Monday, February 20, 2012

Reductive: How Dr. Luke & RedOne Gave Katy Perry, Jessie J, Flo Rida & Nicki Minaj the Same Old Song

Once upon a time, the biggest pop stars in the world could at least be counted on to deliver music that was moderately new, if not necessarily revolutionary or even good. New means a particular series of words, notes and accompaniment that the artist in question has not yet utilized in a previous official release, nor has any other artist with the exception of covers and samples, and even then some new elements are necessary (exempt from this rule is Britney Spears, whom we tend to let get away with a lot). This doesn't seem like a tall order - if we expect our top music biz moneymakers not to offer us last week's leftovers and cheap designer knockoffs, at least not for full price, are we asking too much? Judging from the landscape of consumer-available music seven weeks into 2012, it appears we just might be.

Look it up.

The latest offender is, like a few of the others (but not all), a formerly and otherwise laudable contributor to the pop renaissance, one who by all demonstrated talent and represented philosophy ought not and certainly needs not rely on the pre-worn to keep our attention and our pockets open. After a dazzling start to what looks to be an incredible career, the last person I'd expect old bathwater from is Nicki Minaj. Especially after her sublime performance subbing for Lady Gaga (sidelined, we can only surmise from her attire, by the death of any creative concepts for future singles off Born This Way, or that of the woman she hears in her head singing Madonna's hits) in the avant garde "oh for the love of Linda Blair what the blessed crap is that woman doing?!" role at the Grammy Awards last weekend. This is the woman that out-rhymed Kanye West and Jay-Z (not to mention the man who robbed her of the Best New Artist award, Bon Iver), whose debut album hit number one on the Billboard 200 weeks after release and outsold Kanye and Rick Ross, whose last release was a single and putting the lid on Lil' Kim, a woman who not only dated Biggie but whose mouth can abscond with Sprite cans. Oh, let's not forget that the end of the aforementioned single, Minaj announces that she is the "female Weezy." This chick is ballsy.

Put this in your meat dress and smoke it!
The day after the Grammys, Minaj dropped a new single, "Starships," presumably off her hotly anticipated sophomore outing, expected later this year, or otherwise a buzz single in support of said album. Minaj teams up with producer RedOne, which should serve as the first warning of impending doom. RedOne produced most of Lady Gaga's first album and a half, as well as a couple third-tier tracks on Born This Way; at his best for Gaga, though, there's always at least one muck-up in his tracks preventing them from being slam dunks (usually involving the chorus, the phrase "too much [this]," or both). Indeed, the only single to my knowledge that RedOne has nailed entirely is Jennifer Lopez's "On the Floor," and he doesn't seem to be in any hurry to top it.* Besides the Gaga collaboration (which, after the reception of “Judas,” could henceforth quite possibly prove a thing of the past), RedOne has spent much off his time bringing such gifts into the world as Kelly Rowland’s “Down for Whatever,” JLS’ “You Make Me Wanna..,” Jason Derülo’s “Fight for You,” and half of Nicole Scherzinger’s debut solo album. (What’s that? You haven’t heard it either?**) But did I mention he did “On the Floor?”

RedOne, of course, is no stranger to revisiting old terrain; he and Gaga pulled off their “Poker Face” – “Bad Romance” – “Judas” – “Scheiße" formulaic quartet with admirable ingenuity. However, the heist pulled on “Starships” is not just an escalation, it’s the kind of thing that usually wins one a spot in the “dumb criminals” section, or a Darwin Award. RedOne, apparently dissuaded from rehashing his own work due to a scarcity of suitable material, has produced a song for Nicki Minaj that sounds a lot like a song Dr. Luke would produce for Flo Rida. Actually, it sounds a lot like a song Dr. Luke did produce for Flo Rida… but not before he also produced it for Jessie J and, before her, for Katy Perry itself. I think even Frank Abagnale would have demurred from attempting a fourth-degree con job, but this is RedOne, a man unlikely to ever be played by Leonardo DiCaprio. And did I mention he did “On the Floor?”

