When Sexy Black Robots
Conquer The World,
Will Anyone Notice?
My Summer Of Pop
by Jonathan Bogart
This summer I did something I haven’t done in a long, long, time, not since I was just out of high school and celebrating my newfound freedom by driving my grandfather’s hand-me-down Chevy, becoming the guy who drove people places just in order to glide over the smooth, broad highways of Phoenix, while listening to Third Eye Blind and Sixpence None The Richer and the Goo Goo Dolls and Santana feat. Rob Thomas. Within a year I would discover Napster and the Beatles and Led Zeppelin and the Clash and Bob Dylan and I would become that most socially-acceptable form of geek, a music geek. In the next eight years, I would get into arguments about what constitutes proper country music, about the point of rock & roll in a post-rap world, about whether Phil Spector or Brian Wilson was the greatest pop producer ever; I would order out-of-print psych-folk 45s and funk-jazz LPs over the Internet; I would burrow so deep into the further recesses of 70s German electronic rock that I would come out in 1980s France; I would become able to enumerate with some confidence the differences between Ghanian highlife and Nigerian joromi. I would write what amounted to a short book about early jazz, pop, and vernacular music in the 1920s.
But this summer was different. This summer I turned the radio back on in my car.
Not that it had ever been completely off: the local NPR, oldies, classic-rock, and classical stations had been my companions for many commutes, and I still scanned the dial enough to have a rough sense of what was being played in a given year.
But I had never listened to Top 40 radio with any regularity, not since I was in high school, trying to pick up the signals that came from over the mountains in
There was a miniature renaissance in dance-pop going on, and I despised it as I had been taught to, despised the Spice Girls and Britney Spears and N*Sync and Destiny’s Child and Christina Aguilera and all the other music that implicitly understood Madonna, Michael Jackson, Prince, and N.W.A. to be the starting point of all existence. So that moment had passed me by, and while I would come to accept and even in a limited sense embrace a handful of major pop hits in the new millennium — anyone dour enough to deny the value of Outkast or Shakira or Kelly Clarkson or Kanye West deserves their joyless fate — I still never really jumped with both feet into the shallow end of the pool, preferring to hear about the good chart hits from a tasteful distance: like if, say, Pitchfork approved of it.
Until now, that is.
Like Barack Obama Said Yeah
It’s Time For A Change
It helped that I began a new job and had to drive forty minutes each way there and back. And that my iPod, that liberator of musical choice from the arbitrary dictates of the marketplace, had just died and that in order to grieve I had given up on choosing anything at all, returning to the earliest instincts of childhood and letting the mysterious people in the high towers decide what would wash over me as I drove from central Phoenix to the outer hills of northeast Scottsdale and then back again at night, the city spread out before me in a sea of careless lights.
My two primary companions all summer were KZON 101.5 (“Blazing The Valley’s Hits And Hip-Hop”) and KISS 104.7 (“Hit Music For America’s Hottest City”), with occasional detours into KKFR 98.3 (“Where Hip-Hop Lives”) and KEDJ 103.9 (“Adam [Carolla] All Morning, Alternative Rock All Day”) when commercial breaks overlapped. (I have never willingly listened to advertising. A basic sense of respect for my fellow Americans requires me to believe that this does not make me unusual.)
KZON, or “The Zone,” used to be the major “alternative” station back when Third Eye Blind anchored its playlist, but after a brief outbreak of the talk-radio virus, it switched to a hip-hop-heavy Top 40 format a year ago and rebranded itself “Jamz.” KISS has always been the teen-friendly Top 40 station as far back as I can remember — and I’d never listened to a full song on it before. I am, for the record, ashamed of this. Ignorance is always culpable.
As always when I immerse myself in an unfamiliar genre, it was initially hard to tell the difference between songs, especially on the party-rap end of the spectrum: all the Akon and T-Pain guest verses blur into each other, and only after the most persistent attention could I begin to tell the difference between the voices of Colby O’Donis, Jesse McCartney, Chris Brown, and Ne-Yo on a purely auditory level.
Of course, the target audience is experiencing this music on anything but a purely auditory level — insert YouTube, Music Myspace, ringtones, our brave new world of synergistic media formats, and other Wired talking points here — and I did eventually dig up the videos of the major tracks to familiarize myself with the looks and personas of the major artists. But even after nearly three months of solid radio listening, I could have trouble working out just who I was listening to. There’s a reason many of the looser songs start with hyped-up proclamations of who’s singing them, like Victor or Edison phonograph cylinders from a century ago. This small bit of marketing was in both cases a response to technological limitations — the shape of wax cylinders didn’t allow for a label, and mp3s can easily be stripped of any identifying tags — but as a relative newcomer to the modern chart-pop world, I’m grateful for this habit, as well as for that of shouting “Remix!” at the top of tracks that have, in fact, been remixed.
But as I began to feel comfortable with the contours of the drive — to know how long I had between the freeway and the turn, where to change lanes to avoid being stuck in traffic, the spot on Shea Blvd. where every radio signal no matter how strong would start to get all fuzzy and Merzbowy — I also began to feel comfortable with the contours of modern pop radio, with tracks built out of ungainly clips of computerized sound, with those impossibly liquid voices racing over top of it all, with the doomy synths and acoustic guitar samples and compressed-to-white orchestras that are the pop vernacular of the moment. And I began to think about the music I was hearing, and how it both reinforced and departed from the assumptions I brought to Top 40 radio, to dance-pop, to pop-rap and “radio shit” of all stripes.
One of the facts that emerged relatively soon was the absence of a singular, dominating track, the kind that has such undeniable appeal and force that even aunties and music snobs are forced to agree. Such tracks have become a standard feature of summers over the past ten years, from “Ghetto Supastar” in 1998 to “Umbrella” in 2007. (Further highlights: “Hot In Herre,” “Crazy In Love,” “Yeah!,” “Promiscuous,” etc.)
