Dispatches From The Mainstream

Dispatches From The Mainstream: “Real and True”

I’m afraid that the currents of pop music are too vast and weird for me to comprehend, dear reader, because this has to be the most random three artists I have ever seen assembled together on one song.

Let’s start with Miley, since she’s pretty much naked in this video and I’m afraid that’s all people are going to take away from it. Less than six months ago, having Miley turn up in a song like this, dressed the way she is, would have been unthinkable. Die-hards (and people with too much time on their hands) would have known from the ominous tone and caged-bird imagery of “Can’t Be Tamed” that a new Miley was on the way, but it was a huge jump from the pole-dancing hullabaloo of “Party in the U.S.A.” (“You guys don’t think that Hannah Montana might be a sexual being, do you? No, me neither, that would drastically undermine my understanding of the world”) to “We Can’t Stop” and the madness of the accompanying VMAs performance, from which we as a nation are just beginning to recover.

Mr. Hudson is a long-time favorite of mine, but since most people know him as “that guy from Jay-Z’s worst song,” I’ll do a quick recap: Mr. Hudson made a lovely and intelligent indie-pop record in 2007, got discovered by Kanye West, who helped Hudson make his shiny-but-uneven follow-up Straight No Chaser, which left him in the awkward position of a guy who desperately tried to be a big-name pop star and failed. Since then, he’s languished in the background of Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Music label, formed the hyperactive BIGkids side-project with Rosie Bones and… now he’s singing about entropy on a song with Future.

Future is perpetually living 2008 by way Kanye West and Lil Wayne at the same time. He never steps away from Auto-Tune, even when he’s rapping, but he doesn’t just use it to express emotion—though he does plenty of that. His constant vocal modification is just part of the loveable and all-encompassing weirdness that brings to mind a time when Lil Wayne wasn’t a stand-in for everything wrong with Hip-Hop; he was actually the underdog. Future’s lyrical ability is nowhere near Wayne at his peak, but his melodic sensibility is the real draw, and even when he throws out a real clunker of a verse, there’s usually something endearing about it.

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They’ve really got their best guys on this mission, huh?

Despite his open embrace of tenderness and vulnerability, “Real and True” is the furthest Future has ventured into pure ballad territory. The beat is sparse and piano centric, but the main instrument is Future’s voice, which runs through the background of the entire song. You wouldn’t think that a highly processed series of moans could lend a song this sort of melancholy feel, but there it is.

His delivery in the first verse—where he pays himself and his beau a series of compliments in a second person perspective—is close to rapping, but his next verse is straight-up singing. And if Future has trouble writing coherent rap verses, his songwriting game is all over the place.

Still, as fun as it is to watch Future goofily grin in the video as he says things of himself that no one has ever said or ever will say, there’s something genuinely affecting about the final verse. You’ll rarely find a rapper being this nakedly emotional or spouting a full-fledged endorsement of commitment. And even if the three lines that follow sound like they came from three separate songs, well, they’re still nice.

I could never be scared of commitment

I can prevail through life without bein’ malicious

I can’t hold you full responsible for your mischief

I hope you are never huntin’ me with vengeance

I mean, that’s a cool sentiment, right? That you can succeed in life without actively harming others. And I don’t really know whom he’s addressing in that last line, but hey, I get it. I hope no one ever hunts me with vengeance either, Future.

Oh, Miley Cyrus is on this song, right? I guess we should talk about that some more. But do you really need someone else’s opinion on Ms. Cyrus? I don’t want to delve into the cultural discussion surrounding her new identity, but I would like to say that Halloween was three weeks ago, so it might be time to take off the Rihanna costume.

Mr. Hudson sounds great belting out the chorus, and I hope this song catches on, because I’d love a new album from him. Until then, I GUESS I’ll settle for this intergalactic sci-fi epic where he teams up with Future to rescue lost astronaut Miley Cyrus who has turned into a glitter person with the power of teleportation. Beggars can’t be choosers.

