Thursday, July 5, 2012

Popologist Panel: Justin Bieber, Fiona Apple, Diplo, Katy Perry

It's the first Thursday of the month, which means it's time for a new edition of the Popologist Panel! This month we bring you our sophomore effort, after our exciting debut last month in which we discussed new music from Azealia Banks, Cher Lloyd, Kylie Minogue, Ke$ha, and more, and inadvertently moved a legion of Adam Lambert fans to take up arms against some of our more honest yet controversial thoughts on his album Trespassing. This month we're tackling a somewhat more eclectic batch of new work from the last month, ranging from pop superstar Justin Bieber's new album Believe to techno icon Diplo's much delayed EP to the return of "Mr. Saxobeat" chanteuse Alexandra Stan and the final video from Katy Perry and her Teenage Dream juggernaut; plus, before wrapping up we weigh in on the song of the zeitgeist, Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe."

There's a good crop of new stuff here you probably haven't heard, so we hope you'll check out anything here you think might interest you. As usual, there is not one piece on which we all agree; in fact, we seem to have a few more disagreements than last month! We also welcome our first guest panelist, who offers us a fresh look from a new perspective to keep us all in check. Enjoy, and please share your thoughts, whether you think we're right on or full of shit. We're very likely both.

*   *   *   *   The Popologist Panel   *   *   *   *
  •  Popledge - Sarah carries the UK and Europe by extension on this panel, running as she does one of the hardest-working pop music news blogs around; follow her on Twitter and you can get top-notch critical thought in betwixt posts like "ONE DIRECTION - SHIRTLESS!" (v.g.) (@popledge)
  • Techno School - You may know Techno School from their contributions on Vertigo Shtick as our dance/electronica correspondent. Based in Detroit, Techno School's blog is an interesting look at life in a new city woven into insights on today's EDM and the state of techno. (@itstechnoschool)
  • Taking Over the Universe - Gaosalad's fabulously enjoyable young blog is another interesting mixture of two interests pop music and drag queendom.(@gaosalad)
  • Vertigo Shtick - The spark that grew into Vertigo Shtick came when one overly critical-thinking arts writer noticed that there were almost no pop songs on Pitchfork's Best of the 2000s list, nor most other outlets either; it now exists to question, decipher, explicate and dispense the critical and artistic elements of mainstream pop, down to the nitty gritty details. (@vertigo_shtick)
  • The Pop Messiah - Dean Boudreau is our lone Canadian panelist, which means he's pretty much like us but can't get Spotify and you can't send him iTunes gifts. That doesn't stop him, and his witty but wise blog, from getting it right when it comes to pop music (if not Ke$ha, who is in fact the pop Messiah). (@thepopmessiah)
  • Unapologetically POP! - Gregory and Minna provide plenty of reliable critical insight with an intermittently stinging sense of wit and unerring sense of positivity, but a main strength of their blog is its overall sense of questioning. They're not here to tell you how it is; they're here to find out. (@unapologeticpop)
  • Guest Panelist: Lost in a Melody - Mike Jennings is a blogger and pop aficionado from across the pond. He has a fondness for Alecia Moore and maintains immense optimism about pop music as a whole which makes him pleasant to be around. (@mikeinamelody)

NOTE: All the music discussed in this article can be heard by clicking on the album artwork provided. Of course, we also encourage you to patronize those you enjoy by buying their material. (I did). Dates and label info are for US releases.

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Justin Bieber - Believe (The Island Def Jam, June 19)

Popledge: If you can leave your preconceptions about JB firmly at the door then what you are left with is a few well crafted and produced R&B/pop album.  Hats off to his management team they have moved his music on from the 'Baby' era into something of a more 'adult' affair.  The style of music has changed but the emphasis of the songs are still very female orientated..I imagine younger girls still getting the feeling that he is singing directly to them through their speakers.  More respect goes to Justin again when you learn that he co-wrote all but one song (the awful Minaj collaboration).  There's a lot to admire in this album but I still feel Justin has a way to go image wise to shake off that 'teeny bopper' image, especially here in the UK.  Highlights for me were "Catching Feelings," "Die in Your Arms" and the anthem that is "Believe."

