Carly Rae Jepsen – Kiss

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Sometimes I wonder if my dislike for a lot of Pop singers is because of misogyny. Nowadays female singers aren’t docile like they used be. They’re aggressive, can rap, can have a guitar here and there and not shamed of having a lot of sex or of telling someone to fuck off. My manhood is threatened, and thus I cannot enjoy when Lady GaGa tells me about how everything is beautiful and that we should all just be ourselves (That’s because we all have the privilege of being skinny, right?). I can’t stand Rihanna because a sexually assertive woman offends me. Submission is a turn-on, and without it I’m nothing.

Or maybe not. My favorite Pop singers include Lana Del Rey, Tove Lo and Melanie Martinez which are all concept-heavy. As for aggression, I also admire Emilie Autumn who directly attacked her sexual abusers. The problem with the singers in the first paragraph isn’t that they were ‘assertive’. In fact, no one should be scared of Rihanna. She’s so conformist that Chris Brown beating here wasn’t the big deal. The problem with these singers is that they didn’t sell you an image or a concept, but themselves.

Compare Taylor Swift’s “22” – which I actually like – to any song here. Taylor uses the song as a vehicle to inform the listener who utterly cool and fucking awesome she is. It’s about her, not about having fun. She has a lot of exes, she has breakfasts at midnight unlike these lame ‘cool kids’ and they dream instead of sleep. The songs’ music videos even confirm it. In “Good Time”, Carly and Adam Young are surrounded by people who actually look different and don’t seem to be doing anything but having fun. Everyone in Taylor’s video looks perfect and skinny. It’s a song about contrasts, not about partying.

When everyone got taken away by EMOTION – and by ‘everyone’ I mean ‘music nerds’ – the shock was hearing a Pop singer who really didn’t care about seeming cool. She did way before “I Really Like You”. From a distance, this and “Call Me Maybe” sound like an artist with one gimmick that milks it. Listen to a whole album, and it’s a modus operandi. If Carly can’t deviate, it’s because she’s having too much fun, doesn’t need and want to and invites you to join in.

Adam Young asides, who everyone seems to hate, “Good Time” is such an inviting song. “Call Me Maybe” may have generated the shitty parodies but that song tells you more about who Carly is. Most of the songs here work in the same sphere only with slightly weaker drums. All the songs are about the excitement of first love and first crush, about a possible future that may happen and if it does it’ll be awesome. It’s not exactly optimistic. Rather, Carly captures that tiny moment of happiness when you’re sure someone really likes you or may like you, and you’re kind of emberassed and unsure but enjoy it all the same. Song titles like “This Kiss”, “Curiosity”, “Tiny Little Bows” and “Call Me Maybe” all display this range of emotions. Merge these topics with dance tracks and you have great party music that’s happy, not tough. People who don’t jump to “Tiny Little Bows” look like they’re trying too hard to reach the Idea of Coolness.

Carly’s performance is also perfect. Another problem of contemporary Pop singers is how much they love show us their voice. Often, the songs aren’t meant to be enjoyed. Even the performance isn’t meant to be enjoyed. Rather, we’re supposed to be impressed, stand aside and admire all the vocal acrobatics. Adele epitomizes it and Sia is the biggest offender. Imagine if Sia sang these songs. Will “Turn Me Up” sound so cute and confused if Sia howled? Would it even be about confusion, instead of about how awesome Sia is? Carly sings so low and calm. She rarely stretches her voice, trusting instead her character shine through her voice. It also makes the song more listener-friendly, making it sound like anyone can sing them.

At times she does stretch her voice for something more profound, but it’s so rare it leads to a weird effect. On “More Than a Memory”, she stretches her voice just a little to suit the song’s more somber mood, and it makes her seem vulnerable and worried. Since she doesn’t stretch it often, she shows us that this moment is more important than others – the relationship might die! She also loses the tune a bit on “Guitar String/Wedding Ring”, and the result is ridiculously cute. The song’s lyrics are a bit nonsense, but they, along with the sparkling, noisy production and Carly’s messy voice expresses the excitement and thrill of love all the more effectively. Music is, after all, acting. I’m sure many can sing that song better technically, but I doubt if anyone can convince me like Carly does.