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Dispatches From The Mainstream: 7/22/2013

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Avril Lavigne – Here’s To Never Growing Up

Don’t-give-a-whaaat Ke$ha-style partying by way of Taylor Swift’s pseudo-countrified pop. Is this what it’s come to? I thought you were better than this, Avril! Actually, no, I didn’t, but seeing someone clinging to relevancy this desperately is sad, unless it’s someone truly heinous, which Lavigne never was. Did you know she’s 28? I’m not saying that to make you feel old—she’s too old to sell this kind of bubblegum and too young to get any pathos from the concept. It’s not surprising that she’s chose this path: while most of her music is general adult contemporary, “Girlfriend” is her biggest and brattiest song. Never growing up isn’t so much a lifestyle for Lavigne as it is a marketing ploy.

But the real issue here is that name-drop at the front of the chorus. What Radiohead song do you know that’s suitable to be sang at the top of your lungs? Ms. Perry’s “The One Who Got Away” raised similar questions last year, but Lavigne throws hers right into the refrain and forces you to really grapple with it. Which Radiohead album are these ladies listening to? Is “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” appropriate music for a Mustang make-out session? Is it even possible to sing “Kid A” at the volume Lavigne suggests? I have more questions than answers, obviously.

David Guetta – Play Hard (feat. Akon & Ne-Yo)

EDM is the musical equivalent of empty calories, but even by the standards of modern dance music, David Guetta’s work is dumb with a capital ‘d’. Moreso than Calvin Harris, David Guetta’s music is derivative and comically unsubtle, and some accuse Harris of making the same song over and over again, at least he’s doing it without ripping off Afrojack. Although, D. Guetta and Afrojack have a working relationship, so… maybe Mr. Jack is cool with it?

I don’t want Guetta to be a plagiarist because despite his obvious flaws and the role he played in transforming the charts into an across-the-board synth-fueled bacchanalia, I like his music. It’s big and loud and you can jog to it, and on occasion, it’s fantastic. (See: “Without You”). “Play Hard” doesn’t have a lot going for it aside from that famous synth line in the chorus, but at least this time Guetta credited the original artist.

“Play Hard” is dull—Akon can really suck the energy out of a verse, huh?—but it’s worth a listen just to hear the sound of pop music eating itself in some kind of substance-free Ouroboros scenario. “Better Off Alone” came from a different time, when electronic music was a rarity on the charts, sung by unknowns. Now it’s everywhere, with big-name artists of all genres ready and willing to jump on the train. Alice DeeJay is remembered fondly for their one big song; when David Guetta finally runs out of steam (around the time he samples the chorus from “Castles In The Sky”), he’ll be looked back on with exhaustion and annoyance. Alas, the perils of success.

Capital Cities – Safe And Sound

Here’s the argument against Guetta-style hedomism. This falls somewhere between “alternative” and “dance,” but wherever you place it, “Safe And Sound” is a great reminder that the synthesizer has more settings than “hedonism.” Even in pop music, it doesn’t have to be all build-up and release. Electronic sounds can be more soothing and inviting than a six-string if you use them right.

It would feel a little silly to call this minimalism, but it’s simple, for sure. All I can make out is a synth, a drum machine, a horn, and two guys singing—maybe a little guitar on the bridge, but only for accent. And it works! So much Top 40 is overstuffed to the point where you can’t identify the individual instruments, so it’s nice to hear something this basic.

It’s a bit repetitive and there’s one real groaner of a lyric—“hurricane of frowns”—but the message of the song is so uplifting that it feels more like a mantra, something you chant in order to encourage positive thoughts. The music just goes along with that: the synth line is warm and smooth, and the horn, oh, the horn. The horn is the great under-used instrument of modern pop music. It’s almost cheap how easily a horn signifies triumph, hopefulness or just sheer exuberance, but it’s used so sparingly in “Capital Cities” for what a major part of the song it is. I say we give them a pass. In fact, I say we give everyone a pass. Let’s throw a horn into every pop song we can until we’re all sick of it.

