First in a series of posts about current radio pop
In many ways this is the latest iteration of a single song that’s been playing since at least last summer. We might call it Nihilistic-Hedonist Pop, if we were willing to believe that any stable intellectual throughline is able to survive the art-by-committee process of modern pop. Really, it’s more of a loose confederation of emotions, recurring images, and incongruent beats.
You never expect to hear Pitbull, of all people, get thoughtful and chin-stroky on a club jam (it’s only slightly less out of character for him than for, say, Lil Jon), but here he is, in a conversational croak which sounds exhausted, admitting that he might drink too much and party too hard. Not that that’s going to stop him, of course — after all, what else is there?
Ne-Yo’s chorus adds to the disorienting, even unsettling thoughtfulness of the song. There’s a soaring “toniiiiight,” which in memory always leads back to “DJ Got Us Fallin’ in Love Again,” Usher’s song from last year on which Pitbull guested. “Give Me Everything” can be read as a sequel to “DJ,” one in which expansiveness and even heroism gives way to a more desperate edge. “Keep downin’ drinks like there’s no tomorrow/There’s just right now now now”) is part of the Nihilist-Hedonist continuum, but for all his seasonedness (and he has plenty; in many ways he’s the Grand Old Man of modern r&b), Usher couldn’t deliver a line like “For all we know, we might not get tomorrow” with the elegant plaintiveness that Ne-Yo gives it.
It’s the key line of the song, and Ne-Yo (who has a co-writing credit) knows it. In 1934, two jobbing Tin Pan Alley songwriters published “For All We Know,” a wistful ballad of fatalist romance (“So love me tonight/Tomorrow was made for some/Tomorrow may never come/For all we know”), and the song became a standard in the subsequent decades, due probably more to its sweeping melody than to its existentialist chat-up lyrics. Nat King Cole recorded it in 1958, which is probably the most commonly-heard version today (it’s certainly the one I know best), and if anyone in modern chart r&b is claiming Cole as an ancestor, it’s the sharply-dressed, melodically lush Ne-Yo.
But this is schizoid, overstimulated 2011, not hungry, depressed 1934 or neurotic post-war 1958. A single idea is no longer enough for any song to convey.
An even more general trend than the undercurrent of be-merry-for-tomorrow-we-die is the gradual Black-Eyed-Peasization of all pop. Anyone who doubts that the Peas have become the beating robot heart of the radio hasn’t been paying attention: their combination of thudderingly obvious beats, dim-bulb rapping, joyless synth hooks, and male-female tradeoff vocals is increasingly the basic template for modern pop. So there’s a female voice on the track: Nayer, whose helium-high, process-blurred vocals make this an unlikely nod to shoegazey dream-pop, sings (in unison with Afrojack’s air-raid synth riff) “Don’t care what they say/Or what games they play/Nothing is enough/Till I get your love/I want you tonight.” Disembodied, anonymous, she is more a fantasy of femininity, of reflected (masculine) desire, than a woman with her own perspective: an inattentive listen to the song might even miss that she’s there at all, she’s so gauzy.
But the sound that made me fall in love with this song is the one that comes just after her recurrent bit: a drum-fill that segues us back into Ne-Yo directing us to grab somebody sexy. In this sleek, wholly electronic soundscape, it’s a throwback sound, a crisp analogue crackle of a drum fill you might have heard from an old soul or funk record (the song it makes me think of is Archie Bell & the Drells’ “Tighten Up,” but I haven’t checked it), a snare sound that is heard nowhere else in the song, with its melancholy house thump. It’s still unusual for a producer to get a “ft.” credit unless they sing along, but Afrojack deserves one here; from the doleful opening piano notes to the way he stitches together Ne-Yo’s romantic soar and Pitbull’s earthier grumble. Plus there’s that nagging synth riff, a throw-your-hands-up blare under sweatier conditions, but in this more desolate soundscape it rings like an echo of past good times. For a song which, like ninety percent of its companions on the radio, is ostensibly about the Will-to-Party, it’s a remarkably sober and wistful piece.
Next: What do you get for the pop group that has everything?
Second in a series of posts about current radio pop
The E.N.D. was appropriately named; it was the logical endpoint of modern (modern meaning postmillenial) radio pop. The generic euphoria of “I Got a Feeling” and the contentless posturing of “Boom Boom Pow” form the inseparable knot at which pop, r&b, hip-hop, electronic, and dance music conjoin, lowest common denominator not in the critical sense but the mathematical, subatomic building blocks of creation, the stuff pop is made of, elemental, platonic.
