Dispatches From The Mainstream

Dispatches From The Mainstream: 1/16/2013

Ludacris feat. Usher & David Guetta – Rest of My Life

Is someone trying to turn Ludacris into Pitbull? Because “Rest of My Life” is basically a remake of “Give Me Everything”—complete with the rallying cry of partying as a life-affirming act—with Usher standing in for Ne-Yo and the original breadwinner for D.T.P. in the place of Mr. Worldwide.

I’m not even complaining, really. Ludacris has enough personality in his voice alone to still be fun in the measly eight-line verses that Pitbull has restricted himself to, and a team-up with Usher is always welcome if just to hear Ludacris call him “Ursher.” A David Guetta-produced “here’s to life”-anthem just seems like an odd fit for a guy who once released an album called Chicken-n-Beer and whose two best songs are about getting into fights for no reason. Then again, one of Luda’s biggest hits was the uncharacteristically dramatic “Runaway Love,” so I guess most people are just looking for a different version of Ludacris than I am.

Whether this song is a case of executive meddling—entirely possible, as Luda’s recent singles have not been charting well—or just an artist exploring his secret love of European dance music, it’s not that bad. There’s a lot of fun to be had in the friction between Luda’s low-brow “Women, Weed and Alcohol”-based persona and D. Guetta’s unabashed pursuit of epic highs . The music video is especially bizarre, since Luda’s videos have historically been a little less “slow motion, emerging from the smoke” and a little more “giant cartoon hands” and “Austin Powers homage”. It’s a fun kind of bizarre, but I hope that Luda’s next single has a little more Luda.

Olly Murs feat. Flo-Rida – Troublemaker

Olly Murs is fine. He made a nice little career for himself in the UK before breaking through in America with “Heart Skips A Beat.” His only crime so far has been inadvertently tricking me into listening to Chiddy Bang. But I don’t want to talk about Olly Murs, I want to talk about Flo-Rida.

I don’t know if Flo-Rida has ever enjoyed rapping. The best things about his songs have always been the beat and the chorus. The chorus usually features a guest artist, but the weird thing is, Flo-Rida sings along with the chorus. He’s been doing it since “Low,” and while that sort of thing isn’t unusual for a singer, it’s kind of weird for a rapper. It’s there, though, if you listen closely: somewhere in the mix of every Flo-Rida chorus is the man himself, drenched in auto-tune and wailing along with whatever pop star/sample he’s built his song around.

Even in what we’ll charitably call Flo-Rida’s “lyrics,” the actual words have always taken a backseat to the rhythm he delivers them in. “Club Can’t Handle Me” is a fantastic song, but Flo’s verses are only good in the way they enhance the beat underneath. Then there are catastrophes like “I Cry,” which veers between condescending and disrespectful. Oh, really, Flo? The mass shooting in Norway made your whole day go sour? That’s rough, buddy. Not to mention the bridge: “When I need a healing, I just look up to the ceiling/I see the sun coming down, I know it’s all better now.” Flo is (probably) trying to tell us that his faith helps him through hard times, but it’s like he doesn’t know quite how to put the words together to form a coherent thought.

And now, in Troublemaker, Flo-Rida abandons rapping entirely. He’s just singing. It’s not as out-of-place as it would be if he featured on a rap song, but it’s still strange that he doesn’t even pretend to do the thing he was hired to do. Thing is, it’s not actually a bad bridge, even if it falls apart on close inspection: Flo, that’s not what Wyclef Jean was talking about when he said he would be gone ‘till November. It turned out better than it would have if he had tried to rap.

At this point, Flo needs to fully commit. He should go full-on 808s And Heartbreak (or, let’s be honest, full-on Rebirth) and just do an album full of straight singing. The vocals may be processed into oblivion, but at least it’ll be catchy… though the lyrics probably won’t make sense.

OneDirection – Little Things

In the morally deficient world of the “pickup artist” there’s this thing called “negging,” which basically means insulting a girl in order to lower her defenses, leaving her vulnerable to your lame, gross advances. The way I understand it, an effective neg has to be part of a longer, less overtly creepy conversation. After all, just walking up to a woman and insulting her isn’t going to get you anywhere; you have to at least say something nice so that she’ll have a reason to keep paying attention to you. Anyway, that’s what I think is happening in the new OneDirection song.

I’ve complained before about the darker side of OneDirection, and I understand that I’m being a little sensitive, but here’s the thing with boy bands: their songs are made to appeal to teenage girls. It’s different from a genre like hip-hop, which is highly problematic and often attracts a young audience, but at least isn’t built from the top-down to appeal to 12-year-olds. When you listen to the lyrics of an OneDirection song, you need to hear them the way a young girl would hear them.

And yeah, I get it: most girls are going to listen to this song and take it the way it was meant to be taken, as a proclamation of devotion in which the smaller, flawed things about a person are part of what make them special. I’m not against that in theory, but some of the things that the song singles out—“You still have to squeeze into your jeans”—seem less like little quirks and more like things that a guy points out to make his target feel self-conscious. Not letting your girlfriend know that she talks in her sleep isn’t cute, it’s actually kind of creepy. The worst part is the bridge. “You’ll never love yourself half as much as I love you”, like the chorus of “What Make You Beautiful”, is only sweet on the surface.  It suggests that if the girl ever gained any self-worth, the guy would split. It’s about 5% adorable and 95% manipulative. In fact, that pretty much sums up the entire band.