Dispatches From The Mainstream: 5/28/2013

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Florida Georgia Line – Cruise [Remix] (feat. Nelly)

Call it a “remix” all you want, but I know a hastily-produced “pop” version of a country song when I hear it. To the best of my knowledge, Taylor Swift originated this practice when some backwards-thinking suits at the label got uncomfortable because “Love Story” had the barest hint of a steel guitar in it. Swift would later become the living embodiment of this phenomenon.

Anyway, the original version of “Cruise” was more already more rock than country, but it was a pleasant addition to charts and it fell more on the side of “simple” than “braindead,” which is a rarity in a lot of modern country. It was catchy and it didn’t get caught up in the “Countrier Than Thou” nonsense that started when Waylon Jennings made “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” and has just snowballed ever since.

The new version of “Cruise” is dispiriting in some ways: do record execs still think we won’t listen to something that doesn’t sound exactly like everything else? The original didn’t have a lot of rough edges to smooth over, but damned it they didn’t find some. The distinctive guitar line is gone—hell, the entire instrument has been buffed out. If you really dig for it, you can still hear the rumor of an electric six-tring underneath the stuttering drum-machine beat and healthy drizzling of auto-tune, but don’t strain yourself.

But the inclusion of Nelly is a happy surprise. He’s always identified as a “country boy,” and his last foray in to the genre was “Over and Over” with Tim McGraw–which, in case you’ve forgotten, is just great. It’s been nearly a decade since Nelly went to that well, which says to me that this isn’t some crass cross-promotion gimmick: I think Nelly just likes hopping on a country song every now and then. His talk-sing croon fits nicely into any genre, and even if his actually rapping is pretty uninspired, “I can see you got a thing for the fast life/so come on, shorty, let me show you what the fast like” is so bizarrely lazy that I can’t help but like it.

Robin Thicke – Blurred Lines (feat. T.I. & Pharrell)

Does anyone know where Chad Hugo is? Should we send out a search party? Do you think Pharrell has him trapped in a well somewhere beneath the house?

Hugo was most recently spotted forming a DJ duo with someone that I’ve never, ever heard of, so I guess he’s not dead, but a quick scan of Wikipedia reveals an abundance of Pharrell-produced tracks in the past year and a lack of proper Neptunes beats. Nothing against Pharrell: he’s talented, and more than that, he’s fascinating—side bar: do you think I could write an entire 33 1/3 book about his terrible solo album? Bet you I could—but The Neptunes put together some of the best songs of the last decade, and while they’ve had a few missteps, I’d rather hear them in their synthed-out latter-day mode than listen to another empty-headed Pharrell beat.

The music behind “Blurred Lines” isn’t bad, but Pharrell must not have known it was for a pop song, because it sounds like a hip-hop beat. Actually, it’s too repetitive to even be a good rap song: there’s nothing there for a hook. Robin Thicke does the best he can (the way he drops he voice on that second “I know you want it” is the best part of the whole song) and Pharrell throws in some nice harmonies, but it’s a lost cause. The vocals go nowhere because that endless clanging gives them nowhere to go.

Also, T.I. stops by to do his slick-talking thing and drop a few come-ons that feel more like threats of sexual abuse.

J. Cole – Power Trip (feat. Miguel)

A strong showing from Jermaine Cole! I don’t know why I’m surprised that I like this song so much. I guess I’m still a little confused about Cole’s first album: I mean, what happened? Sideline Story debuted at number one on Billboard and got some love from critics, but it came and went without making much of an impression. J. Cole was way hyped up at that point, so anything less than the second coming of Yeezus would have been a let-down, but were those singles really the best you could do, J? That Trey Songz number was weak, and that dubstep-light mess you slathered all over “Mr. Nice Watch” wasn’t gonna win anyone over. “Work Out” was the most fun song on the album and it was about 15% J. Cole.