So that makes The Beginning … what?
Not the fresh start and brand newness that will.i.am probably thinks it is; “The Time” was evidence enough that there are no new ideas, just further extremes. (The rubbery sequencer, sounding like something out of Crazy Frog’s ouevre, is cartoon-pop at its least complicated.) The title of “Just Can’t Get Enough” is also a gesture back towards an 80s pop classic (?), but this has little to do with the clustered, urgent obsessiveness of the Depeche Mode song. Again, the proper word to describe it is “wistful,” which is disorienting in the case of modern chart pop, perhaps particularly a Black Eyed Peas song.
Or, to be more precise, “wistful” applies to Fergie’s repeated refrain (another subject for later unpacking: how the cut-n-paste nature of the modern pop process makes standard terminology like “verse,” “chorus,” and “bridge” less than helpful in describing the lyrical structure of modern pop songs). “Boy I think about it every night and day/I’m addicted want to jam inside your love/I wouldn’t want to have it any other way/I’m addicted and I just can’t get enough,” especially when sung in her highest, most girlish register, is less club jam and more indie-dance, something you could imagine Alison Goldfrapp or Beth Gibbons singing. The contrast between that vocal style and her usual one — which could often be described as anonymous belting — is worth noticing; nobody has probably ever thought to describe Fergie as “plaintive” before, but it fits.
And her vocal is hardly the only nod to indie-dance the song contains, most notably chiptune, the nerdly scene which plays dance (and sometimes rock) music on eight-bit or sixteen-bit processors. There’s even a brief sequence of notes right out of Mario World when will.i.am robo-sings “and I can’t step off the cloud” (I think it’s from the cloud level, but I haven’t played it in years). Plus, of course, the “Mr. Roboto” synthesized voice; and then there’s the thumping breakdown at the end, transforming the song from a swing-time not-quite-ballad to a boshing club hopper with a buzzing synth riff that sounds like a tribute to Koji Kando’s Nintendo themes.
This is what I think about it when I hear it, anyway. For the second single in a row, the Peas have had a growly, synthesized, vaguely Jamaican voice introduce a third-act change in tempo, which I’m not quite sure means that will.i.am has been paying attention to the highly-processed electronic dancehall of recent years (it could just be another branding exercise), but which is another disorienting, unexpected sound on the American charts in 2011. I guess when you’ve pretty much defined modern pop your options are to either keep doing more of the same (but why would you, when everyone else is taking care of it?), or to head off at a not-very-obtuse angle, incorporating as many unlikely sounds as you can think of into your simplistic bass-thump synth-riff basic-English template. Black Eyed Peas songs have always been extremely well engineered; but lately they’ve started to take on baroque finishing touches, sweepingly unnecessary tail fins, gleaming chrome side boards, vividly and vulgarly patterned seat covers. Eccentricity, I guess, is the privilege of the ruling class.
Third in a series of posts about current radio pop
I once knew someone who refused to believe that any song with a part that went “la la la” (or “na na na” or “doot doo doo” or “o bla di”) could be any good at all. She believed it was sheer laziness on the part of the songwriter; if they wanted us to care about their catchy melody, they should have written some decent lyrics to go with it. My other friends and I tried to come up with unanswerably great songs that violated her ideals, but she rejected “Horse with No Name,” “Brown Eyed Girl,” “Na Na Na Na Na Na (Kiss Him Goodbye),” “Mrs. Robinson,” and “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” all as unworthy, the products of insufficiently intelligent or active songwriting minds.. (Now that I think about it, my friends and I might not have taken the task of convincing her otherwise entirely seriously.)
I can’t imagine she’d be much enthused about “On the Floor,” either. (She was a classically trained singer and theater geek, prone to thinking that anything after Sondheim was crap.) But I get a kick out of Lopez’ euphoric “la la la”s, and not just because they’re borrowed from Kaoma’s “Lambada,” the Latin dance hit of early 90s (obliterated from cultural memory by the later Macarena), a line that shares melodic roots with the main synth-accordion hook to Edward Maya’s “Stereo Love,” last year’s crossover dance hit. (Idea for later pursuit: the recurrence of the synthesized accordion in modern pop, a sound so culturally variable that depending on your cultural positioning you can hear Mexican norteño, Argentinean tango, German polka, French musette, or Balkan Romani music in it; cf. Trey Songz ft. Nicki Minaj, “Bottoms Up” and Don Omar ft. Lucenzo, “Danza Kuduro.”) RedOne’s lush programming makes the release of those la la las positively transcendent, and turns Lopez’ anonymous-house-diva voice into a trumpet-like call to joy.