If you listen to “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.),” “Domino,” “Good Feeling,” and “Starships” one after the other, the musical similarities (though that seems too casual a term for it) will be screamingly obvious. For those lacking the time or inclination (and, though Perry’s is worth a few minutes if by some coma- or extended global sailboat voyage-related chance you missed its radio heyday, I can’t say that I’d blame you), an attempted description: all four tracks begin with lively yet casual strumming of a guitar, a la Burt Bacharach or, perhaps, Raffi. All four trot along at about 126 BPM; the percussion track starts at various points for each song, but within the first eight measures. The bass drops at the top of the fifth measure on the first three, though it holds off until the thirteen on “Starships,” whose backing tracks roll out slower at first only to arrive en masse, in true RedOne fashion, like a cannonball, or the cast of Jersey Shore.

Perry has a Good "Friday"
The lyrics arrive within the first half minute (as they do) and all tell some variation on the “Gee golly wow, I am/was just having such a fabulous time at this party/having sex/being myself, I just had to express it through song!” theme that, let’s face it, Lady Gaga and Ke$ha kind of put to bed back in 2009 (as they do) with “Just Dance” and “TiK ToK",” didn’t they? (Seeing as RedOne and Dr. Luke produced those quintessential “that was a great party was it not?” anthems for the 2000s, you’d think that’d have occurred to them.) While there is a bit of variation between them and each fares only as well as its lyric writers (sorry, “Domino”), the three female-driven songs rely on “list” lyrics: Perry catalogues her ribald activities from the previous Friday eve, Minaj rhymes cleverly and effortlessly (as she does) about beer and bars and being awesome and other PG-rated mayhem, and Jessie J spouts off some real whizbangs in the field of baffling mixed metaphors (“I can taste the tension like a cloud of smoke in the air,” she exclaims, which is extraordinary for multiple reasons). Flo Rida’s verbiage might be along similar tracks, but we don’t really know – or care – what precisely he is saying. We’re just moderately pleased he’s present.

Ultimately the four songs careen like dopamine avalanches toward a soaring chorus that’s utterly addictive (except on “Starships,” the chorus of which eludes me even as I’m listening to it) despite one mentioning group sex, and another sung by the late Etta James on an unrelated song four decades ago (she gets no billing), and another making no sense whatsoever (“take me down like I’m a Domino.” Really?). Then another verse, and another heroin-like hook, after which comes the final formulaic variation on the middle eight: Perry’s tune (originally released in mid-2010, remember) goes old school with a Kenny G-style sax solo, which became something of an accidental fad last year; “Domino,” its discount outlet counterpart, settles for a little whooshing and fading effects my grandmother would find passé. The latter two, products of the post-dubstepney pop landscape, play around with the electronic breakdown, which is totally en vogue now after Britney did it a year ago on “Hold It Against Me.” To be fair, while the breakdown on “Good Feeling” just feels like “Hold It Against Me” 3G, the breakdowns on “Starships” (which show up two or three times on the track, cued for fun and radio-friendly disguise whenever Minaj says “higher than a motherfucker”) are the only remotely original moments in the track, except of course for their derivative raison d'être.

As a whole, “Starships” is most closely related to “Good Feeling” (we’ll get back to “Last Friday Night” and “Domino” in a minute). There are plenty of explanations for this: both are lead singles from rap stars aimed at the mainstream Top 40 audience (and radio stations) and produced by veteran hit-makers mainly associated with pop. Both artists have demonstrated particular amenability to dance-inspired electronica, from dense synth backing tracks to basic four-to-the-floor song structures. They’re also the most closely related in time (“Good Feeling,” released in August, is currently #5 on the Hot 100), which is why “Starships” seems like the next step in a linear progression of influence rather than just another song that sounds like these other songs over here.