But “fun” isn’t really Cole’s thing. The other standout track from Cole World was “Lost Ones,” a devastating story-rap about abortion. “Power Trip” strikes a good balance between the two extremes: it’s loaded with real emotion, but Cole doesn’t succumb to his often-terminal self-seriousness. He’s honest and self-aware, like when he chastises himself for sending anonymous flowers (“coward shit”) and the way he flip-fops between boasting and admitting that he’s still stuck on the same girl, damn, Cole, really? The girl from “Dreams?” You need to get over that. “Homie, pull it together.”

Miguel doesn’t get enough to do, but he and Cole both make the most of his vocals. Cole drops out most of the beat and Miguel belts out his two lines with pure romanticism. Cole says that this song has a double meaning—that it addresses a real girl and a metaphorical girl, the latter being hip-hop. It’s a stretch, but with this hook, there’s no doubt that the song is sincere, no matter who or what it’s addressed to.

Dispatches From The Mainstream: 5/14/2013

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The Lumineers – “Stubborn Love”

What is this soggy, dull, trite, limp, repetitive, sub-Mumford garbage and how can we get it off the radio? This is the dullest four minutes you’ll spend on a top 40 station this year. Dead air time is more interesting than this. Pop music can get away with a lot of things but being boring is not one of them. A song can have dull verses if the chorus is big enough (see: Fountains of Wayne), but the chorus here is just nothing and the verses are unpleasant drivel that we’re supposed to accept as meaningful just because some bearded nobody is playing a “real instrument” behind it? No, no, and once again: no.

Mumford and Son are an easy punch line but their music works because, even at their most grandiose, over-bearing and condescending, their lyrics are fueled by a spirituality that’s so blatant it can’t be a put-on. Mumford and Sons might be playing dress-up (they toured an old-timey train, for God’s sake) but you’d be pretty cynical to deny that Marcus Mumford really believes in repentance, grace and all that other good stuff. I have no reason to believe that the Lumineers are being insincere in this song, but with these lyrics, that’s nothing to be proud of. “Stubborn Love” tells the story of two unpleasant people in the midst of an unpleasant love affair, with a few bumper-sticker idioms tossed in (“The opposite of love’s indifference?” gee, good one), paired with a refrain of unearned optimism. Can I say it one more time? No.

Will.I.Am – “That Power (feat. Justin Bieber)” 

Will.I.Am knows that it’s not called a “batter-ram,” right?

When Will.I.Am (along with his band-mate Fergie and those other guys) first switched it up with The E.N.D., I had to put aside my disinterest and give up a little respect. His songs weren’t much better than they had ever been, but it took guts to ditch a successful pop-rap formula in favor of a minimalistic electro approach. But after “I Gotta Feeling,” it was all downhill, and the singles got so bad that my begrudging respect morphed back into indifference and then kept growing until it was an enormous, tumorous mass of hate. Remember Tetsuo at the end of Akira? That’s what I’m talking about.

Will.I.Am’s solo career since then has been more of the same. He produced one awesome song (“Check It Out,” with Nicki Minaj) and a whole bunch of crap. Once in a while, I’ll hear a Will.I.Am song and have a thought (something like “nothing else on the radio sounds like this!”) and some of that admiration starts to creep back in. But when I remember that even the brain-dead beats that Will uses to back his inane rapping are usually outright stolen from another artist, then the hate returns and nothing can stop me from destroying Neo-Tokyo.

Biebs is alright on this, though. At least Will.I.Am didn’t neuter him like he did Usher on “OMG.” Yeesh.

Redfoo – “Bring Out The Bottles”

You may have noticed that a lot of the songs I write about here are several months old. This is usually because I—big twist coming up—actually do listen to other kinds of music, and sometimes it takes a while for new pop songs to filter down to me. In the case of Redfoo’s first solo single, things were a little different. I couldn’t write about this song for six months because it’s too depressing.

