Lightshow

When Adrian’s humdrum life is illuminated by his discovery online of an unknown pop singer whom he helps go viral and eventually land a record contract, he feels like he’s a young man again. But something begins to seem odd about his new idol and he comes to learn the price of tribalism and believing in something good and pure.

What makes someone a fan? What strange allure is it, intrinsic to a thing or acquired and external, that draws in a complete stranger, speaks to a level deeper than conscious understanding and makes something resonate with them? What speaks, to stab at poetry, to the human soul? That something new, something objective and real in the world, separate from yourself, can feel so wholly yours, can feel like it belongs to you so thoroughly that it’s really a part of your being, is a strange and underexplored wonder. Perhaps it’s some echo of a tribal instinct; an intuition that being a part of something bigger and more important to yourself is a vital spiritual imperative. Teenagers get it bad. Being a teenager is all about finding your role in the tribe. Teenagers who didn’t fit in got cast out. But adults are supposed to be beyond such things. An adult has already decided whether he’s hunter, gatherer, mother, shaman or even chief. He doesn’t need to paint the right marks on his face, walk on the coals, bring back the beast’s skull or mutilate his body. He has proven he belongs already. For him, fandom is the distant memory of the misspent adolescence.

Adrian was home alone on a dull Saturday afternoon. Jules was working. He was slumped on the sofa, hand halfway down his trousers more out of habit than any attempt at self-gratification, laptop perched somewhat precariously on one knee, a bowl of rapidly-cooling, stubbornly-unappetising couscous on the coffee table. And he had reached, as all who look into the abyss on dull Saturday afternoons do, the End of the Internet. He had read every update on every page in his bookmarks. He had downloaded every song. Satisfied, earlier that morning, every perverted urge that crossed his 21st Century, porn-blasted male mind while safe in the confines of private browsing mode and now, at the uttermost end of tedium, he was browsing YouTube. He yawned. It wasn’t even three o’clock yet and he’d slept all morning. He clicked on a recommended video. Someone famous did something funny and he smiled, mostly out of politeness. His computer knew him better than his girlfriend, had seen into dark corners of his brain she’d never even know existed as long as he had his way, and it seemed rude not to at least pretend to like the thing it told him he might like. Something in the sidebar caught his eye as he went to hit the back button. A young woman’s face, smiling. He clicked it. She was pretty, mixed-race, in her bedroom. She spoke with an inner-city London accent. She was a singer, or possibly a rapper. Her name was Martiqa (pronounced ‘kwa’ rather than ‘ka’ at the end) and she was unsigned. This was her music. Her cousin was a DJ and had laid some beats down for her. The video only had a few dozen views and no comments. Adrian wasn’t into this kind of thing. He went to click away, but something in her smile, something in the earnest tone of her voice, made him wait a moment with his finger poised over the mousepad and then, as she stared into the camera, into a part of him he hadn’t felt stir since he was twelve-years-old and listening for the first time to the band whose posters he’d plaster across his walls for the next seven or eight years, she started to sing and he woke up from a long, boring dream.

She had a few other videos. She sang, and she rapped as well. Adrian didn’t really know anything about music, but he didn’t think she should be able to swing instantly from half-screamed rhymes to a long, keening wail of heartache like that, at least not without some good production. But it was all performed live to the camera – he could see that – and it was just her, alone in her room, with a spare, scratchy breakbeat rhythm thumping in the background. Her lyrics were kind of political. Nothing too advanced: she couldn’t be more than twenty, but with a scattering of references to what he thought might be degree-level philosophy and feminist writing. She cited M.I.A. and Azelia Banks as influences, but a later video disavowed the latter in its description, talking about some Twitter spat and a homophobic comment. It all went over Adrian’s head a bit but, holy shit, something about her… She was cute, but also the kind of girl he thought he’d find insufferable if he met her in real life but, actually, you know, sort of magnetic. He thought she was cool. That was it. It was a sort of unfamiliar notion, to just admire someone like that, but it was definitely how he felt about her. He thought she went to cool places and did cool things with cool people and, instead of being jealous of her interesting life he just found it…well…interesting. He thought about leaving a comment under his favourite song of hers, but that would make him the sort of person who left comments under YouTube videos, so he settled for sharing it on Twitter. Then he went and found her on Twitter too. @martiq1love. She already had a few hundred followers, and he didn’t get a follow back. She tweeted a lot, and talked philosophy, politics, feminism, music of course. It was a window into a strange world of young people being exciting in London. He listened to her songs again.

Jules came home. “Have you been on that sofa all day?” she asked, rapping him playfully on the head with her bag.

“Huh?” He looked up and grinned. “Good day?”

“Not really.” She threw herself down next to him with a heavy sigh. “Don’t I get a cup of tea?”

“Oh, sorry.” He kissed her on the cheek and then put the laptop down, before getting up and popping into the kitchen. As he whistled a snatch of one of Martiqa’s songs, he heard Jules call something over the sound of the kettle boiling. “You what?” he called back.

“I said ‘who’s Martiqa’?”

“It’s Martiqa…like quack.” He said, leaning his head out the door.

“Sorry,” she said with a sarcastic little lift of her eyebrow, “who’s Martiqa then?”

He stood in the doorway with the sugar bowl in his hand, gesturing with the spoon. “She’s, like, a singer.”

“I’ve never heard of her.”

“Yeah, she’s not famous.”

“So how did you hear her?” She leaned closer to the screen. “She’s got mental hair.”

“I just stumbled across a video of her’s. She’s just some girl from London, but she’s really good.”

“She must be. You shared three of her songs on Twitter.” She waved her phone for emphasis, but was still watching the laptop screen. She was playing the first video, and waiting for Martiqa to finish her introduction and get to the song. When it started, Jules’s face went from curious ambivalence to grudging acknowledgement. “Hm…”

“You like it?”

“Yeah. She’s got a great voice.”

“I know. I think I might be one of the first to discover her or something.”

“Get you, trendsetter.”

“I know! She’s going to be huge, I bet, and I’ll have gotten in on the ground floor.”

“Great.” Jules stopped the video and then reached for the TV remote. “Tea,” she told Adrian with a significant look.

“Oh right. Sure.” He went back into the kitchen, humming the song from the place Jules had stopped it. What was it called again? Lightshow. That was it.

*

“Here’s the thing, right,” George said as he moved the last mouthful of pasta around the plate with his fork, “you don’t even need all that stuff anymore. You don’t need, like, acting classes or singing lessons or even…like, like…TV channels at all, or record deals or anything.” He finally put the fork in his mouth and then washed it down with a gulp of wine. “Because we’re all connected now, because of the internet and that, it’s all…all…fucking…likes and shares and retweets and all that shit.”

Hannah, his wife, rolled her eyes and shared a look across the table with Jules. “It’s a bit more complicated than that though, isn’t it? I mean, it’s all still about money in the end, right?”

George shook his head as he topped up Adrian’s glass and moved to do the same for Jules only for her to wave him away. “It’s all about people in the end. If no one wants to pay for music or movies or TV shows, then it all just becomes a democracy. A real democracy. The masses decide what’s popular and that’s the end of it. You don’t need anything to make it now, not really. Look at all those pop stars who took off from YouTube. Bieber was one of them, wasn’t he?”