If that’s the case, then another name needs to come into the conversation, and, like many great things, it’s Swedish. Well actually, Avicii, the stage name of Swedish DJ Tim Bergling, comes from a Sanskrit term meaning “without waves,” but the point is that pretty much everything on “Good Feeling” that isn’t guitar strumming, tacked-on electro breakdown, or Flo Rida’s babbling is the work of this (quite young) man. Avicii didn’t release his breakthrough international dance single “Levels” until October, but it had been around most of last year topping charts across Europe, and it makes up the bulk of what we know as Flo Rida’s “Good Feeling.” Not that you would know it from the official credits: Avicii gets a writing credit (as Bergling, and alongside eight others, including James) but the sole producing nods go to Dr. Luke and Cirkut. Those familiar with the latter’s treatment of “Blow” on Ke$ha’s remix album will recognize his hand behind the “Good Feeling” breakdown, which means Dr. Luke earned that lucrative producing credit by taking Avicii’s beats, Etta’s voice, Cirkut’s breakdown, Flo Rida’s gobbledygook, a version of the guitar track from “Last Friday Night,” and pressing “record.”

The same day “Good Feeling” officially arrived, with all its muddy derivations and influences and sources tucked, for the moment, underneath its high-energy package and “hey, is that Etta?” chorus, the second in our quartet of strummin’ songs also hit stores (it probably feels like it’s been out longer than “Good Feeling” because Jessie J has been hanging around trying to get our attention for so long). While it’s not difficult to muster some positive words about “Good Feeling” and certainly “Starships,” “Domino” is a wreck and a professional disgrace for everyone involved in its creation – yes, even the Almighty Max Martin Himself. It is a record that shouldn’t have come to exist in the first place: it’s a plastic inflatable life-raft assembled in a last-ditch effort to save the British singer’s attempt at breaking into an American music scene that by then had made it clear it was not interested and would much rather listen to Robyn, thank you. Some have wondered if “Domino” might have been a reject from Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream sessions, and speculated that Perry might have actually written the song (she is not credited), but that is an insult to Perry, who is a far better songwriter on her worst day than any of the scribes who wrote “Domino.” Really, if Perry weren’t such a class act I’d wish to see her let one rip in Dr. Luke’s direction for his unapologetic hack job on her style and substance.

The “Domino” – “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” similarities are so blatant that if you took the former down a half-step, started both tracks at the same time and found a friend to sing one while you sang the other, you’d make a jumbled but complementary music: instant mash-up. The verses would be in the same spots, as would the pre-choruses, the chorus, the middle eight, the finale…even the melodies would start to sound harmonious. The lyrics on “Domino” are nothing more than a series of cut-and-paste similes lifted from a Songwriting 101 textbook interspersed with non-sequitors and clichés that would make Diane Warren click her tongue. Not that lyrics matter all that much in pop music, but when you’re trying to sell the country on your voice it helps if you’re singing something worth listening to.

Beth Ditto called...she wants her parallel universe back
Perhaps worst of all, though, the record’s indefensible shoddiness is wrapped in the shiniest of packages, and even I, whose utterly honest vitriol is hereby broadcast for the record, have caught myself with earbuds in singing along ecstatically while walking over a freeway or strolling through uninhabited mountain forests from time to time. Recently. Its creators might point to this as the record’s success, but even so, that power that can send a super-rational, ridiculously over-analytical detractor like me into joyous cries of “You’re like a shot of pure gold” (what does that mean?!) when no one is looking isn’t of Jessie J’s making, nor entirely Dr. Luke’s. I burst into song because in my momentarily less-than-rational mind I’m singing along with Katy Perry, whose style and substance are the only good things “Domino” has going.