LMFAO were basically a novelty band that got lucky with “Party Rock Anthem,” an incredibly catchy song that wore out its welcome in record time.  When Redfoo and Skyblu both sing-rapped about non-stop partying, it was goofy and harmless, but for some reason, Redfoo on his own makes partying sound awful. The music is lifeless, the lyrics are boilerplate, and what’s supposed read as anthemic (or at least joyous) sounds like empty excess. The chorus is club life by way of Bret Easton Ellis. It’s not a hook; it’s the howl of a desperate man as he plummets into the abyss. When Redfoo commands an unseen servant to “bring out the bottles,” he does it with all the mirth of a syphilitic Emperor in the final days of Rome.

Even if “Bring Out The Bottles” doesn’t fill you with existential dread, the obligatory mention of his “big-ass fro” is enough to make you weep for Redfoo. You really think a man pushing 40 wants to party every night, or rap about hitting the dance floor and slapping girls on the butt? Then again, he chose this life. I’m sorry, Redfoo, but you dug your own grave. I will not cry for you, Redfoo. I will show you no pity. No pity and no mercy.

Dispatches from the Mainstream, 3/15/2013

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Justin Bieber – Beauty And A Beat (feat. Nicki Minaj)

Justin Bieber: human meme. YouTube comments punching bag. Fixation of ironic alt-lit poets. This enigmatic figure known as “the Biebs” has loomed large in our culture for years now, but I’d wager that most people who make jokes about Justin—ie, lazy comedians and jerks—probably never heard one of his songs. Now, the freedom to dismiss things with no basis in fact or personal experience is your right as an American, but maybe we shouldn’t make it a habit to disparage a sixteen-year-old boy just because he’s effeminate and has money.

Anyway, “Boyfriend” marked something of a turning point: people started actually listening to Bieber’s music, and it seems like we all collectively decided that yeah, he was alright. There are still a few troglodytes holding Bieber up as an example of “how modern music is terrible” but we need to ignore those people until they wither away and die or just until they find a new pop star to hate. Hey, have you guys heard of Austin Mahone?

One thing that may have helped Bieber out is, well, puberty. He had the pleasant voice of a choirboy when he first showed up, and unfortunately, he had the charisma to match. These days, he’s at least learned to project a little personality, which helps him out a lot on “Beauty And A Beat”. The song is pretty generic modern-day R&B, dubstep breaks and all, enough that you might think any other singer would fit just as well. But you need someone with an air of innocence in order for these lyrics to work. “Body rock,” “party like it’s 3012”, even the titular line—a play on “Beauty & The Beast” that doesn’t make any sense—would be unforgivable clunkers on a Justin Timberlake record. Hell, they would even stick out on a Trey Songz record.

Nicki Minaj, who also lives on the razor’s edge between real person and living joke, does fine here, though her verse is most notable for the uncomfortable line about drugging Bieber and having sex with him when his girlfriend isn’t around. Just look at how awkward that moment is in the video. Oh, the video is fun, too. The found-footage conceit is silly, but the pseudo-handheld look really works. It’s almost like you’re actually there, partying with the Biebs himself! Gee, wouldn’t that be nice? Actually hanging out with Justin Bieber? Siiiiiiiigh.

Wait, what were talking about? 

Nicki Minaj – The Boys (feat. Cassie)

Speaking of Ms. Minaj, a few months ago she dropped her best song since  “Super Bass.” Minaj has a unique position in pop music, partially because she markets herself as a singer as much as she does a rapper. I don’t mind her actual singing—it’s the definition of serviceable—but I’m disappointed whenever she drops a single that neglects her rapping abilities. Minaj is wasted on slick dance numbers like “Starships” or “Pound The Alarm”. Give her something she can really sink her teeth into and she’ll usually impress. The beat on “The Boys” is perfectly suited to her aesthetic—booming, clacking, but with a bit of weirdness in the form of a bee-like synth squeaking around in the background.

