Monthly Archives: February 2017

pop stars you wouldn’t expect to play tennis

Plenty of tennis players have fancied themselves as pop stars. John McEnroe has jammed with Springsteen and Santana, as well as joining fellow ex-pro Pat Cash – along with The Who’s Roger Daltrey and two members of Iron Maiden – in one-off charity supergroup The Full Metal Rackets. Jimmy Connors sang on a Lionel Richie album. Both Serena Williams and Andy Murray have tried their hand at rapping, while former French Open champion Yannick Noah even crossed the line permanently, releasing a string of reggae albums, including a couple of million sellers (in France).

But when the tennis shoe’s on the other foot, which singers can hit a mean cross-court forehand? Our list of tennis-playing pop stars may serve up a few surprises…

Elton John

Sir Elton’s love of Watford FC is well-known, but he’s an equally big tennis nut. A lifelong friend of Billie Jean King, his 1975 single Philadelphia Freedom was a tribute to her pro tennis team of the time. Since 1993, the pair have hosted the annual WTT Smash Hits charity tournament, often partnering up to play doubles together. At last year’s event, held at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, Elton teamed up with Martina Navratilova for a narrow defeat to Maria Sharapova and Andy Roddick.


Drake certainly loves sport. Rarely an NBA fixture goes by without the rapper trying to gatecrash the pre-match huddle of whichever team he’s supporting that week. But Drake’s also been spotted watching baseball, football, ice hockey, American football, even polo. And, of course, tennis. From 2011 onwards, Drake was often seen chilling in the VIP box wherever Serena Williams was playing, including when he cheered her on to victory at Wimbledon 2015. Were they dating or did they just enjoy hitting a few rallies from time to time? “Tennis matches at the crib,” he rapped on Worst Behavior, at pains to underline his own on-court credentials. “I swear I could beat Serena when she playin’ with her left…”

Justin Bieber

Pop’s answer to Nick Kyrgios certainly looks the part here, competing in 2015’s 11th Annual Desert Smash – a charity tournament hosted by Will Ferrell. Bieber teamed up with his compatriot, Canadian tennis pro Eugenie Bouchard, for a doubles match against Kevin Hart and TV presenter Billy Bush.


As Shakira made clear, hips don’t lie – and the Colombian singer uses hers to swivel and hit a series of unstoppable volleys in this tennis training session she shared on Instagram. She may have picked up a few tips from her pal Rafael Nadal, who smouldered through the video to Shakira’s 2010 song Gypsy.

What was the most annoying novelty song of all time?

Annoying songs are largely in the ear of the listener. But some songs transcend subjectivity to reach a plateau of irksomeness that is almost universally acknowledged, a state of affairs that is only made worse by the fact that those songs are, at the point of peak irritation, hugely popular too.

Star Trekkin’ by The Firm

An affectionate swipe at a beloved sci-fi franchise, Star Trekkin’ became such a massive hit in 1987 that it coloured the public’s view of the thing it set out to celebrate. To this day people assume the phrase “it’s life Jim, but not as we know it” appears in the original series, and it doesn’t. And it could be argued that this song inspired Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty (The KLF) to adopt the pseudonym The Timelords and create their own fandom hit Doctorin’ the Tardis. Not that either of these facts makes listening to Star Trekkin’ any more pleasurable nowadays, of course.

Axel F by Crazy Frog

The voice came from a daft teenage impression of a moped engine, the song came from the movie Beverly Hills Cop, and the whole thing was an early example of the viral nature of web culture. Daniel Malmedahl’s comedic vocal noises were an early internet hit that resulted in a TV appearance, the soundtrack of which was popular on file-sharing sites in the early 00s. Animator Erik Wernquist used the voice to create a cartoon character called The Annoying Thing, which then became its own viral hit. Then in 2004 the voice was used to launch an obnoxious ringtone called Crazy Frog, which proved so popular, it was then set to Harold Faltermeyer’s 1984 electro hit Axel F and released as a global hit single. Thanks a lot, Tim Berners-Lee.

