|Newcomers (l-r) Dev, Alexandra Stan and Selena Gomez are breaking into mainstream radio.|
Right now there are three such underdogs my forum friends and I cheer on from the sidelines, and each represents a different kind of coup, each one as exciting as the last. These three songs have a few things in common: they are all by solo(ish) female artists; these artists are (relatively) new; all three are dance-infused and could easily span into dance airplay and club play (and, in most cases, have already); finally, all three of them are excellent records, and immensely deserving of airplay and the associated renown and popularity, both for the track and especially for the artists. These common traits are actually among the things that separate them from the rest of the tracks getting airplay alongside them at present, which I find fascinating and, if I may be bold, promising. So what's so great about Dev, Alexandra Stan and Selena Gomez or their respective singles that have allowed them to break through the imposing barrier to mainstream radio rotations?
Dev - "In The Dark" (iTunes)
Never mind, Dev is not one to give up, especially after tasting a bite of whirlwind success, and thank goodness she didn't, because her follow-up single "In the Dark" is absolutely divine. Starting with a seductively detached Dev singing "On my waist, through my hair/ Think about it when you touch me there/ Close my eyes, here you are/ All alone, dancing in the dark" as bits of electronic backing trickle up like air bubbles in water, growing slowly until disappearing as a slow whoosh frames the harmonies of a second "dancing in the dark," which are chopped up and repeated until suddenly a saxophone lets out four bleats of the same note, a 7th in the chord and therefore announcing an upcoming resolution, which metrically should come after the second note but doesn't arrive for two more beats. The extra bit does a number on the listener's already high anticipation, and when the resolution does come, and with it the basic melodic theme of the saxophone that punctuates the remainder of the midtempo stunner and the introduction of Dev's "ooh la las" that go with it, the receding rustlings of an inverse electronic whoosh (technical term) echo the figurative (or, in my case, literal) exhalations of bated breath.
The whole piece is deliciously understated, coolly sexy (sometimes despite Dev's uneven lyrics - "Open my body up and do some surgery" only works because everything else is working so well) and gorgeously performed and produced. It seems Dev and the Cataracs learned some lessons from "Bass Down Low," avoiding the excesses and insufficiencies that drag what in many ways is a good pop song down. But more than anything, everyone involved just seems to be in this zone, almost like you expect Dev to wake from a trance not remembering a thing she's just done. I've not yet heard The Night the Sun Came Up, so I can't yet say whether "In the Dark" is a fluke or a fantastic example of the merits of "try, try again," but either way, "In the Dark" is one of the year's best records and that it's found a radio audience is almost enough to make up for "Cheers (Drink to That)."
Alexandra Stan - "Mr. Saxobeat" (iTunes)
Well, one need only listen to the song to get an idea as to its popularity: it is really a remarkably effective track from start to finish, with what seems like the perfect beat, the perfect modest production, the perfect unimportant lyrics delivered in the perfect way in the perfect accent (we Americans love exotic blondes, especially when they say things like "make me move like a fdeek"), with the perfect running time, sung by a perfectly blonde anonymous European beauty, and through some fortuitous circumstance featuring a perfect saxophone solo that happens to fit in perfectly to what some in the US have called "the Summer of Sax." Sure, the music video is exactly what you'd expect from an unknown in Romania who has never made a music video before (no, no, Ms. Stan...real female dance singers don't actually dance. You're above that. Nice taste in hot cops though) and it's unlikely we'll be hearing anything more from Alexandra Stan on these shores, but I'll take it. She may be a one-hit wonder, but my heavens what a hit!
Selena Gomez and the Scene - "Love You Like a Love Song" (iTunes)
It's a good thing, because otherwise I fear I might have been sent clear over the edge by the sheer greatness of "Love You Like a Love Song," and even as it was I was nearly knocked from my seat - and that is not hyperbole. I know it seems odd to describe such melodramatic reactions to such subtly executed masterworks as the songs I've discussed here, but in a world where the norm is someone shouting in your face and shoving the theme, sound and character down your throat with a stiletto heel and technicolor wig, understated brilliance can come as a real shock. I mean, even its title is great (and VERY postmodern, don't you think?)! Producers Rock Mafia, who deftly handled fellow Disney grad Miley Cyrus' underrated but still a bit overstuffed single "Can't Be Tamed" a few months back, dial back the dubstep influence that was just beginning to explode when "Love You Like a Love Song" was released, using the basic elements of the newly en vogue dance and electronica technique as framework and not as a showpiece or a statement; in a way, they use dubstep with less showboating than the guys who invented it, and certainly the genre headliners who claim the most ownership over the wobbling bass and chopped beats.
Gomez, who has enchanted me as a dance music vocalist since the disarmingly mature "A Year Without Rain," delivers the winking, self-aware, half-ironic/half-sincere lyrics with the sultry, knowing purr of someone two or three times her age. I would not in a thousand years have expected an eighteen year old fresh off the Disney block to exhibit such a deftness in her delivery; she sounds at once sly, playful, wise, and slightly bored - Marilyn Monroe meets Kathleen Turner. The song immediately intoxicated me and it's high atop my most often played list for the year, and I was especially thrilled to see that after a considerable time floating just outside the top ten lists but never quite dropping off in terms of digital sales, this remarkable gem has finally been added to low- and medium-rotation on mainstream airwaves after topping the Dance Club Songs chart several weeks back for good measure. The album on which it appears as a seductive opening number is also astonishingly good, and though no moment quite lives up to the high point on which it starts, it's a thoroughly enjoyable listen from start to finish and well worth the purchase. Gomez's is a career I will be watching intently and enthusiastically.
Selena Gomez and the Scene - "Love You Like a Love Song"