Three or four years ago, a week in which Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, and Rihanna all put new songs into the Hot 100 would have been cause for rumination on the changes in pop culture and the future of the music, with hosannas from Perez Hilton, an editorial in Billboard, and maybe something snarky from the A.V. Club. Now it’s just business as usual, and all concerned seem a little tired. Not that they’re not trying, but the weariness is settling in. It’s going to take something totally different (and I don’t mean Lorde) to wake them, and maybe us, up. Unfortunately, I don’t see that coming along anytime soon.
Lady Gaga featuring R. Kelly—“Do What U Want”
I had plenty of complaints at the time about the gaudiness of the production on Lady Gaga’s early singles, but I’m beginning to miss RedOne. Who would have expected Gaga to create records that are so tasteful, so carefully crafted, so devoid of spirit, even when the lyrics hint at S&M? “Do What U Want” has everything it needs to be a hit record except the over-the-top emotional energy Gaga has always provided in the past. R. Kelly gives the record a boost, but he seems to be thinking of this in an entirely different way than Gaga. Her lyrics hint at her relationship with the press and critics, using sex as a metaphor, while Kelly’s are about nothing but sex. Worst of all, the song is built on a fallacy: does Gaga actually believe that mind and body are two separate things, and that if her body is manipulated it won’t affect the way she thinks? Kelly doesn’t; that’s why his career has survived for so long. I’m beginning to wonder now if Gaga can last even half the time.
Justin Bieber—“Hold Tight”
There’s a song in here somewhere, I’d swear there is, but you’d never know it by the way Bieber sings it. Based on the first three preview singles (only seven more to go!) Bieber is trying to create an album built on slow grinds. I don’t question his ability to go slow, but grinding does not appear to be his forte. At least not vocally.
The chorus is one of the finest examples of irritant as hook you’ll ever hear, and though I’ve tried to find some way of rationalizing the way she stretches out the title in order to make something pop out of it (unconditional love should be difficult and sometimes painful, right?), I can’t quite buy it, especially when Perry is actually singing. She wisely buries her vocals on the verses, where she seems to have no idea at all how to sing the song and make it anything but melodramatic blather. As for the arrangement, a few people have compared this to Kate Bush. Don’t be silly. It’s Simple Minds. Doesn’t anybody remember “Alive and Kicking”?
Taylor Swift—“Sweeter Than Fiction”
Soundtrack fodder, which means another piece of the lighter-than-air, disposable pop that Swift can write in her sleep, where in dreams perfectly constructed songs drift by like so many soap bubbles she can step into and inhabit at will. “Sweeter Than Fiction” is too long—especially the middle section—the lyrics are minor, and overall it’s lacking in the qualities that mark Swift at her best, but it’s still a fun listen.
Eric Church—“The Outsiders”
Eric Church is going through an almost classic career progression. He started as another good ol’ boy, writing tight, well-crafted songs about the south, small town life, small town women, and getting high. Then, with Chief, he moved toward a deeper, mytho-poetic style: his songs got longer, deeper, more stately and considered, more experimental, and he came up with at least one masterpiece in “Springsteen”. Now, ever more confident, he steps into his epic phase, and sure enough, he falls flat on his face. I give him points for trying, and “The Outsiders” isn’t a total failure, but it’s ponderous and overdone, generic and vague. Even epics need detail, but all Church provides are declarations of defiance without particulars. I can’t even figure out what it is he’s outside of.
Tyga and Justin Bieber—“Wait For a Minute”
The hook is better than anything Bieber has come up with for his own album (at least so far), but this is still a Tyga record, which means all the hooks in the world won’t save the raps. And the hook isn’t that good.
Travie McCoy featuring Jason Mraz—“Rough Water”
With Bruno Mars no longer available to provide his choruses, McCoy joins up with, uh, Jason Mraz, begging the question as to which is the most desperate. The results are as limp as expected. The record isn’t even offensive, which leaves it with no point of interest at all.
It isn’t “Type of Way”, but in the vague statement of frustration sweepstakes, “What Now” runs a close second. It’s an odd song to come off an album called Unapologetic, but then self-doubt is becoming something of a trend in pop, and you can’t blame Rihanna for squeezing the album, which is probably her best, for everything its worth. “What Now”, though, is its worst song: aimless, confusing, and confused. Whose idea was the guitar at the end? Is that Rihanna’s way of making people mutter the title to themselves so they’ll remember the song? If so, it doesn’t work.