2010 In The Rearview, Part III: Shout Whenever
REAL, STROKABLE HAIR! HE SMILES! HE LAUGHS! HE SINGS! HE DANCES! NO DETACHABLE PARTS! NO CHOKING HAZARDS! FUN FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY! LUDACRIS™ SOLD SEPARATELY.
The piano stabs twice; a voice, husky with youth, lifts up in impossible fluidity, and quotes doo-wop. The beat snaps into place like a rubber band released, and the sugariest hit song in decades is under way.
Commentators have invoked Frankie Lymon and the young Michael Jackson to contextualize the only true Propernoun-Mania this decade has inspired, but I hear the Archies (“Sugar Sugar,” 1969) and the Rubettes (“Sugar Baby Love,” 1974) and am inspired almost to reverence. Youthful genius is one thing; musical prodigies are a dime a dozen, from Mozart on down. Calculatedly perfect pop songs, so precisely manufactured and unabashedly sweet that a generation grows up despising them, are much rarer.
Bubblegum has long had an august tradition of meteoric success coupled with intense loathing, of course, but it’s hard not to feel something else in the discourse around this kid, whether it’s standard “to what dire straits has the culture come with the Snookis and the Twilights and the Biebers” gnashing of teeth, or a beloved forty-seven-year-old late-night host picking a fight he can’t lose, that reacts to his position as the only male pop star able to generate significant enthusiasm as though offended.
Male pop stars, after all, are supposed to be the sneering rebels, the ones mom and dad don’t want you bringing home; it’s the girls who are all penitence, self-sacrifice and undifferentiated longing. At least so goes the pop lessons we are handed down from the Golden Age, where for every swaggering Frankie Valli or Roger Daltry there’s a longsuffering Ronnie Spector or Dusty Springfield. But pop is almost entirely feminized now (Ke$ha and P!nk provide all the sneer we need); hip-hop is where cultural masculinity resides. Even the beat here, a candy-assed version of new jack swing courtesy of The-Dream, gestures towards pop-rap, with cheerful chain-gang chants in the background.
But the signature sound of the song — the gauzy, massed Beibers singing the sticky-sweet refrain — is pure pop, The-Dream applying his lush dynamics to prepubescent puppy love and in doing so signposting a path towards adulthood. Because however little we may believe that young Justin (much less a creepily cheerful Ludacris) has had his heart broken, the song, the moral universe of Biebermania, is predicated on heartbreak. He loses the girl, and disappears himself. The final refrain “now I’m all gone,” whether read as a masculine bluff — guys check out when things get real — or as an admission of emotional devastation, is more honest and adult than nearly anything in the prepubescent pop canon. His immature voice isn’t entirely up to its significance, any more than it is to the descending “down, down, down” line (that awkwardly-hummed bottom note is possibly the most adorable moment in all of 2010 pop), but that’s fine. Kid’s got years to hone his craft. If Justin Timberlake had had a song this good at sixteen, he’d be Kanye crazy today.
Next: Tear Us Apart