One thing you can say about Bruno Mars, when he writes made-to-order hooks for other people’s records they at least have some emotional edge to them, which is more than Ryan Tedder, who’s responsible for this one, has ever managed. This is the worst sort of processed cheese, slimy and sticky and totally lacking in flavor. As for B.o.B., he’s obviously hoping to re-elevate himself to the pop plateau Mars placed him on two years ago. I assume Mars himself wasn’t available. I have a feeling Ryan Tedder is always available—for a price, that is.
Carrie Underwood—“Good Girl”
I appreciate Underwood’s willingness, even desire, to rock out, but this jumble of clichés isn’t the best way to go about it. For one thing, she needs to settle on a single rock style; this jumps from Joan Jett to hair metal to glam without ever settling down long enough to plant its feet on the ground (or the stage). Plus, like too many of Underwood’s records, both the rockers and the ballads, it sounds mechanical—even when she gets loose everything seems to be carefully planned. It’s weird to think that right now the best country singer to come off American Idol is Kellie Pickler: any song you could choose from 100 Proof is better than this one.
Carly Rae Jepsen—“Call Me Maybe”
Since Jepsen is twenty-six this isn’t technically tween pop, but it shares all the virtues of the genre and then some. It’s bright and bouncy, with a gorgeous and striking arrangement, but with enough of a self-possessed edge to make it hit home in ways you don’t expect. Not enough is made of how strong girls are in tween pop—even when they’re crushing over some boy they maintain their sense of dignity and self; in fact, one of the virtues they see in boys is the possibility of using them to increase their own strength and worth—not in the trophy sense, but in the sense of a real partnership. It’s a far more mature point of view than you find in most pop written for people in their twenties, which is why it has always seemed ironic that radio programmers think of tween pop as kiddie music. Jepsen may change that, because what she adds to the usual mix is sex. “Where you think you’re going, baby?” is one of the sultriest lines of the year, and the ambiguity as to who’s saying it, Jepsen or the boy she’s infatuated with, only makes it hotter. A great record.
“Fly/I Believe I Can Fly”, #56
“Cough Syrup”, #65
“What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger)”, #66
“Here’s To Us”, #73
“Glad You Came”, #90
I’m still not entirely sure what to make of this record, but it’s growing on me. Stylistically it’s a jumble: country-folk harmonies on the intro, then Brazilian drums, with subtle touches of auto-tune and other electronics, and lyrics that are half chant and half Paul Simon-like confessional, covering a lot of uneven and difficult to navigate emotional ground. They do work one neat trick: the song starts as a generic complaint about a directionless life and then progressively adds more and more personal detail, as if the singer were realizing the roots and depths of his feelings as he goes along, and ends with what sounds like a breakup—whether from a lover, a city, or an entire life, is hard to tell. I suspect the jumble is intentional, and meant to lead somewhere, but they haven’t quite figured out how to do that, even if they do know where they’re going. Allowing the generic parts to overwhelm the personal stuff is a big mistake, and sometimes the connections they hope to make aren’t there. Promising, for sure, but I’ll withhold judgment for now.
Rihanna featuring Chris Brown—“Birthday Cake”
Despite all the controversy over Chris Brown’s appearance on this record, the only real reason to listen to it is The-Dream, who creates a track that’s far dirtier than any of the lyrics and has more personality than either of the principals. One question, though: is that Robyn singing the bridge, or Rihanna imitating her? Uncanny, either way.
“Muthafucka Up” (featuring Nicki Minaj), #74
“Make It Nasty”, #91
“Mothafucka Up” has a great beat, and Tyga makes the most of it, chopping up the rhythm on one line, riding it for all it’s worth on another. He may not have much to say, but he has the flow down. Minaj, meanwhile, plays it safe rhythmically and lyrically and contributes nothing special. Even with that let down it’s still far better than what Tyga delivers by himself on “Make It Nasty”, which is filler from beginning to end.
I’ve never been much of an Usher fan, but thanks to Diplo this is as stunning as everybody says it is, a mix of lust, regret, self-realization and despair built on the most minimal of grooves. What’s most impressive is that even though the sound is open and spacious, the overall effect is one of claustrophobia, with electronic buzzes servings as symbols of the singer’s darkest and most despairing thoughts as they surround him. Best touch: the disembodied, wordless vocals that are sampled and dropped seemingly at random throughout the track, like some long-hidden pain suddenly rising to the surface.
Jason Aldean—“Fly Over States”
As someone who has “drove through Indiana”, I can appreciate Aldean’s point of view, but once again the defensiveness of rural pride becomes a stumbling block. Or maybe I should say offensiveness, since the catalog of rural charms always seems to be used to attack shallow urbanites for their lack of appreciation of things like farmers (someone should write a study of how farming has become a self-sacrificing, patriotic act in the southern imagination while remaining a corporate monstrosity in reality), “water color” sunsets (which can be found anywhere) and girls from Amarillo (who can also be found anywhere, especially on the coasts, because they can’t wait to get out of Texas). Aldean doesn’t milk this as much as Montgomery Gentry and others, at least not lyrically, but since he’s a master of musical overkill the effect is much the same. It’s still chauvinism turning towards bigotry, no matter how you play it.
Young the Giant—“Cough Syrup”
I suspect something “important” is being said here, but the lyrics and music are so generic and vague that it’s hard to get a bead on—something about the state of the world or generational apathy or personal ambivalence or something. The biggest problem is that I can’t tell whether the cough syrup reference is about needing a cure for the world’s ills or the desire to narcotize oneself into oblivion. The most confusing point is the line about “one more spoon of cough syrup now, oh whoa oh”. Do syrup addicts use spoons? I always thought they swigged straight from the bottle. And isn’t cough syrup designed to treat symptoms, not the actual illness? What good is that? Do these guys even know what their metaphors mean?
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