dance floor as he explored house music with bouncy songs like "Sticky" and "Massive." The experimentation paid off: the album became Drake's 11th Billboard 200 chart-topper.
Throwback Samples Were Inescapable
While sampling is more of a historical music staple than a trend, this year many artists had fun traveling back to the '70s, '90s and early '00s to add nostalgic doses into their hits. Beyoncé evoked the spirit of Donna Summer on "Summer Renaissance," which pulls from the disco queen's 1977 jam, "I Feel Love." Elsewhere, Charli XCX lifted the Stonebridge Mix of Robin S.'s 1992 "Show Me Love" for her own dance floor hit, "Used To Know Me," while NYC-based EDM duo Sofi Tukker sampled Suzanne Vega's "Tom's Diner" for their infectious tune "Summer In New York."
Throwbacks were perhaps most predominant within mainstream rap hits. Tyga's "Sunshine," a collaboration with Jhené Aiko and the late Pop Smoke, samples Lil Flip's 2004 hit of the same name, while Jack Harlow used Fergie's 2006 No. 1 smash "Glamorous" to create his own hit. Rap newcomers Armani White and Central Cee also traveled to the early '00s, with the former's N.O.R.E. sample heard throughout his debut single, "Billie Eilish" and the latter using Eve and Gwen Stefani's "Let Me Blow Ya Mind" for "Doja."
Nicki Minaj and Yung Gravy took us back to the '80s, as Minaj flipped Rick James' 1981 single "Super Freak" into "Super Freaky Girl, and Yung Gravy's viral "Betty (Get Money)" was based on Rick Astley's 1987 hit "Never Gonna Give You Up."
Artists Tapped Into Their Edgy Sides
Pop music can surely be wholesome, so it's always fun when artists try their hands at edgier sounds. Sam Smith has long proven they can do more than a heartfelt ballad, and their TikTok anthem with Slut Pop star Kim Petras found the pair at their naughtiest.
Dove Cameron shed her Disney Channel beginnings with February's "Boyfriend" single, which celebrated her queer identity with dark, spine-tingling production. She raised the intensity levels with August's "Breakfast," which flipped gender politics on its head.
Maggie Lindemann also traded pure pop for pop-punk for her debut album, Suckerpunch. Continuing the Gen Z angst that rattled 2021, Lindemann unapologetically rebels against the music she was previously associated with thanks to singles like the nostalgic "Cages" and the incredibly flirtatious "She Knows It."
Even Taylor Swift got in on the fun. The singer, who previously showcased her edgy side with 2017's reputation, further leaned into that style with her hazy tenth album, Midnights. A complete left turn from 2020's folk-inspired LPs, folklore and evermore, Midnights captured the restlessness, revenge fantasies, self-criticism, and curiosity that come with what she detailed as "13 sleepless nights scattered throughout my life."
Black Pop Divas Made Long-Awaited Returns
After Rihanna and Beyoncé officiated their pop icon statuses with 2015's Anti and 2016's Lemonade, respectively, the two opted to take mini hiatuses from solo music. Beyoncé steadily remained in the music sphere, hopping on several collaborations including a remix of Megan Thee Stallion's 2021 hit "Savage." The song scored GRAMMY Awards for Best Rap Song and Best Rap Performance, the latter of which helped crown Beyoncé as the artist with the most wins in GRAMMY history with 28. (She followed up the achievement by recording "Be Alive" for the King Richard soundtrack, which earned Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for Best Original Song.)
But Beyoncé focused the spotlight back on herself with her seventh studio album. The July release was a pop culture phenomenon, weaving itself into casual conversations, memes, TikTok dance challenges and more. The album is a celebration of not only Beyoncé's career, but Black influence on dance music as a whole.
Rihanna was more quiet following Anti — only appearing on a few collaborations here and there, including Calvin Harris' "This Is What You Came For," DJ Khaled's "Wild Thoughts" with Bryson Tiller and Kendrick Lamar's GRAMMY-winning "Loyalty" — to focus on building her Fenty beauty and lingerie empire. But fans never stopped craving new music from the star herself, and their prayers were finally answered in September in major fashion: The superstar announced in September that she'll headline the Super Bowl LVII halftime show, which will mark her first live showing in over five years.
