Taylor Swift’s last album, the indescribably brilliant 1989, made her the biggest star musician in the world, but it also set an almost insurmountable challenge for her follow-up. Her only hope to hold onto her crown was to do something absolutely nobody was expecting. And Holy Hell, did she deliver on that front. I now know what it’s like to be afraid of Taylor Swift. I’ve always loved her music, but it honestly never occurred to me that she could actually frighten me. This song makes all her angry songs from earlier in her career…”Better Than Revenge”, “Dear John”, “Bad Blood”, “Better Man”…sound like the love child of “You Light Up My Life” and “I Love You Always Forever” by comparison. The strangest thing is that the song actually samples “I’m Too Sexy” by Right Said Fred, and yet it manages to make the hook from that famously goofy song sound terrifying. It even closes with the most twisted tribute imaginable to the phone-conversation bridge from “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”. Taylor Swift is reaching Bob Dylan/David Bowie levels in terms of continual self-reinvention, and as afraid as I am that the world might not be able to handle an entire album of this kind of thing without going into an apocalypse, I’m still waiting for that next album with trembling anticipation. Emphasis on the trembling.
Archives for August 2017
Ever since Taylor Swift left the Nashville labels and stopped allowing herself to be billed as a Country artist, Nashville has been desperately scrambling to find a replacement for what had been their primary cash cow. Now, Swift was never really a Country artist in any real sense, and, apart from perhaps her first album, never really pretended to be, but she was pigeonholed as Country due to getting her start in the Nashville music scene and was classified as such by the billboard charts. She was also by far and away the biggest “Country” artist of her time, if not of all time, so when she officially switched over to pure Pop music, it was a tremendous blow to the Nashville machine.
The most successful attempt they’ve made to replace her so far was with Kelsea Ballerini, which should tell you something about their success rate right there. Granted, Ballerini is a decent enough little Pop-Country starlet, but she’s sure as Hell no Taylor Swift. Her songs, apart from the appalling “XO” (which is basically a female version of Sam Hunt’s “Ex To See”, terrible pun and all), are pleasant enough, but they’re superficial, lacking the soul and honesty of Swift’s work.
Compare her song “Underage” to Swift’s very similar “Fifteen”. Both are about looking back on the naivete of one’s teenage years with a mix of nostalgia, amusement and regret, and “Underage” arguably goes to “darker” and more “serious” places than “Fifteen” does. But it’s written entirely in generalities, whereas “Fifteen” is full of very specific details drawn from Swift’s own life, making feel far more real and emotionally resonant. It tells you something when the thing that everyone seems to like best about Ballerini’s debut album is the production.
Probably the only other attempt to achieve any real artistic success at all is the duo of Maddie and Tae. In contrast to Ballerini, who released a terrible debut single but followed it up with a decent first album, Maddie and Tae’s first single was absolutely brilliant. Called “Girl in a Country Song”, it was a well-deserved satirical takedown of the appallingly sexist Bro-Country that dominated the Country genre at the time, laced with scornful references to a plethora of actual Bro-Country hits.
But when their actual debut album finally arrived, it became clear that these two had absolutely nothing to contribute beyond that one song. The rest of the album was a mix of pleasant but undistinguished genre exercises like “Fly”, and mildly embarrassing novelty tracks like “Shut Up and Fish”. It wasn’t exactly awful, but it was disappointingly forgettable for a duo that had seemed to have actual promise.
Finally, there is by far the worst of these attempts—the intolerable scourge of Country-Pop known as RaeLynn. This singer started out as a contestant on the Reality TV talent show The Voice (and pathetically enough, might be the biggest new star that show has ever produced), where she attached herself to Pop-Country bore Blake Shelton, who was serving as one of the show’s judges. Shelton eventually managed to land her a record deal, and after providing barely-discernible background vocals on Shelton’s horrendous “Boys Round Here”, she released an EP, entitled Me, and immediately gained the worst kind of fame one can possibly achieve: internet notoriety.
She would eventually release a full album, WildHorse, but by that time everyone had forgotten she existed, so no-one really noticed. But people noticed Me, mainly because of a song entitled “God Made Girls”. This song became briefly legendary on the internet for being both offensive to women and unbelievably stupid, and even now it’s the only thing anyone still remembers her for.