Only one song does stick out where she sounds closer to her contemporaries. That’s “Tonight I’m Getting Over You” which includes an actual bass drop. The noises this time are aggressive instead of sparkling and Carly tries to reach to the top of her voice. It’s also a total success because it focuses on this idea, instead of using these tools as a modus operandi. It’s not another generic club banger but a singer who’s full of pain and needs to let it with singing and loud beats. What’s beautiful is that once the chorus hits, she still sounds vulnerable and hurt. The cries of “getting over you!” aren’t triumphant, but sound like she’s trying to convince herself by constantly repeating it. Many said that “Chandelier” by Sia mixed the whole party-and-depression thing well, but that song, like anything else by her, is about how Sia awesome is. Carly outdid everyone else.

It’s interesting how clean this album is. In a world where singers like Rihanna use misogyny and objectification of women to seem powerful – because being approved by wifebeaters like Chris Brown means you’re strong? – it’s refreshing to hear someone who doesn’t need to go on and on about it. Carly is sexy in her way. She’s not afraid of it, she’s just more concerned with love and having fun. “Good Time” works because, unlike other party songs it’s for everyone – not just people who happen to be sexy. Her excitement in “Tiny Little Bows” is way sexier than anything by Rihanna. Carly was actually older than most singers when she recorded this and many called this ‘immature for her age’, but is it really?

Today Kiss sounds more like a prelude to the brilliant EMOTION, and it’s not as all-encompassing as that albums. Still, what it does it does brilliantly. “Call Me Maybe” is actually buried in a sea of highlight, and there’s a consistent mood that shows Carly always believed that Pop is an album genre. Even the acoustic ballad “Beautiful” doesn’t let down the pace. 12 joyous Pop songs about excitement and love that invites everyone are too much to become viral in this age of irony, but really, if you dislike this you may be trying too hard to seem tough.

3.5 kisses out of 5

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Fuck That Noise: Bruno Mars, The Weeknd and Ballads By Macho Men

Bruno Mars’ single, “24K Magic”, is badass. Mars doesn’t so much sing as he speaks throughout the song with every line meaning the same thing. He’s cool, he knows how to party and has women. The latter is especially important, because we live in a new feminist world where attractive guys are still allowed to flaunt their women like dollar bills. He’s so confident that, really, why attempt a chorus? The first spin of “24K Magic” makes it sound more like a spoken word track over a Synthfunk backing rather than an actual Pop song. It’s one of the year’s best songs.

It’s also a game-changer for Bruno Mars. From here on out, the only reaction to his ballads is ‘fuck that noise’.

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The Weeknd poses for his philosophy book

Music is acting. I don’t care who you are in real life. What’s important in music is that the character you play in your music is believable, and will somehow makes sense when we connect the songs. Eminem is unconvincing because he’s at one point mocking Pop music, whines about people not liking him and then makes a song with Sia. Ian Watkins is an all-around terrible person, but the sound of “Rooftops” didn’t change just because we discovered he’s a pedophile.

Balancing bragging tracks with ballads is tough. We all experienced the highs and lows of life, but you need to connect these two. If your character is sad, I need to believe this sadness is real and is relevant despite all the parties you had. It’s especially tough to come off as vulnerable or sensitive when a second ago you bragged how much sex you have and how all the women want you.

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I don’t think this is what you do with crosses

The Weeknd also released a song with a similar vibe, but “Starboy” is vastly different in demeanor and content. The Weekend also brags about having a lot of sex and a lot of money. He explicitly says he has a girlfriend and a mistress, both of which are out of your league. Along with bragging about cars, it’s obvious Weeknd’s life is overall quite kickin’.

What’s different is the context. Bruno Mars is carefree and happy in “24K Magic”, and only brags about how good his life is. You can understand nothing else about Mars, other than that he’s probably an inconsiderate asshole outside having fun. A line like “Bad bitches and ya ugly ass friends” promises great sex and treating you like dirt. Weeknd, however, is so dark that it’s obvious there’s something wrong with him despie how much he parties.

The Weeknd starts off his song with “I want to put you in the worst mood”. Already, this song is more than just bragging. He wants you to feel bad, he needs others’ jealousy so he could feel good about himself. Instead of the social butterfly who’s inconsiderate, Weeknd’s song is upfront about how pain exists in our world (and he wants to cause it). When he proceeeds in the verse to brag, it’s always about how his good things should make you feel bad. The line about using drugs to kill any pain makes it obvious that Weeknd does have a shitty day and needs to do things about him. The line “We don’t pray for love, we just pray for cars” is quite nihilistic, expressing a dark worldview of retreating to materialism.

