Justin Bieber featuring Big Sean—“As Long As You Love Me”
Bieber isn’t stupid, and he tries harder than he probably even needs to, but he’s still young, and he still feels the need, in order to connect with his fans, to couch even his most serious messages in the form of love songs. Hence this astute but confusing foray into dubstep. Bieber demonstrates true concern for the poor and disadvantaged while at the same time belittling their problems by saying that he could endure it all as long as he has “you” by his side. His vocals have never been better—just listen to his phrasing and dynamics on the line that ends “we could be broke”—and the arrangement has real darkness and urgency to it, but in the end it’s just another love song; he still hasn’t learned to merge rote romance with his more “serious” ideas. He’s right, though, I think, not to throw the romance out—if he could merge the two ideas he’d be on to something deeper than he may yet realize. The fact that he’s trying, though, is already a point in his favor.
Cher Lloyd—“Want U Back”
This is a step up from other British trash pop singers like Jessie J and Rita Ora, but not by much. Details that seem distinctive at first—the frustrated grunting in the background, the pouting phrasing, Lloyd’s feeble attempts to mimic Nicki Minaj’s vocal pyrotechnics—quickly become irritating, and presenting herself as a woman who only want’s her ex back because somebody else grabbed him doesn’t exactly strike a blow for feminism, even she’s only playing a part. Judging, though, by her previous single, “Swagger Jagger” (no, I didn’t make that up), Lloyd is a one-shot and then some. Thank God.
Shelton has one great commercial advantage: it isn’t necessary to actually listen to his songs in order to appreciate them. You still have to hear them, of course, on the radio, in a bar, or a department store. But all the emotional effect they’re going to have on you can be had at a distance. The words and the details of the arrangements don’t matter. The texture of the music, the dynamics, the tempo, the familiar, reassuring chord changes, that’s all you need to hear to get everything there is out of his records. Listening closely, or even thinking about it, only diminishes the effect. It’s music to do other things to: washing the dishes, fixing the car, shopping. Once you hear the opening acoustic guitar, you anticipate the crash of drums and electric guitar in the chorus, and instead of delivering an emotional jolt, it’s comfortable and calming, just the thing to help you decide if you want to stock up on laundry detergent while it’s on sale. I doubt if this was Shelton’s intent—he may well see his overwrought melodramatic clichés as true emotion and pathos—but it’s still an achievement of a kind. And it’s certainly made him successful.
matchbox twenty—“She’s So Mean”
matchbox twenty write and perform with such smugness you’d think they’d invented dumb. The song is stupid enough, but Rob Thomas’s phrasing, which I’m sure he put a lot of thought and effort into, results in some of the worst singing I’ve ever heard. Thomas is the kind of guy who thinks it’s funny when he pouts and whines like a five-year-old. There’s a reason that woman treats him like shit: he deserves it.
Lee Brice—“Hard To Love”
Hard? Try impossible.
Driicky Graham—“Snap Backs and Tattoos”
The beat gets inventive after a while, and Graham isn’t a bad rapper, but most of this is standard issue stuff, if more fashion conscious than the norm (he also has a rap about high-top sneakers). Hard to get past that name, though. Is that supposed to be a pun on Tricky? Dicky? A mix of the two? Who knows. I doubt we’ll ever hear enough from him to make it worth finding out.