The rest of the EP wasn’t much better (neither was the album, come to that); indeed, “God Made Girls” wasn’t even the worst song on it. “Kissin’ Frogs” is just as idiotic as its title makes it sound, and “Boyfriend” is possibly the least likable “Take-Your-Boyfriend” song ever recorded, an impressive achievement given that that field also includes Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend” and Cher Lloyd’s “Want U Back”.
It doesn’t help that Raelynn’s voice is one of the most unpleasant sounds known to man…frankly, she kind of sounds like a frog herself. This is odd, because usually people who get famous through Reality TV voice competitions, whatever their other faults as artists, are almost guaranteed to be at least passable singers (you don’t generally get a Miley Cyrus out of the American Idol system, is what I’m saying). In any case, if you are even willing count her as Country, RaeLynn is the worst act to debut in the genre since Justin Moore. To the extent that she’s remembered at all, it’s as a vague recollection of an internet punchline from 2014, and to be perfectly frank, that’s all she deserves.
The basic reason they’ve been so unsuccessful at trying to replace Taylor Swift, beyond the obvious fact that you don’t exactly find an immortal musical genius on every street corner, is that they don’t seem to understand what made her great, or even what made her popular. The thing that originally made Taylor Swift a star was her songwriting prowess. She can sing capably enough, but she’s not a vocal powerhouse like Kelly Clarkson, and she is gorgeous, but there are a lot of girls out there just as pretty who aren’t the biggest music star in the world.
But Nashville seems to have no interest in grooming another songwriting prodigy to take her place—they genuinely seem to believe that Swift was successful merely because she was an attractive blonde girl who sang about teen-relatable issues. So they’ve drafted an entire corp of pretty young blonde singers and tried to have professional songwriters write pastiche Taylor Swift songs for them to sing.
This might at least have been effective as a stop-gap measure if the songwriters in question had remotely understood Swift’s songwriting style, but what we generally get is bland ersatz Taylor Swift with none of the qualities that actually made her songs interesting. Then again, they apparently let RaeLynn do a fair amount of her own songwriting, so I suppose I can see why they might be leery about committing to another singer-songwriter. But that’s the only way they’re going to find another star on Swift’s level. Granted, even that is a long shot, but given the current state of the Country music industry, it would definitely be worth the effort if, again, they had the slightest clue how to actually do it.
After several years out of the spotlight due to a tragic legal and personal entanglement that brought on an outpouring of public sympathy even from those who had hated her previous work, expectations were high for Kesha’s fourth album (or third, I suppose, depending on if you count the Cannibal EP as a full album in itself). After all, her 2012 effort Warrior had already been a massive leap ahead of her often disastrous first two releases, and after such a deep and tragic personal struggle, everyone was on the edge of their seats wondering what she was going to release.
And yet, in spite of all this hype, the resulting album still managed to exceed everyone’s expectations. This is, in all seriousness, one of the greatest albums of the entire current decade…and I’m not talking Top 100; I’m talking Top Ten. This is 2017’s equivalent of Adele’s 21 in 2011, Taylor Swift’s 1989 in 2014, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly in 2015, and Beyonce’s Lemonade in 2016.
The lead single, the monumentally moving Gospel power ballad “Praying”, with its intensely personal lyrics and anguished intensity, set the expectations for this album’s content, but while there is plenty of honest singer-songwriter introspection on display here, this album is far more varied than one might expect from the lead single alone. Even the heavier, more serious songs have an impressive variety of tone…for example, the first track, “Bastards”, marries a tranquil, almost gentle melody to an enraged, profane lyric, providing a perfect tone-setting opening. Meanwhile, the breathtakingly beautiful title-song expresses a message of hope in indescribably gentle and tender melody, and the forcibly carefree “Learn to Let Go” talks about letting go of pain of the past in music that sounds like it actually means it.
The second song to be released from the album, “Woman”, with its explicit, defiant lyrics and a distinctive sound courtesy of the Dap-King Horns on backup, is perhaps the most ferocious feminist anthem in all of Pop music. This song is presumably what Kesha was trying to achieve on most of her first two releases, but whether due to her personal and artistic growth or the absence of Dr. Luke’s influence, it manages to succeed where those songs failed.
