music

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.

real and true 2

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.

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.

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.

The Forty Ounce, Episode 15: Another Episode About Pitbull

 

If you’ve ever listened to The Forty Ounce, me and Daniel’s pop-music podcast, you know about our obsession with Pitbull, a.k.a. Mr. 305 a.k.a Mr. Worldwide. So, it should come as no surprise that we did a podcast celebrating the release of Pitbull’s new album. 

On this episode of the Forty Ounce, the science is in on Global Warming, and we’re not talking about climate change!

Pitbull’s newest album, Global Warming, has been released, and this podcast is the only place you can hear Jason and Daniel experience it for the first time. Having learned nothing from their experience with Rebelution, Jason and Daniel go through all sixteen tracks of the new album! Will they love it? Probably!

This episode is a little messy, because we listened to (nearly) each track for the first time before talking about it. Also, it’s an hour long. Hopefully we still managed to keep things interesting. Hey, at least we’ve got enthusiasm! That has to count for something, right?

Then What Happened: Aaron Carter

I wrote an article about Aaron Carter for Forces of Geek. I watched the entirety of “House of Carters” for research, so don’t tell me that I don’t suffer for my art.

Aaron was popular because he was the cute little brother of one of the Backstreet Boys. If you were a fan of BSB, you were probably closer to Aaron’s age than to Nick’s, so, in a weird way, Aaron was the more approachable of the two. He was just like you! He threw parties and got into trouble with his parents, he fantasized about being really good at sports, he had nation-wide tour with the A-Teens… you know, just normal tween stuff.

Note that I pointedly did not mention that I actually saw Aaron and the A-Teens on that tour. I like to include a personal anecdote in these articles whenever I can, but I do have my dignity.

(also, I did not put together the pictures/captions for this article, which I only point out because the caption beneath that picture of Paris Hilton is kind of weird. everything else is cool, though.)