“Yeah, but he wouldn’t have got far without the record contract after that,” Jules smiled.

“Well it’s still baby steps at the moment, innit? I mean, who’s that girl?” George clicked his fingers. “Black girl. From London. Mar…mar something…”

“Martiqa,” Jules said with a sidelong glance at Adrian who at least had the decency to puff out his cheeks in embarrassment.

“That’s it,” George said with a grin, “Martiqa. You can’t go five minutes without hearing her on the bloody radio now. Where was she a month ago? Couple of videos on YouTube. She hasn’t got a deal, it’s all…fucking…mixtapes released on her website, live video blogs from her bedroom. And everyone’s going nuts for her!”

Jules laughed and jerked a thumb towards Adrian. “This guy…this guy knows all about Martiqa. He was a…a…what do you call it? An ‘early adropter’, right?”

Hannah leaned across the table towards Adrian with a mischievous glint in her eye. “You’re a Martiqa fan? Adrian Brand?” George laughed loudly.

“Hey,” Adrian said, a little defensively, “she’s good. And, hey,” he leaned in too now, “I liked her before it was cool, okay?”

“He really did!” Jules howled, clapping her hands like it was the funniest thing in the world. “He started following her on Twitter two months ago. She tweets him!”

“She tweeted me, like, once,” Adrian said, lifting his wineglass in front of his face like a shield. “It’s not a big deal.”

“She’s a little young, mate,” George said.

“It’s not even that! It’s really not!”

“Aw, I think it’s sweet,” Jules smiled, rubbing Adrian’s arm. “It’s like you’ve got a hobby.”

“I just like a singer!” Adrian protested, putting the wine down and holding out his hands in exasperation. “You like Prince!”

“Yeah, but I don’t follow him on Twitter,” Hannah replied.

“Ah, now Prince hates the internet,” George said, “He doesn’t have a Twitter.”

Adrian sighed. “Can we talk about something else?”

“Yeah,” Jules said, finally giving into George’s offer of more wine and letting him empty the remainder of the bottle into her glass, “it’d make a nice change from being at home where that fucking girl’s all I ever hear about…” Everyone roared with laughter and Adrian just shook his head helplessly.

*

“Wakey, wakey,” Jules whispered. Adrian rolled over in bed, burying his face in the pillow. “Come on,” she said, “time to get up.”

“Mphnh mph mphnmphnph”

“Come again?”

“I said ‘it’s my birthday!'”

“I know! And that’s why you’ve got to get up!” She leaned in and nuzzled against him. “Come on, I made you tea.”

“Tea in bed? Wow, it must be my birthday…” He sat up and took the steaming mug from her hands. “No bacon sandwich then?”

“Do you really want bacon I cooked?” she asked, fixing him with a flat look.

“Uh…no.”

“Hey!” She batted at him playfully with a handful of cards.

“Give me those, woman.” He snatched them from her and put the tea on the bedside table. She rolled over him and crawled back into the other side of the bed. She didn’t drink tea, but she had a glass of fresh orange juice next to her.

“No presents? Just cards?” Adrian asked as he flicked through the pile of envelopes on his lap.

“Well you didn’t ask for anything. But I think you might find a little something in there from me.”

“Oooh…cryptic…” He started tearing them open, finding the usual collection of well-wishes from friends, family, co-workers. He left the fat envelope with just his name to last. When he came to it, he waved it in Jules’s face. “What could it be? What could it be?”

“Open it and find out, you berk,” she said, sticking out her tongue.

He laughed and tore it open. It was another card, but not the usual kind. It had a vague printed design that looked like a stadium on the front and, when he opened it, he found it was designed to hold two tickets in a little card flap. ‘Love you, baby xxx’ was scrawled on the inside in Jules’s looped handwriting. He took the tickets from their pocket. “Gig tickets? But I don’t really go to…” he turned them over. “Oh. Oh okay.”

Jules rubbed his shoulder. “Is that all right?”

“I…” he scratched his head. Two tickets to see Martiqa next month at the Brixton Academy. “Yeah. Yeah, it’s great.”

“You don’t sound convinced…”

“It just wasn’t what I was expecting.” He laughed. “Sorry, it’s great. Really.” He turned and smiled. “Thanks. Honestly.”

Jules narrowed her eyes. “What?”

“What what?”

“I just know you’re a fan that’s all. I thought you’d like them.”

“I do…it’s just…”

“Just what?”

He made a face. “It’s gonna be full of bloody kids, isn’t it?”

She pointed. “This is what happens! You don’t have to go if you don’t want to. I can get a refund. Spend the money on a…wine rack or something. John Lewis have nice ones.”

“No. I may be older than the rest of her fanbase but I’m not that old. And you never know – she might be shit live. Might cure me of this little obsession you’re convinced I’m developing.”

“Now there’s a thought,” she said, taking the tickets off him and putting them on her own bedside table. “Now, how about the second part of your birthday present?”

“There’s a second part?” he asked.

“Yeah, but I couldn’t wrap it. Come here.” She grabbed him by the head and pulled him in for a passionate kiss.

Martiqa was emphatically not shit live. The crowd didn’t skew quite as young as he’d been worried it might, but he still felt more comfortable towards the back, near the bar. Jules found the whole thing funny. “I like her, I really do,” she insisted as he bought drinks and the DJ warming up finished off his set.

“Well stop taking the piss then!”

“I’m not taking the piss out of her! I’m taking the piss out of you.”

“Why? Because I like something?”

“No…”

“I’m allowed to like stuff. I’m allowed to find one good thing in the world and spend my time and money on it, aren’t I? Can’t I have, like, one pure, unsullied thing? She’s a funny, clever kid with a great voice. She’s not on a major label, she doesn’t shill Pepsi, she doesn’t get into fights on Twitter and she makes good music.”

“All right,” Jules said, “I was only messing.”

“I know,” he said with a tight smile. “Sorry, I’m just a little wound up. Feeling old.”

“You’re not that old.”

“Tell that to this lot.”

She walked out on stage with no real fanfare, but the whole room went crazy for her. He could just make out her shy, slightly embarrassed smile, the small wave she gave and then, without any kind of preamble, she launched right into it. This was her biggest gig to date. Before this it’d all been tiny venues all over London, but now she’d landed and it was clear from her poise, her charisma, her sheer command over the stage that she was going to be absolutely massive. She was already a bona fide viral sensation, but Adrian just knew that he was witnessing the birth of something like a movement, at least in pop music terms. She wasn’t even twenty-one. She really was just a kid. A brown girl from a single-parent family with a head of huge, uncontrollable hair, straight from a council estate in Peckham to the stage of the Brixton Academy with over a thousand people going completely fucking mental for her. She had them all in the palm of her hand. Her backing band was four guys, but they barely had to work; just keep the rhythm, kick off the melodies, and her incredible voice did the rest of the work. She dropped a furious, expletive-laden rap, then soared effortlessly to a ballad’s trembling octaves without missing a beat. She hummed her own bridge, and flew into a desperate, breathy chorus as the guitarist picked up the tune and ran with it all the way to a screaming finale in which Martiqa belted out what could only be described as a Marxist manifesto to a thumping beat that had everyone in the crowded venue stamping their feet in unison for five incredible, unbelievable minutes of apparent freestyling. As she bellowed the last word and the band stopped playing, there was a yawning silence, and then everyone exploded.