Similarly, the outsiders’ anthem “Hymn” is essentially a much more effective take on the model used on her earlier single “We R Who We R”. While that song was one of the more listenable items on the Cannibal EP, it failed to convince as the inspirational anthem it was supposedly meant to be, coming off as little more than a standard-issue club song. “Hymn”, on the other hand, thanks to its beautifully honest and heartfelt lyrics, genuinely comes across as a message of hope and inclusion for the outcasts and rejects of society with whom Kesha identifies, and I could see it providing great comfort to a whole generation of adolescents who feel like they don’t belong.
Interestingly, this album focuses so much on relatively unconventional subject matter for Pop music that there are only two straightforward, conventional love songs on the entire record. That said, they’re damned good ones…the glowing “Finding You” and the smolderingly sexy “Boots”.
To counterbalance all this heavy seriousness, the album features a couple of splendid comic novelties. “Hunt You Down” somewhat resembles a kind of funnier, more focused take on Mariah Carey’s “Touch My Body” (‘Baby, I love you so much…don’t make me kill you’). Even funnier is “Godzilla”…and yes, this song is literally about what it’s like to date Godzilla, as in the giant fire-breathing dinosaur from the movie franchise. Granted, it’s probably meant to be metaphorical on some level, but the humor comes from the sheer insanity of the chosen metaphor and the matter-of-fact manner in which it’s presented.
The album has as much variety in its musical influences as it does in tone. There are two outright Rock tracks, both featuring an act that also has some experience with tragedy, the Eagles of Death Metal. “Let ‘Em Talk” has a late-Nineties/early-2000s skater-punk vibe to it, while “Boogie Feet” sounds almost like an updated version of early Sixties Rock like “Do You Love Me?” and “Wipeout”.
The album also draws quite a bit on Country influences…more authentic Country influences, in fact, than much of the actual Country genre has been known for in recent years. The aforementioned “Hunt You Down” sounds uncannily like a classic-era Johnny Cash song, while Kesha’s cover of Dolly Parton’s hit “Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You” (which, incidentally, Kesha’s own mother co-wrote) even features Parton herself as a guest vocalist.
The album closes with a deeply profound song about life, death and spirituality entitled “Spaceship”. Another song featuring a Country-influenced sound, it applies a science-fiction metaphor to the idea of an afterlife and transcending the human experience. Even the other masterpieces I mentioned at the top of this article didn’t close out on a note this truthful and moving, and as the song fades out with a beautifully written spoken monologue, you almost can’t believe how far Kesha has come from the girl who introduced herself to the world with the words “Wake up in the morning feeling like P. Diddy”.
I don’t know how much success these songs will have on the radio, since Kesha curses a blue streak on almost all of them, sometimes to the point where it would be enormously difficult to censor. To her credit, the profanity never comes across as gratuitous…it just seems to arise naturally out of the album’s ultra-intense feelings…but it still might limit the success of these songs as individual “hits”.
Still, if there’s any justice in the world, the album as a whole will get enough recognition to make that aspect virtually irrelevant…after all, Lemonade only produced two real hits to speak of, and it was still widely hailed as the best album of 2016. And make no mistake…Rainbow is the best album of the current year so far, and unless Taylor Swift releases a new album that turns out as well or better than her last one, I can’t really see anything unseating it for that prize.
21 Savage would seem to be, to all appearances, a pretty standard-issue, mediocre Trap Rapper. He raps the typical Gangsta-Rap cliches over beats that are adequate, but not particularly special, and unlike the “Hook Artists” like Future and Young Thug, he doesn’t do anything particularly special with his vocal melodies. But there is one thing that places him above the rest of his particular subgenre…it’s just not something normally given much value in the Rap genre. Put simply, of all the Rappers that have ever threatened to kill me in a song (and there are a lot of them), this is the first one who sounds like he might actually do it. His talents lies not in his lyrics, his melodies or even his beats, but in his delivery. His voice seems to convey a nuanced, tormented insanity that is absolutely bone-chilling to listen to and gives his lyrics about violence and murder an impact they would never have in and of themselves. In this sense, he functions more like a Musical Theater actor than a conventional Rapper…after all, scores of people have had major careers on Broadway based purely on their ability to deliver the dramatic content of a song. His performance on this song, which details the apparently autobiographical story of his violently delinquent youth, actually reminds me in a strange way of Len Cariou in Sweeney Todd, which is quite a compliment.