Mr Blobby by Mr Blobby

This 1993 Christmas No.1 will make absolutely no sense to anyone who wasn’t around at the time. And even less to those who were. Mr Blobby was the anarchic slapstick measley balloon sidekick to Noel Edmonds in Noel’s House Party who would interrupt proceedings, shout “blobby!” in a Dalek-y voice and knock everything over. So in a sense, a song that sounds like a fairground ride in a nightmare – complete with children’s choir – is very fitting. In another, more relevant sense, listening to it feels like riding a supercharged merry-go-round where all the horses are real.

Gangnam Style by Psy

This is where definitions of novelty become a little more hazy. Psy’s breakthrough hit is a masterpiece of attention-grabbing dance-pop dynamics, and was not created to cash in on anything or to mock anything or to be cheesy or annoying in any way. That said, it’s as perky, upbeat and incomprehensible (to English-speaking ears) as Crazy Frog, has a silly dance routine like Agadoo, and is unlikely to be followed by any other hits of the same ilk, because really, nothing sounds quite like it. So it’s a novelty hit, and has definitely annoyed enough people to deserve inclusion in this list.

The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?) by Ylvis

There’s a stark lesson in this song, which was created as an “anti-hit” by the Norwegian comedy duo Ylvis. Pulling in a favour from actually-very-good songwriters Stargate, they created the song so they could tell a funny story about messing up: “We thought it would be more fun from a comedian perspective to come home to the talk show and say, ‘Listen we had the chance, we could’ve made it big, but the only idea we got for the song was this old idea about what the fox says so we’re sorry. We screwed up.’ That was the plan.” So it was supposed to be the worst song ever made, and it may well be (which is a success of sorts), but it did not stop The Fox becoming a fairly instant worldwide viral sensation. As a failure, it failed horribly.

acts of everyday heroism by pop stars

We often refer to our favourite musicians as ‘heroes’ but when it comes to an actual emergency, could we really trust them to apprehend that bag-snatcher or haul us out of that burning car? In some cases, yes. As we will learn, not all pop stars are cosseted snowflakes, insulated from the hazards of real life by a phalanx of minders and eight inches of reinforced concrete.

In situations where even the bravest and most clear-headed of us might have frozen, sometimes it’s been the badboy rapper, or the country star, or the singer of 80s piano ballads who has taken charge, diffused a tense situation or even saved a life. Here are eight acts of spontaneous bravery by pop stars who really do deserve the ‘hero’ tag.

Garth Brooks rescues two boys from a bushfire

Country singer Garth Brooks scored a minor UK hit in 1994 with Standing Outside the Fire, which he performed on Top of the Pops to a backdrop of seething flames. Six years later this became a terrible prophecy when a bushfire tore through grasslands near his in-laws’ home in rural Oklahoma. As ABC reported, Brooks evacuated two boys from a nearby house, driving them through thick smoke to safety. He then stopped to push the family’s boat out of a barn that was threatened by the fire. “He gets my vote,” said the boys’ father, a new convert to country music.

Anthony Kiedis gives CPR to a baby

Squint a little, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers logo looks rather like the Star of Life symbol used by American emergency services. Frontman Anthony Kiedis could certainly have been mistaken for a paramedic when he rushed to help a baby with breathing difficulties during a recording of James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke. “A woman came out of her house holding a child, saying, ‘My baby, my baby, my baby can’t breathe!'” Kiedis told Radio X. “We all ran across the street. The lady thrust the baby into my arms. The baby was not breathing. I thought, ‘I’m going to try and do a little baby CPR real quick to see if I can get some air into this kid. I tried to open the mouth. [It was] locked shut. So I started rubbing the belly, bubbles started coming out of the mouth, the eyes rolled back into place. The ambulance showed up and I handed the baby over who was breathing and fine. Then we went back to shooting Carpool Karaoke.”