“Holy shit…” Jules said.

“See?” Adrian grinned. And that was just the first song.

Afterwards there was an incredible energy in the air. Everyone spilled out of the doors, buzzing with some strange, intangible excitement. It was an early summer evening, and everyone just felt something. Never mind a pop music movement, Adrian thought to himself; that was real. That was important. “What did you think?” he asked Jules as he clutched her hand.

“She’s bloody talented, I’ll give her that.”

“Talented?”

“And smart, and pretty and I bet she’ll be ruling the world by the end of the year.”

“It feels like that, doesn’t it?” he chuckled.

It really did. In the golden light of the fading day, everyone looked dazed but happy. There was genuine shellshock on some faces. “That first song’ll be number one,” a young girl said to her friend. “What’s it called? Lightshow?”

“It’s ten minutes long, and it’s got loads of swearing in it,” the other girl replied.

“Just you watch. Everyone’ll download that tonight.”

“Everyone’s already got it!”

“They’ll download it again then…”

Jules and Adrian took the tube into the centre of London and had dinner at an Italian restaurant. He could barely concentrate on his food. He wanted to talk about the concert, about Martiqa, but he sensed he was starting to get on Jules’s nerves a bit. “We haven’t booked a holiday this year,” he said, changing the subject as he cut into his calzone.

“Mmm…” Jules said through a mouthful of tagliatelle. She swallowed. “I know. But I can’t even think about booking time off. Everyone keeps going off sick, or having bloody babies.”

“They have to give you holiday.”

“I know. But they also have deadlines. It’s publishing. What am I supposed to do?” She took a sip of white wine. “There are a hundred wannabe editors snapping at my heels.”

“I know. But you can get a week in September or something, can’t you?”

“Why? What have you got in mind?”

He shrugged. “I was thinking we could have a city break in Venice or Rome or something.”

“Italy?”

“Yeah. I’ve never been before.”

“Me neither. But we eat enough of the food I guess.” She smiled over her glass. “I’ll sort something out.”

On the train home, Adrian was playing on his phone as Jules dozed beside him. The sun had gone down now and he watched the black swells of hills and fields rush by under a clear purple sky that was just starting to fill with twinkling stars. He brought up Twitter. There was a lot of stuff about Martiqa. Music journos were all gushing with praise. Tonight we saw something truly incredible. @martiq1love is the real thing. Believe it! #martiqa #lightshow

He smiled to himself and composed a tweet of his own. .@martiq1love you were amazing 2nite. 1st gig in years been a fan since saw you on youtube #lightshow

It was a long journey and they’d had a big meal and quite a bit to drink, so he began to drop off himself when a buzz from his phone jerked him back to consciousness. Jules mumbled something and turned away. They were the only people in their carriage and two stops from home. Adrian sat up and fumbled his phone from his pocket. Just an e-mail. He opened it, expecting spam, but it was a notification of a reply to one of his tweets. He brightened as he read it. @adilad1983 thanx mate! Know exactly who you are. Glad you were there & you had a good time! See you again at next 1? #myno1fan

.@martiq1love depends! Free tix???

He closed his phone with a small smile, but before they’d reached the next stop, it buzzed again. @adilad1983 Don’t push it! (&watch those full stops – ppl gon’ be jealous, yo!)

Jules stirred and then woke up with a stretch. She looked around blearily. “We home yet?” she mumbled.

“Nearly.” He squeezed her hand.

She smiled sleepily and snuggled up next to him. “Did you have a good time tonight?”

“Yeah. Might get some followers out of it too.”

“Huh?”

“Two words: hashtag mynumberonefan. Not my words; the words of pop sensation Martiqa.”

“Oh bloody hell,” Jules said as she stifled a yawn. “I knew this was a huge mistake.”

*

“Okay, so this kind of feels like a bit of a coup for us,” the radio host said, “but technically you are still unsigned right?”

“Yeah, well…yeah.” Martiqa laughed. “No, I am unsigned. It don’t feel like it. Not that…”

“Not that you know what that’s like!”

“Yeah, yeah! I mean, you have this idea in your head of how your career’s going to go.”

“But you’re bucking the trend, right? You’re still going it alone.”

“Yeah.”

“But Lightshow got to, like, number twenty in the charts…”

“Yeah, which is just amazing for an unsigned artist.”

“And your mixtape has been downloaded how many times?”

“Oh I don’t even know…”

“I bet you do though! I bet you know the exact number!”

“No no no. It in’t like that.”

“It so is!”

“No!” She laughed again.

“And, like, ten million hits on YouTube. It’s crazy. You’re blowing up. Is it true you got an e-mail from Jay-Z?”

“Well…”

“What’s that like? What’s it like, to open up your inbox in the morning, and have an e-mail from the Jiggaman? Or does he go by Shawn?”

“No, no…”

“I bet he still has the same e-mail address he had back in, like, 1996 or something. I bet he’s like ‘shawnydude@aol.com’. He’s probably so uncool over the internet.”

“No, he’s like a proper, like, tech-nerd.”

“Oh my god, don’t talk about Jay-Z like it’s just normal!”

“No! He didn’t even e-mail me! It was his label. Just a PA or somethin’. I don’t even know. It’s not a big deal…”

“Sure, sure. It’s not a big deal to just hear from Jay-Z.”

“I didn’t! Oh man, this is it now. I’m, like, famous and now there’s all rumours about me.”

“I did hear you’d been seen at a restaurant with Harry Styles…”

“Shut up! Why would I even be in the same room as someone from One Direction? Who was sayin’ that?”

“No one, I just made that up.”

“That’s how it starts, innit? Some bloody DJ spreadin’ rumours an’ that.”

“Okay, okay. Well, what we like to do on the show is to get you to talk to one of your fans.”

“All right cool.”

“You’re a big internet sensation, a viral hit, as the kids would say, you’re like that angry cat…”

“I’m exactly like the angry cat…”

“She is, guys. She has the exact same expression. Anyway, do you have a good relationship with your fans? I know you’re very active on Twitter.”

“Do you follow me on Twitter?”

“I think I do. Do I? Producer Ben?”

“How would he know?”

“Producer Ben knows everything. I think I follow about a thousand people. Don’t be offended if I don’t.”

“You’re more famous than I am anyway so it’s cool.”

“I’ll follow you after the show if I don’t already. But I hear you’re really good on Twitter.”

“Aw thanks.”

“Yeah. Even if I don’t follow you, it feels like I do because everyone’s always bloody retweeting you into my timeline anyway.”

“Sorry!”

“But you tweet your fans and that, yeah?”

“Yeah, sometimes.”

“And with, like, YouTube and all that. What I’m saying is, you have a pretty good rapport with your fanbase, yeah?”

“Oh yeah. They’re awesome. An’, like you said, I went viral. There’s no record company backin’ me up here. It’s all shameless self-promotion. An’ if the fans din’t like it, I wouldn’t be here now talkin’ to you. So, y’know, they’re a huge part of everythin’ that’s happened to me in the last few months.”

“Yeah, yeah. So we have one of your fans on the line now. In fact, he claims to be your biggest fan.”

