pop music

Siren

Three Ways To Write About ‘Siren’ by The Chainsmokers & Aazar

1. If the whiplash-inducing shift from the apocalyptic trap-bass fever dream of “Save Yourself” to the country-inflected of “This Feeling” suggested that the Chainsmokers are courting multiple audiences simultaneously, the sudden pivot back to “Siren” confirms it. They’ve always kept one foot planted firmly on either side of the pop/EDM divide, but they used to be forced to split the difference within individual songs: large swaths of their debut album, Memories…Do Not Open, felt like attempts to graft a pop sensibility onto an EDM sound, or vice-versa. The resulting soupy mixture of dreary, world-weary lyrics and mid-tempo beats produced an album that even Drew Taggart has referred to as “unfinished”, and while the first half of 2018 saw the group pursuing a sharper, more interesting version of the same songwriting style, it clearly wasn’t working well enough for them (or possibly their management), because ever since “Side Effects”, they’ve been devoting entire songs to either one style or the other. It’s brilliant, in a way: even if they never again reach “Closer” heights of mainstream popularity, by playing to the EDM crowd in a way they really haven’t in years, the Chainsmokers can build an audience who will stick by them in the long-term, regardless of how well their pop singles perform on the top 40. So I could have written about “Siren” as a piece of marketing, but nobody except me (and possibly Adam Alpert) would find that interesting.

2. It would be silly and maybe even a little embarrassing for me to pretend that “Siren” doesn’t sound a whole lot like “Save Yourself.” The formula is practically identical: a collaboration between the Chainsmokers and an electronic music producer with almost no public presence outside the EDM scene, built around two long instrumental passages, stitched together by a couple of melodic passages and vocals from Taggart himself. The biggest difference between the two songs is their respective “drops”, that oft-fetishized moment of climactic release that features so prominently in modern dance music. Whereas the drops in “Save Yourself” varied in tempo and drew from a variety of aggressive textures, the drop in “Sirens” is built around a repetitive burst of synth that sounds more like a clucking chicken than any siren that I’ve ever heard. Which isn’t to say there’s nothing here to recommend: the drop is still plenty of fun, and the vocal sample at the beginning is a nice touch, as are the strings that feature prominently in the song’s second half. There’s just not enough to differentiate this song from “Save Yourself” to the untrained ear, but as I mentioned above, the untrained ear is not the target for this song: this song is an offering to the true bass-heads, the kind of people who will read the previous paragraph and work themselves into a frenzy over my perceived ignorance. So I could have written about “Siren” as a piece of music, but basically no one would want to read that, and those that would want to read it still wouldn’t have enjoyed it.

3.

Three weeks down,
but you’re on the mend —
You swear that you’re free from the passenger seat
As we drive through the night,
’til it starts again:
You blame it on me ’cause you’re three pills deep in

I tell myself I love the silence, but maybe I just wanna hear the sounds of the siren

I tell myself I love the silence
But maybe I just want to hear
the sounds of the sirens

If you’ve never heard “Siren” before — and, if you’re reading this, the odds are that you haven’t — take a second to read over these lyrics. Do you find them striking at all? If you encountered them outside of their actual context, how do you think you’d feel about them? If you read them as a poem, would you like it? What if you read them as a Raymond Carver story? Alright, maybe that’s too grandiose — what about a passage in a Bret Easton Ellis novel? Does that seem like a better fit? Because when I listen to “Siren,” that’s what I hear: a piece of flash fiction, that captures a single moment in a much longer and very sad story that we’ll never know the end of. There are several things that could be triggering this reaction in me — the deep-seated psychosis that would lead me to devote an entire year to thinking about the Chainsmokers, for one, or perhaps the mental deterioration that I’ve experienced as a result of putting that ridiculous plan into action. But I do believe this song is unique within the band’s catalog. Only a few other Chainsmokers songs have devoted this much detail to an actual narrative, most notably “Closer” and “Paris”, but unlike those songs, “Siren” never resolves into any grand statement or meaningful refrain. The lyrics leave us in a place of quiet discomfort and uncertainty, as the narrator sits in a car with their ailing companion, content to let the sounds of the city outside his window fill the space because the idea of starting another conversation is too painful. We don’t know exactly what the relationship is between these two or how damaged it is or if it’s even going to survive this car ride. We’re left with only the music to carry us forward, and the fact that we don’t get any new lyrics after the first minute only enhances the feeling that what we’re hearing is not exactly a song, but a piece of storytelling with musical accompaniment. We’re forced to discern our own meaning from the lyrics, an act for which there is not typically room within a song by the Chainsmokers. So I could have written about “Siren” as what it really is, to me, anyway: one of the best short stories I’ve encountered this year. And yes, that would have been ridiculous. But that’s why I did it.