Verdict: Average at best for the song itself, but very good indeed for the performance.
This is Pink’s latest attempt at a political song, targeted at the current Presidential Administration. She had tried this once before, back during the Bush administration, with “Dear Mr. President”, a collaboration with Folk-Rock duo the Indigo Girls. But that song was filled with very specific and temporal details, which not only makes it of little interest to anyone now that its political era is past, but arguably limited its impact even in its own time. From the Almanac Singers to Ani DiFranco, political songs full of specific details have always had their place, but what Pink seems to have realized is that employing universal archetypes and poetic language actually says so much more and has a far greater impact. It also ensures that your anthem will be as suitable for future generations’ ideological conflicts as it is for your own, rather than simply becoming a cultural relic only of interest to historians. Bob Dylan also learned this lesson…it can be easily seen in the difference between the protest songs on his first few albums and the more abstract, poetic protest songs of his mature career like “Chimes of Freedom” and “Tombstone Blues”. Some people have actually criticized Pink for taking a more poetic, universal approach to her political songwriting, but then, a lot of people criticized Dylan when he did the same thing back in the day. I, for one, find this a fascinating and beautiful songs that has a far more profound impact than the more heavy-handed and ephemeral “Dear Mr. President”.
Kelly Clarkson’s albums after her breakthrough masterpiece Breakaway are all underrated in one way or another, and this one is no exception. It has a flaw…a fairly obvious one…and that has made a number of both amateur and professional critics dismiss it entirely. The flaw in question in the heavily electronic production style, which does not fit well with either Clarkson’s distinctive voice nor with her style of songwriting, and which, along with a poor choice of lead single, led many to unfairly consign this album to the dust heap without a second thought.
The album was clearly meant as an attempt to emulate Taylor Swift’s massive hit album 1989 the year before. I wouldn’t call it a rip-off by any means, as it has plenty of distinctive qualities of its own, but it definitely bears Swift’s influence, not only in the Electro-Pop sound but in its conceptual structure. This is another Pop concept album from the era when they became popular again, only instead of a miniature musical like Swift’s album, this record is designed to resemble a late-Nineties/early 2000s-era movie soundtrack (the two specific models Clarkson cited in interviews were the soundtracks to Cruel Intentions and Love Actually).
But in spite of the awkward choice of production style, there is one aspect of this album that redeems it and elevates it to masterpiece status: the songwriting. Clarkson also claimed in interviews that she wanted to create an album where every track could potentially have been a hit, and my God, she pulled it off. This is perhaps the most unrelentingly intense album of Clarkson’s career, but at the same time it is far more polished than her last record, Stronger. These grandiose hooks and searing emotions are sufficient to burn through the haze of the electronic production and land with the impact of an atomic bomb.
The album’s title track, which became its biggest and most recognizable hit, is one of Clarkson’s most personal songs, a scathing indictment of her own father, who abandoned her and her family only to come back and try to leech money off her after she became famous (this seems to be something of a pattern for deadbeat dads of Pop Stars, as Demi Lovato’s father attempted the exact same thing). But while Lovato wrote a whole series of songs dedicated to her painful relationship with her father, Clarkson really only directly addressed it in this one song. In it, she explains how her husband (Reba McEntire’s stepson Brandon Blackstock) finally restored her faith in men and fatherhood after her father’s betrayal almost destroyed it. It’s easily one of the two or three best songs she ever released, and serves as the album’s emotional centerpiece.
The other two high points on the album are “Dance With Me”, perhaps the most sweepingly irresistible dance ballad of the entire current decade, and “I Had a Dream”, an indictment of the current generation’s hypocrisy set to the sound of marching boots. I admit that I was inclined to defend Katy Perry’s “Chained to the Rhythm”, which deals with essentially the same subject, but I readily acknowledge that “I Had a Dream” is twenty times the song “Chained to the Rhythm” will ever be.