Pitbull’s also on the track, of course — on the radio version, his verse is split into two parts, one at the beginning and one functioning as a bridge towards the end, a much better construction than the version floating around which has him just at the top — and he spits out disconnected nonsense in his usual style. (Compare his “I’m like Inception, I play with your brain” to will.i.am’s “Inception, you got a brother dreamin’ dreamin’,” hashtag rap without hashtag construction.) But it’s not what he says that matters, it’s his presence; without it, the song would float away like “Stereo Love,” a mélange of airy synths, dancefloor calls and declamatory female vocals that sound good in the club but don’t translate outside. With Pitbull’s familiar presence anchoring the song to some kind of reality (even if his Latin-lecher persona is just as unreal and constructed as the international club fantasy of the rest of the song), the story of the song moves from “woman instructs listeners to dance, producer provides beats” to a genuine clash of personalities, Pitbull’s babbling egotist and Lopez’s energizing hedonist. You have to push through Pitbull to get to the euphoric la la las, just as actual obnoxious people are the price you pay for finding joy on the actual dancefloor.
The tension is perhaps more evident in the Spanish-language version of the song, which has J. Lo and Pitbull in the same parts but with different lines. Pit’s flow is sharper and his words more meaningful in Spanish; J.Lo’s diva encomiums are more specific. (And hey, the Spanish pronunciation of “Africa” fits here!)
It’s actually unusual for a song this generic to be so popular; most hit songs play off of their singers’ personality in some way, whether Gaga’s imperial shockerie, Britney’s expired sexbot, Katy Perry’s pinup fantasias, Ke$ha’s steely brattiness, or Rihanna’s cartoon domme. J.Lo has no specific associations like this, especially since she’s been absent from the radio for what, in pop terms, practically amounts to a generation. (2005! We were all in diapers!) And it’s easy to assume she’s just riding the wave of renewed American Idol frenzy, but that doesn’t account for the song’s staying power. It’s almost an American version of the UK “package holiday hit” phenomenon, except it’s not imported from anywhere in particular. Pit’s and J.Lo’s respective Cuban and Puerto Rican ethnicities aren’t particularly on display in the English-language version (even though Pitbull’s mumbled “ya tú sabes, no te imaginabas” [now you know, you didn’t imagine] opens the track), and the modified reggaetón of the beat is overlaid by enough Eurodisco synths to code as merely thumping, not tropical.
If you know, of course — if all the associations I’ve listed, lambada and reggaetón and tango and kuduro and euro-house and silly nonsense-syllable songs — pop out to you, then, well, cue it up again, because summer’s not even here yet but we’ve been listening to its foretaste all year long.
Fourth in a series of posts about current radio pop
It probably speaks to my own particular history of perversion that I associate S&M more with aristocratic (which is to say, historical) decadence than with anything modern enough to be capable of shocking. (I mean, sure, I’ve clicked through to fetish websites; I know it’s still a thing. But the bluntness of its analysis of power relations kind of runs out of steam once you’ve grasped the essential metaphor. Unless, I guess, you’re into it.) So you’ll forgive me if I don’t hear anything in Rihanna’s purr but the satisfaction of a role well played. Which, don’t get me wrong, is plenty: one of the major pleasures of pop is the ability it gives its stars (and, vicariously, its listeners) the ability to dress up in any number of different identities. But “Rude Boy” was far more earnest and prickly with its dom/sub tropes: this, while pretending to be more explicit, is as invested in real whips and chains as Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” is in queer identity. So its pleasures are that of a pop song: the helium “oh-oh-oh-oh-oh” cut-n-paste chant, the little growl on “sticks and stones,” counting the Ss and Ms, and don’t forget the ands. (The Britney remix? I’ve heard it on the radio precisely once. She sounds even less invested, as ever.)
Coherence was never her strong suit; but juxtaposing too many elements at once runs the risk of being not avant-garde but simply confusing. Confusion is inherent in pretension, of course, and the oddly muted reaction to her religion-sex-and-death provocation suggests that not even the perpetually outraged are sure in which direction to be offended. Madonna on steroids is the polite way to think about Gaga’s post-Monster career, but Madonna was always pointing to something outside of herself, whether it was gay culture, 80s materialism, retro fetishism, the erotics of power, or dance floor ecstasy. Gaga’s insistence on her own muddled thought-soup as the only worthwhile subject of her music is of a piece with her “little monsters” ideology — the path to liberational self-acceptance runs through her and her alone. Narrow is the gate, indeed. In the decidedly unpretentious words of the introduction to a popular podcast, “You didn’t do anything and that didn’t mean anything.”
