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 jokes 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.

AlunaGeorge – I Remember

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This album should be huge. It’s not obscure by any means, with Wikipedia listing at least 9 sites that reviewed it. Still, none of these songs were familiar to me. Even if you don’t listen to the radio daily, you will end up hearing “This is What You Came For” or whatever crap Sia is vomiting. So why is my only previous experience with these guys is a feature on a Jack U single, that I only heard about because I’m a Skrillex fanboy?

This isn’t a fanboy ranting about his favorite band. I love Little Boots, but her style is too subdued for mainstream success. AlunaGeorge, however, sum up the sounds of the all big hits on the radio. In and of itself, it’s neutral since hits on the radio tend to go from horrifingly bad (“The Greatest”), to awesome (“Sugar”), to okay (“How Deep Is Your Love”) and future classics (The Weeknd in general). What’s amazing is how AlunaGeorge get it right. I’m not snobbish. I can imagine all the sounds on the radio forming to create a decent song. It’s just that every time I imagine the existence of such a song, it ends up sounding like “Mean What I Mean”.

I mention that song specifically, and not just because its hook is killer. Female empowerment is topical now, and it’s another song about bragging about rejecting unattractive guys. Such songs can be obnoxious, especially if the topic takes over the message. Just look at Meghan Trainor’s “No”. AlunaGeorge just turn it to stomping, cocky Pop song full of real confidence. Aluna sounds more confident than trying to impress. Two rappers are featured in it, they’re absolutely boring but Aluna is so good it’s easy to forget them.

Aluna is a an excellent vocalist. George supplies plenty of banging beats, but Aluna sings exactly how Pop singers should. She never stretches her voice, always letting the melody drive the song. It’s not subduing your personality, but understanding that vocal acrobatics only impressive non-musical people. She has plenty of personality – else she wouldn’t be able to pass off “Mean What I Mean” so well – she just never lets it get in the way of the song. Her singing is closer in style to Little Boots. If her personality doesn’t come out of one song, it does come out from a full album.

Personality-wise, she’s like CHVRCHES’ Lauren more fun-loving sister. Although her voice has a childish tint to it, the songs often have an aggressive, determined edge to them. “Mean What I Mean”, “Jealous” and especially “Not About Love” have an aggressive edge to them. The lattermost especially has CHVRCHES-worthy lyrics of dismissing a former lover. It’s all sang with a bit of placidity, like Aluna actually is above it all. That makes her sound far stronger than all her peers. Even “I’m In Control” sounds confrontational.

Although there are a lot of collaborations here, there’s still a uniform sound and concept. “Mediator” may use live drums and “I’m In Control” jumps on the tropical moombahton thing, but it never sounds schizophrenic. I’m not sure it was supposed to. The whole thing plays like a party record, moving from mood to mood without trying to alienate the audience. Even the sequencing supports it, with the bass-heavy “My Blood” and “Full Swing” stuck at the beginning while the middle has the more House-influenced “I’m In Control” and “Jealous”. The sounds occasionally change, but the purpose remains the same. It speaks volume of Aluna’s personality that it all sounds like products of their own. Instead of jumping on trends, the duo just destroys everyone else who does the same thing.

There were times when Pop music was the butt of critics, when this sort of party music was scoffed compared to ‘serious art’, like Dream Theater. I don’t know if albums like these changed people minds or we simply all grew up. Nevertheless, it’s a great example of how contemporary music is in no competition against ‘the old classic stuff’. We’re talking about 12 songs with great hooks, great beats and a fantastic singer. After this, the idea that some people don’t like Pop music looks silly.

3.5 mean out of 5 mean

Ed Sheeran – X

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There is a brilliant message buried in X. It shouldn’t be too hard to unearth. All you have to do is listen to “Tenerife Sea” after remembering Sheeran brags about how girls ask him to fuck in “Don’t”. There are women who are certain all British men are hot guys in suits, that they’re very romantic, nice and will never break your heart. Ed Sheeran is that hot guy, only he’s aware that the image of a romantic man can be another way to have sex with as much women as possible.

Or maybe there is no message. Maybe Ed Sheeran believes his own bullshit.