“Wow…”

“I don’t know if he means, like, he likes you the most or if he’s just dead fat…”

“Aw, don’t be mean!”

“I’m not! Hey, Adrian, you’re on live with Martiqa now. First, can you clarify whether you’re her biggest fan because you just love her so much, or if you’re, like, physically the biggest.”

“I’m a bit fat,” Adrian said, “but probably not the fattest.”

Martiqa laughed again and clapped her hands. “Hey, Adrian!”

“Hi, Martiqa.”

“I think I know you…”

“You do?”

“Yeah. Are you Adrian Brand?”

“That’s me.”

“Hey, it’s cool to finally talk to you.”

“Do you actually know him?” the host asked.

“Kind of. We talk on Twitter. He actually is my biggest fan.”

“Oh my god! Do you follow him?”

“Yeah!”

“That’s ace that you follow your fans.”

“No, I don’t follow them all. But Adrian’s been there since the beginning. He followed me before I blew up.”

“Oh cool, so Adrian, you’re like a hardcore fan of Martiqa?”

“You’re making me sound like a nutter…”

“You did phone a late night radio show to talk to her.”

“Oh leave him alone,” Martiqa said. “How you doin’, Adrian?”

“I’m good, yeah, I’m all right. How about you?”

“Yeah, great. Hey, you saw me at Brixton, yeah?”

“I did. You were awesome.”

“Aw you’re so sweet. Hey, tweet me when you’re going to another gig, I’ll hook you up with some VIP tickets, yeah? Come backstage, we’ll talk for real, all right?”

“Wow, that’d be great…”

“Like I said, I haven’t got, like, a label or nothin’, y’know. All the money for this, it’s comin’ right from the fans, from guys like you, from people buyin’ tickets an’ downloadin’ the mixtape an’ all that stuff. So I gotta repay that kindness, y’know what I mean?”

“I think,” Adrian said, “I seriously think this is, like, the start of something in music. Like, cutting out the middle man. Just artists and fans. You don’t even need a label. Just fund an album on Kickstarter, or whatever it is the UK.”

“Yeah. It’s like a DIY thing, innit?”

“Totally.”

“Well, you guys could probably talk all night,” the DJ interrupted, “but we have to play some music on this music station. I think it’s only fair we play Lightshow. Sorry, it’s the radio edit with all the rude words cut out.”

“It’s about five minutes shorter too,” she pointed out.

“Yeah, but now it’s all, like, radio friendly, innit?”

“It works okay…”

“What do you think, Adrian?”

“I think you should play the full version.”

“You bloody would say that! Thanks for calling! And thanks Martiqa for coming in. You heard it here first, everyone: this is the start of something. We don’t know what, but it sounds a bit like this…”

*

Backstage at the Shepherds Bush Empire, Adrian couldn’t help but feel starstruck. He didn’t even know who half the stars were, but he still felt like he didn’t belong and that at any moment he’d been found out and ejected. Jules tailed along beside him. “This is crazy,” she whispered to him.

“I know!”

“Who’s that guy over there?”

“I have no idea.”

“What about him?”

“Ummm…no idea. What does Frank Ocean look like?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“Then let’s say it’s Frank Ocean. Or ASAP Rocky.”

“Who the hell is ASAP Rocky?”

“I don’t even know!”

She gripped his hand more tightly. “Let’s find your girlfriend, say hello and get out of here.”

“Aren’t you having fun?”

“I feel a little…out of place…”

“Because we’re the only white people here?”

“No!” She slapped him on the arm. “Because I don’t know anything about hip-hop,” she added in a lower voice, “and neither do you.”

“I know some.”

They reached the nexus of the milling crowd of rappers, record producers, music journos, miscellaneous celebrities, and assorted hangers-on and flunkies. She was in the centre of course, a short, big-haired girl who actually looked a little lost. Less than four months ago, no one would have even known how to pronounce her name, but now she was the focus of everyone’s attention. The gig had been as breathtaking as the last one they’d seen, but she’d somehow managed to double the amount of material she was playing. She seemed to have enough songs for a double album already. Adrian hovered at the back of the scrum, still holding Jules’s hand, until he managed to catch Martiqa’s eye. She frowned for a second, but then recognition dawned. She smiled and made a few people move aside so he could get in. “Adrian?”

“Yeah,” he said sheepishly. He held out a hand.

“Aw, come here…” She pulled him into a hug. He still had Jules, grabbing on to him like a lifeline, and as Martiqa pulled away she frowned at her. “That’s weird – Adrian never mentioned a girlfriend.”

Jules’s eyes went wide. “He…what?”

“I’m jokin’! I’m jokin’, really. Jules, yeah?”

“Yes. Yes that’s right.” She gave Adrian a stern look. “You be careful, mister.”

“She said it, not me!”

Martiqa laughed. “Look, guys, I’m really sorry but I can’t stay an’ chat for long. I got some important people need to talk to me.”

Adrian raised his eyebrows. “Yeah?”

“Oh yeah,” she nodded, “namin’ no names, like. It could be big news though. Help yourself to drinks an’ food an’ whatever though, yeah? So awesome to meet you in person.”

“Wait, can I just get a photo?” Adrian asked.

“Sure!”

“Jules?” He handed her his phone and stood next to Martiqa. She threw an arm over his shoulder and pouted, flicking a v-sign up and tilting her head towards him. Jules shook her head and snapped the photo.

“Catch you later, guys,” Martiqa smiled, and then she was gone, bustled away somewhere else by the inexorable movement of the pop music machine.

“Well, she was nicer than I expected,” Jules observed.

“You didn’t think she’d be nice?”

“I didn’t know what she’d be like. I have a funny feeling the days of her tweeting you are probably over though.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Because that,” she said, pointing across the room, “is Derek Rocco, the CEO of Promoscope Records, and she’s giving him a bigger hug than she gave you.”

Adrian whistled. “That’s a pretty big scoop. I should tweet it.”

“I wouldn’t bother – half the people in this room are music journalists, and they’re already taking photos. This is totally staged.”

“Martiqa’s not like that.”

“Oh come on; this is show business. They’re all like that.”

“Not her,” he said firmly.

“Well, she’ll be signed to Promoscope by tomorrow, and then we’ll see, won’t we?”

*

“Just think,” George said as he raised the pint glass to his lips and nodded across the pub to the flatscreen TV hanging in one corner, “you can tell people you hugged that.”

“Don’t call her ‘that’,” Adrian said, swirling the last of his lager around the bottom of his glass and looking up at the screen too. “It sounds terrible.”

“Yeah, but look at her!”

Adrian sighed. It felt like a long time since he’d met Marqita backstage at that gig, but it was actually only a couple of months. Already though, the world seemed to have changed. Jules’s prediction came true, and Martiqa signed to Promoscope. And with backing from a major label, everything became different overnight. There was an album, and Lightshow was the standout track. Of course it wasn’t the ten-minute, expletive-filled original. In fact, almost all of the political stuff had been cut out and the song had been condensed into something that more closely resembled the rest of the charts. Verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-chorus. The backing arrangement became more elaborate, the beats more slickly produced. It was still a massive, massive hit. Number one all over Europe, and she was predicted to break America soon. What Adrian couldn’t quite wrap his head around though was the video. Martiqa had always been cute, but now her label had vamped her up: her mane of hair was slicked back, her lips had been plastered ruby-red and she was strutting her way across a stage in a miniskirt and eight-inch heels. A bank of lights blazed on and off behind her in rhythm to the music: the titular Lightshow. It was an audio-visual assault, not at all unexpected, but it felt a million miles from the girl he’d seen in her bedroom, spitting Estuary-English rhymes to an online audience of less than a hundred. Now there was talk of a stadium tour, of appearances on the X-Factor and sponsorship deals worth millions.