Musical taste, and critical taste, is relative, and there’s no use in pretending otherwise. If for some unthinkable reason Katy Perry had come out, at this point, with “Domino,” I would probably still have these issues but I might not write in this way about them; if Britney Spears had released “Domino,” I’d be singing a much different tune. Few artists have earned the right to get away with something as slipshod as “Domino,” and Jessie J is certainly not one of them. It’s not her desperation for American success at any cost that earns my ire. It’s not even the fact that her material to date has been middling to fair and occasionally putrescent. That’s the artist’s prerogative. It’s the cowardly way she’s thrown her Hail Mary pass, a giant, desperate effort whose unlikely success would still be the fault of luck and not skill – and at the end of a hard-fought victory someone else has forged, all while wearing someone else’s jersey, too, just in case she gets called for a foul. Now THAT is reductive.

In fairness, no artist mentioned however positively in this piece has a clandestine docket, free of questions of originality lurking somewhere in their discography. “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” might be a stroke of genius, but several of the other record-tying five #1s from Teenage Dream draw questionably from other sources: some argue “E.T.” contains a bit too much of t.A.T.u.’s single “All the Things She Said” (as well as Ke$ha’s “Aliens Invading,” a bonus track on Animal’s UK release), while the fast one Perry and Dr. Luke pulled on us with “California Gurls” (Tweedle-Dee to “TiK ToK”’s Tweedle-Dum) might be the one example of unabashed thievery executed so ingeniously it must be given a pass. Even Madonna had to atone when she and Lenny Kravitz borrowed a bit too much from Prince protégé Ingrid Chavez when writing “Justify My Love.” (Chavez eventually secured a writing credit and one-fourth the songwriting royalties.) And Avicii’s big, Europe-conquering, Dr. Luke-heisted symbol of ethical purity “Levels” is built on Etta James’ foundation, and I don’t believe she got paid for the labor. Stones tend to stay grounded in this glass village.

Clearly, the debate over the business and musical ethics involved in these sorts of issues will become ever more crucial as previously low-key practices of a niche genre percolate into the mainstream as it draws increasing influence from dance and electronica. A house mash-up played at a club in Ibiza hasn’t a fraction of the potential financial value of a mainstream single with a broad radio release – there’s not much at stake throwing a little Diplo in with your Beyoncé in your Burning Man set, but there is quite a bit at stake when your Avicii-sampling Flo Rida song is selling hundreds of thousands of digital units and being featured during the Super Bowl telecast. I encourage and invite that debate among readers, fellow bloggers, labels, and artists, because it’s an important conversation that exceeds the perimeters of this single article.

That shouldn’t be mistaken for a cop-out on my part on the particular issue at hand – not after this grandiloquent display of pop apologetics. The larger issue of sampling ethics may be too grand to contain here; not so the issue of “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” and its variously sinister bastardizations. So what is the damage, Heather? For one thing, because of the way the increasingly monopolistic radio element operates in the United States, radio airtime, especially mass-market mainstream airtime, is a scarce resource, and one that is not distributed fairly or, one might argue, objectively. This shouldn’t be the case, because goodness knows there’s plenty of airtime out there, but the number of outlets who control it is small and shrinking, and their allotments are limited and internalized. It’s not just that every time Clear Channel plays “Domino” on one of their mainstream pop stations other songs don’t get played, it’s that by nature of being played at all “Domino” is given a vast guarantee of future plays, and those non-plays for every other song add up quickly when the rotation library only has 25 or 30 titles. Entry onto that list is usually reserved for those who’ve been on it before; newcomers break into the ranks only through label intervention (unusual, and only accomplished by execs who are already in the system) or, rarely, by actual consumer demand, usually registered in months or even years of giant digital sales.

When an artist and her team use lowest-denominator, formulaic, factory tactics to achieve success, it’s just an artistic issue; when they use underhanded, unethical means to succeed, then it’s business. I understand that Dr. Luke’s pilfering of Avicii’s work for an ultimately forgettable Top 5 Flo Rida single will probably work in the young producer’s favor at the end of the day, just as Ke$ha’s unpaid, uncredited vocals on Flo Rida’s last round of hit-making led to her elevation into the pop pantheon. That’s not a given, though, and those successful ends for a few notable exceptions do not justify the means for the rest.

