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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“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.

Panic! At the Disco – Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die

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Did Panic even want to make this album?

Every Panic album makes some kind of statement. Even Vices & Virtues had a clear aim, which was to deliver a straightforward Hard Rock record. When Panic have a target to aim for, they’re unstoppable. “Vegas Lights” is your ordinary dance song about partying until you drop. It’s not original and Urie adds nothing of his own, but it still bangs and the chorus is great.

Everything else is confusing. What’s the purpose of this record? Is it mean to be some record inspired by Vegas? Then Vegas isn’t such a fun place. “Girl That You Love” is very serious and it’s a huge downfall from the fantastic “Vegas Lights” which comes before. “This is Gospel” is okay, but a weird opener. All the whoa-whoa in the chorus and it still feels too serious, like partying is for shallow stupid people. Urie comes off like he’s hoping to pick up girls in a dance party by looking serious.

If this is supposed to be cliched 80’s, it’s the bad stuff. It’s not the weird party music that Oingo Boing or early Underworld made. Rather, it’s Rock music with a little noise, a little dance backing and vague sexuality. It’s so toothless you wonder whether the cool kids will prefer this over the weirdos who tried to combine Industrial with Synthpop.

In fact, Urie doesn’t commit to the concept. “Casual Affair” is a Space Rock rock, and a decent one. The weird wobbles leap out, sounding like they’re inspired by Brostep without actually attempting it. The ballad “Far Too Young to Die” have no room in here. While it’s nice to see Urie trying to bend genres, he doesn’t throw himself into these ideas like he should. The boring melodies overpower the sound, instead of the sound inspiring the melodies.

Then again, perhaps it’s good that he doesn’t try too much to make party music. Aside from “Vegas Lights”, “Nicotine” and “Girls/Girls/Boys” are very uninspired. The former is a joke. Urie stretches his voice in some way to convince me or you that the party is on with serious lyrics. The horns in the chorus aren’t new, but they were better a few years later in “Crazy=Genius”. The latter is another joke, a rewrite of “Somebody Told Me” about gender confusion that’s not sexy or stupid. A rock band just wrote a song about sex that doesn’t even have macho bullshit.

What went wrong here? Panic’s strength is how traditionally ROCKSTAR! Urie is. He always sounded full of bravado, sneering at everyone while having a party. Making party rock should be the ideal for him. It should allow him to brag and boast about how cool he is.

Here, he sounds and unsure and desperate to appeal to people. So he puts a semi-dance beat behind a weak chorus with lyrics that aren’t too serious and not too light. I’m sure some people are impressed by generic sentiments like ‘show me your love’ over muted guitars and drums, but all I hear is a band who doesn’t want to make this kind of music. “Vegas Lights” and “Miss Jackson” sounds so bizarre in context. Urie actually sounds like he wanted to make those songs. They have a specific sound and as generic as “Vegas Lights” is, at least Urie sounds passionate about a simple dance song.

Panic moved on from this and made the excellent Death of a Bachelor. That one shares similarities with this one, only it’s good. Whether it’s soft or tough, Urie throws himself into his ideas fully. This album sounds like a band at its beginning that’s afraid of drawing criticism. If you’re afraid of drawing criticism, you’re not worth anyone’s attention.

2 girls out of 5 boys

Tove Lo – Queen of the Clouds

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In almost every disucssion involving the thrillng (yet repetitive) subject of romantic love, I pointed out how different men and women experience it. Men suffer from a lack of attention, from a loneliness that’s like a black hole sucking up the joy from everything. I rarely met any women who complains about that. Rather, there is always a stream of guys waiting to get in bed with them. Their biggest problem is that they’re just not the guys they want, or that they only want sex.

I know I can come off as a prick in these discussions. If I told a poor man that my steak was cooked well-done, he’d laugh at me and tell me to be thankful I at least have a steak. This is generally how I reacted when I heard women getting ‘burned out’ on male attention.

Queen of the Cloud both confirms my view and challenges it. Nowhere in these songs Tove Lo talks about being really alone. That emptiness you hear in American Football isn’t here. There’s nothing like “Forget Her”. Yet it doesn’t make it any less emotionally effective. Like Lana Del Rey, Tove Lo shows things from a very female perspective and brings depth to her character.

