One Direction—“Best Song Ever”
A good song, with nifty lyrical details, but One Direction’s love of rock and roll would be more meaningful if their idea of rock and roll extended beyond loud guitars, booming drums, and scripted shouts. If they’re going to steal from The Who they might pick something that hasn’t been plundered to death like “Baba O’Reilly”, and they might want to try being less obvious about it, as well. Their hearts are in the right place, but they have no idea how to achieve whatever their goals may be, and I have a feeling that as they gain more control over their careers their music will get worse, not better. I hope not—they really are a charming bunch. But so far charm is all I’ve heard.
Ariana Grande—“Baby I”
Though the arrangement is too busy and Grande isn’t the singer her fans make her out to be, “Baby I” is a very good record. It’s essentially a 90s pastiche, but it’s surprisingly loose and high-spirited—there’s nothing stiff about its retro qualities, and for the most part it doesn’t get bogged down in trying to sound exactly like its sources. The worst thing about it, though, is the one thing that people seem most excited by: Grande’s slavish obeisance to the memory of Mariah Carey. There are two major problems with this. One, Grande lacks the vocal gifts and technical skill of her model—when she reaches for those trademarked high notes she tends to screech. And two…
It’s Mariah Carey. What may be most depressing about the critical reaction to Grande’s records—and this in no way is her fault (well, maybe a little)—is the reassessment of Carey’s career that seems to have come with it. Suddenly, now that her pop career is essentially over and she’s been replaced by Grande, Mariah Carey has become the singer everybody loves, one of the greatest voices of her generation, perhaps even greater than the conveniently dead Whitney Houston, yada yada yada. While I’m willing to admit that Carey has made some good records—three or four at least—the majority of her material has been as limp and sentimental as pop music gets. There’s no doubting her influence: she made the observance of flights of melisma a major spectator sport and basically invented the “featuring” genre that still dominates hip-hop. But that influence has been a mixed blessing at best, and the records that generated it, popular as they were, for the most part were terrible.
I like to think that the flood of available music of the last few years has forced critics into a position where sentimental snap judgments are all that’s possible, and that since they grew up in a time when Carey’s music dominated the radio, they mistakenly thought it must be worthwhile. That would be an understandable explanation, but it’s the reverse of what should be happening. If anything, critics should be questioning, constantly, the music they grew up with and that most influenced them, seeing it as an accident, a moment of propinquity that may have pointed them in the wrong direction. But since 90% of critics, like 90% of everything else, are crap, that may be too much to expect. We’ve moved from the age of mechanical reproduction into the age of obsessive-nostalgic digital reproduction, and it’s just too easy to follow along.
I stand by Goulding’s voice, but this is a terrible record, and I can’t help but think that only the hope of capitalizing on the success of “I Need Your Love” convinced her to record it. She’s too intelligent and quirky an artist to depend on anything as bland as this to solidify her career. As for writer/producer Ryan Tedder, apparently the minor success of his softcore EDM experiments with OneRepublic convinced him he could do a full on banger. He was wrong, but then I don’t expect Tedder to know any better. Goulding should.
Chris Brown featuring Nicki Minaj—“Love More”
Personal issues aside, it’s easy to state the main problem with Chris Brown’s ever more frustrating career: he picks great beats, and then writes lousy songs around them. The frustrating part is that even as he grows as a singer, the main problem persists. “Love More” is another one.
Sage the Gemini—“Gas Pedal”
More low-key, minimalist rap about sex with strippers, only this time without the cruder metaphors. Not bad at all, but nothing to get excited about.
Ross Lynch, Grace Phipps And Jason Evigan—“Cruisin’ For a Bruisin’”
Most Disney pop is pastiche, but it’s usually pastiche with style. “Cruisin’ for a Bruisin’” has a lot of energy, but it’s showtune energy, which means it’s exhausted you by the end of the first chorus. And then it goes on. I have no problem with the voices—this is one of the few cases in Disney pop where the voices (some of them, anyway) are more appealing than the music—and maybe I reached the limit of my tolerance for beach party parodies in the 70s, but this sounds tired to me, maybe even desperate. What does a studio do when all their biggest stars have moved on? Disney had a great run, but it looks like it’s over.
Marc Anthony—“Vivir Mi Vida”
I don’t know enough about Anthony’s career or salsa itself to judge whether this is the return to form that many say it is, but it’s a good record whatever the case. Anthony sounds more alive than 90% of the singers on the pop charts this year, and the song crackles in an old-fashioned way that’s refreshing at the very least. If this is a return to form, it might be a good idea to check out some of his early stuff.
Kenny Chesney—“When I See This Bar”
Chesney is at the point in his career where he wants to get serious, and since the only life he seems to know takes place in bars out on the Keys, he gets serious about that. The result is an over-six-minute elegy to getting drunk packed with elements of Jimmy Buffett, Bob Seger, Bruce Springsteen, and anyone else who’s waxed poetic over the simple lives of the working class. Chesney’s craftsmanship is as sharp as ever, but his almost total lack of personality makes this nothing more than an impressive piece of empty pathos. He has all the technical elements down, and he knows how to put the pieces together, but he has no idea how to infuse the results with emotion or meaning. In the end the song is as empty as a coconut husk.
Emblem 3—“Chloe (You’re the One I Want)”
Singers who can’t sing shouting songs by writers who can’t write over blaring arrangements that pummel your ears to get your attention and then deliver nothing of interest. Or: how to kill your musical career before it even starts. As if finishing fourth on X Factor wasn’t enough.
Tim McGraw—“Southern Girl”
I may have said this before but I’ll say it again: Tim McGraw is the most overrated country singer of the last twenty years. His voice is fine, and he’s willing to experiment stylistically, but his material is almost always mediocre and his insistence on cranking the macho up to 11 drowns out whatever good points he may have. “Southern Girls” is exactly what you’d expect: clichéd, over-arranged, condescending and pandering at the same time. Won’t he ever go away?