“I don’t get your problem,” George said, shaking his head.

“It’s just…weird.”

“Weird how?”

“Because I thought she was better than all this!” He waved a despairing hand at the TV.

“Better than what? The girl deserves to make some money, doesn’t she? And look, she’s great. Better than Rihanna or Lady GaGa or that bloody Jessie J. She’s a natural.”

“I know! Believe me, I know.”

George counted off on his fingers. “Good voice, good song, fit bird. It’s a winning formula. What did you think the vultures’d do to her? Of course they’ve trussed her up in a fucking corset and given her enough mascara to attract a panda. Not everyone thinks she’s the future of music like you do. Some people just want to watch the telly and have a wank.”

Adrian cringed. “Don’t say that…”

“Oh come on,” George laughed, “are you telling me you don’t fancy her?”

Adrian looked up at the screen again. “She doesn’t even look like herself anymore.”

“As long as she looks like that, I don’t care.” He smiled and drained the rest of his pint.

Adrian found himself dropping into a kind of slump. Work started to get him down, and he thought Jules was pulling away from him, but couldn’t figure out why. Everything seemed a lot more drab and grey. Autumn faded into a cold, wet winter, and he seemed to see Martiqa wherever he went. She was on billboards everywhere now. Her caramel-coloured face, twenty-feet high, stared down at him with sultry eyes and parted red lips. She looked artificial somehow. The thick make-up, the shiny, slick hair, the airbrushed skin. It was all strangely unreal. Her album got rave reviews and Adrian loved it too, in spite of his misgivings about her new look and label-enforced sensibility. Her interviews became less spontaneous, her tweets more corporate. She was turning from a person into a pop star.

“I thought we might try for Italy again in the new year,” Jules said one night over a homemade curry. “What do you think?”

“Hm?”

“Italy.” She hadn’t managed to get the time off they’d talked about in the end. Her career was just taking off too: the magazine’s circulation had increased recently and she had been promoted to the senior editorial team. That meant more pay, and technically more holiday, but she never seemed to be able to take it.

“Right, yeah.”

“What’s wrong?” she asked him.

“Nothing.”

“Is it…you know…Martiqa.”

“Don’t be stupid,” he scoffed. “She’s a…a pop singer.”

“But it is that, isn’t it?”

He put his spoon down and laughed. “Yeah, I guess so. How lame is that? Depressed over pop music, like a fifteen-year-old girl.”

She squeezed his hand. “It’s okay, you know. You cared about something, and you feel like it was taken away from you. It used to be special, but now everyone’s sharing in it.”

“Yeah…”

“It’s normal to feel a bit down about that kind of thing.”

“It felt…she felt…important, you know? You were there in the Brixton Academy. It really seemed like something was happening, didn’t it? And now she’s just another Beyoncé. Do we need two Beyoncés?”

“You can’t begrudge her success. She’s talented. She deserves to be huge; you always said that.”

“I know. She just represented something in my head, I guess. A rejection of…of…greed and corporations and…you know…all that stuff,” he finished weakly.

“I get it. But life’s not that simple, is it?”

“I guess not.” He spooned a mouthful of curry into his mouth and chewed thoughtfully. “Italy sounds nice,” he said.

*

“Don’t be mad,” Hannah said, “but we kind of…entered a competition on your behalf.”

Adrian looked around in confusion. It was his birthday, and George and Hannah were over for dinner. “A competition?”

“Yeah,” George explained, “we sort of just did it for a laugh. But then we won, and it wasn’t so funny anymore!”

“What kind of competition?” Jules asked, looking from one of her friends to the other.

“Oh,” George said with a sly grin, “just a chance to meet a certain famous pop singer…”

Adrian held up his hands. “No no no…I’ve given her up for Lent…”

“Don’t be daft,” Hannah laughed. “Anyway, we’ve won it now so you have to go.”

“Last time we met her,” Jules said, “she barely spoke to us.”

“Plus, I don’t even know if I want to meet her,” Adrian said. “She’s changed.”

“Oh don’t be so bloody stupid,” George told him. “Is a duet with Will.I.Am that much of a crime?”

“He’s a fucking idiot!”

“So?”

“I think the Pepsi advert was the last straw for Adi,” Jules said as she poured out some more wine.

Adrian visibly shuddered. “Why would you even do that?”

“Money!” George grinned, rubbing his fingers together. “You can’t blame the girl for wanting to make some dosh, can you?”

“I suppose not…”

“Besides,” Hannah suggested, “maybe if you meet her, you can talk some sense into her.”

“That’s a thought…”

A few weeks later, the handler from the record company showed him into the hotel room. There were cameras there – it was all going on the website – and a lot of people generally milling around. Martiqa somehow looked bigger than she had before, despite being dwarfed by the huge couch she was perched in. She was wearing jeans and a tight vest-top. Her hair had a little of its former volume, and her face was half-covered by a pair of huge, insectile shades. Brightly-coloured hoop-earrings dangled down the side of her face and she wore sparkly high-heels. The idea of the competition was that a fan would be interviewing her, so Adrian sat down on a chair beside her. She smiled. “Hi.”

“Hey, Martiqa.”

“It’s Adrian, right?”

He nodded. “I guess you don’t remember me?”

“Remember…oh…” She took off her glasses. “Adrian?”

Another handler hovered into view. “Is everything all right here?” He must have thought he was a stalker.

“Yeah, it’s fine, Rod,” Martiqa said, “Adrian’s actually a fan I’ve met before.”

“Okay.” He didn’t look convinced, but he stepped away to a discreet distance again.

“So how’ve you been?” she asked him. “How’s Julie?”

“Jules.”

“Sorry, yeah.”

“She’s fine. We’re both fine. And how about you? You’re huge now…”

“Oh,” she waved a hand, “it’s all just a game, y’know?”

“I loved the album.”

“What was your favourite song?”

“Lightshow’s always been my favourite. I like the version you did at the Academy best though.”

There was just a brief flicker of confusion in her eyes. “You mean…”

“Last year? In Brixton? The full, ten-minute version of the song.”

“Oh right, right. Yeah.”

“You ought to put that out, you know. I thought you’d do an EP, or it’d be the b-side of the single or something.”

“I’m working on new stuff now,” she said with another camera-friendly smile.

“Right. It’s weird though, because your label took down all the YouTube videos of that version too. Even the first one you did, back in your room.”

“It’s all about the future now, baby,” Martiqa said, “moving forward, y’know?”

“Sure.” Sensing she wasn’t interested in this line of questioning, he went along with her instead. “So what’s the new stuff like?”

“It’s a little more poppy I guess.”

“Poppy?”