Techno School: This was like the Biebs Music Sampler.  In seventeen tracks (Do we really need albums that long?), you get a little hip-hop, a little dance-y pop, a dash of R&B, one big ballad, and a couple each of electronic beats and acoustic songs to round it out.  All in a jumble.  Listening to the album felt like stumbling through a Detroit antique store: something new at every corner, but few hidden gems worth the exploration.  A few songs stood out, notably "Around the World" (feat Ludacris) for its club friendliness and smart manipulation of vocals, and "Beauty and the Beat" (feat. Nicki Minaj) for its killer feature artist selection and momentary lapses into the same French flavor of electro we saw last month on Adam Lambert's Trespassing. Minaj and other featured artists' appearances provided much-needed respite from Bieber's voice, which I still find irritatingly childish. I'll also admit to enjoying "Die in Your Arms" in the same reluctant way I did Sean Kingston's awkward breakout single "Beautiful Girl." I'm interested to see if that one ever makes it to the radio.

Taking/Universe:  As much as the hater inside of me wants to instantly discredit this entire album, I have to say that it actually surprised me a bit. I still don't like his voice, but his message has grown up a bit from his debut, and the opening song totally sounds like it was written by Ke$ha with its stuttered "Oh-oh-oh-oh". This was a completely fresh listen for me, so the lead in single's R&B vibe took me by shock. As expected, the big name features such as Ludacris, Drake, and Nicki Minaj sound the most polished out of the whole lot, but that is not to say the rest of the album is a hot mess. I'd like to highlight the song dedicated to the 'crazed fan' that claimed to be carrying his baby. "Maria" is both hilarious and a great beat -- Think of it as the new "Billie Jean". I feel dirty for liking this album. I won't go blaring it in my car around town by any means, but maybe, just maybe, I'll listen to it alone in private. With headphones. Turned down low.

Vertigo Shtick: It's remarkable that with seventeen tracks on the Deluxe edition (thirteen on the standard) of Justin Bieber's third album, not one of them can really be called a "Justin Bieber song." Every track so fully echoes the style of one of a handful of contemporaries that it remains unclear what makes Bieber unique as a musician. How good each track is depends pretty directly on which artist is being channeled: the dance-pop numbers that take from Bieber mentor Usher ("All Around the World" is "DJ's Got Us Falling In Love") and Chris Brown are solid and listenable if not revolutionary; the R&B songs that interestingly draw their style from those same artists in alternate modes are slightly less remarkable, and the trendy Bruno Mars chivalry ballads (usually about protecting women) are the weakest, partly because I, for one, definitely wouldn't trust the diminutive teenager to catch me if I were falling. Notably, three of the four best tracks on Believe are the three inspired by that other great pop Justin, Timberlake, and two of those are bonus tracks. The fourth is the most incredible pastiche of them all: how do you do a track called "She Don't Like the Lights" that borrows so fundamentally from a current hit single by Ellie Goulding called "LIGHTS?" That takes balls. And it's one of the only moments the album or its performer display any of those by doing anything ambitious, much less bold. Diplo sneaks a few sounds into the otherwise dull "Thought of You," and Zedd blessedly drops off a briefly exciting interlude on Max Martin's shameless "Last Friday Night (TGIF)" clone "Beauty and a Beat" (I believe this represents the fifth resurrection of the Katy Perry single now), on which Nicki Minaj also briefly drops in, rhymes "wiener" (as in Bieber's) with "Selena-r" (as in Gomez) and scrams. 