The chorus is unique: Cassie’s dead-eyed and robotic delivery gives way to Nicki’s whining rap (and what appears to be a “Technologic” reference), until the whole beat drops out and is replaced by a gentle acoustic guitar that sounds like it’s from a whole different song—which it is—and Cassie gently croons one of the most sarcastic hooks in recent rap history. Then we’re right back at Nicki’s frantic rapping, which gets pitch-shifted for the double-time final verse but mostly stands on its own without even a single bit of hash-tag rap. A Nicki Minaj verse with punch lines that aren’t delivered after an awkward pause? Yep, believe it, it’s happening. She just came through with the Six, like her name was Blossom! What! I don’t even GET that reference!

But this is more than just a good rap song: this single holds the potential to revive Cassie’s career. I don’t know what happened to her after “Me & U,” but I hope this isn’t the last we’ve seen of her. I mean, how cool does she look in this video? Can she just be back now? Can we do that? Attention world: bring back Cassie. Specifically, bring back the deeply bitter, blazer-wearing Cassie with dyed, slicked-back hair. That would be just great.

Lil Wayne – Love Me (feat. Future & Drake)

Enough girl power–let’s move onto some really uncomfortable misogyny.

The video is required viewing for this discussion, because without it, all we’ve got is late-period Lil Wayne killing time between skateboarding sessions over a synth-based Mike WiLL made it beat. The only interesting part of this song is the all-too-brief appearance by Future, who still has the sort of “lovable oddball” energy that Wayne had years ago. Lyrically, we’ve got your typical anti-woman hip-hop tropes: we’ve got good bitches and bad bitches, and we only care about these women until we’re done having sex with them. Of course, it’s not our fault, no: we simply can’t treat these hoes like ladies; they’ve had way too much sex for that. I mean, what are they thinking?

But the video really elevates (lowers?) the experience to a higher level of objectification. Plenty of rap videos feature women as unspeaking symbols of success and sexual ability, but how many rap videos literally turn the women into animals and put them in cages? The whole theme of the video is vaguely occult—at least enough to bait some Illuminati conspiracy theorists—but it’s not coherent enough to even offer an explanation for why the women are all Dr. Moreau-esque abominations. But this is a rap video, so we don’t really need an explanation, and isn’t that sad? An artist in a different field could actually lose their career over something as tacky as this.

I usually deflect criticisms of violence and sexism in rap by comparing the genre to a good crime movie: you enjoy the abhorrent content not for its own sake, but because of the presentation. I don’t like Reservoir Dogs because a guy gets his ear chopped off, I like it because a guy get his ear chopped off while the villain dances around to a peppy Dylan-esque pop song. Lil Wayne used to be like those guys who make the Crank movies: distilling a whole genre down to a few bizarre images and spitting them out at a blinding speed. These days, Lil Wayne is more like Gerard Butler: appearing in a series of dull projects that present sex and violence in such a variety of bland and awful ways that you just feel gross when it’s all over.

Dispatches From The Mainstream: 2/26/2013

Austin Mahone feat. Flo Rida – “Say You’re Just A Friend”

Newcomer Austin Mahone is the latest artist to build a song around an interpolation of Biz Markie’s greatest contribution to pop culture, and even though it comes out as 100% cooke-cutter Top 40, “Say You’re Just A Friend” gets a pass for the huge nostalgia buzz it gives me. Not because of Biz Markie—man, I wasn’t even born until 1989—but because “Just A Friend” by Mario was a hit when I was twelve years old and just getting into pop music. Most things that remind me of the seventh grade send me spiraling into self-doubt and confusion, so that should give you an idea of how much I liked that song.

But the real noteworthy part of this song is Flo-Rida, who continues his transition from rapper to singer with a guest verse that relies more on melody than lyrics. His work here is closer to rapping than his section of “Troublemaker,” but the melody is too prominent to be ignored. Hey, do you think people will buy it if I start referring to Flo-Rida as a “one-man Bone Thugs-N-Harmony?” Probably not, right?