Kid Rock also believes his own bullshit, but it took him some time to start. That’s also about the time he lost it. Before that, he tried really hard to convince himself he’s a brilliant musician. He did that by drawing from various American music styles – the loud guitars, the aggressive rapping, the country twang and figuring out why these tropes work. Kid Rock never sounded genuine on “Picture” but it didn’t sound like he tried. His inspiration for that ballad was not heartbreak but other ballads, but he listened to enough to make it work.

Ed Sheeran is like the British version of Kid Rock, with acoustic guitars instead of distortion and a Unthreatening Nice Guy image instead of redneck-ness. There must be a way to connect bragging tracks with acoustic ballads about love. The underrated Everlast made a career of this and Jason Mraz also had a brief time in the limelight.

Everlast and Mraz had a more focused image, though. Everlast’s ballads weren’t meant to sound like a Nice Guy. They were meant to sound like the chink in the macho man’s armor. Jason Mraz was always an average dude. Ed Sheeran, in one has a lot of sex and in the other is a hopeless romantic.

This isn’t the result of expressing a wide range of emotions. Sheeran sounds comfortable in “Sing” and “Don’t”. After all, he’s a famous singer so he must have first-hang accounts of girls asking him upstairs. The problem is that he brings this sexual confidence to his ballads.

Love songs that come from a place of sexual confidence sound either insincere, or pointless. If you’re so confident in your ability at wooing, why are aiming for catharsis? The best love songs are those where the singer sounds like he has to get it off his chest. On Zombies’ “This Will Be Our Year”, the singer sounds like he’s exploding from happiness. On Cure’s “Lovesong”, Smith sounds like he will fall apart if the woman in question won’t marry him.

Sheeran doesn’t sound happy, sad, confused or any emotion that can lift a love song. He sounds like he’s trying to pick up girls. The songs sound no different than any song where a rapper waves his dollar bills and offers expensive drinks for sex. The difference between Sheeran and TI is that Sheeran sounds like he’s trying to have one night stands with girls who are dying for romance. TI knows his girls just want a sugar daddy.

This isn’t an image that exists outside of the record. Every artist creates an image inside the record that helps connect the songs and bring personality. Some play the same character on every album – Dave Wyndorf is a sexy nerd pretty much all the time. Some change – Marilyn Manson went from being Antichrist Superstar to an old man. If “One” and “I’m a Mess” were sincere enough, they could stand sitting next to “Sing”. “Picture” could stand next to a song about how we never meet a motherfucker quite like Kid Rock because Kid tried really, really hard to sound vulnerable.

It may be the set up of just guitar and vocals, which meant to sound intimate but isn’t. It can’t even count as a rip-off of Nick Drake, because any Nick Drake rip-off would sound a little more sincere. On “Photograph”, he rips off the lyrics of Incubus “Love Hurts” and doesn’t even bother to add anything. On “Thinking Out Loud”, he asks the woman if she will remember the taste of his love. Facebook news feeds moved on, but Sheeran is still stuck somewhere in time. I can’t even remember a time these lines meant something.

He’s a little better in the other tracks. There are good hooks in “Sing”, “Don’t” and “Runaway”. They would’ve worked much better in different hands. The toughness in “Don’t” would’ve added a lot to Jason Mraz. Everlast would’ve dealt with the alcoholism in “Runaway” much better.

Afire Love” is the track that best sums up the record, the good and the bad. Sheeran is at once convincing, but reveals how weak a songwriter he is. The subject of Alzheimer’s is pretty touching, and the melody is beautiful. The lyrics are so anticlimatic, though. The first verse is just a dull chronicle of how a person started losing his memory and that it made people feel bad, with a mentions of the devil and heaven which add nothing to the tone. Imagine how beautiful the song could be if Patterson Hood or Frank Turner – lyricists whose whole point is intimacy – handled them. Look at the song title. Such a serious subject deserves a song that’s not titled like another cheap love song.

Maroon 5 are another apt comparison, but they handled their fame better. They were into love songs for the sake of singing love songs, so even with their new sexual confidence their love songs weren’t obnoxious. Ed Sheeran never, for one moment, sound sincere. He’s full of confidence and arrogance but sings of weakness. Imagine if Snoop Dogg sang Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”. It’s not a clever contrast. Sheeran doesn’t play with these personalities, so they end up working against each other.At best, it’s decent pop but until he does something with his image it’ll be a glass ceiling. Even the best tracks sound weaker because they’re performed by him.

2 cups of ginger ales out of 5