The three bonus tracks are the most interesting by a wide margin, the only tracks that really come to life; "Maria," one of four Darkchild productions, is where Bieber comes closest to becoming a real boy as he tells a real-life fan that the kid is not his son - in the style of Justin Timberlake channeling Michael Jackson, but still. The album ultimately never lives up to its best moment, the chilling opening of lead single and second track "Boyfriend," with an urban beat that delivers a dose of danger that ultimately proves more exciting than anything that follows. That makes Believe, in general a pleasant, listenable, polished pop album, seem like a bit of a letdown. AutoTune makes off with almost any immediacy or humanity to Bieber's admittedly lovely voice in favor of predictably perfected vocals that grow old around the bloated middle section. They seem to blend more and more with the rest of the safe, formulaic, pre-tested electronic sound behind them, and by the end of the album I wasn't sure if Believe represented a creation of the performer Justin Bieber or a product created by a team of people using the talented but very young singer less as an artist than as a very lucrative instrument.
Pop Messiah: I set out with intention to hate Believe. Something about Bieber has always read distinctly douchebag for me and while I've begrudgingly enjoyed an occasional single, I believe the "Bieber Fever" phenomenon is grossly unwarranted. Color me surprised; the album is actually fairly likeable despite having the most snoozeworthy cover art. Bieber "grows up" (a little) with no significant career moves or obvious pop game-changers. If anything, Believe is a bit of a retrospective of pop styles; trying on the shoes of stars like mentor Usher, Chris Brown, Justin Timberlake and Michael Jackson; even re-creating the vibe of classic boy bands like Jackson 5, Boyz II Men & N*Sync. Bieber pulls them all off comfortably, but nothing feels like it's really his signature. The two most shining moments on Believe are deluxe edition bonus tracks. The "Billie Jean"-esque "Maria" directly addresses last year's babydaddy scandal and is the first time I have actually seen that Bieber has some glimmer of potential to fill the void left by the superior Justin's seemed abandonment of music. Also of interest, "She Don't Like The Lights" (a grammatically incorrect song about a girl who couldn't deal with being in his spotlight) plays over an inspired beat that loops the sound of a camera firing. Believe may not be quite Pop Gospel, but while Justin's deciding what he wants to be when he grows up he'll be ready for nearly any change in genre trend that The Pop Gods decide to throw at us with a generally catchy and decidedly over-produced single.

Unapologetically POP abstained from this selection. 

Lost in a Melody: Justin Bieber is all grown up. The Biebs is now a FULLY FUNCTIONING MAN. Which means this album is overflowing with references to all the other iconic young male pop stars – from Michael Jackson (including "Maria," the surprisingly listenable "Billie Jean"-esque ode to a mentalist and a Jacko sample on Motown ballad "Die In Your Arms") to Justin Timberlake, who you could be forgiven for thinking actually appears as a guest vocalist on the likes of "Out Of Town Girl" and "Boyfriend" – which might be one of the best songs to come from a teen pop star EVER. There’s features from all the usual suspects, including Nicki Minaj, Drake and even Ludacris, who stops by for a second or two on "All Around The World" – which is just one of a handful of flawless urban dance-oriented tracks (including "Take You" and "Thought Of You") that recall the best moments on breakthrough album My Worlds. The true highlight is actually the moment where Justin still sounds like that fresh-faced newcomer. "One Love" is downbeat, hypnotic and the chorus is a slow building earworm that proves no matter how old he is, Justin still has heaps of mileage left in him.

Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw, and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (Epic Records, June 19)

Popledge: This was an artist that was new to me; without Spotify I struggled to find all of her album to listen to. I found 'Every Single Night' on her official website and was instantly transported to a Twilight soundtrack in my mind - it would fit into Bella and Edward's world and into that indie/hippie pop that they love putting into those films.  I did enjoy the track and the video that went with it - it's like Florence and the Machine on acid!  I also found 'Anything We Want' via YouTube - both songs were highly emotional in their lyric contents. I can't imagine her being a mainstream artist but it seems as though she has found her niche and obviously expressed her personality through her songs.  Not so much for me though based on those two tracks.