Rihanna quickly kept the excitement going with two appearances on October's Black Panther: Wakanda Forever soundtrack, "Lift Me Up" and "Born Again" — her first solo music in more than six years.
Rap's TikTok Takeover Was Still In Effect
Rap was one of the biggest genres on TikTok last year, and the trend remained strong in 2022. The dominance was seen through dance challenges and viral memes, with Lil Uzi Vert's infectious Jersey club smash "I Just Wanna Rock" creating an explosive wave that culminated in a dance-heavy music video.
Drake and 21 Savage's "Rich Flex," a highlight from their collaboration album, Her Loss, was transformed into a silly tongue-in-cheek meme. Brooklyn rap newcomer Lola Brooke had TikTokers feeling confident as ever as they used "Don't Play With It" to soundtrack their selfie videos. Even Lil Wayne and Soulja Boy's nostalgic jams had a resurgence, with 2008's "Lollipop" and 2018's "Pretty Boy Swag" spawning their own TikTok trends.
Ed Sheeran Was Pop's Big Brother
Despite being one of the biggest pop stars in the world, Ed Sheeran has maintained the humble spirit that made him so beloved. The British singer/songwriter has always shown a love for collaboration, even releasing a guest-filled project in 2019. But in 2022, Sheeran put collaborations into overdrive.
Sheeran kicked things off by teaming up with his old pal Taylor Swift on a duet version of his = track, "The Joker and the Queen." In March, he dropped not one but two singles with Colombian star J Balvin, "Sigue" and "Forever My Love," where Sheeran traded his guitar for a reggaeton bassline.
The singer then traveled across genres — and the globe — pairing with Jamaican dancehall singer Ishawna (who previously sampled 2017's "Shape of You" on her single "Equal Rights") for "Brace It" and guesting on Nigerian hitmaker Burna Boy's love song "For My Hand." Not forgetting his own roots, Sheeran also showcased his admiration for local British hip-hop with appearances on Manchester rapper Aitch's "My G" and rap collective D-Block Europe's "Lonely Lovers."
Bands Proved Rock & Roll Is Here To Stay
"Rock 'n' roll is dead" has been an ongoing debate ever since hip-hop became the industry's most dominant genre in 2017. Even so, rock acts continued to spotlight the historic genre this year, and helped it endure in arguably the biggest way it has in years.
After a five-year hiatus, Paramore thrilled fans with the announcement of their sixth album, This Is Why. Set for a February 2023 release, the new album era kicked off with the funky eponymous lead single in September.
Rock mainstays Red Hot Chili Peppers satiated genre diehards by dropping two albums within six months in 2022: April's Unlimited Love and October's Return of the Dream Canteen.
On the more alternative side, Arctic Monkeys re-emerged with a vintage focus for October's The Car, which drew from baroque pop, funk, early '70s rock and classic film scores. And after a brief pandemic-induced postponement following 2020's Notes on a Conditional Form, The 1975 returned with their fifth album, Being Funny in a Foreign Language. Singles like "Part of the Band," "Happiness" and "I'm in Love with You" found the band in a lighthearted, '80s dance-pop-inspired spirit.
After a year filled with viral moments and comebacks, there's no doubt that artists will continue to keep pop unpredictable in 2023.
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Photo: Rachel Kupfer
A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.
It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.
Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.
Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.
In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.
Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.
There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.
Say She She
Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.
While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."
Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.
Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.
Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.
Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.
L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.
During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.
Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.
Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.
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Photo: Steven Sebring
Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP, Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.
Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.
Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face."
But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life.
His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves.
Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)
Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") — their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.
While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens.
Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.
Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up.
Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically.
"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?
We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds.
We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick.
I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?
Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol.
You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way.
Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?
I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier.
I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff.
So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.
[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.
I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.
Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?
I did, yes.
You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?
I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.
It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.
But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is] informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.
Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.
We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.
It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].
We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.
You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.
It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.
When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.
You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?
Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."
We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.
You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.
With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.
Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.
You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?
I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.
But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.
I remember when you went on "Viva La Bam" back in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?
I think it was his car.
Did he get over it later on?
He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.
Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?
In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.
We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.
The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.
There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.
It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.
It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.
Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?
Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.
The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.
The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?
Yeah. Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].
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