This may just mean that 2008 is an outlier, or it may be a sign of the further fragmentation of popular music. For some people the summer was dominated by “I Kissed A Girl,” while for others it was “Bleeding Love,” and for still others it was all things Weezy, or Rihanna, or maybe even Estelle. And of course for the vast majority of music listeners, the summer had almost nothing to do with what was on the radio. That’s what fragmentation means.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
One of the most attractive things about the pop charts, to my mind, is the way they simplify and organize even the already highly simplistic and organized personas of pop artists. Everyone that has regular pop success is defined by a few attributes: a hit song, an outfit, a catchphrase, a sound, an idea expressed, a moment in a song. In that, actors in the pop world are a lot like superheroes in their comic-book worlds: the dedicated fans can dive hungrily into a long and complicated mythology, the tortuous history of team-ups and villains and deaths and rebirths and costume changes, while regular folks can get by with recognizing the costume and a power or two.
And like superheroes, there are hierarchies of popularity — and in both fields, popularity in the real world generally equals importance in the fictional world. It was not perhaps a coincidence that pop’s aristocracy, its Justice League or Avengers, were mostly MIA this summer. (M.I.A. herself, on the other hand . . . but we’ll get to that.)
Big guns like Britney and Justin, the once-upon-a-time fairy tale prince and princess of pop, had released their latest image calibrations last fall, so that “Gimme More” (great) and “SexyBack” (merely good) were last year’s dregs. The twin grownup goddesses of pop, Mariah Carey and Madonna, belonged more to the spring, when “Touch My Body” (fantastic) and “4 Minutes” (eh) owned the charts; and the rest of pop’s aristocracy — Beyoncé (and Jay-Z), Outkast, Christina Aguilera, Shakira, Pink, R. Kelly, T.I. — were sitting the summer out preparing for prestige releases in Oscar season. Of the major marquee names, only Usher and Kanye West had any visibility this summer — and Kanye only with guest verses, and upstaged by his collaborators to boot. To speak in High Nerd for a moment, it was a Teen Titans summer in a Justice League world.
But then perhaps it was the year itself: an Olympic year, a presidential election year, and no one’s heart could really be fully into pop’s fictional battles when the country was engaged in its own heavily fictionalized wars. Apart from the radio, the only other sound to hold my attention this summer was political chatter of all kinds; I read blogs, parsed polls, watched internet clips of politicians and flacks and talking heads and Jon Stewart condensing it all down to a bad Woody Allen impression. The campaigns have been mesmerizing pop theater in their own right, the kind of alchemical combination of actorly personality and writerly narrative that drives both great sitcoms and great history.
Pop’s answer to the question which hangs over us all is of course Obama — youth, enthusiasm, and blackness always trump experience, moralism, and whiteness in pop — but the charts were largely apolitical this summer. Aside from a throwaway reference to Obama in a Three 6 Mafia song (and that in a verse which mainly seems to be about persuading a stripper), the Top 40 followed its usual agenda of heartbreak, lust, and conspicuous consumption.
If pop subscribes to a political theory, it is surely libertarian: pro-drugs, pro-sex, pro-money, anti-killjoys whether in the form of cops (red) or teachers (blue). Meanwhile, I was so deeply enmeshed in the jargon of electoral votes, poll analysis, and demographics that I managed to mishear “under a spell I can’t break” from Ne-Yo’s “Closer” as “from the Rust Belt I can’t break” — which would have been a far better lyric, at least if it were Ne-Yo’s ambition to be Bruce Springsteen rather than Terence Trent D’arby.
But that again is getting ahead of myself.
Make An Appointment With
He may be the last artist to ever go double-platinum in a month. (And good riddance, says I. The only thing more artistically pernicious than judging movies by first-week box-office is judging music by units sold.) But from my perspective, he’s the current pop moment’s strongest link with the messy, garbled roots of American music. A native son of
There’s plenty more to hear. Dwayne Carter a.k.a. Lil Wayne’s million-selling Tha Carter III is his sixth studio album and his sixteenth album by more generous accountings; he started out as a teenager ten years ago, and is only twenty-six now. Contrary to the standard line of record-company paranoiacs, he scored such a massive hit by being generous with his music over the past several years: mixtapes (quasi-bootleg CDs on which rappers showcase themselves over other people’s tracks) came pouring out online and were shared with impunity; he recorded with and for everybody, lending verses which were nearly always the highlight of the record to hits and low performers alike. Now that he’s gone platinum, his official website is simply another Universal property, any hint of mixtape leaking having been diligently scrubbed from its gleaming capitalist surfaces. Still, the people who care will always know where to look — and it’s not like they didn’t buy the product once available.
Which leaves the question of why it happened now. Lil Wayne had rarely troubled the charts before, never reaching higher on his own than #14 back in 2004, and in many cases that would have been considered the final verdict. Was it residual
“Lollipop” was at number one the week I started listening the radio, and repeated exposure to it was the first genuine thrill offered by the experience. Its beat, clattering, skittering, and choppy, was wholly unlike the booming, straightforward beats I’d associated with commercial hip-hop — closer to someone like DJ Krush or even Autechre than, say, 50 Cent. And Weezy himself was even better: collapsing the past five years of dumb hits (“My Humps,” “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” and so on) into one even dumber sexual pun (“lick the rapper”), turning the phrase “back it up like burp, burp” into a structural keystone, and even parodying the sentimental swell of pop-rap ballads towards the end, as the repeated nonsense gets more and more passionately overwraught and AutoTune makes a mockery of melisma. The late Static Major does the best he can with the thankless job of singing the hook straight, but it’s Lil Wayne’s show all the way, and hip-hop has a new clown prince.
And the remix is even better: Kanye West delivers an introductory verse miles above his usual game, only to be completely destroyed by Weezy at his off-the-cuff free-associating best, topping Kanye, then topping himself, then topping himself again. (Latex/late ex/“I think I’m late” text. Brilliant.) As with the great psychedelic lyrics of ages past, the meaning of the words aren’t nearly as important as the fact that someone thought to say it. (Some might say that that’s betraying the spirit of rap; but allowing rap to have only one spirit is more misguided than anything I could say.)
