More about: Marina and the Diamonds
Cast your mind back to 2012. Among seminal releases from Frank Ocean, Taylor Swift and Tame Impala (not to mention the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the Olympics in London and Barack Obama’s re-election), there came Electra Heart.
As difficult as it might be to believe, Marina’s second album celebrates its tenth birthday on Wednesday (27 April 2022). You’d be hard-pressed to find an artist with such a consistently strong output, and the impact of Electra Heart — her real ‘pop’ album — cannot be overstated. A departure from the new-wave inspired sounds of Marina’s 2010 debut The Family Jewels, Electra Heart is pure electro-pop, and as Marina fan Ollie, 25, puts it, it’s “fundamentally one of the best pop records of our generation.”
From the outset, there was something unique about Marina. She released The Family Jewels at the age of 24, and its new-wave infused synthpop was a hit. At the time, that sort of quirky indie-pop was big in the charts, with plenty of overlap between fanbases: “I’m super proud to say I was a fan since the really early days in 2010. I was really into ‘cool’ female pop musicians like Lily Allen and Santigold – when Marina came along, she fit that category perfectly. Her fierce lyricism and unapologetic persona was really exciting to me”, says Mia, 24.
The Family Jewels was well-received; a UK top-five album and second place on the BBC Sound of 2010 list is a pretty good start to your career by anyone’s standards. However, Marina described her career as “more like a failure than a success” in January 2011, particularly when considering her popularity in the US, where The Family Jewels peaked at 138 in the charts. Electra Heart, then, was the project designed to crack America, and while it didn’t make Marina a global star in the same vein as Katy Perry or Lady Gaga, say, she has a dedicated international fanbase to this day, and straddles the pop and indie markets well, as the success of the current Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land tour shows.
You might also like...
And more broadly, how many pop stars from the UK have really broken through internationally? In terms of groups, there’s One Direction and Little Mix, and the likes of Adele and Ed Sheeran have been flying the flag for solo artists, but when it comes to pure pop, who have we got that’s been able to rival the Katy Perrys and Lady Gagas of the world? Dua Lipa, and perhaps Charli XCX should be in that conversation, but nobody else has had that real global success in recent decades.
It’s a testament to her consistently strong body of work that whenever fans debate their favourite albums (like on this Reddit thread) each one pops up with regularity. Even the Love + Fear double album, often considered by fans to be her weakest project, is a favourite of many, while The Family Jewels, Electra Heart, Froot and latest release Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land all have their fans.
But it is often Electra Heart that sticks out.
It came two years after The Family Jewels. Marina was only 26 at the time, but it’s a sad fact of the industry that it’s better to make it big young, something we’ve seen in recent years as the likes of Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo have hit superstardom while still in their teens.
It would be a stretch to suggest that Electra Heart was make or break for Marina, but it was definitely an attempt to make a real pop album with crossover appeal. For the album, she worked with huge industry names like Diplo, Stargate and Benny Blanco, but while it went to number one in her native UK and hit 31 in the US, it wasn’t the runaway smash hit her label were striving for.
In hindsight, however, is that such a bad thing? If Electra Heart had blown up to Gaga-esque proportions, would we have had Froot — considered by a number of fans to be her magnum opus? And nonetheless, Marina has always done her own thing, however, prioritisng her individuality: if she wanted to make a pop record, it was going to be her pop record.
Whereas The Family Jewels (TFJ) was in many ways a product of late-2000s Britain, Electra Heart was much more inspired by the US. Inspirations included Madonna and Marilyn Monroe (as well as Marie Antoinette) and the titular character of Electra Heart was created to represent four of the predominant female archetypes in American popular culture.
Out went the new-wave influence and in came Madonna and Britney Spears influences. Originally a side-project, the album was a balancing act between not alienating fans of TFJ and creating the pop music she wanted to make: "I think that I wasn't allowed to change and that deep down I wanted to write a pop album and to be a pop star," she told Drowned In Sound in a 2012 interview.
The result was a record that had a huge impact on youth culture, in no small part thanks to Tumblr. The influence of Tumblr on the album itself cannot be overstated, and in turn, the influence that Electra Heart had on Tumblr: it had the site in, as one fan described, a “chokehold”.
