A bright new sparkle

Marina and the Diamonds smarten up pop
By LUKE O'NEIL  |  August 24, 2010

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AMERICAN VALUES? “It’s really unbalanced and unhealthy. . . . I love American people, I just don’t like the system that’s connected to pop culture and being commercial.”

Marina Diamandis is obsessed with the mess that's America. Or so she sings on "Hollywood," the first single from Marina and the Diamonds' breakthrough album, The Family Jewels (Atlantic). The budding UK indie-pop star kicks off her first full stateside tour on Wednesday at the newly renovated Paradise.

"I don't know why, but I've always been very drawn to the country," she explains on the phone from London. "As soon as I did my first gigs there, I was like, 'Oh my God!' It was exactly as I'd imagined. I've never felt that I connected with an audience like an American audience."

It's not all hearts and giggles for the States, though — the thing that drives buoyant, danceable pop songs like "Hollywood" and "Oh No!" is actually the perversity of the broken American Dream. "What interests me is more on a negative level," she admits.

The half-Welsh, half-Greek, 100 percent captivating artist was born to a modest, hard-working family in southeast Wales. For a young girl like that — particularly one raised on exports like Britney Spears — American values of youth and beauty and success are alienating but compelling. "You have to be happy, you're not allowed to be sad. It's really unbalanced and unhealthy. . . . I love American people, I just don't like the system that's connected to pop culture and being commercial."

It's that type of thoughtful reflection — heard in the lyrics of songs whose sound doesn't necessarily deviate from hit radio's dance-pop template — that sets Diamandis apart from her female pop-star contemporaries. "Mainstream radio plays music that is basically auto-tuned R&B exclusively, I would say, which has lyrics — I don't want to sound mean, but I think they're really meaningless. You need light pop songs, but you also need pop songs that are going to enrich your life. The stuff that I hear in the UK and America doesn't do anything for my heart. I don't want to hear anything about being drunk in the club and sipping bub, like, one more time. That's all there is at the moment. It's good to have a few artists that don't do that."

Artist is the key word here. The music is the focus, of course, and her alternating grand operatic gestures and wavering wounded vocals are the draw, but there's also her allegiance to fashion, her dancing, her canny visual-arts æsthetic, the cinematic nature of her videos, the self-professed psychologizing. Diamandis isn't a musician, she's a variety show. Or maybe a liberal-arts-course load.

Broad, sweeping hooks are only one facet of this diamond, however. On "Numb," she coalesces in multi-part harmony with herself. It's a song she's particularly proud of, she says — one that exemplifies the indie side of the indie-pop marriage she embodies. The Family Jewels is a musical house of mystery that cranks the wheel on an antique jack-in-the-box. On "I Am Not a Robot," she pulls a rainbow of dramatic notes from the air like a theatrical illusionist conjuring up a torrent of musical ribbons.

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