“Yeah. It’s a new direction for me. I’m working with some new producers, looking for a real slick, accessible sound. My music’s always been about promoting a message of inclusion, fighting racism and homophobia and bigotry. I want everyone to be a part of that.”

“It sounds a bit…watered down…”

She laughed, and something about it sounded kind of off. There was an accent there he didn’t quite recognise. “It’s not that at all. No compromises. You know that, Adrian. You’ve been there since the start. My biggest fan, right?”

“Yeah…”

“But I have to evolve, musically. I’ve got Will.I.Am to lay down a rap on one of the songs, and I’m going into the studio with Olly Murs.”

“Olly Murs? Seriously?”

“Yeah. It’s exciting.”

“It..is?”

“Okay, could we wrap this up now?” Rod asked, leaning in. “Just one more question, all right?”

Adrian nodded. “Um…okay… So, you’ve been doing a lot of advertising recently. Endorsements, stuff like that.”

“Uh huh.”

“That seems to be, like, sort of the opposite message from the one you had when you started.”

“I suppose, in a way,” Martiqa said, “but I was just a kid then. It seems simple when you’re young. But you grow up and you realise the world is more complicated than you thought.”

“I guess so.”

“Okay,” Rod said, clapping his hands together, “time’s up. Let’s get a photo here.”

Martiqa put her arm over his shoulder again and flashed the same v-sign as before. Then she turned and gave him a quick hug. “It was so cool to see you again. I’ll get my manager to hook you and Jules up with tickets for my tour, okay?”

“Yeah, that’d be great. Thanks.”

He walked away, his head spinning. Something wasn’t right and, as he rode the lift down to the hotel’s lobby, a thought began to permeate through his mind, a thought that said: that wasn’t the same girl I met last year.

*

Jules frowned at him suspiciously. “How do you mean, ‘not the same girl’?”

“I mean literally,” Adrian said. “I know that sounds crazy, but I’m telling you it wasn’t her.”

Jules handed him his cup of tea and sat down on the sofa beside him. “So who was it?”

“I have no idea! Some kind of imposter? But no one else seemed to notice.”

“So maybe you’re the one who’s mental…”

“No! I mean…what if the label replaced her?”

“Why would they do that?”

“Maybe, like, she didn’t fit what they needed, so they got rid of her and replaced her with a lookalike.”

Jules stared at him flatly. “Do you know how ridiculous that sounds?”

“Yes. I already said I did. But it makes sense, doesn’t it? They find this amazing singer, with a built-in fanbase, and they sign her to a deal, but she doesn’t play ball, she doesn’t put up with their crap. They can’t just can her, so they have to find someone who looks like her, say they’ve changed her image a bit, and market her under the same name, with the same songs she’s already recorded under contract.”

“It seems like a lot of effort to go to…”

“But she’s so good, and everyone went so crazy for her, that they wouldn’t want to lose that. Say she already recorded the album, and that’s a big investment with producers and studio time and session musicians and everything, so they have to try and sell it. But they need photoshoots and music videos or it just won’t work. It’s like George said, some people just want to watch the telly and have a wank.”

Jules wrinkled her nose. “Ew.”

“I know. But it’s all about image. They need a face to sell the record, and everyone already knows her face. So what can they do? They get a new girl in and hope no one notices.”

“But you did notice…”

“She didn’t even recognise me, Jules. But they must have briefed her, because when I said my name, she suddenly knew who I was. And she talked different and, I dunno, just something about her, I guess. She looked the same but, I swear, it wasn’t her.”

“It still sounds pretty far-fetched, Adrian.”

He leant forward and clasped his hands in front of him as he stared into space. “It is a bit, yeah. But what if it’s true? What if the real Martiqa is still out there somewhere, destitute in some bedsit, while all her songs get played on every radio station and some other woman dances around, miming to her words on stage?”

“If they did get rid of her for some reason, they’d have paid her hush money.”

“Maybe…”

She rubbed his shoulder. “It’s not like you can do anything about it though, babe.”

“I’m supposed to be her biggest fan.”

“So?”

“So, I ought to get to the bottom of this.”

“But how?” She was smiling, but he didn’t feel happy at all.

“I don’t know. But someone must know something about it, someone at Promoscope. Do you have any contacts there, through the magazine?”

She puffed out her cheeks. “Well. I mean, yeah. The celeb gossip columnists probably know some PR guys or something? But what would you do?”

“I just…I don’t know…” he slumped back in the sofa.

“Look, maybe it’s just time to move on, you know?” Jules suggested. “It’s like anything else. You find something you like, you latch onto it, then eventually you just kind of…fall out of love with it. Maybe that’s all this is? You just associated Martiqa with something important, something bigger than yourself, and she ended up disappointing you. Maybe it’s time to pick yourself up and get on with your life. I was looking at houses the other day…”

“Houses?”

“Yeah. You don’t want to rent forever do you? And I’m making good money now.”

“You want to get on the property ladder?” He pulled her closer. “That’s very conventional of you.”

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, Adrian, but we’re quite conventional people when it comes down to it.”

“I guess maybe we are.”

Later that night, after dinner, they were lounging on the sofa again. Jules went to the bathroom and Adrian got to thinking about their earlier conversation. She was right that he should just grow up and move on, but his strange meeting with ‘Martiqa’ just bugged him so much. He was certain it wasn’t her. And he was equally certain he ought to at least try to do something about his suspicion. What could it hurt to just ask a few questions? Glancing towards the hallway and seeing that Jules was still in the bathroom, he grabbed her phone and quickly scrolled through until he found the number he wanted: ‘Jen (Hot Spot)’. One of the gossip girls. He thought he’d met her at a party once. It wouldn’t be too weird if he called her out of the blue, he hoped. He quickly typed her number into his own phone and saved it.

He waited a few days before calling, taking time to work out his story. When he finally plucked up the courage, he rang her on his lunch break. “Hello, Jen Bradford?”

“Jen? Hi, it’s Adrian.”

“Adrian…?”

“Uh…Brand. Um. I’m Jules’s boyfriend?”

“Oh, hi. Is everything okay?”

“Yeah, sorry, I know this is a bit random. I have a kind of favour to ask.”

“Well now I’m intrigued…”

He relaxed slightly. Obviously he must have met her before because she seemed quite comfortable with him. “You know it’s Jules’s birthday coming up?”

“I didn’t, but okay.”

“Well, I wanted to surprise her with something really big. I know this is a long shot, but you don’t know anyone at Promoscope Records do you?”

“Promoscope?”

“Yeah. She’s a massive Martiqa fan, but she’d never try anything like this herself. It’d be career suicide. So I thought if you knew someone and hooked me up with a contact or something, I could try to arrange something.”

“What kind of thing?”

“Just backstage passes, maybe a meet and greet? You don’t have to do anything, I just need a number.”

There was a pause. “Hm…all right. But if Jules wasn’t the best editor I’d ever worked with, I wouldn’t be doing this for her, understand?”

Adrian grinned. “Of course.”

“And, if you do meet Martiqa, try and get some gossip out of her. Find out if she’s really fucking Murs.”

“Fu…yeah, okay…”

“This is your number, yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“All right, I’ll text you a name and a number of my guy at Promoscope. Ciao.”

