Dispatches From The Mainstream: 2/15/2013

Kelly Clarkson – Catch My Breath

Kelly Clarkson is weirdly likeable. We should be resistant to her, because her entire career is non-organic and extremely forced. But I guess we love her because we picked her. You might even say that Kelly Clarkson is the last thing our country agreed on. The very next season of American Idol was beset with controversy about homophobia and missing votes. And even when someone actually does win American Idol these days, do we give them a career? Sometimes we do, but sometimes we end up with Taylor Hicks. Yeah, I said it.

I like Kelly Clarkson so much that I’m disappointed in myself whenever I don’t enjoy her current single, but I couldn’t stand “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You).” I’m no minimalist, but that junk was too noisy. The chorus was like the inside of a car factory. That entire album was kind of wash for singles, really: “Mr. Know It All” was a slightly less annoying version of “Just The Way You Are” by Bruno Mars–but only slightly–and do you even remember “Dark Side?” I do, and I’m not too happy about it. I guess that was Kelly’s “unlistenable, non-catchy chorus” phase.

“Catchy My Breath” succeeds by dialing it back a little bit: “Stronger” was exhausting before the first verse even started, but this song uses a repetitive melody to great effect. The construction of the chorus is great, too: it’s simple and it gives Clarkson a chance to show off her fantastic voice. “Catch My Breath” also has that same life-affirming, in-your-face, no-screw-YOU power that “Stronger” had, but with a wider appeal—hey, people who aren’t escaping a toxic relationship need anthems, too! Just sayin’.

Rihanna feat. Future – Loveeeeeee Song

Rihanna’s music has always had a streak of unsentimental iciness. Maybe it’s because her voice doesn’t allow her to sound truly nurturing or emotional or any other stuff that codes as “feminine,” but there’s always been an air of hardness about her. Then in 2009 she went through some seriously bad stuff and put out Rated R, an album that channeled the darkness of her life into some of the most aggressive music ever to be put out by a pop diva. There aren’t a lot of MALE R&B stars that make music that aggressive.

Since then she’s gone back and forth between “dark” Rihanna and a more conventionally “feminine” role, ping-ponging between the two several times over the course of a single album. For example, “We Found Love” & “You da One” appeared on the same disc as “Talk That Talk,” “Cockiness” and—ugh—“Birthday Cake”. Unapologetic is no different, opening up with the aggressive and sonically unpleasant “Phresh Out The Runway,” switching back to love-struck-Rihanna for “Diamonds” then whipping around to “Pour It Up,” which sounds like it was pitched to about twenty different male artists before Rihanna snatched it up. Put it this way: when a female singer is talking about “strippers going up and down that pole,” you are dealing with some binary-breaking business.

“Loveeeeeee Song” is a more subtle inversion of gender norms than “Pour It Up,” but it’s more interesting because it pairs the a-typically aggressive Rihanna with Future, a rapper best known for his love of autotune and his unusual sensitivity. On the hook, Future pleads openly for “love and affection” without a hint of bravado or ego. In the verses, Rihanna plays a more guarded role, tossing out sexy come-ons and promising to “lay you down.” Not only is it one of the few listenable songs on Unapologetic, it’s a noteworthy pop song. Not because of how unusual it is, but because of how close it is to a normal Top-40 duet between a man and a woman. All Rihanna and Future did was trade places.

The Band Perry – “Better Dig Two”

I haven’t checked in with The Band Perry since “If I Die Young,” a song that was so poorly written I had trouble believing that the writer was almost 30 years old. Kimberly Perry is the first adult woman I’ve known whose death fantasies can rival those of a teenage LiveJournal user. Especially annoying was the winking bridge, with the lyrics, “maybe then you’ll hear the songs I’ve been singing/funny when you’re dead, how people start listening.” Not only is that a remarkably dull observation, it sounds like it belongs in a totally different song.

“Better Dig Two” wasn’t written by any of the band-members Perry, but it sure fits their lyrical style, right down to the fixation on white wedding dresses as a symbol of purity. The title and the music promise a much darker story than what we get–to me, it harkens back to that scene in A Fistful of Dollars when Clint Eastwood tells the guy how many coffins to build. So cool. Anyway, the chorus of “Better Dig Two” describes a woman who would rather die than go on living without her husband… but then the verses hint at a darker meaning to the titular phrase. She vaguely threatens to either kill herself or kill herself and her husband, which would be an interesting direction to go in if the song could just commit to it.

Other crimes include use of the contraction “I is”—as in, “I’s gonna love you till I’s dead”—and a jarring reference to meth in the middle of a song that otherwise sounds like it was written sixty years ago. The music is a step-up from “If I Die Young”, with handclaps and creepy banjo on the verses, and those electric guitars that take us right back into pop-country territory aren’t totally unwelcome. This is a muddled song that could be a fun little bit of darkness if the lyrics had gotten a second draft.

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