Lana Del Rey is a good comparison. They both play a very similar character. They’re both sexually charged and heartbroken. The first third is about picking up hot guys in the clubs and telling them that if they love her right, they will fuck for life. Tove Lo’s character is more of an everywoman, one who wants to enjoy life and just happens to stumble upon a guy who makes her feel like she’s on drugs.

There have been plenty of break-up albums. What makes Queen of the Clouds distinct is, other than the obviously female perspective, is its coherency. It’s not just that the album is split into 3 parts with obvious titles. Each song in them show the progress.

The Sex part starts with “My Gun” and “Like Em Young”, which are general statements that Tove Lo likes to have sex and she prefers young guys. It’s a good time to stop and ask why do women can sing about hot guys without sounding so hateful. “Talking Body” is where she actually meets the hot guy, and is one of the best ever songs written about sex. The way she sings “If you love me right” is pure joy. Isn’t this how sex should be, fun and joyous?

We’ve been bombarded by female artists ‘reclaiming sexuality’. What they did was brag that they got ass and that rappers write songs about them. I don’t see it as a major achievement to have a hateful sex rap written about you, but such are things. These artists weren’t really sexual, though. They bragged about their sexuality, which is like bragging about packing guns or pwning noobs in World of Warcraft. In the end, the subject of your song is how awesome you are, not sex.

That’s not so in Tove Lo’s case. Her sexuality is full of joy and excitement. She doesn’t have sex to prove anything to us. She will fuck him for life if it goes right, if it’s fun enough. The whole first half as bouncy, EDM-like production that’s more about warm tones rather than aggressive sounds.

It gets more interesting as it goes on. There’s not much to say about the Love part. “I’m not on drugs/I’m just in love” is a line so brilliant that it raises an otherwise average song. There is also a lot of dubstep influence. What sticks out are the hesitation and insecurity in “Moments”. This is where Tove Lo reminds me that in heaven it’s as it is on Earth. Tove Lo shouldn’t feel insecure about attracting guys. She’s a famous singer who looks good and writes better than lyrics than almost anyone in her sound. Yet when she sings “I have my moments”, she sounds desperate to convince herself more than to convince the guy. Haven’t I felt this before?

The Pain part is the album’s beating heart, where Tove Lo sounds like she’s pouring all passion into. She still gets plenty of male attention. On “Habits” she talks about picking daddies in the playground and going home with other people to numb the pain. Yet it doesn’t work. This is where “This Time Around” comes in. It’s the beating heart of the record. The decision to add a boring house track after it is plain stupidity.

Everyone tells me that love is an unpredictable thing. I wish it was, but Tove Lo seems to agree with me despite our completely different experiences. “This Time Around” isn’t just a eulogy for a relationship. It’s lamenting how repetitive the whole thing is. We go all in only to find that we’re the same at the end and we can no longer feel it. Maybe it doesn’t matter how much attention you get. When you get burned out you’re no longer feeling it, and every time you try it’s the same thing.

Although the songs are good enough on their own, it’s mostly the concept that holds this album together. It’s a joy to listen to from beginning to end, because every song connects to the other. “Moments” opens up The Love with hesitation, while “Not on Drugs” is the climax where you’re feeling like you are on drugs. “Timebomb” ends The Sex with the excitement that makes you indifferent to anything else. “Thousand Miles” opens The Pain with the will to go back to the person, before you realize how much he’s hurt you.

A concept album doesn’t have to tell us the exact events. Music is always better at delivering an emotional experience than an intellectual one. Turning a philosophical essay into pop song will make it lose most of its depth. Turning a political essay to a rock song makes it propaganda. The concept works here because every song documents What It Feels Like in every stage of the relationship. That brings it closer to The Downward Spiral rather than that awful Muse album.

Only “Habits”, “Talking Body” and “This Time Around” truly stick out, although they’re all candidates for Best Pop Songs Ever list. Still, nothing here is filler and the songs that end up without melody (“Timebomb” especially) are musically interesting enough. Recently I’ve been thinking we’re in one of the best eras of Pop music. Albums like this are the reason.

3.5 clouds out of 5