“Bye…”

*

Adrian felt nervous. He had no idea what he was going to say or do when his contact, a man named James, arrived. They’d agreed to meet in a non-descript café in central London. He’d lured him with a claim that he was from the press and had some damaging information about Martiqa that he was willing to keep quiet for the right price. He felt dirty playing that kind of game, but he couldn’t think of any other way to get someone from the label to meet with him. Plus, it was sort of true. All he wanted to do was try to get some information, a clue as to what had happened to the real Martiqa. Over the last couple of weeks, he’d convinced himself beyond doubt that his dark suspicion was right, but now it came to actually finding out whether it might be true or not, it sounded completely bizarre. And he was about to take up someone’s valuable time on this nonsense. He stood up, about to leave his black coffee untouched, when a tall, handsome man with his hair gelled into an alarming quiff walked into the café and made a beeline for him. “Adrian, is it?” he asked brusquely.

“Uh…yeah. Listen…”

“Come with me.”

“What?”

“This way.” He grabbed his arm in a surprisingly firm grip and led him smartly out of the café to where a big, black limousine with equally black windows was waiting by the kerb.

“Hey, hold on a sec…” James – if that’s who he was – opened the door after looking both ways down the street and shoved him roughly into the car. Then he slammed the door shut without getting inside. Adrian looked around in shock as he collected himself and sat up on the seat. He felt the car moving. “Okay, I think there’s been a misunderstanding here…”

“There’s no misunderstanding, Mr Brand.”

Adrian looked up to see a figure sitting opposite him on another set of seats. It was dark inside the limo, and he couldn’t make anything out about the other passenger, except that he could tell from his voice he was a man. “Seriously, I think maybe I’ve just gotten involved in something I shouldn’t have.”

“I know for a fact that you have.”

“But I don’t know anything about Martiqa. It was just a stupid plan to talk to someone. I had this theory, you see…”

“It was a stupid plan, yes. Stupid because you used your real name, like we wouldn’t know who you are.”

“You…know who I am?”

“Of course. You’re Adrian Brand. Martiqa’s biggest fan.”

His eyes went wide. “That’s a little scary.”

The shadowy figure titled his head. “Is it? In this modern world, we all have an online portfolio, even if we don’t work to build one. You have tweets, Facebook likes and shares, YouTube views and all the rest of it and, back at Promoscope HQ, we have quite a detailed dossier of your online habits. We’ve been watching you for quite some time now.”

“Watching me?”

“Oh yes. You’ve proved to be an extremely interesting case study. But I’m being impolite. I know so much about you, but you don’t even know who I am.” A light flicked on in the limo, and Adrian found himself looking at someone he recognised. A slim white man in his mid-50s with greying hair, piercing dark eyes and suit that was so understated it had to have cost a fortune. He’d seen him in person once before: backstage at the Brixton Academy.

“Derek Rocco.”

Rocco smiled thinly and inclined his head. “The very same.”

“Look, I don’t know a thing about Martiqa. I don’t mean any harm. I just got a bit obsessed.”

“You did indeed. Very obsessed for a man in his early 30s. You’re not exactly the audience we thought we’d attract with this project.”

“Project? What project?”

There was a gleam in the record executive’s eye as he steepled his fingers and leant back in his seat. The limo trundled on through the streets of London. “The project you know as ‘Martiqa’, Mr Brand. A grand, ambitious project that we have no desire to see endangered by…unpleasant rumours.”

“She’s a project?” He shook his head. “I don’t understand.”

Rocco spread his hands. “Tell me what you think you know, and we’ll see if, together, we can find the truth.”

Adrian shifted uncomfortably. “I thought…I mean…it sounds crazy when I say it out loud…I thought you’d replaced her with a lookalike.”

“Ah. And why did you think that?”

“Because she changed. I knew…well…I kind of knew Martiqa when she just started out. She was a Marxist. She was a rapper. But you turned into a corporate shill recording bland pop music. I thought she’d just sold out, but when I met her in person again, I knew it wasn’t her. Somehow, it just wasn’t.”

“Perhaps she grew up?”

“No,” he said firmly, “I don’t think so.”

“It was a mistake letting you meet her,” Rocco said after a brief pause, “we made sure you were kept away after your first meeting with Martiqa, but the competition to interview her was won on your behalf so we didn’t know if would be you turning up. An oversight.”

Adrian swallowed. “You make it sound like you’ve been keeping tabs on me.”

“Of course we have. I called you a case study, didn’t I? We’ve known about you since the beginning of the project. You were an enthusiastic early adopter and we’ve tried hard to nurture your fandom, but you were supposed to be kept at arm’s length after Phase One was completed.”

“Phase One…?”

“The viral stage. In many ways the most important of all, albeit one of the least profitable.”

“I don’t understand…”

“No?” Rocco raised an eyebrow. “Then let me explain. The girl you know as Martiqa never existed.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Adrain said faintly.

“She is a construct, no more a real person than Ronald McDonald or the meerkats who advertise insurance websites. Her history, her personality, her online presence, were all fabricated by Promoscope Records. Her songs were performed by a number of session singers, whose voices were recorded and remixed by the most sophisticated sound editing suite in the world to produce an unrecognisable chimera. The lyrics were tested on dozens of separate focus groups over a period of three years to create the perfect content for a viral explosion online. Finally, her physical appearance and personal style, based on that of some of the most popular female recording artists in modern music and amalgamated into a pleasing whole, were crafted. The best CGI artists in the world created the most lifelike human facsimile possible and, with these tools, our marketing team made the first YouTube videos you viewed over a year ago. We put them online with no fanfare, trusting in the quality of the content to spread the word virally. Of course, we created a number of dummy accounts – sock puppets, as they’re known – to start things off on Twitter and Facebook with a few strategic shares. These sock puppets themselves were also crafted with the utmost care so that, like ‘Martiqa’s’ social networking accounts, they would appear to be authentic.”

“But…but I met her…”

“As did many people. Part of the late Phase One strategy of course involved Martiqa having a physical presence. A number of actresses were hired who resembled our computerised template. With clever use of prosthetics, make up and projections for the live performances such as the one you saw, no one would notice any difference between these women and the ‘person’ they’d seen in the original videos.”

Adrian frowned. “I don’t understand…why not just use one actress, for the videos and everything.”

“And allow there to be a single Martiqa who could lay claim to the identity? No, that would defeat the purpose. Her likeness had to be diffused. Without our aid, none of the actresses portraying her bear more than a passing resemblance to the ‘real’ Martiqa. It is important that ‘she’ not be associated with any real human being we are unable to replace if required.”

“And that’s what happened? You got rid of the first girl and got in a new one for…for Phase Two?”

“Not at all,” Rocco chuckled, “the Martiqa you met in Brixton is still working for us, as is the Martiqa you spoke to on that radio show and the Martiqa you met in that hotel the other week. They’re consummate professionals.”

“But this is madness!” Adrian cried. “You can’t just invent a person from thin air!”

“Is it so strange? Look at Milli Vanilli, Andrew WK, or the personae adopted by comedians and actors the world over. Who is ‘Keith Lemon’? Who is ‘Borat’?”

“They’re still flesh and blood people underneath though!”

