By William Shaw
It’s the question to which every TV critic wants to know the answer: why is The Apprentice still on air? Because the general public loves to see big egos in collision with one another. The same logic can be applied to the music industry: the reason so many great (and not so great) musicians are drawn to collaborative efforts, despite the distinctly patchy track record of such endeavours, is because there’s something darkly alluring about the spectacle of artistic competition. Success or failure, collaborations are tempting to musicians because they can essentially be a shortcut to legendary status, whether it’s with scandalous stories of missed deadlines and heated arguments between irate band members or simply the marvel of two singular and monolithic presences being forced to share the same stage. Being forced to share a track, with each artist trying to upstage the other, is a phenomenon that neither band nor artist can create single-handedly. Forcing two artists who demand to be read on their own terms to share such a confined space as a single track, or even an album, is an act of almost gleeful perversity. The results, whilst frequently disastrous, only serve to further highlight collaboration as a feature of totemic power, be it a final meeting of all-conquering cultural icons or a last-ditch effort of two bands struggling for commercial relevance.
Of course, it’s also possible for a collaboration to be a thoroughly bland, box- ticking affair, as many of the more recent efforts to grace the charts have been. Often it comes from a mismatch in musical talent or style – Iggy Azalea on her own is irritating, but pairing her with Charlie XCX creates an infuriating sense of wasted potential. The same goes for Jessie J and Ariana Grande respectively (although Nicki Minaj is pretty good value whoever she’s paired with). Both Grande and Azalea love to collaborate with others for chart-topping singles, but the result often feels less exciting than the sum of its parts. Only the brief appearance of another artist is necessary to validate the collaboration. Which is why ‘Collaborations Don’t Work’ by the supergroup formation of Sparks and Franz Ferdinand is the best song of 2015, and a product of the single greatest collaborative effort in musical history. Okay, well, perhaps not quite. But it is certainly a deeply interesting comment on the nature of collaboration in today’s music industry.
Throughout FFS’s eponymous debut, there is a sense of two bands in competition – constantly striving to outdo each other, and elaborately performing the drama of a passionate, angsty collaboration. This approach comes to a head on ‘Collaborations Don’t Work’. The stereotypical arguments, which one might expect from a collaboration, are pantomimed gloriously, as Alex Kapronos of Franz Ferdinand and Russell Mael of Sparks scream at each other: “I don’t need your patronising!/ I don’t need your agonising!/ I don’t need your navel gazing!/ I don’t get your way of phrasing!” The whole thing is an elaborate performance; a self-mocking image of two bands at war.
This is, of course, a powerful indication of two bands working in perfect tandem. Such a meta-collaborative partnership has to be extremely functional in order to appear so dysfunctional.
What’s also striking is the brazen self- indulgence of the track; the song lasts six minutes and switches capriciously between different tempos, styles and subjects, a sense of freewheeling chaos which is a wonderful parody of the supposed purposelessness of many rock collaborations. What’s important about this self-indulgent little song is the fact that, whilst performative and mocking, it gets away with its flourishes because of its inherent honesty. This is a song which admits the dirty little secret of most collaborations – that they are almost always the result of self-interest.
In the age of studio hacks and the ubiquity of the “feat.” label, two artists partnering up is almost always a result of one artist attempting to piggy-back on the success of another, more commercially successful one. Hence Ariana Grande’s endless parade of B-list guest artists. FFS can, of course, be viewed in similar terms: the critically acclaimed but commercially nameless Sparks pairing up with the waning but marketable lads of Franz Ferdinand. This is something that FFS recognises, and so they deliberately take this approach to its logical and most absurd extreme. If you’re partnering up for the money, you may as well be up-front about your own self-interest. The entire song is a delicately-tied knot of irony, melodrama and self-awareness, and the results are captivating. This is a song which knows what it is, and perhaps more importantly, knows that you know. And rather than stopping there, as most “ironic” songs are content to do, the song openly, brazenly admits its own ridiculousness and simply asks you to join in the glorious spectacle of a bunch of B-listers stomping around like rock gods.
The trick works, marvellously. It’s hard not to admire the sheer arrogance involved in deciding that your first collaborative effort is going to be a deliberately disjointed, meditated mess that vilifies the thing it practices. The fact that the end result is fantastic is perhaps less relevant when compared to the sheer gall needed to try it in the first place. So how does one go about creating a musical collaboration? Well, if FFS is to be believed, you start from the premise that any collaboration is doomed to be an artistic malfunction. And then you get on and do it anyway