Then there’s “A Milli,” a tour de force of straight freestyling over an ungainly vocal sample:
There is no chorus, no hook, no sung line whatever. It is perhaps the least club-ready hip-hop track to ever reach so high into the charts, a wonder of timing and charisma and the sort of blue-moon alchemy that made anti-pop songs like “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Like A Rolling Stone” staples of oldies radio.
“Okay, you’re a goon but what’s a goon to a goblin?” is the central question of the track, as Wayne’s voice distends to basso electrónico, and the grinning face he often pulls can be understood as goblinesque, or as simian — or as the rictus grins of blackface minstrels. Bill Cosby and Spike Lee would not be pleased, and an older generation of rappers has been notably silent on Lil Wayne’s meteoric rise, while praising dullards like Plies and safe bets like Outkast.
Which brings us to his apogee. “Got Money” is, on the face of it, a crass commercial celebration of wealth, power, and the untethered greed of capitalism, Gordon Gekko’s wet dream set to a crashing testosterone symphony. The standard hip-hop trope of “making it rain” — i.e. showering one’s self and one’s companions in bills — is invoked with the kind of aggressive gloating that has long been a stereotype of the acqusitive bourgeois. When I got into my car one Sunday after giving an anti-poverty appeal (it’s a long and not particularly relevant story), “Got Money” came on and I found myself rapidly turning into a hardline Marxist.
But it’s more complicated than that. As usual.
Let’s start with the video (which isn’t unproblematic, but we’ll get to that). It opens with Wayne invoking Katrina and the continuing financial and social neglect of New Orleans’ most vulnerable citizens, and the song’s brilliant shouted opening line, “I need a Winn-Dixie grocery bag full of money to the V.I.P. section!” is presented not as a diva’s temperamental demand, but as the stickup line in a bank heist. Rather than (as the mere song suggests) flashing their rolls and measuring their dicks at some club, Wanye and T-Pain (a genial, George Clintonesque presence, far funnier than his mere radio persona would have indicated) are playing Robin Hood — they “make it rain” not on the conventional strippers and ballers, but on the bank’s needy customers. It’s a witty, even mythologized, analysis of the current financial crisis, conflating robbery with a run on the bank — and the would-be heroes are arrested and carted off at the end of the video, as socially responsible a finale as the angriest old white man could wish.
But then that’s just the video, and videos aren’t radio singles any more than the album versions of the songs are. For one thing, there’s the absurd phenomenon of editing for radio — rather than claiming he’ll “make it rain on them hos” (with the usual dirty double entendre),
I’ll take this opportunity to mention that I have some affection for the absurdity produced by radio editing — it frequently results in choppy, arrhythmic lines that sound more interesting to my ear than the vanilla one-two flow that includes the profanity. (For the record, yes, of course I think the whole concept of “clean” editing is dumb, but I recognize the accidental brilliance that can result from implementing a dumb system.)
More importantly, the video doesn’t include the single’s climactic pop moment, the greatest verse of the summer, the moment when Wayne drops the thug pose and quotes last year’s unbeatable “Umbrella” (“Ella, ella”) — then trumps Rihanna’s unforgettable “ay, ay” with a five-note bleat as thrilling and heart-stopping as any pop fragment ever. It’s AutoTuned, it’s stereo-panned, it’s chopped and screwed — it’s the ultimate artificial moment in a summer, a year, a decade of artificial pop, and I can completely understand why it was replaced in the video by a standard balling-braggart verse from Mack Maine — visualizing it would be a nearly impossible feat.
Then, eight lines later, it’s followed up by the most memorable line of the song — “and just like it I’ll blow that sh[ ]t, cause b[ ]tch I’m the bomb, like tick. Tick.”
This is where we are in our national pop history: the ascendance of language play, the subversion of all principles, even the principles of subversion, and all things incorporated into dance, into joy, into Fun as a nearly Platonic ideal. Lil Wayne’s being the charts’ new pop hero is not only validation for all who have longed for something different in chart pop, it’s an exciting step into a world undreamed of in the rock philosophies of those who dismiss the radio, of which I have too often been one.
I Heard Your Lyrics,
I Feel Your Spirit
Although I was aware, in a general way, of the AutoTune “gerbil voice” having become an overutilized production technique during the past few years — an effect usually blamed on the rise of T-Pain’s guest verses — I can’t be alone in feeling that this summer must have been the moment when its synthesized vocal sound became more broadly the Sound of Current Pop. Chris Brown’s “Forever,” Rihanna’s “Disturbia,” Yung Berg’s “The Business” — it’s not just pop-rap anymore, it’s pop. And yes, it will be instantly dated, but as a student of historical pop, I can’t think that’s a bad thing. Sitars in the late 60s, steel guitars in the 70s, echo-chamber drums in the 80s, and that nagging g-funk whine in the 90s do more than date the tracks that use them, they unify them into snapshots of the period. Future nostalgists will look back on the Summer of the AutoTune and remember Michael Phelps’ eight medals, Heath Ledger’s Joker, and Sarah Palin’s white-trash apotheosis as surely as electric sitars evoke
Chris Brown, for example, had had a perfectly ordinary pretty-boy pop career before “Forever.” Having struck gold with the puppydog single “With You” (a.k.a. “hearts all over the world tonight”) the year before, he also hit in the spring of 2008 in a soporific, blandly gorgeous duet with the equally blandly gorgeous American Idol winner Jordin Sparks (about whom more later). But it wasn’t until he scored a contract with Wrigley’s to return the “double your pleasure, double your fun” slogan to the national pop consciousness that he became an actual star, a shrewd weirdo in the theatrical tradition of Michael Jackson or Prince.
“Forever” is an elegant, glossy American approximation of Eurodisco, equal parts Giorgio Moroder and Quincy Jones. Brown’s rather undistinguished voice (technically fine, but without a trace of personality) would have made it a merely okay song. AutoTuned, however, he becomes something more, something mythical and vaguely inhuman, a Kraftwerkian robot with soul. The fact that the lyrics are wholly generic (the gum slogan would stand out as a stroke of genius if it wasn’t the whole reason for the song) even manages to make the whole concept work: of course a Blade Runner replicant would sing in clichés.