“Electra Heart’s impact on Tumblr was like nothing I had ever seen before,” says Mia. “I had been using Myspace and Twitter from a young age, but became obsessive in my Tumblr use in the early 2010s, mostly because there was a huge community of Marina fans on there.”
While she brings up the fetishisation of poor mental health and being in one’s “sad girl era” on the platform, and the “parts of Tumblr that encouraged and promoted toxic behaviour”, she describes Tumblr as “a place I truly belonged. The sense of community between misunderstood teens and particularly the ones I used to interact with was a comfort...I feel like we were one of the first groups of people to come of age through social media.”
“I was a big Tumblr kid and it was all about Marina, Lana [Del Rey], Sky [Ferreira] and Charli [XCX] then,” says 22-year-old fan Saskia. “Electra Heart played a big part in me discussing my fashion as a teenager. I was 12 or 13 when the album came out and a big emo. Marina helped me discover my own kind of identity/style.
“Now I appreciate how she explored aspects of modern-day female issues through old aesthetics and cultural references e.g. ‘50s Hollywood glam and the Stepford wives, and songs like ‘Sex Yeah’ still hold their own in today’s world.”
The whole aesthetic of the Electra Heart era leant itself to Tumblr much more than TFJ. The vintage Americana feel and the Classic Hollywood influences made the era’s imagery fit the indie vibe so many users were trying to curate: alongside grayscale photos of Lana Del Rey or snaps of Alex Turner and Alexa Chung, or Matty Healy smoking a cigarette, they slotted in seamlessly. A quick look at electraheart.tumblr.com tells its own story; the photos here could have arrived straight from 1960.
And the comparisons to Lana Del Rey in particular came in thick and fast. Del Rey released her major-label debut Born to Die exactly three months before Electra Heart came out, and ‘Video Games’, released the previous October, had been a huge smash hit. In some ways, it’s easy to see why the comparisons were made, but Marina was — and is — a different artist.
In particular, her foray into Americana wasn’t as on-the-nose as some fans and critics made out: she wasn’t trying to become Marilyn Monroe for the Tumblr generation. She at the time made the point herself that UK audiences just didn’t ‘get’ Electra Heart in the same way as audiences across the pond, with her burgeoning American fanbase speaking for itself.
“It’s been so instant that I’ve come over and sold out my tour and I’ve never really done that before,” she said at the time. “People are getting the humour…When I first changed people said ‘She’s sold out’ and they totally didn’t get the humour. It’s a tongue-in-cheek record but it also deals with the truth about love and commercialism and just being a young person, really.”
The indie aesthetic of the early to mid-2010s on Tumblr was arguably led by Marina, Lana Del Rey and Sky Ferreira, as the former “took soft grunge and made it more pink and bitchy. "♡ W R I T I N G L I K E T H I S ♡ was everywhere,” says Saskia, “and she also played into the whole homemade thing – it wasn’t all professional pics”.
“There was a stage where I wouldn’t post anything without a heart symbol next to it,” says Mia, “because that’s what Marina/Electra did on Tumblr too.”
Also associated with this aesthetic movement were the likes of The 1975, The Neighbourhood and AM-era Arctic Monkeys, as well as a new generation of artists a decade or so younger: Halsey, Melanie Martinez and Troye Sivan among them.
For some fans, like Gigwise’s own Friday News Editor Vicky Greer, the impact of Electra Heart landed a few years later. “I got into Marina around 2015,” she says, describing Electra Heart as “definitely my favourite” of her albums. She also describes it as having a “really big visual impact on Tumblr culture”, with the video for ‘Primadonna’ being “the epitome of how we wanted our pictures to look”.
“Electra Heart basically means confidence to me,” she explains. “I was an incredibly shy teenager, but songs like ‘Bubblegum Bitch’ and ‘How to Be a Heartbreaker’ always gave me a confidence boost. I know that Electra Heart was kind of a satirical character, but I really wanted to be like her.”
“It was also a really big time for learning about feminism on social media, so the confident, charismatic character of Electra Heart really appealed to people.”