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This Feeling

I’ll tell you a story before it tells itself

It would be easy for me to say that “This Feeling” sounds like the Chainsmokers trying to combine elements of their two biggest hits with co-writer Emily Warren’s long-running preoccupation with self-destructive romantic relationships; after all, it’s got the male/female duet format of “Closer,” the alt-rock stylings of “Something Just Like This”, and the lyrical themes of… well, “Closer” again, but also “Side Effects,” “All We Know,” “My Type”, etc. The first half of the song (before Taggart’s vocals kick in) could be from any number of contemporary electro-pop songs featuring a strong female vocal, particularly Zedd-produced tracks like “Starving” or “The Middle”, with the latter being especially relevant given that it, like “This Feeling”, re-purposes a country singer into the context of an upbeat dance song. Speaking of which, Kelsea Ballerini is a shrewd choice for a guest vocalist; she’s a proven success within the country-music demographic, a market that has gone entirely untapped by the Chainsmokers to this point. And they’re not the only ones who benefit: as a mainstream artist working within an authenticity-obsessed medium, Ballerini has to perform a delicate dance to remain acceptable to her audience, so appearing on a track where she can completely shed her country-music roots and aim straight for the pop charts is a savvy career move on her part. Every element of “This Feeling” can, if you’re so inclined, be broken down into a series of crass, cynical decision with direct commercial implications, turning the song itself into a mere conglomeration of parts, each one meticulously designed and implemented with the aim of appealing to the widest possible audience of people. The weird thing is that none of that matters and it never will.

I’ll lay out all my reasons, you’ll say that I need help

There’s a reason why this kind of song is popular, and I don’t just mean the type of song produced by Zedd or Clean Bandit or Calvin Harris —  I also mean songs specifically produced by the Chainsmokers themselves: “Something Just Like This” and “Closer” were massive hits for the group, enough to ensure retained cultural presence for two years straight. If the tides of time wash clean everything else the Chainsmokers have ever touched, “Closer” will still be immortalized on whatever form the Time Life collections take thirty years from now, and Coldplay’s co-ownership of “Something Just Like This” ensures that it will be remembered as a least curious footnote in that band’s long, strange career. Here’s a statement that seems self-evident but will be endlessly frustrating to a significant number of people: this popularity means something. No piece of media becomes this successful by accident, as much as that may often seem to be the case. Okay, yes, there are powerful, corporate-run forces in our capitalist society that use their influence to insidiously control the conversation surrounding music (well, there’s mainly just the one), but you know that old saying? About horses, and how you can present an appealing option to them, but you can’t make them do the thing you want them to do unless they actually want to do it? This is what that’s about. Yes. This exact situation.

We all got expectations and sometimes they gone wrong

So, if these songs are all popular for a reason, what is the reason? It’s an obvious answer, so obvious that feels ridiculous, borderline insulting to write it. But there’s really no way around it, so unless we want to waste our time, we might as well put it out there. People like these songs for the same reason they like any song: because it sounds good and it’s fun to listen to. Whatever musical elements make up the song hit the pleasure center of their brain in an appealing way, while the lyrics connect with them on some level. There are other ways to listen to music and analyze its influences, the exact structure of the work, how the artists position themselves culturally, etc., but most of the people who listen to music hear a song and decide whether they like it or not based on how it immediately affects them. To the extent that they consider it critically, all of their thoughts are based on their initial reactions. Critics are not excluded from this, either. It’s impossible to write about music without taking your own enjoyment of it into consideration, and even if you could, why would you want to? Even if every song was really nothing but a group of components dispassionately assembled in a specific order to incite a certain reaction, the reaction would still be the culmination of the entire process. If you could actually hear to a song without experiencing it, it would cease to be the potentially life-altering experience it is now and would become nothing more than an unentertaining chore, a clinical dissection of an object you can’t even see. If music could be accurately criticized, no one would ever listen to it.

