Another slow week, with yet more tracks from Les Miserables and Pitch Perfect, neither worth bothering with unless you have a liking for bland ballads and clunky medleys. But the three non-souvenirs are each fascinating in their way, reworking familiar clichés and calling up more questions than they answer. None of them are brilliant, and they’re all, technically, from last year, but they point in some interesting ways toward the future. It’s going to be a weird year.
Rihanna—“Pour It Up”
Aside from the music, which is stunning, what stands out about this record is the gender bending. “Pour It Up” could easily be sung by a man without changing a single word of the lyric. The message—”look guys, I can parade my stacks and my grill and watch strippers just like you”—is partly parody, partly whatever in Rihanna’s mind passes for feminism. Money makes her equal, even if she never has to spend any of it. That’s fine as far as it goes, but the remaining problem is one that male rapper’s have been trying to solve for years with little success: once you’ve reached this exalted position, then what? Kanye West and Jay-Z answer the question with art and business, respectively, but I don’t think Rihanna is thinking that far ahead yet. It’s a puzzle, no matter what your gender, but I suspect it’s more complicated for women. I hope she figures it out.
Lee Brice—“I Drive Your Truck”
Over the last few years, southern truck culture has become so swamped in cliché, sentimentality, and jingoism that’s it’s difficult for those who live outside of it to take it seriously, to understand that it’s rooted in something other than macho arrogance, redneck pride, or right-wing paranoia. That an object that, in rural communities, is seen as a necessity should become an object of veneration shouldn’t be considered unusual. At least, no more unusual than urbanites’ veneration of, say, Apple products, or their favorite coffeeshop. If your brother died, wouldn’t you have the same feelings about his favorite hangout or his laptop, or even his car that Lee Brice has about his brother’s truck in “I Drive Your Truck”? The clichés are firmly in place—driving with the windows down, cranking up the radio, tearing up fallow fields, raising a lot of dust—but Brice makes them register, connects them with emotions and communities and lives. It’s not a great record—the music is stolid, the arrangement unimaginative and much too loud—but Brice sings very well, especially on the first verse, and the heart of the message gets across. I don’t think he totally succeeds in breaking the bounds of cliché, but he comes close.
The Barden Bellas—“Riff Off: Mickey/Like A Virgin/Hit Me With Your Best Shot/S&M/Let’s Talk About Sex/I’ll Make Love To You/Feels Like The First Time/No Diggity”
Samantha Barks—“On My Own”
Whenever anyone writes this sort of brainless uplift marching song they’re always in danger of appearing ridiculous, so I can’t totally fault fun. for coming up with one of the dumbest lines I’ve ever heard: “But my legs are fine/After all, they are mine”. The problem is the form, not the execution. “Carry On” is as skillful and enjoyable as this sort of song can be, and catchier than most, but after the more personal and idiosyncratic, if uneven, pleasures of “We Are Young” and “Some Nights”, it comes across as too easy in its uplift, almost cheap. Like those records, though, it has its oddly endearing moments of confusion (he says he never said that we are all shining stars, and then says exactly that over and over again in the chorus). These moments are intended, I think, to suggest self-doubt and maybe even deep thought, or maybe to reflect the realities of conversation amongst people who aren’t sure what anything they say means. All I hear this time around, though, is a guy who contradicts himself because he can’t remember what he said thirty seconds ago.