So Brown’s voice becomes merely another element in the soaring, thumping music, as micromanaged as the Casio burbles in the beat, and it’s at once futuristic and retro, a glorious Levanesque orgy of disco splendor, and a cold, blue-lit evocation of an emotionally spare, inscrutable narrative. “I won’t let you fall,” sings Brown at the song’s poised climax, and Christopher Reeve and Margo Kidder flicker through my imagination, only Superman is even more alien this time round — and —this is important somehow, in this year of all years — he’s black.
It’s safe to say that I haven’t come across anyone else who feels the way I do about this song: the most generous spirits were content to say that you couldn’t call Chris Brown a sell-out for recording a gum commercial because he’d never had any integrity to begin with. But as far as I’m concerned, the song was not only one of the highlights of the summer, but one of the brightest spots of the decade’s music.
It may be useful here to compare Chris Brown with his closest analogue, Ne-Yo, whose recording career has been going a bit longer. But they’re both young producer-songwriter-singers who’ve made several dents in the charts both solo and in collaboration with others, and their signature songs of the summer are both structurally and thematically the fraternal twins of the summer’s pop. (In High Nerd, think Blue Beetle and Booster Gold; they may not get along, but they’re always a team.)
Ne-Yo’s adjectival one-word hit takes a more modernist, collage-like tack than Brown’s classicist disco: with a thumping techno beat, chillout acoustic guitar on the verse, and chugging postpunk guitar on the chorus, “Closer” is all clean lines and earnestness. Where Brown is glib, romantic, and ecstatic, Ne-Yo is profound, tortured, and urgent: ungratified sexual desire rather than starry-eyed puppy love.
Like the self-serious older brother he is, Ne-Yo also micromanages his image more particularly than Brown. “Closer” was the advance single to the album Year Of The Gentleman, which found Ne-Yo coöpting traditional male fashion and Rat Pack stylishness in order to signal a new maturity in his persona — a maturity signalled mostly by being a bit boring and preachy. The music is the same thin electro-pop that he and everyone else has been rocking for the past decade, only the tempos are slower.
“Closer” remains a superior piece of pop, but it’s only that — Chris Brown’s naked embrace of the ridiculous pushes “Forever” into orbit. In fact, I’m not sure that pop can be entirely successful without being at least partly ridiculous, which is what is wrong with at least half of popular music today.
Another form of ridiculousness was on display from a vaguely more respected quarter this summer: Rihanna, who had stomped all over the competition last year, had two entries in this summer’s charts. Perhaps they cancelled each other out, perhaps the field was strong enough that there couldn’t be a clear winner, perhaps pop mythology (unlike sports mythology) simply frowns on repeats. Anyway, they were both highlights of the summer’s pop, though in very different ways.
“Disturbia,” the second entry, is better pop. The AutoTuned vocal returns as a distancing effect, a method of making the singer sound inhuman (although her unflappable, relatively affectless vocal style already went some way in that direction), but in a subtly different way than Chris Brown’s robot-with-soul effect. Rihanna is not interested in joy here, but in spooking her audience, and the result is the finest piece of horror-pop since Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” Of course the jaunty tempo and comfortable pop structure keep the creepy texture of the production from being anything more than texture — true horror is never more than a cult taste, and the charts have no interest in cult tastes — but the architects of the song have found the perfect sonic equivalents to the pale stop-motion weirdness of the modern J-horror-influenced pop film. (A weirdness played up by the video, which provides an extra layer of creepiness that the song lacks, though it’s still all in good fun.) The spare dryness of the sound, all squelchy synths and stomping beat, the sharp almost-dissonance of the hook’s close harmonies, and Rihanna’s epileptic vocalizing over the last chorus make it one of the most original-sounding hits not produced by Timbaland in years. It’s an exquisitely crafted thing of almost no use whatever.
But insofar as pop is defined by use-value, Rihanna’s other hit is probably more successful. “Take A Bow” is a girl-power kick-the-bum-out ballad, a potential anthem for the cheated-upon and fed-up, the kind of thing that a teary ex-girlfriend will listen to on repeat to soothe her sense of being wronged after the big blowup. And it’s very, very good at that kind of reassuring comfort.
The thing is, I’m not sure that pop is best defined by its use value, for the very simple reason that as an aging white dude I’m vanishingly unlikely to use this song in any way other than as sonic wallpaper. This isn’t just egocentrism — I’m entirely unable to enter the head of the young woman who would seize upon this as her post-breakup anthem, and since she can’t be anything more than a hypothetical for me, her use of the song has no real chance to overshadow my own. Besides, I’m unable to use this song for much because I’ve heard it so often by now — so I prefer to give it its props by analyzing how it works rather than by what it does to me.
And it works very well, sparsely dramatic in production but dry-eyed and even mocking in performance. Again, Rihanna’s lack of affect (as compared to the Beyoncés and Xtinas, not to mention their lesser acolytes) works in her favor. By underplaying her hand, she makes a repeated, disgusted “please” and a half-choked laugh into the coolly face-slapping highlights of the song.
But the skittering, restless hi-hat of the beat is the only other element of the song that echoes her failure to be impressed: everything else, from the weepy tempo to the off-the-shelf piano line, pushes the Kleenex angle hard, and tips the song over into conventionality and (for those who aren’t particularly pissed at a do-wrong man) triviality.
Or to put it another way, “Disturbia” is as perfectly ridiculous as pop-horror can be, and “Take A Bow” isn’t nearly ridiculous enough.
The same pattern applies to yet another pair of (sightly less massive) hits, Estelle’s “American Boy” and Natasha Bedingfield’s “Pocketful Of Sunshine.” Totally dissimilar they may otherwise be — apart from both being upbeat dance-pop confections from the UK that glance at indie disco, feature a strong female vocal, and mark the rare appearance of major-key melodies in the charts — but they offered a welcome textural relief in otherwise culturally monochrome radio playlists. British chart pop may be as monolithic, clichéd, and stagnant as American chart pop (or so say the Brits), but it’s a different monolith, an unheard cliché, and a new stagnation to American ears. As an Internet-connected music nerd I’m pretty well familiar with the contours of British pop, but it’s still usually an exercise in exoticism, unfamiliar enough to cast the elements that are familiar in a strange and enchanted half-light, as G. K. Chesterton would say.