Musically, “24K Magic” is a straight-up banger with funky backing, a great bassline and a synth that farts all the way. It only contains happiness. “Starboy”‘s drums are colder and jittery. It’s also more sparse, almost sounding like Joy Division tweeked for the dance floor. By the time drums kick in the chorus, they’re aggressive. You can party to it – it’s even recommended since it’s also brilliant – but it’s not happy-go-lucky and it’s more suitable to planning revenge than celebrating your anniversary with a significant other.

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Ain’t no fun if the guys don’t get naked too

These differences make me react so differently to the ballads. When Bruno Mars put out “Versace on the Floor”, I could think in terms of ‘fuck that noise’ and ‘are women still fooled by this?’. A little before, Mars was a social butterfly who didn’t care about anyone. He was the person you invited to the party, but once everyone had too much to drink and talk about life he gets kicked out. He’s the guy who never holds a conversation but only screams jokesĀ If Mars will be accused of raping a 16-year-old, I wouldn’t be surprised. Okay, I wouldn’t be surprised over any musician, but Mars is definitely in the top of musicians who have the highest chances of doing it.

I can’t connect the two. If “24K Magic” was less aggressive, more akin to Radical Something’s anthems of summer then it’d be different. Mars’ cocky aggression is integral to why his ballads doesn’t work. The line “Bad bitches and ya ugly ass friends” paint a picture of a guy women love so much he can afford to treat them bad without realizing it. Just ask Dessa. Neve in “24K Magic” do we hear a person who’s fun to be around, but a person who has a lot fun. It’s the type of person who fucks women instead of having sex.

When the Weeknd shows up his vulnerable side, it’s believable. He takes the dark side of “Starboy” and expands it, or takes the small cracks and zooms into them. “All I Know” is believable because it’s a direct contrast to “Starboy” instead of being unrelated. It was what he tried to hide so hard by bragging about praying for cars. “Secrets” is the flipside, with Weeknd being the man pining after the woman who has all the guys.

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About as romantic as quoting Gamergate supporters.

They also sing their ballads differently. “Versace on the Floor” is full of vocal acrobatics. Vocal acrobatics are impressive and a great way to terminate your acting abilities. Since they point out you’re actually a singer, you forget about the mood and the content. “Versace” is less about having time with a girl and more about seducing a girl using the promise of romance just to ditch her (Ed Sheeran’s character does it all the time). Shifting singing styles so radically only serves to show you were acting all along. Weeknd always sings as Starboy and never tries to show off. Imagine “Belong to the World” if Weeknd sang it like Mars. Actually, it would probably still be good because of the lyrics.

Perhaps it has something to do with me being a guy, but then again I consider Lostprophets’ “Rooftops” to be a highlight in music history. That song was made by your worst nightmare, a guy so sexy he could do anything he want and have women supporting him. Watkins never did Mars’ vocal acrobatics there. When it explodes, he screams more than sings and that’s crucial. Of course, good actors are also the best at sexual abuse, so maybe Mars isn’t that in person after all. I don’t know. All I know is that, as an actor, he’s horrible. Give me songs like “24k Magic” any day, because, from him, songs like “Just the Way You Are” makes me worry what happens backstage. I shouldn’t, since there’s always a good reason to worry about things happening backstage.

If that’s not enough, listen to “Versace” while watching the video for “24K Magic”. Tell me how different he is from how Nice Guys(tm) describe your boyfriend.

“Perfect Illusion” – The Downfall of Lady Gaga

When Lady Gaga first broke, I heard decent but not unique Pop. Then the The Fame Monster and Born This Way came and suddenly, she was some sort of icon for outcasts. Her fanbase was called ‘monsters’. The myth was, Pop was a genre with zero originality and weirdness dominated by conformists. Lady Gaga brought a revolution and made Pop accessible for the nerds, goth kids, ugly people and so forth. If you were ever bullied in school or didn’t fit in, Lady Gaga was here to elevate you.

I never bought that. Sure, her music videos featured a lot of weird outfits. They were also always sexual outfits. Lady Gaga confirmed nicely to the ‘sexy woman’ imagery. No matter how weird an outfit was, it always provided people something sexy to jerk off to. She didn’t look weird or dress weird. Her music was even worse. It was as generic as Pop can get. Lady Gaga has a nice, smooth voice with no real personality. She sang about sex, but so did everyone else. All her teasing and tough girl posturing are hardly any different than what Rihanna or Katy Perry did.