What makes this such a cut and dry argument to me is that Dr. Luke is making a boatload of money off of his legitimate credits on Ke$ha’s albums, Britney Spears’ recent albums, and Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” to name a few legitimately unqualified, and deserved, blockbusters. He’s demonstrated his almost unrivaled skill and talent as a pop producer, and a hit-maker in the vein of Max Martin, so we know he can do it. So why does he need to rip off Avicii or, more unsettling, his own work for other artists, particularly Ke$ha (who frankly needs to tell him to take a hike before her next record because she is far too talented and smart to need to rely on him and has done more than her share of unwilling charity for his sake) but, increasingly, Katy Perry, through whom he has probably earned the bulk of his undoubtedly sizable wealth. RedOne’s longevity and demonstrated talent are both smaller by comparison, but unless the Scherzinger project is more toxic than we joke about, and with a reported Gaga-Cher duet on the horizon, he’s not exactly hurting for residuals or prospects either. Nor is Nicki Minaj anything but a solid sales prospect, so why would the man who created “Bad Romance” and the woman who proved her mainstream appeal with “Super Bass” need to play it SO safe that this writer is now comparing Nicki Minaj to Jessie J?

In the end, this blog exists to discuss, identify and defend the fine artistry of pop music, because it’s so often overlooked or overshadowed. Not all pop music is great; like any other genre, a good amount of it is pretty dreadful indeed. Dr. Luke, RedOne, Flo Rida, Nicki Minaj, and yes, even Jessie J are not dreadful artists: they’ve proven to have the capacity to produce top-notch work, even possibly brilliant work if they put their minds to it. Flo Rida’s first single was “Low,” and Nicki Minaj…where to even begin? Dr. Luke helped revitalize Britney Spears and introduced the world to Ke$ha; RedOne brought us Lady Fucking Gaga, for heaven’s sake. Spears and Gaga are good examples to note, in fact: despite the over-publicized “Express Yourself This Way” dust-up (it’s postmodern if it’s isolated and there’s a point to it), Spears’ and Gaga’s latest albums (along with Beyoncé’s) played with the rules and ignored conventions and pointed their weapons at unusual targets. While not all of them hit their marks, and none have enjoyed the rock-solid chart longevity of safer players like Perry or Rihanna, those three albums brought out the best in nearly every artist involved with them, and there are moments on all three that sound like nothing pop – or music itself – has ever heard before. Isn’t that what true, great artists strive to achieve?

The final variable in all this debate, of course, is the audience – and we’re not blameless either. From a business perspective, what’s telling Dr. Luke and RedOne not to recycle those tired strumming guitar tracks and re-inventing their old hits over and over like the Slurm Queen when as of this writing, “Domino,” “Good Feeling” and “Starships” are at #21, 20 and 7 on the iTunes music chart, respectively, and “Domino” peaked at #6 on the Hot 100 last week? Are we buying this recycled, half-assed (but fun!) music because we genuinely like “Domino” more than Selena Gomez’s brilliant “Love You Like A Love Song” or Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” or Lana Del Rey’s “Born to Die?” Or are we buying them because that’s what we hear on the radio, where we don’t hear “Dancing On My Own” or “Born to Die” or, until recently, “Love You Like a Love Song?”

I’m inclined to go with the latter, in which case Dr. Luke and RedOne are presented with a largely captive audience, and they’re serving us each other’s leftovers. I hope that I’m not the only one upset by that notion – and I hope that more artists like Britney Spears and Lady Gaga and Kelly Clarkson and Madonna and Missy Elliott and Adele step up to the plate (I’m looking at you, Ke$ha, Ms. Perry, and Ms. Minaj) and tell the boys making bank off their hard work and endless artistry to step up or get the hell out. The girls can run this thing on their own if they have to.

*”Alejandro,” for Gaga, and “Papi”, for Lopez, come rather close.
**I unfortunately have heard Nicole Scherzinger’s debut solo album. That was time I’ll never be able to get back.
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