However, in the reverse, I’m only vaguely familiar with what it’s like to be colonized by American pop; although I spent my teenage years in Guatemala glued to English-language radio, I never identified with Guatemala enough to hear it as anything but Normal. I’m naturally aware that British listeners (for example) are far more familiar with American pop than American listeners are with British pop, even if there’s a certain condescending exoticism at play in both crossovers. Still, no matter how ahrd I try to hear Estelle speaking to her own experience, I’ll always be either a colonial rube in awe of the motherland’s elegance, or a patriotic rebel incensed by her paternalism; most often both.
“American Boy,” as the title makes obvious, is about that cross-oceanic exoticism of pop. The object of the song, the American boy, is something very like the image the song’s producer and overachieving guest star Kanye West would like to project — a vision of effortless cool, erotic without being threatening, the portal to limitless possibilities.
It’s a highly exoticized image of America, and Kanye responds with an uncharacteristic production, airy and springy, even subtle — which is not an adjective often used of Kanye West. It takes the cheery rush of 70s disco, layers the springy plasticene beat of post-trip-hop British pop, and borrows a melodic turn from Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana” — a melodramatic flourish turned into a moment of wistful longing by Estelle’s superb, creamy performance, her voice cracking in all the right places.
Kanye’s verses, as usual, are about Kanye, not the song, but for once his megalomania isn’t irritating: since he’s playing the object of Estelle’s fantasy, his self-centered, self-reflexive fawning (subtly mocked by Estelle’s laughter in the background) both reinforces British stereotypes about Americans and notes that shallow commercialism hold true across the Atlantic: a lot of wacks do want to hear it. But I’d forgive a lot worse for a shout-out to Gladys Knight on Top 40 radio, the truest moment of the song for me, when it edges into sheer delighted wonder at musicmaking.
Kanye’s always skirted the edge of complete buffoonery, and it’s that willingness to be ridiculous, even in the service of taking himself completely seriously, that pushes “American Boy” towards lasting greatness, as well as (dare I think it?) a pointer towards his future.
Unlike Estelle (or Lady Sovereign, a couple years back), Natasha Bedingfield had no need of a superstar American patron to crack American radio — she’s been hitting plenty with dull ballads and other Idol (Pop or American, take your pick) fodder. “Pocketful Of Sunshine” is probably her best hit to date, but that’s not exectly high praise: it meets the minimum requirement for being catchy and memorable, without having any personality or a single original idea. (It even borrows a lyric from a far superior Gwen Stefani song.)
Still, within those narrow bounds, it does its job with professionalism, using a fake ring-modulator sound to good effect (a sound that hasn’t been much heard on American radio, even if more adventurous listeners are sick of it). Save for Bedingfield’s brief snatches of spoken word, the most British thing about it is its lack of any low end: the song is relentlessly chipper, thin-sounding, and ultimately unsatisfying. It’s also wound too tight: it can’t imagine Estelle’s light flirtatiousness, let alone the claustrophobic worlds of Ne-Yo and Rihanna or the giddy eargasms of Chris Brown. It’s supposed to be a happy song, but Bedingfield can’t even properly sell happiness. Her meaningless model’s stare is about all that can be done with the chiseled good looks that appeal more to 40-year-old record executives than to teenagers.
Speaking of which . . . .
Be Careful What You Wish
For, Cause You Just Might
The Pussycat Dolls’ “When I Grow Up” is philosophically, aesthetically, and morally indefensible. I have no respect for anyone involved and am filled with horror at the thought that young girls might consider it an acceptable way of seeing themselves and the world around them.
The reason I have managed to listen to it and enjoy it anyway is that to say all of the above is to take the song seriously, and to take it seriously is to miss the point. The point is the driving beat, the porn-star voices, and the crunchy, thickly layered sonic stew that prevents the song even at its most numbingly repetitive from being actually boring. It is the apotheosis of ridiculousness, and the only reason it’s not the summer’s best song is the obvious fact that ridiculousness, though a necessary condition for great pop, is not a sufficient one.
The Pussycat Dolls are five women with the hard bodies and harder faces of career porn stars, but even the limited honesty of porn is beyond their reach. They gesture towards sexualization and degradation without ever committing to either, and end up in the bizarre limbo of G-rated porn, unsatisfying both to anyone who wants something more in a female fantasy than a brainless sex machine, and to anyone who has access to actual pornography.
But enough about the video. The song’s biggest selling point when I first heard it was that they said “boobies” in the chorus — only they’re actually saying “groupies,” which is both dirtier and duller. Young girls who want to have boobies are sexual innocents whose vision of adult life will be corrected eventually; young girls who want to have groupies have already embraced pop culture’s systematic correlation of sexual maturity with using others.
Which may be more analysis than the song was meant to bear: but the nagging “be careful what you wish for” refrain at least gestures towards the knowledge (on somebody’s part) that the song’s fantasy of sleazy, vacuous celebrity as the perfection of human desire is ultimately wrongheaded. Still, it’s a concept of morality as shallow as reality TV, which sells schadenfreude under the pretense of telling cautionary tales.
“When I Grow Up” is the first of many songs to which I had, shall we say, mixed responses, enjoying them in the moment but being annoyed, bored, or even revolted when thinking about them later. Pop is rarely wholly satisfactory; the art of pop is generally the art of compromise. And even though I see the risk that admitting to reservations about my enjoyment is giving ammunition to those who dismiss all radio pop as irredeemable shit, not even my broad tastes can encompass everything.
“Bust It Baby, Part II” (I never managed to hear Part I) was one of the more omnipresent songs of the summer, a thug-life ballad without an ounce of threat in it. The hoarse mumbler Plies took the overstated verses while Ne-Yo sang the hooks in delicious harmony with himself. The thing is, there’s no actual thugging going on — the worst crime that happens in the song is (possibly) speeding. The object of the song’s lust (frictionlessly divided in two by the video’s split-screen, so that Plies and Ne-Yo each get a mama) is an uncomplicated romantic vision, horny and independent; the backing music borrows as much from the huge echo-chamber productions of the 80s (think Phil Collins) as from any hip-hop ethos; and the only real drama is that somebody somewhere suggested that maybe Ne-Yo wasn’t totally serious about this relationship. The omnipresent, nagging “they” just don’t understand, as the Ronettes, the Shangri-Las, and Kirsty MacColl could have told you.