Recurring themes in Marina’s music have been feminism and equality, something that only adds to her appeal among a demographic that’s by and large socially progressive. She’s also been open about her mental health, not least on her Tumblr blog Marinabook, and has a large LGBTQ+ fan base.
“Electra Heart was, and always will be, the pinnacle of [MARINA’s] career for me,” says Ollie, “I was about 15/16 and just discovering my sexuality at the same time as this era happened, which was SO much about expression, glamour, love, sexuality, romance, and it was done in such a clever way with the different segments and chapters telling different stories within the same album.
“It was hugely influential for a huge pocket of people who were probably all like me and in the same boat. The late teen/early adult gays saw this character being lived out in a fashionable, extravagant and yet somehow also heartbreaking and devastating manner, which celebrated the ‘other’ at a time when pop was so much about being the pretty blonde girl, etc.”
Likewise, Teddy, 21, describes the album as being the one that got them into Marina: “I was 11 when it came out, and I remember my baby gay self was very invested in the 'Primadonna' video…but it wasn’t until a few years later that I rediscovered the whole album and her older stuff through Tumblr fandom.”
Electra Heart might not have been wholly successful in making Marina a huge star, but over 11 million monthly listeners on Spotify are not to be sniffed at. It’s more than The 1975, for example, and not light years behind Charli XCX, who boasts just over 17 million.
The more disco-inspired Froot would follow Electra Heart three years later, and Marina went on to say that she “killed Electra Heart with sleeping pills”. After Froot came 2019’s Love + Fear, and finally Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land arrived last year.
Even now, however, Electra Heart sounds as fresh as it did ten years ago. From Tumblr to TikTok, it continues to be appreciated by a younger generation too: we can look at the viral success of 'Bubblegum Bitch' on the latter platform while many of the tracks from the album are among the most popular of Marina’s on Spotify. In Vicky’s view, a decade on “it’s still one of the best pop albums of the 2010s”, with the songs on the album still having “that same empowering effect on me after all this time”. Mia agrees, describing Electra Heart as having “ultimately stood the rest of time”, in part because “the complex teenage experience will always exist”.
Teddy describes the singer’s fandom as having moved to TikTok, “the new Tumblr in the best and worst ways imaginable”, and certainly, it seems as though a new generation is discovering Marina’s music — often through Electra Heart. It’d be fair to say that she’s had a real impact on a number of artists to have arrived across the past decade too, not least Melanie Martinez and Billie Eilish, who’ve both had good things to say about her.
‘Bubblegum Bitch’ has over 310 million streams, while ‘How To Be A Heartbreaker’ and ‘Primadonna’ both have around 230 million. They’re by far and away Marina’s biggest tracks on the album, surpassing even ‘Baby’, the collaboration with Clean Bandit and ‘Despacito’ hitmaker Luis Fonsi, and speak to Electra Heart’s enduring popularity. Its tracks are being rediscovered again and again, and people continue to identify strongly with them.
“I first got into Marina in late middle school,” says fan Jack, “she had just released Electra Heart and I was trying my best to be a teenager in all the typical ways. Electra Heart is such a staple of me coming of age. It was at this same time that I was really going through the first stages of puberty and I needed music in my life that was the right blend of angst and playfulness that also brought a general ‘IDGAF’ energy.”
“Marina’s spoken repeatedly about the sort of mercurial starlet that’s the POV character on the album being a character and not a real person she endorses, but I think I felt too seen by it to care,” says Teddy. “I was too in awe of these just-unconventional pop songs sung by a woman who’s embracing being petty and demanding and flighty – all things I was taught were traits of ‘other girls’; all things I was taught I couldn’t be if I wanted to be taken seriously.
“That album let that sort of very self-aware imperfect girly persona be something to enjoy instead of something to judge,” they say, “and I definitely needed to hear it in my not-like-other-girls anti-pop era.”
For Jack, “Electra Heart will always be a time capsule of the nightmare that was the ages of 13-15.” Or, as Mia puts it, “Whilst the record used to relate to me as a teenager going to a dark time in my life, these days it’s a nostalgic reminder of how far I’ve come. It will always mark a pivotal moment in my adolescence.”
Issue Four of the Gigwise Print magazine is on pre-order now! Order here.
More about: Marina and the Diamonds