But no one listens to me, so I put it in this song

Another weird thing is that everybody already knows this to be true. We are, as a culture, so aware of the disconnect between our experience of music and the objective reality of it that we invented a new term in order to categorize art that we enjoy but simultaneously believe to be unworthy of enjoyment. A “guilty pleasure” is a piece of art that moves your body, your heart, even your soul, but which you feel you must, for some reason, distance yourself from. For various cultural reasons, there are some works that we feel must be held out at arm’s length, separate from ourselves, even as we embrace the effect the work has on us.  But why? It doesn’t work like that the other way around. If you encounter a piece of art that you critically determine to be worthy of praise, yet you yourself remain unmoved by it, you don’t place in a category meant to delegitimize it as a work (or at least you’re not supposed to). In fact, sometimes people will repeatedly expose themselves to a piece of art that they know they’re supposed to like, over and over, just to see if maybe they can trigger a single pleasurable experience. This is a fool’s errand, a life-wasting exercise in masochism, and it has lead to more bad takes than any other cultural practice. We could wipe out every obnoxiously contrarian “But What If It’s Actually Bad”-style think-piece in a week’s time if we stopped fetishizing the outdated idea of an artistic cannon. We’re never going to do this, of course, but it’s worth remembering that we could if we wanted to.

They tell me think with my head,
Not that thing in my chest
They got their hands on my neck this time

Drew Taggart, ever the poet, claims that “This Feeling” is about “being yourself and not giving a fuck what people think about you.” In the song, this is a reference to a romantic relationship, presumably a bad one — there are a few hints in the second verse that things between this couple are not ideal, but for the most part, we don’t get many details about the relationship itself, because the relationship isn’t important. What’s important is that this relationship makes the narrator feel good, while everyone around them insists that they’re making a mistake. The narrator’s response to this is incredibly human and unsurprisingly combative. If you’re being made to feel guilty about something that you experience as unambiguously positive, you essentially have two choices: completely abandon any illusion of agency within your own life and admit that your every decision is controlled by outside forces, or resolve to not give a fuck. This can admittedly be a somewhat imprudent attitude to adopt when navigating the emotional minefield of a romantic relationship — it is entirely possible that a friend who has your best interests in mind can examine your situation from a different point of view and offer up valuable advice. Sometimes, people want you to think with your head because your heart is being stupid. But the same reasoning doesn’t apply to music. After all, has anyone ever been convinced, by any argument of any scope and intelligence, that their favorite band is “actually bad?” Can you imagine what you would think if someone even tried to do that? Even if it was your best friend, the person’s who opinion you value most in the world, you probably wouldn’t give a fuck. Now imagine if it was some bozo writing an online culture magazine.

But you’re the one that I want,
And if that’s really so wrong
Then they don’t know what this feeling is like

“This Feeling” does not present a universally applicable maxim for living a truly fulfilled life. But it doesn’t have to do that; it’s a pop song. All it has to do is keep you entertained for about three minutes. It can be more than that, obviously. A truly exceptional pop song can stay with you for much longer, becoming so intertwined with your own personal experiences and memories that the song becomes a fixture of your life, an beacon of intense emotional power shining throughout the years to mark one single point of pure, iridescent joy. It can also be a neat thing to play at parties, or in your car. Music criticism can be interesting and even enlightening, but no amount of words will ever substitute a single experience like that. I’m not saying that we should stop talking about music altogether; again, even if that were actually a good idea, we’re never going to do it. I’m also not advocating for an anti-intellectual, gut feeling-driven philosophy or attitude, at least not when it comes to important things, like social justice or climate change. All I’m trying to say is: let’s not forget what we’re talking about here. This is a pop song. The entire chorus is the word “yeah” repeated about fifty times. It’s good and it’s fun to listen to, and if you disagree, I don’t give a fuck and I never will.

And I say:
Yeah-eah
Yeah-eah-eah-eah

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.

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.