Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Femmes Fatales: Britney, Gaga and Pop in 2011

By Kurt Bitter, Vertigo Shtick Contributing Writer 

We all agree that 2011 was a fantastic year for pop music. Commercially, pop dominated the market. Examining Billboard’s year-end charts shows that the vast majority of the year’s top Hot 100, Radio, and Digital Songs could be considered pop, with hip hop, country, dance and rock tracks comprising the minority. 2011 also saw a large number of pop artists embark on nation- or world-wide tours, with many announcing second and sometimes third legs across the country. 

However, when it comes to music, I think most of us also agree that commercial statistics often don’t reflect what’s really going on. As a matter of fact, this year’s commercial figures would suggest that pop music is relatively stagnant. Looking at the success of artists like Katy Perry, Adele and Bruno Mars seems to show that pop music in 2011 adhered strictly to the traditional pop form, and that little experimentation was done with alternative song structures or hybrid-genre songs. We all know that this isn’t true. 

Some of the most exciting moments in pop this year for me weren’t the most commercially successful. To stroke my ego I could say that my tastes are incredibly forward-thinking and that the general public “just doesn’t understand” the brilliance that I see in the production, songwriting, or vocal delivery of certain records. Instead, I think I’ll reasonably conclude that the general public just doesn’t like change. If for the past decade a listener has grown accustomed to hearing songs in the traditional verse-chorus structure, hearing something on the radio composed entirely differently would seem, well, weird. But I relish in being weirded out or even frightened by music. I want to feel shocked and nervous and anxious when I’m listening to an artist’s new work, and there were two artists in particular that accomplished this feat in 2011. To me, the most significant moments in pop this year were those that showed bold experimentation. Despite whether or not I agreed with the end result, 2011 for me was the year that pop branched out. 

It’s only fitting that I begin by talking about Britstep – err, Dubney – I mean, pop music with dubstep influences. The most notable example of this, of course, is Britney Spears’s Femme Fatale. Femme Fatale is a dance-pop album through and through, but dubstep pulses in the veins of this record, and I believe we owe this to Spears. Our girl has never been one to take credit for something she isn’t responsible for; one of the album’s songwriters actually praised Spears for not asking for any writing credits when it’s common for artists to demand songwriting credits on songs they had no part in writing. However, Spears did state on multiple occasions that she had a very clear idea as to what the album should sound like, and that the end result was exactly what she had envisioned. 

It’s funny, really: the most common complaint about her is that she’s a producer’s puppet. And to an extent it’s true, her more recent work definitely showcases slick beats and sharp mixing more than it does her voice. But many of Spears’ signature moments, the reasons we love her, were entirely her own ideas. The schoolgirl outfit? Her idea. “Toxic,” her most critically well-received song, being released as a single? Her idea – and totally against her label’s plan. What about the “baybay”s and “crazay”s and “uuuhhhhh”s and “ooowww”s and “teehehee”s and that one “haaazaayyy”? Her creations, her own unique vocal delivery. And dubstep? Despite what Dr. Luke and his ego may claim, I believe dubstep was Spears’s idea too (see: “Freakshow” off of Blackout, a song Spears wrote). Spears’s music has always shaped pop music for years after her album releases – anyone saying that The Fame Monster would still sound the same had Blackout not existed is simply a fool. While in the future this may not necessarily mean more dubstep, I do believe that we (fortunately) will be seeing many more hybrid-genre songs from both established (Ke$ha) and upcoming (Kimberly Cole) pop singers, all thanks to Spears. 

A second defining moment in pop last year was Lady Gaga’s Born This Way, which showcased experimentation to a much greater extent than did Femme Fatale (though the end result wasn’t nearly as sonically pleasing to me). Gaga’s experimentation with alternative song structures, non-traditional song topics, and her unique vocal delivery are undoubtedly the work of an artist desperately trying to distinguish herself from the norm, and by all accounts she succeeded. Though not always accurate (Judas betrayed Jesus only once, while Peter denied Jesus three times – it seems she’s combining two stories), Gaga’s constant biblical references add a depth to her songs that very few pop artists have dared attempt. In addition, her vocal delivery is ever-changing, ranging from a wonky Jamaican accent to opera to German spoken-word. While I can only bear listening to the album for moments at a time, I’ll give credit where it’s due: she certainly raised the bar when it comes to innovation in a historically static genre. 

Will Gaga’s album influence pop-to-come in the same way as Spears’s? Yes and no. I don’t think many artists will try to trump her vocal delivery, thematic choices, or propensity for long (sometimes brilliant, sometimes tragic) music videos. But at the same time, Gaga certainly brought something new to the table and truly challenged pop artists and producers to kick it up a notch. I like to think of the album as one giant middle finger pointed at Dr. Luke, because that’s essentially what it is. 

There certainly are other examples of bold experimentation found in pop last year: Cee Lo Green backing an all-too-familiar story with a MoTown beat, Kelly Rowland releasing a damn sexy R&B slow jam to Top 40 radio to counteract her previous dancefloor bangers, Ke$ha continuing to do her best to thwart everything Gaga stands for, amongst other examples. I know it sounds silly to basically boil down All-Of-2011 Pop to Spears and Gaga, but most of the rest was more of the same. I think that interesting times are to come, both in terms of Spears and Gaga’s careers as well as other artists reacting to them. 

2011 has left me hopeful for the future, yet at the same time a little scared… which is just how I like it.

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