Lyrically, this might be some of Flo-Rida’s best work ever. He plays the Ludacris to Mahone’s Bieber, reminiscing about a young love that went sour. When has Flo-Rida ever sounded this relatable? Even when he’s listing off a bunch of his singles, it comes off as genuine enthusiasm rather than self-aggrandizing. Maybe that Biz Markie interpolation just makes anyone seem charming.

Another thing: I don’t want to be mean to Mr. Mahone, because dude is only sixteen, but I think he and Flo-Rida are about on the same level of singing ability. It sure sounds like they’re equally reliant on auto-tune.

Will.I.Am feat. Britney Spears, Diddy, Hit-Boy, Lil-Wayne & Waka Flocka Flame – Scream and Shout (Remix)

Right, because the original wasn’t awful enough, why don’t we make it longer and even less fun? “Scream and Shout” was a club song that failed on every conceivable level: not only did the low-key, repetitive music have zero chance of getting anyone on the dance floor; it makes being in the club sound dull and irritating. That’s an accurate impression of my clubbing experiences, but I doubt it’s what they were going for. And now the official remix is out and I had trouble getting through even two listens of this six-minute song. That’s twelve minutes that I could have used to watch an episode of Adventure Time or go on Tumblr or listen to this one Morrissey song I’m really into five more times. A little gratitude would be nice, that’s all I’m saying.

Will.I.Am’s post-2008 musical output is across-the-board annoying, but it can sometimes be interesting to hear him try to shift pop-music towards low-fi chiptune. Anyone who remembers “The Hardest Ever” knows that it’s never interesting to hear him rap, and the fact that he gave himself such a prominent verse in this remix feels like a straight-up insult. I don’t know which part is more annoying: the blatant plug for his tacky iPhone add-on IAm Foto Sosho or his drastic misapplication of the term “rock ‘n roll.”

How does everyone else do? Even though he’s a thousand miles from his sonic home-turf, Flocka gets the best verse by far, and that’s coming from a late-period Lil Wayne apologist. Yeah, he’s been on auto-pilot ever since he got out of prison, and his verse here adds to our dangerous national surplus of “All Eyes On Me” references, but you can almost catch a glimpse of that old-school Wayne charm. If you squint.

Hit-Boy uses up the only semi-clever line he’s ever going to have, so I hope it was worth it, and Diddy’s contribution is laughable where it’s supposed to be exciting. His hype-man persona is surprisingly awful for someone who’s done little beside hype people up for decades. No one has ever made me want to “turn up” less. And then he ends the song by repeating the phrase “This is a super black man remix” over and over. I don’t know, man, this whole thing’s just a mess.

Maroon 5 – Daylight

Maroon 5 is going through a lot of trouble to distract you from the fact that “Daylight” is a dull song, musically listless and lyrically far too reminiscent of “Save Tonight” by Eagle-Eye Cherry. And I hate to admit it, but they’re doing a bang-up job.

The version that the band put together with the reliably awesome Playing For Change is especially successful at tricking you into enjoying a Maroon 5 song. Their best decision is keeping Adam Levine and his whiny voice off-stage for a full minute, and their worst decision is bringing the whole band in for the rest of the song. It’s not enough to totally ruin the song, but I do flinch whenever the video cuts from someone doing their thing with a cello or a didgeridoo to some cell-phone quality footage of those doofuses playing in a crowded arena.

The nine-minute “Daylight Project” version is less of a musical achievement, but anyone interested in seeing a cross-section of humanity represented through vlog should check it out. The breadth of the human experience this video contains is limited by the fact that it’s made up of Maroon 5 fans (a demographic that tends towards the young and female), but it’s still a fascinating glimpse into the lives behind the fandom. This song is a bizarre fit for the two world-spanning videos propping it up, but if you can ignore the extra-long instrumental playing behind this version, you’d be stupid not to be just a little moved.

And since it’s been a while since I reminded everyone what a mushy, emotional wuss I am, I’ll just say that I got choked up at what happens at 7:48.

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.