Dispatches From The Mainstream: 12/11/2012

Bruno Mars – “Locked Out Of Heaven”

Sometimes Bruno Mars is not terrible. It used to be, that time only came once a year at the Grammys. Two years in a row, Bruno Mars has taken the stage at the Grammy Awards and performed stylish, retro and totally enjoyable versions of his dull, boring songs. It started with the doo-wop version of “Grenade” from 2011 (complete with all-male back-up singers) and continued in 2012 with a surprisingly rocking version of “Runaway Baby.” Unlike his debut album, Doo-Wops and Hooligans, which featured no doo-wop and very few hooligans, these performances revealed a Bruno Mars who was obsessed with the musical and visual style of eras gone by. I kept waiting for this version of the singer–who I think of as “Good Bruno” or G.B. for short–to emerge in his studio work, but aside from a co-writing credit on Cee-Lo Green’s irresistible “Fuck You,” G.B. was nowhere to be found. When “It Will Rain” was released, I took it as a sign that Bruno had finally succumb to his bland-yet-marketable side, and I mourned the loss of a potentially interesting artist.

If “Locked Out Of Heaven” is any indication, I was wrong to count G.B. out so soon. Bruno Mars finally committed his retro-fixation to record and it resulted in his best song yet. I’m not saying that “Locked Out Of Heaven” could pass for a long-lost Stax record—Mars really belts it on the chorus, but it’s still loaded with modern-day synth—but the verses have an undeniable old-school feel that helps the song stand out without becoming straight-up Fitz & The Tantrums-style pastiche. The funky guitar stabs, the stuttering vocal sample and the rare pop-music bass line that’s actually worth paying attention to all add up to a fun single that will hopefully be a turning point in Bruno’s career.

As for the lyrics, Mars still has a tendency for the dramatic, but considering that he made his name with a song about a woman who was impossibly perfect in every way and another song about a woman who literally dwelled in the realm of the Dark Lord Satan… it’s refreshing to hear him sing unabashedly about the pleasures of sex.

Swedish House Mafia feat. John Martin – “Don’t You Worry Child”

If you’ve listened to the radio any time in the last five years, you may have noticed that we’re living in the era of the ‘club song’. Songs about living in the moment, walking into the club in your best clothes, dancing away your problems… usually set to an electronic beat, these songs are fun in small doses, but more than any other sub-genre of pop song, they’re like candy: too much just makes you feel gross. Personally, my enthusiasm for this kind of song started to wane around the 500th time I heard “Party Rock Anthem.”

It seems like the club song is already on the downward slope to irrelevance. Other trends have taken its place, like the pop-folk of Mumford & Sons, The Lumineers, etc. Even the fist-pumping, synth-laden, pop-influenced EDM sound, the kind of music that seems tailor-made for big, cathartic dance floor moments is becoming uncoupled lyrically from the setting of the club. “We Found Love” by Rihanna and Calvin Harris was one of last year’s biggest hits, and its (somewhat nonsensical) lyrics don’t even hint at partying… unless you interpret the “hopeless place” mentioned in the chorus to be a particularly depressing bar, in which case, I’m sorry.

“Don’t You Worry Child” by Swedish House Mafia and John Martin (who also helped out the band on last year’s “Save The World”) is another example of this trend. The EDM-style beat wouldn’t be out-of-place in a DJ’s playlist or in heavy radio rotation, but the lyrics are about as far from a club song as you could possibly get. Inspired by the beautiful landscapes of Australia, this song features a narrator reflecting on the soothing words of advice his father gave him in his youth. In a musical culture that celebrates youth and glamorizes living in the moment, it’s bizarre–though not unwelcome–to hear a song unabashedly celebrating nostalgia. Where the club song is all about getting you pumped up, this is a song that wants to comfort you while you dance, like a warm hug from a sweaty man wearing a neon-colored headband.

Christina Perri feat. Steve Kazee – “A Thousand Years (Part 2)”

I may have mentioned that I saw the last Twilight film in theaters. One part of the ending I did not spoil is the montage that happens right before the credits, as a result of Bella mind-melding with Edward in order to remind him of their epic love…. or something. For a non-fan of the series, the montage was pretty lame—seeing clips from Edward and Bella’s five-movie love story just serves as a reminder of what a dull, bland trip it’s been—but the song that plays under it goes a long way towards making the scene work.

Yeah, ha-ha, let’s all laugh at Jason because he likes that stupid Christina Perri song from the Twilight soundtrack. You can judge me all you want, but we all know that if a song hits you in the right place and at the right time, it doesn’t matter how mushy and sappy it is. It doesn’t even matter if it’s a song from a terrible movie sung by the woman who wrote “Jar Of Hearts.” Songs like this get made because we all have moments when we’re driving home in the rain and a big, dramatic song comes on, and even though we know it’s just a stupid over-produced pop song, it just gets us and we end up sing-crying all the way back from the Barnes and Noble. I call these moments “Chicago moments” in honor of the band that brought us songs like “You’re The Inspiration” and “I Don’t Wanna Live Without Your Love.”

If you’re familiar with “A Thousand Years” you probably only know the version that played on the radio around the time when Breaking Dawn: Part One came out. But this is not the same version! For one thing, “Part 2” gets a major boost from the vocals of the fabulous Steve Kazee. Kazee is still starring in the Broadway musical Once, and his appearance on this song is a little bizarre, but, hey, if you’re trying to make the leap from Theater Girl Heart-Throb to Normal Person Heart-Throb, I suppose there are worse ways to do it.

Also, the song has been re-recorded and re-arranged in a way that gives the whole thing a lot more texture. The guitars sound like guitars, and the strings actually have some space to breathe instead of just being crammed into the mix. “Part 2” is about thirty seconds longer than the original, so if you’re dead-set against liking this song, it’s just going to feel like the producers were trying to prolong your suffering. But at least give the new version a chance: if a song can actually make the romance of Twilight seem halfway romantic, it’s worthy of acknowledgement, if not outright commendation.