Techno School: Confession: when the world is overwhelming and even the hard-hit of a techno beat pushes me over the edge, I go alternative, acoustic, and bluesy.  I've been known to listen to the techno antithesis likes of Neutral Milk Hotel and Johnny Ash.  Fiona Apple is long overdue to be added to my rainy day music library.  Offbeat drum sounds fly in and out of each song, while the keys of Apple's piano march on.  Yet her voice always rings loud and clear above the music. The snappy, blunt lyrics are the star of the show, no doubt.  "Werewolf" is a much more nuanced take on the broken relationship than the ones in my review of "Never Gonna Let You Go"; the line "But we can still support each other/all we gotta do's avoid each other" resonates more with me than any quip about handcuffs or blowing out an ex's tires that the Top 40 crowd would produce.  Apple's music and voice have such a defined sound that the songs on this album kind of meld together, making The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do feel as drawn out as its title. Still, I'd buy it.

Taking/Universe: Yet another situation I'm going into blind. Singer/songwriter stuff has never been my forte. I get why someone would like it, but it was never something I would seek out. This album, which has a title longer than any Panic At The Disco song ever made (and that is saying something), is a bit too out of my range of musical expertise.

Vertigo Shtick: My only previous experience with Fiona Apple was with her breakout hit "Criminal" and the title track of her last album, 2005's Extraordinary Machine, both of which so fascinated me that I felt both ready and eager to give her new one a full go. I'm glad I did. Writing about mainstream pop music comes with the drawback of encountering a lot of music that sounds the same, and one of the main pleasures of The Idler Wheel... for me was that it sounded entirely new and different from anything else, which is a pleasure usually whether the experiments work or not. Fortunately most of it works on this short if hardly sweet album, a collaboration between Apple, a singer, songwriter, and pianist, and her touring drummer Charley Drayton. It's an unusual, compelling combination of skills which appropriately emphasizes piano, percussion, and vocals in minimalist yet thoroughly inventive arrangements. It's as interesting, therefore, on a sonic level as it is, being written by famously creative songwriter Apple, on a lyrical one.

Some tracks are more musically experimental while others utilize more traditional structure and sound so as to emphasize the lyrical element, but every track is in one way or the other consciously outside the box. The effect ranges from the constructively interesting ("Every Single Night," "Daredevil") to the philosophical ("Werewolf," "Left Alone") to the emotional ("Valentine," "Jonathan," and the gripping, intense "Regret") to the playful (wonderfully fun closer "Hot Knife"). Whatever Apple and Drayton aim for in each track lands solidly, thanks in part to their impressive musical talent and dedication to experimentation and in part to Apple's strong vocals, which are entirely committed, commanding, and which never condescend or veer into the ironic or didactic. Apple never sounds like she's trying to impress or show off or bestow some unique wisdom on the audience; she's just telling stories and recounting emotions and ideas without presuming to dictate how they ought to be received. An album largely about relationships gone bad could easily get preachy or self-involved, with the singer becoming a character an audience must evaluate and take sides on. Instead, Apple is an engaging narrator and confidante with a delicious way with words on this exceptional, thought-provoking triumph of an album, a welcome return after an exceedingly long absence.

Pop Messiah: Returning to the subject of unattractive album cover art, Fiona Apple's The Idler Wheel... certainly steals the title from whomever happened to be its predecessor. Sadly, it did not get the award for the most unnecessarily long album title, which went to her previous album, entitled When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks Like a King What He Knows Throws the Blows When He Goes to the Fight and He'll Win the Whole Thing 'Fore He Enters the Ring There's No Body to Batter When Your Mind Is Your Might So When You Go Solo, You Hold Your Own Hand and Remember That Depth Is the Greatest of Heights and If You Know Where You Stand, Then You Know Where to Land and If You Fall It Won't Matter, Cuz You'll Know That You're Right. (Note to Fiona: We get it! You can stop being an asshole with your album titles now.) The Idler Wheel... seems to continue on with her brand of soulful, confessional piano eccentri-pop. This music may not provide many pop earworms but each song has its own way of getting under your skin; be it in the sounds of screaming children under the music on "Werewolf" or the creepy layers of sing-song voices on the climax of "Hot Knife." These and lead single "Every Single Night" are stand-outs. (Side Note: Did anyone else feel really disappointed when they found out Britney Spears' "Criminal" was NOT a cover of Fiona's big hit? That would have been amazing.)