Lady Gaga isn’t just unconvincing because beneath lyrics of ‘be yourself’, she’s as conformist as you can get. Her image is misguided. She took desirable traits – strength, beauty, dancing – and wrote songs about them. What defines outcasts are undesirable traits – vulnerability, weirdness, perversion, anger, intellectualism. ‘Vulnerability’ is a key trait. Vulnerability is undesirable for evolutionary reasons. A vulnerable individuals is a burden on the pack, and we learn to hide our pain and weaknesses so we won’t get cast out of the tribe.

Artists who did sang for outcasts, or at least had such a fanbase were proud of this. Compare her to Marilyn Manson who also predicted his fame in Antichrist Superstar. His stomping anthem, “The Beautiful People”, is hateful, angry and a cry of distress. He sang from a position of weakness, of being ugly and undesired. His whole image is about that. His look is, on purpose, disfigured and often androgynous. While Gaga sang about the virtue of sex, Manson mocked us with “User Friendly” and “Slutgarden”. Manson also had a raspy, slightly mechanical voice so that every song he sang would sound odd. The newbie that is Melanie is another great example. Song like “Cry Baby”, “Dollhouse” and “Pity Party” take all these undesirable qualities and bring them to the surface. When Martinez makes strength anthems, she takes pride in admitting how vulnerable she is. Lady Gaga never does it. She’s everything we expect from a Pop star – in love with guys, perhaps girls, having a lot of sex and dancing at parties.

Imagine if the excellent “Government Hooker” was performed by Manson or Tove Lo, artists with a better sense of darkness than she. Songs like that hinted that perhaps there was a weirdo there waiting to come out. There is aggression flowing through that song, chopped vocals and a sense of dread that the sex isn’t all positive.

The new song is ironically titled “Pefect Illusion”. It describes Gaga perfectly. All my suspicions about her were confirmed. She got tired of posturing like a party girl, pretending that drinking and sex is new. So now she imitates Sia. Sia was already a pale imitation of Lady Gaga, singing with ultra seriousness, showing off her voice without a hint of emotion (“Chandeliar” isn’t about alcoholism but about Sia’s ‘awesome’ voice).

Lady Gaga looks back on the disco songs of heartbreak and triumph. She takes the sound and themes with none of the fun. The song barely has a melody or a chorus. The hook is a repetition of “It wasn’t love/it was a perfect illusion” and behind it only a banging drum. If this sounds minimalist, it’s not on purpose. You’re supposed to dance to that dull drum. Gaga sings with technical finesse, pointing out that she’s, in fact, not that hurt at all. Heartbreak may have been tough, but she can still try to impress the judges at American Idol.

Truth is, even if she brought actual pain to the song it wouldn’t be anything original. A little after Gaga came Lana Del Rey, who was sexier, more vulnerable and more dangerous. She was also a party girl, but she stared straight at the dark side of it too. If “Perfect Illusion” was the comedown from her image, she’ll just be running against Lana. That’s a race she can’t win, since Lana has a concept she develops and plays with. Lady Gaga has anthems of strengths and seriousness, like any other Pop star.

In the past, Lady Gaga at least tries to be weird. It was easy to see through, but there was effort. “Bad Romance” had scat singing. “Government Hooker” has already been mentioned and it’s quite excellent. She took influence from Latin music on “Americano” and other songs – “LoveGame” and “G.U.Y.” were unbashedly about sex. It wasn’t subversive, but it wanted to be and if you’re unfamiliar with Pop music it is attention grabbing. “Perfect Illusion” is a regression to “Just Dance”, a song so unimaginative that it becomes memorable because of that. Remember, that song had the lyrics of “Just dance, gonna be okay, dodododododo”. I love songs about dancing, but they need to be passionate about dancing.

To her defense, it’s better than her competition. If Lady Gaga tries to amaze me with her voice, she does a decent enough job. There is vulnerability in that song that’s startling and more naked than Sia. She doesn’t hide the weak lyrics. Hearing her bellow out “I can still feel blow” sounds like she’s dying to be over it. Although her singing is triumphant, there’s something very noisy about it too. Some said the song is about a recent break-up, which wouldn’t surprise me. It’s generic, derivative and nothing original but Gaga occasionally sound like she’s trying to heal herself with singing. Maybe that’s why it’s so original. It’s a vehicle for Lady Gaga to vent. At least she beats the horrifying Sia in her own game.