With Gaga disappearing up her own ego, Ke$ha’s left to be the standard-bearer on the charts for unpredictable, goofy creativity set to raging house beats. “Blow” is in some ways her most direct and tensionless song yet; her party-to-the-death persona long established, this is just one further iteration, the hostage-taking metaphor her one concession to her signature gift for tastelessness — which, like John Waters, she deploys both as a form of personal expression and as a method of startling her audience awake. She’s the musical equivalent of energy drink: noxiously sweet, tiresomely advertised, and possibly toxic in the long term, but by God you won’t fall asleep if she’s got anything to say about it.
British men making waves in American pop isn’t so unusual as to be worthy of comment as it used to be, what with Taio Cruze, Jay Sean, and of course the Interminable Persistence of Coldplay. What is unusual is for a British rapper to make any headway in the left-side-of-the-Atlantic charts, even one as generic and grimeless as Tinie Tempah. “Written in the Stars” presents a familiar narrative to American pop audiences, that of Successful Pop-Rapper Who Overcame the Haters (Set to a Big Soaring Chorus); it could easily be “Airplanes, Part 2” (if, uh, there wasn’t one already), with Tempah as an even more personality-free B.o.B and Eric Turner as a fourth-rate Matthew Santos, never mind being in Hayley Williams’ league. But the Coldplay namecheck above is the real story here: if there’s a distinctively British element to the song (even his South London accent is scaled back to the degree that he’s entirely understandable to American ears) it’s the po-faced anthemic quality of post-Radiohead British rock. You could trace the lineage as far back as U2, or even Elgar, but why bother? Inspirational pop is as inspirational pop does; and the fact that this has garnered an audience suggests that someone, somewhere needs to hear its platitudes as truth.
Possible theory for later development: if OFWGKTA represents a sort of omnidirectionally aggressive, youthful punk-rocking of hip-hop (cf. Nitsuh Abebe here), Dr. Dre’s long-awaited and depressingly enervated comeback is not unlike the dinosaur prog against which punk took its most delighted stance. The self-pity, self-aggrandizement, and meticulously designed pomposity on display here are not all that far removed from Roger Waters’ “pity the poor rock star” posturing on The Wall. Alternatively, you could call it the ne plus ultra of emo-rap, the moment at which it topples gaudily over into self-caricature. Skylar Grey’s involvement is instructive here; instead of her coolly distant performance on “I’m Coming Home,” which enabled Diddy to sound human by comparison, she tries to match the ostentatious production here and ends up sounding screechy and overwhelmed, Amy Lee without even the dignity of being self-involved about her own damn self; everything, everywhere, is all about Dre. We didn’t forget, we just don’t care.
Jessie J is far from the first person to make lots of money suggesting that perhaps money isn’t all that important; in a late-capitalist society, it’s a point we seem to be in need of constant reassurance on. But if hypocrisy was her worst crime, that would just put her on the same level with everyone else who ever lived. More interesting to me is the use of a light cod-reggae backing to suggest principled idealism, a usage perfectly in keeping with the recent works of Jason Mraz, Travie McCoy, and Bruno Mars. Not that “I’m Yours,” “Billionaire,” or “The Lazy Song” are anything but outrages against good taste and common sense, but one or two such songs could have been regarded as carelessness; four begins to look like a coherent aesthetic. (With perhaps Sublime as the fountainhead?) But her vocal performance is grating, a dull knife scraped across a too-thin production, which makes B.o.B’s interlude — rhythmically slippy, if not lyrically brilliant — a muted high point in a washed-out landscape. Ideological inconsistency is one thing, but dullness is unforgivable.
Fifth and final post in a series about current radio pop
Lightning flickers across an ominous gray sky, shorting out the image. Everything pixelates, down to microscopic levels. The earth yawns and shudders. Civilizations totter, collapse, and rise again. Heavenly choirs soundtrack epic orgies. The Demon Bitch Goddess Virgin Mother Saint lives again, with digital blood running through coaxial veins. Song of the year? Song of the millennium.
—me, at the Singles Jukebox