T.I. saves the life of two suicide jumpers – including Creed’s Scott Stapp

In 2010, rapper T.I. drew on the uplifting words of his biggest hit Live Your Life to talk a potential suicide jumper down from the ledge. Hearing that a man was threatening to jump from the roof of Atlanta radio station V-103, T.I. raced to the scene, as reported by Rolling Stone. After consulting with police, he recorded a video message for the troubled man in which he said: “Nothing is that bad. Nothing in life is worth taking your life. I’m here to help you. Please come down to talk to me.” It worked – the man stepped back from the ledge and received a comforting word from T.I. before being taken to hospital.

Amazingly, T.I. has previous as a lifesaver. Four years earlier, he happened to be staying in the same Miami hotel as Creed frontman Scott Stapp when the rocker leapt over his balcony during an episode of drug-induced psychosis, fracturing his skull and breaking his hip in the fall. “I laid out there for two and a half hours and my guardian angel showed up – rapper T.I.,” Stapp told VH1. “He immediately took care of the situation and saved my life.”

Liam Payne saves a friend from a patio heater fire

In the One Direction film This Is Us, Liam Payne revealed that he might have joined the fire service if fame hadn’t come knocking. He certainly has the credentials to be a fireman, if this story is anything to go by. In 2013, as reported by The Mirror, he was quick to react when a patio heater exploded at his luxury flat, leaving his friend Andy trapped on a burning balcony. Liam hauled Andy from the blaze, which eventually took 35 firefighters to extinguish.

The Japanese obsession with girl bands – explained

At first glance, the Japanese pop scene can be baffling. The music is super-sweet and hyperdynamic, an offshoot of Japan’s kawaii culture of cuteness and a literal world away from earnest singers with guitars or scathing rappers with laid-back beats. While there are solo stars and boybands, just as in western pop, there’s a particular cultural excitement around girl groups.

These can be relatively small troupes like Perfume or Momoiro Clover Z, or bands who have so many singers they run the risk of outnumbering their audiences, such as AKB48, who can boast 130 singers on their payroll and are not only Japan’s biggest selling group, but the world’s largest pop troupe.

As East Asian culture has traditionally valued teamwork and harmony above individualism (see How East and West think in profoundly different ways), so groups and collectives have tended to be more popular in Japan than solo artists. In the case of AKB48, competition to join the band is not only fierce, it’s televised, in a tense spectacle that makes The X Factor look calm and sedate by comparison.

As part of the BBC’s Japan Season, Storyville presents the documentary Tokyo Girls, a film by Kyoko Miyake, which explores the phenomenon of idol groups, who have come to dominate J-Pop, through the eyes of Rio, an aspiring performer, and her devoted fans, who call themselves Rio Brothers.

Rio’s fans are, in the main, adult men, some in their mid-40s, and they call themselves otaku, a word used to describe someone with an obsession with an item of popular culture that is so great it can detract from their abilities to socially interact, ie. an equivalent to nerd or geek. Otaku display the same passion and devotion as any teenage Justin Bieber addict, and in some cases are prepared to give up their careers and devote all their savings to following their favourite performer.

This isn’t an isolated situation. While J-Pop remains hugely popular in Japanese culture, idol fans are an entirely different social demographic than pop fans in Britain. More male than female, and older too. So while some Japanese music fans of a certain age might spend their time painstakingly recreating the music of Radiohead, others are bent over the craft table, making immaculate glittery gifts for their pop idols.

In the main, idol singers are presented as fantasy versions of perky schoolgirls, full of pep and vim, and entirely innocent about adult matters. Even Babymetal, a band who apply J-Pop sensibilities to heavy metal, sing far more about chocolate and dancing than they do about Satan or sex.


There are a lot of performers to choose from, as the film explains, there are over 10,000 teenage girls who perform as idols in Japan at present. They perform live webcam shows and in small venues similar to karaoke bars, called idol cafes. Tokyo’s Akihabara district is the hub of idol activity, in a business that is said to be worth $1 billion a year.

According to cultural commentator Akio Nakamori, there’s a distinct – and surprising – economic reason why these men devote their time and attention to idol performers, and it’s to do with the Japanese recession: “There are parallels between 1970s London and Tokyo today. The economy stagnated and the cultural scene was dead. People were looking for something new. London invented the Sex Pistols. The Japanese answer was idol culture.”