Similarly, “Run Run Run” (a duet with R&B giant John Legend) could give “Somebody That I Used To Know” a run for its money in the “two-sided deconstructions of a failed relationship” category. The glowing “Take Me High” is one of the most epic declarations of love in modern Pop music, resembling Lady Gaga’s “The Cure” on steroids. And “Someone” was using the turn of phrase “Sorry I’m not sorry” a full year before Beyonce made it famous, and indeed was very possibly a major inspiration for Beyonce’s hit.
But really, as I said, this is on of those rare Pop albums where literally every track had real single potential, which makes it surprising that they chose the lukewarm “Heartbeat Song” as the lead single. This song features the same big choruses as the rest of the album, but without any of the sincerity…its attempts at intensity seem phoned-in and artificial, and it was literally the worst choice they could have made to represent the album.
It also seems decidedly odd that the album’s second single, the ultra-intense anthem of hard-won triumph “Invincible”, never even cracked the Hot 100, let alone the Top Forty. In retrospect, this might have something to do with another, much less interesting song with the same subject matter, Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song”, being a hit around the time of its release. I’ve never really understood the antipathy many Pop listeners seem to hold toward “Fight Song”, but I will admit I soured on it quite a bit when I realized it had effectively kept “Invincible” off the Pop charts.
Overall, I’d be inclined to call this Clarkson’s best album since Breakaway. I’ve always thought Pop music critics pay far too much attention to production…as if the arrangement mattered more than the song itself. Having cut my critical teeth in the world of Musical Theater, where the arrangement is comparatively unimportant, I tend to be much more focused on composition and performance, and on both those fronts, this album is beyond reproach.
While I have long defended the “Hook Artist”/”Cloud Rap” genre as a valid artistic paradigm, and will continue to do so, I readily admit that, like any other genre, there are people who manage to do it badly, and Desiigner is probably the worst of them to have actually made an impact in the mainstream. He managed to have the genre’s first Number One hit with “Panda”, but that was only because Kanye West sampled that song on a very popular track and then made it almost impossible to legally buy that track, leading to “Panda” becoming popular as the poor’s man substitute. While it was effective in the context of West’s sampling, “Panda” was of little interest as a song in its own right, but it was at least better than this, his attempted follow-up single. The title is apparently a reference to a Nickelodeon cartoon, which is rarely a good sign. The lyrics are idiotic gibberish, even by the admittedly not high standards of the “Hook Artist” genre, and the song doesn’t even have the compensation of a decent vocal melody, which means it fails by the standards of its own genre. Even the background is filled with an endless string of obnoxious noises. In his own way, this guy is just yet more proof that “Hook Artists” are a genre as legitimate as any other, because every genre has one of these idiots who tries to practice it while missing the entire intended point, and he illustrates by contrast what the more legit artists in the field are doing right.
There’s a particular subgenre of Rap that emerged only a few years ago, one variously termed by different people as “Hook Artists”, “Cloud Rap”, or (for those who refuse to accept it as a legitimate genre) “Mumble Rap”. It is marked by an emphasis on vocal melody and atmosphere over lyrical content, and is thus widely disliked by more traditional Rap fans who resent it for not following the values they associate with the word “Rap”. Post Malone is particularly disliked by that contingent, partly (let’s be honest) simply because he’s white, and partly because he blends this genre with acoustic Pop-Folk, another genre that the same demographic tends to irrationally despise. This combination has been tried before, as in the early work of Jason Mraz. But Mraz was trying to fuse Pop-Folk with traditional Rap, which made for an interesting but somewhat awkward fit. The Hook Artist/Cloud Rap subgenre is much more suited to that kind of combination, as the elements it emphasizes are essentially the same as those emphasized by an acoustic guitar ballad. And contrary to anything you might have heard, this song is gorgeous, with some of the gentlest, most flowing vocal melody in modern Pop music floating over a plush instrumental cushion of sound. We haven’t heard “Cloud Rap” this lush and melodious since the ballads on Future’s Honest album back in 2014. I will admit that the “Hook Artist” genre, like any genre, has its hierarchies, and there are some people who do it badly (Desiigner comes to mind), but Post Malone is definitely not one of them.
Verdict: This is absolutely beautiful, and it genuinely confuses me how anyone could fail to appreciate it.