“Martiqa had plenty of flesh and blood. More than you or I. Hundreds of people were involved in her creation. She speaks with the voice of an entire record company.”

“This is immoral…”

“How? Why? What makes it different from Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz project? An animated band, singing with his voice. Or, to go further back, The Archies, or other fictional bands who recorded ‘real’ music? Do you resent The Wombles? The Smurfs?”

“That’s different! They didn’t lie about what they were!”

Rocco leant forward. “You’re so naive, Adrian. It’s all an illusion, you know. It’s all a beautiful, empty lightshow. You think Justin Bieber was just discovered out of the blue? You think Lady Gaga or Katy Perry weren’t nurtured behind the scenes by corporate forces to sell records and promote sponsors? All the bands and singers you love, they all dance to this same tune. They’re all products of image consultants, stylists, personal trainers and, above all, marketing departments. They are all constructed from the base components to represent something bigger than themselves. They are all just mascots, their every move and thought controlled by people like me. Even the rappers, even the indie bands, even the uncontrollable punks. You can’t sell a record on this planet without our say-so, Adrian. We could crush, on a whim, anyone who attempted to circumvent this system. The Martiqa project is simply the latest move towards removing altogether the unpredictable human element of musical artistry. She’s nothing more controversial than autotune; an attempt to homogenise our message in order to please the fans, to sell records, to advertise products. To make money.”

Adrian felt sick. The story was outlandish but, somehow, he just knew it was true. “It’s disgusting,” he spat, “commodifying music like this. Taking something good and pure and…”

Rocco roared with laughter. “Good and pure? Don’t be so pathetic. There is nothing good and pure in this world. There is only money. Even the most beloved bands of all time bowed to the almighty dollar. You like The Beatles? If any music can meet your definition of good and pure, it’s surely theirs, but listen to the first track on Revolver, one of their most highly regarded albums. Listen to George Harrison, a white millionaire with more money than he could ever spend, complain about having to pay taxes. It’s all the same, Adrian, from top to bottom. Seven billion people – consumers – all fighting for money. You go into a supermarket, you see five different brands of washing powder. It’s all the same shit, Adrian. Made in the same factory by the same tired wage slaves. We put it in different boxes and charge different prices to give you the illusion of choice. Daz, Ariel, Persil, Tesco’s-own-brand. It’s just the same as Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Cheryl Cole, Rita Ora and now Martiqa. Same shit, different box. You make your choice, maybe you think you’ve found a bargain, but in the end you just spend the money you’ve saved on something else and, one way or another, it ends up back in the pockets of men like me. Yes, back in our pockets, Adrian. Because the money you earn comes from us too. We dole it out to you in as scant a supply as we can get away with and then you take it in your grubby mitts and you go to the very shops and websites we own and give it right back to us in exchange for worthless fucking shit. We keep you just happy enough to be placid, but just miserable enough to keep you wanting more than you have. The cycle continues, Adrian. And there’s nothing you can do about it.”

“There’s more to life than that…” Adrian said in a quiet voice.

“What? Name a human experience, and I promise men like me – and it’s always men like me – have stamped their patent number on it. Politics? Democracy is as much an illusion as Martiqa. It doesn’t matter which candidate you vote for: they all work for us, really. War? The only reason it still exists is because people pay money for guns and bombs. Love? You pay for fancy dinners, you pay for diamond rings, you even pay for the right to have your love acknowledged by society in a formal ceremony. Your love is a commodity like anything else. And even now, whole groups of you fight to have the opportunity to buy into the same institution. Gays march in the street, protesting for their right to pay money to another rich man so that all the other serfs will recognise their union in law. Don’t you get it, Adrian? All of this,” he waved out of the window as the London streets rolled by, “all of this is shit. Shit no one needs. A human being can be perfectly happy in the wilderness, living off the land. You can hunt or grow everything you could ever need to live a long, satisfying life. It was fine for countless generations. But you all buy into this same illusion, this same lightshow. You all swallow Martiqa wholesale, because you think you need her. You don’t. You don’t need a thing. You could overthrow us tomorrow if you wanted. You could do away with money. No one needs it. No one needs any of this civilisation. It’s not for anything. There’s no plan. But you won’t. Even knowing this, you won’t. Your brain is already telling you I’m wrong, that I’m crazy, that it’s not this bad. That’s your mind recalibrating itself, adjusting to re-establish the status quo, so you keep thinking you have a chance of escaping this horror. But you can’t. You’ll never succeed, not unless we want you to, and it’ll never be on your own terms. At best, you might become one of us. See, we’ve built the world to function this way. For thousands of years, we’ve twisted society around and made it work backwards so that the vast majority of mankind labour in poverty to service the will of a tiny minority. It makes no sense. It’s counter to every instinct about fairness and equality that you have. The needs of the many servicing the needs of the few. Common men dying in muddy trenches for wealthy rulers in palaces. Why should they? Because the rulers told them a flag was more important than their own lives. Because they made a virtue of service to something bigger than themselves, even if that something holds them in complete contempt. It is enough to simply belong; to be one of the tribe. We taught you that that one thing, that sense of being a part of a noble, powerful machine – even if your role is to scratch in the fields, die on the battlefield, labour in the factory – is more important than your pitiful, lowly lives. We turned gods into ants.

Adrian stared at Rocco. He didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know how to put his brain back together after what he’d just been told. “Why tell me this?” he finally managed to get out.

“Because, Adrian,” Rocco said with a sly smile, “there’s nothing you can do about it. You could get out of this limo now and tell the world Martiqa never existed, that she’s an illusion, created to sell things and line the pockets of the already wealthy. Maybe you’d be believed. But what then? Nothing would change. Perhaps Promoscope would fall, but I’d escape. I’m above the law. The law is designed precisely to protect people like me from people like you. We engineered it thus. Why else do lawyers charge? Justice too is a commodity. I’d escape consequences and I’d return and then I’d crush you and your girlfriend like the insects you are. People like you, little people, you live and die on our whims. I could have you evicted from your home, I could destroy your credit rating, I could take everything from you as easily as I’d swat a fly. Your life, everything you’ve achieved – what little there is of that – could be wiped out in an instant. And I would go back to my mansion, to my family, and eat food prepared by more worker drones like you, sleep in a bedroom they clean, shit in a toilet they scrub. I and men like me made this civilisation, made all civilisations, and you all pick through our leavings simply because we allow it. So, please feel free to attempt to expose me, and see what it gets you. You could be out there now,” he pointed, “on the streets, begging for the indulgence of other poor people. They would hold you in contempt, even though they would have much more in common with you than me. You fight amongst yourselves for scraps from our table. Never forget that, worm.”

The car came to a halt. They were outside Adrian’s flat. Rocco leaned forward and opened the door. “See? I know where you live. I know everything about you. You’re nothing. Fuck with me, and I’ll end you.” Adrian stumbled out into the cold grey light. He turned around to stare blankly into the limo. Rocco grinned up at him. “Martiqa’s new album comes out in April. We recorded all the tracks over a year ago though. It’s very good. Very modern. More pop than her old stuff. Pre-order on iTunes on March 1st. Goodbye, Adrian.”

The car door slammed shut, and the limo sped off with a screech of tires.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Contemporary, Philosophy, Short Story. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s