But despite its adherence to venerable pop norms, the song was simplistic and obvious, and while I could groove to Ne-Yo’s harmonized “yeahs” and Plies’ half-embarrassed declarations, it never added up to anything in particular. I can’t imagine it being anyone’s favorite song, though statistically I suppose it’d have to be.
David Banner’s done impressive, genre-melting work outside of his chart career, but his only entry this summer was the summer’s dumbest, most numbing party-rap anthem, “Get Like Me.” I’m not sure whether stuntin’, stunnin’, stutt’rin’, or studdin’ was a habit, but either way, the song’s only real selling point was the thumping, car-rattling bass and invitation to bounce along. Which is great, don’t get me wrong, but once you’re past the mood for bouncing, it’s grating and wearying. Chris Brown shows up for a perfunctory Jacksonesque bridge, but the best thing about the song were the classic cars in the video, and they weren’t that great.
I’d never heard of The-Dream before this summer, which piqued my interest — judging from one of the contests JAMZ ran in July, he was popular enough for listeners to want him to perform at their home, and at first listen, his creamy, heavily-overdubbed harmonies were an oasis of lush sound in a spare, thick-beated environment.
He’s actually been around for a while, turns out — he co-wrote “Umbrella,” among other fixtures of pop radio — and while the closest image I can come up with to describe his big hit of the summer, “I Luv Your Girl,” is as a marriage between Boyz II Men and Bone Thugz ’N’ Harmony, he’s a cannier pop producer than that might sound. But while “I Luv Your Girl” has several quite lovely moments (particularly “part of me feels so bad/ooh-ooh, not that bad”), it fails to cohere as anything more than a standard seduction song, even down to the played-out trope of weaseling the song’s object away from her jealous partner. I wouldn’t be surprised if The-Dream came up with something I really, really loved; but this isn’t it. (Again, the video is a different version, with Young Jeezy providing a predictable political verse before getting out of the way for the big romantic show.)
Usher’s “Love In This Club” was one of the earliest hits of the summer, and looked on track to be the year’s Big Song, but whether because it was blindsided by Weezy Fever, or for some other reason, it turned out not to have the staying power, despite a long narrative video and a high level of product placement. The two best moments of the song were both outside references — the synth line on the chorus is a stately version of NBC’s The Office theme, and Young Jeezy’s guest verse mimics Soulja Boy’s signature rhythm for the space of a line — meaning that the song never fully created its own reality the way that really great pop needs to. The trickling piano lines that show up later in the song are too little, too late; it’s manufactured drama, made even less appealing by its audience’s experience of what club floors are actually like. (Eww.)
To one degree or another, all of these songs ended up being less enchanting than I might originally have thought. A separate category of songs also had a muted impact, but that was due more to release schedule than to their internal qualities. I’ve been talking about the summer’s pop, but this handful only hit big in August, and so didn’t fully qualify (as far as I’m concerned) as Summer Hits, but deserve mention anyway.
Mariah Carey’s “I’ll Be Lovin’ U Long Time,” the third single from her album E=MC2, was a gorgeous, Motown-sampling production, its title nodding towards a famously racist line without embracing the controversy, and featuring a genial T.I. guest verse in a sort of sneak preview for his fall return. It didn’t have staying power on the charts, but its overcharged, compressed-almost-to-white-noise atmosphere was one of my favorite sounds of the summer; whenever that popping intro came on the radio, I couldn’t help but smile. Mariah’s self-harmonies, which were the great selling point of the even more blissful “Touch My Body,” recalled Kirsty MacColl’s and Laurie Anderson’s sly vocal experimentation in the 80s, and turned me from someone who remembered only her turgid ballads from the mid-90s into something of a fan.
Party-rapper Flo Rida’s “Low,” which had been a huge hit in the summer of 2007, was still on the lower reaches of the charts when “In The Ayer” returned him to the spotlight briefly. A will.i.am production (his lame-ass verse is an already pretty lame song’s low point), it wasn’t exactly among the most enduring pop of the summer, but I did like Tiffany Villareal’s uncredited assists on the chorus (the first time I heard it, the DJ said it was probably Fergie; God, I love local DJs), and if it doesn’t spawn a brief craze for the mispronunciation of “air” similar to “scurred,” etc., for “scared,” etc., I’ll be disappointed in the youth of America.
Yung Berg’s “The Business” was a late entry in the summer’s AutoTune sweepstakes, as both the nominal rapper and guest singer Casha are vocally processed to within an inch of their lives. Berg may have been capitalizing on the exposure that guesting on Ray J’s “Sexy Can I” earlier in the year, and Casha’s choruses borrowed a bit too much from Adina Howard’s “Freak Like Me” (or possibly the Sugababes’ cover), but the song was an oversized good time, the processed vocals turning what might have been overly-explicit lyrics delivered by ordinary human voices into sonic poetry. Sexuality has been mechanized and dehumanized in pop at least since Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” but “The Business” turned it into some kind of apotheosis — I didn’t even realize the obvious sexual pun of the title until I found my pulling into a church parking lot with the song blaring from an open window.
None of these songs were among my favorites of the summer, but just as every great album needs a certain amount of filler and every great playlist needs some relative lowlights (unless you’re Barney Stinson), I grew comfortable with them as part of the landscape of summer radio, the time-filling pauses between the songs I really hoped for. It’s a very different method of listening to music from that which I had practiced with my iPod, but surrendering control was beginning to feel good.
Of course, there were real lowlights as well.
Sometimes You Gotta Go
Through The Pain
Emo has been a convenient whipping boy for disgruntled rock fans for about a decade now: “whiny,” “high-school poetry,” “self-absorbed,” and “not really rocking” are the usual charges. Of course, emo is merely the genetic mutation of rock which has managed to survive in the heavily-hip-hop-andr&b-oriented chart-pop environment, which naturally makes rock dinosaurs cranky. (Third-streamers hated fusion, too.) But more than that, emo is interesting to me as a societal barometer. Ever since the 1950s, there have been dire predictions about the subculture of pop-psychology and self-help: it would turn us into a nation of whining, self-absorbed eternal adolescents incapable of Getting Stuff Done the way our ancestors had. Emo is merely the pop-psychology and self-help babble which has blanketed daytime television for as long as I can remember, projected onto the cinematic widescreen in the back of every teenager’s head, in which trivial melodramas are of earthshaking consequence, and standard hormonal fluctuations are Greek tragedies.
The impulse to self-dramatization is inherent in pop music, of course (to sing about your love or your troubles is to make the claim that they matter more than other peoples’); the only thing which makes emo different is the degree to which it willfully excludes a wider audience, one with any sense of proportion. But once you see the emo impulse as the willful overdramatization of teenage angst, it’s hard not to see the emo impulse everywhere, as though it’s spread like viruses, contaminating a public discourse which was once rational, adult, and emotionally reserved.
Which is nonsense.
Still, most of the songs I really disliked this summer had at least a touch of emo about them, whether because they were about the singer’s pain, because they were overserious and moralizing, because they fed into the self-absorption of the adolescent mind, or all three.
Leona Lewis’s “Bleeding Love” was probably the gold standard for this. An unpleasant, maudlin song from an unpleasant, shrieking singer (winner of
Danity Kane’s “Damaged” was at first one of the bright spots of the summer’s pop for me, but the more I heard it the less I enjoyed its woe-is-me melodrama. While the overfed helium harmonies can still be enjoyable under the right circumstances, I can’t take it very much or very often. DK, to do them credit, don’t commit the cardinal sin of taking the whole thing overly seriously; and I expect they’ll do something I won’t mind at all soon enough.
Jesse McCartney co-wrote “Bleeding Love,” which makes sense, as he’s one of the most smackable twenty-one-year olds I’ve ever seen. I found his big hit, “Leavin’,” barely tolerable up to the point when I found out he was white and beautiful, after which I couldn’t change the station fast enough. (I get that he’s doing a Timberlake thing, I just don’t think he’s any good at it.) The remix featuring Baby Bash was far more acceptable, as Bash’s Spanglish verse and cheeky rhyme of “quarterback” with “holding back” made up for McCartney’s self-serious broody posing.
And so to American Idol winner Jordin Sparks. It’s not perhaps a coincidence that my Emo Hall of Shame is heavy on reality-show contestants (Danity Kane originated on MTV’s Making The Band), but Jordin had at least a modicum of goodwill from me for being from the Phoenix metro area herself (Glendale, represent!), even if I’d never heard any of her music. I’d been assured by those who had watched that season of AI (I don’t despise it, I’m just bored by it) that she was the least impressive winner so far and would surely go nowhere.
Well. She may not be Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood (yet), but “No Air,” her duet with Chris Brown, was all over the place in the spring and early summer, and “One Step At A Time” ate up a good chunk of radio real estate in the latter part of the summer.
Let there be no mistake: it is a terrible, terrible song, an adolescent feel-good-about-yourself ditty that I recognize instantly as having the same sanctimonious odor as the Christian pop of my youth — I’m not sure there’s not even an abstinence message tucked in there somewhere. It is perhaps hypocritical of me to complain about this after making disapproving noises about the Pussycat Dolls, but, well, I’m a grown-ass man, and I don’t want to be condescended to any more than I want to encourage the sluttification of tweens. It’s about balance.
Still — all that said, I can’t hate “One Step At A Time” with the rich, full hate it deserves. The wordless, low-resolution hook (“da da da . . . ”), the high-heeled footsteps that track throughout the song, and the frantic bass beats that end each verse are all smart, skilfully placed pieces of a much better pop song than the one they’re actually attached to, and to the degree I enjoy them, I’ve accepted the song. And then there’s her octave-jumping shriek in the bridge, a moment which almost derails the song, and for a nanosecond I get a glimpse of her inner Diamanda Galás. Some canny producer will have to work that sliver of an edge, or Jordin Sparks will be no more than a footnote.
I can’t leave this topic without noting one song which actually exploited the emo impulse to good effect this summer. Though I heard it less frequently than I would have liked, Mariah Carey’s “Bye Bye,” particularly the remix with Akon and Lil Wayne, was a master class in how to do sentimental, self-dramatizing pop without turning the stomachs of the more self-aware. The original song is a lovely farewell to the dead —whether Mariah’s grandmother or whomever the listener misses — but the remix goes one better by letting Weezy drop the jester’s mask and get a little croakily philosophical, even turning a self-namecheck into a heartstring tug. It’s a performance so masterful that when I listen to the original it now sounds incomplete, denuded of something essential.
Ain’t No Big Deal,
Although I spent this summer listening to two Top 40 radio stations in my car, when I checked the Billboard charts online for confirmation of what I was hearing, I found that I was only hearing about two-thirds of what was actually on the charts. This, I presume, is because I spent virtually no time listening to country stations, dedicated rock stations, or the Disney Channel.
Apparently, 3 Doors Down had a massive hit this summer. To this day, I haven’t heard a note of it. I only heard Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” once it had begun its descent down the charts after spending nearly a month in the Top Five. And I still have not, to the best of my knowledge, heard anything by Taylor Swift, Sugarland, or Miley Cyrus.
That doesn’t mean I heard no rock music this summer; it means that what I heard was the rare rock song that could reach an audience for whom Lil Wayne, Rihanna, Kanye West, and Mariah Carey were somewhere near the center of what constituted good music.
Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl” was the great success story here. A dance song dressing up like a rock song, it borrowed the Gary Glitter beat from Goldfrapp’s “Ooh La La” (2005) and the lipstick lesbianism from t.A.T.u. (2002), but nevertheless managed to sound current — at least for those who didn’t think faux-lesbianism was over by the time Britney and Madonna “shocked” the MTV Music Awards in 2003.
When I first heard the song, I thought it might be Pink, which would have been mildly interesting — hey, she’s finally admitting she’s gay! — but an ex-Christian pop singer going fake-slutty to chase the pop-chart brass ring can’t be anything but faintly depressing. (Pink would return in the fall with a song that kicked Katy Perry’s posing ass all over the map; sure, she’s still playing straight in it, but you can’t have everything.)
Even if the external life of the song hadn’t been so underwhelming, as a sonic experience there’s nothing for me to sink my teeth into: Perry shoots everywhere for the obvious and nails her target squarely, while the faded glam beat does nothing to give the song the kind of dangerous, indeterminate edge it desperately needs. It’s a failure on all levels, most especially the important one of being at all entertaining.
At least Metro Station pulls that off. Though they’re just as indebted as Perry to those who went before them, their unabashed Killers ripoff has at least the virtue of not pretending to any relevance. “Shake It” might be considered a marriage of the Cure and the Cars if half the chartward rock bands of the last half-decade hadn’t already made that same (not very large) leap of inspiration; as it is, the song stands or falls on its own merits of energy and catchiness. It fulfills the bare minimum requirements of chart pop, and under those limited conditions, is a rousing success.
The Jonas Brothers had to fulfill even less stringent requirements in order to have a successful hit; “Burnin’ Up” is as thrillingly adequate as it can be. Their insdistinguishable lead vocals are among the more annoyingly oversung whines in rock music, but the rest of production team, musicians, writers and makeup artists (none of which are more important than any other). The fact that their bodyguard contributes a rapped verse is the most interesting thing about the song. This is undoubtedly the future of rock; it’s been nice knowing it.
Paramore’s “That’s What You Get” is a cute little pop-punk song that I never actually saw on the charts; while I can’t quite bring myself to believe it was that rare, almost mythical being, a local hit, the evidence is undeniable. It’s got the loudest guitars of anything I heard this summer; and that’s the best thing I can say about it. (Okay, Hayley Williams’ Avrilly lead vocal is alright too.)
The Flobots’ “Handlebars” was a sleeper indie hit which I only heard a handful of times; I heard the Blobots’ local parody “Scottsdale Bars” (“I’m a big douche at the . . . ”) much more frequently, which isn’t saying a lot.
So much for the rest of rock. Now to the main attraction, undoubtedly the big crossover hit of the late summer, if not the year. I heard this song on every station I flipped to during the late summer: it was on rap stations, pop stations, rock stations, metal stations, and even the Latin station. I’d heard it a year before, when I bought the album. And I’d heard its remix when Pitchfork included it on their Top 100 Tracks of 2007 list. Ladies and gentlemen, M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes.”
“I fly like paper, get high like planes” — sure, the only reason it was a hit in the first place was the not-immensely-successful stoner movie Pineapple Express, but who cares? It was the greatest piece of pop on the radio this year, a smartly global exercise which conflated sing-song rap lyrics with atmospheric indie guitar rock, subverted a hook from Wreckx-&-Effect’s 1992 pop-rap hit “Rump Shaker,” and managed to draw parallels between terrorism, capitalism, and pop, all without letting the thirty-year-old (ancient in pop terms; also, my age) Sri Lankan photographer Maya Arulpragasam get a hair out of place or raise her voice even slightly as she deadpanned lines like “no one on the corner has swagger like us” and “some I murder, some I let go.”
M.I.A. is usually filed under electronica in the record stores I frequent, but to the indie rock crowd she’s one of their own, and undoubtedly has been both embraced and demonized in the same way previous unlikely indie successes like Modest Mouse (“Float On”), the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (“Maps”), and the White Stripes (“Seven Nation Army”) have been. Like Gnarls Barkley, Gorillaz, Outkast and (yes) some of Kanye West’s recent work, she points a way out of the rock/rap divide that has splintered pop music for as long as I’ve been aware of it: a fusion that embraces sampling as well as live instrumentation, singing as well as rapping, and Artists Doing It For Themselves is the way forward. It’s postracial, it’s even postnational. It’s pop, and goddamn am I glad I get to listen to it.
Please. What Else Is On?
That was my summer, or the musical part of it anyway, and as it’s taken me almost to November to get even these paltry, disjointed thoughts down, a new generation of songs has grown up on the radio that are begging to be included in the pantheon. But enough’s enough.
I returned to school and started a second job at the end of August, and flush with student-loan cash bought a beautiful new iPod, and revisiting my old collection and returning to old obsessions has left less space for the radio in my listening life, though I don’t think it’ll ever go back to zero. I’m frankly a fan now; not, perhaps, someone whose musical taste is defined by pop radio, but someone whose taste is informed by it, as by a multitude of other source points. The breathless thrill I felt when I heard the new Kanye single, the new Beyoncé single, the new Xtina single for the first time is something that can’t quite be duplicated in any other listening format. There’s something to be said for the lack of direct choice that radio offers: as Nicholson Baker once observed, you can be pleasantly surprised when listening to radio in a way you can’t be when listening to music you own.
It may be true that there are fewer opportunities for surprise than perhaps there once were, as radio formats consolidate and playlists pare down and the same twenty songs get played over and over again for months at a time, but the thing is, they don’t really, it just seems that way. You can’t step into the same river twice: as of this writing, Natasha Bedingfield and Leona Lewis and Danity Kane and Jesse McCartney and David Banner are fading memories, while a new crop of songs has grown up to replace them. (The Justice League is back from saving a distant galaxy, and the Teen Titans clear the field.) The cycle of pop may be slower than it was in the past, but there are more outlets for pop than there ever were before; and, of course, turning off the radio is always an option.
Or turning the dial: towards the end of the summer I discovered a new station. KVIB 95.1 Latino Vibe (“Toda Tu Música”) is the sound of young, hip Hispanic Phoenix; the DJs as well as the callers speak a high-velocity mixture of Spanish and English, and the music comes from all over the
I can’t wait to hear what happens next.
 Or is it “you’re a goombah”? He’s just referenced Sicilians, after all.
 But that’s a different essay, and not one I’m terribly enthusiastic about writing.
 My uneasy relationship to the concept of