Unapologetically POP: I've never listened to a full Fiona Apple album before this one; the only reason I made the effort this time around was because I planned on seeing her live, and wanted to be prepared. After all, a concert sucks when one is unfamiliar with the music, at least in my experience. Half of the album is filled with sounds meant to sound completely grating, and half of it is actually quite melodic. Interestingly enough, these halves can both be found within individual songs, making each track a creative force. Though I do wish Fiona would write more gorgeous POP songs like "Criminal" and "Shadowboxer," I respect her desire to color outside the lines, even if it means I won't be as avid a fan as I would otherwise. It's not as though she needs my loyalty; she has more than enough fans for a lasting career. Girl's been around since 1996. The Idler Wheel... was produced by drummer Charley Drayton. Thus, the album has a very natural sound, with lots of piano and heavy percussion, giving the songs a jungle-like vibe. Though I don't do well in nature (as I like my four star amenities), I'll give Apple and Drayton the benefit of the doubt. This isn't how I would produce a record; I enjoy a sugary dose of synthesizers, but for what these two were presumably aiming for (a simple, beat-driven record), they did a great job. It ain't my cup of tea, but it doesn't mean I can't appreciate it.

Lost in a Melody:  Having no prior knowledge of Fiona, I’ve not had the urge to listen to this release, even though the blogs are all falling over themselves to hail it as incredible. To me, it just sounds like a mixture of Aimee Mann, Florence & The Machine and Regina Spektor – although I imagine those artists are all actually influenced by her. It’s low-key, acoustic and (like the title) it’s frustratingly difficult for a casual listener like myself. If I knew more about the artist and the stories behind the songs, it’s definitely the type of album I would return to, in an attempt to peel back all the layers and make sense of it. I can tell there amongst the sparse production and intimate lyrics, there are some treasures to be discovered, but given that I already have the new Regina Spektor album in my life, I feel pretty sorted on the singer-songwriter front. That said, Fiona’s growling voice on some of the tracks is stirring and I LOVE the lyric in "Every Single Night," “my breast's gonna bust open, the rib is the shell and the heart is the yolk yoke and I just made a meal for us both to choke on”. Vivid, to say the least.

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Diplo - Express Yourself (Mad Decent Protocol, June 12)

Popledge: I'd already been suffering from a dull headache today and also writers block and this mess didn't help matters!  It's not me at all - all that repetitive music - nope not for me.  "Barely Standing" I preferred mainly due to the fact Sabi was on the track and see appeared on Britney's Femme Fatale album!  I was also hoping that 'Butters Theme' might relate to Butters from South such luck..I gave up at this point..sorry Diplo.

Techno School: It's hard for me to gush about Diplo, even though I thoroughly enjoy every dirty, hot, heavy track on "Express Yourself" (Are you horny? I'm horny.).  There is a heavy Jamaican influence that one can expect from the Philly-based DJ's work, a sound that has brought him both fame and infamy.  Regular sirens and thumping beats carry through the whole album, with unexpected additions like the mellow keyboard in "No Problem" (feat Flinch and My Name is Kay).  I don't know for sure, but this pleasantry probably came from the featured artists, all of whom add wonderful depth to an EP that would otherwise sound one-note.  Now, I feel obligated to point out a couple articles I ran across on Racialicious last year, which discuss Diplo's tendency to sample unknown artists of color, in order to use their music for his own gain.  I'm not versed enough in this particular genre of techno to really know what's what, but the conversation surrounding Diplo's work makes me question the artistic credibility of such a well-known musician.  Is the opener and title track to this EP, "Express Yourself", meant to be a rebuttal to last year's criticism?  I'd think so, with a repeated lyric that "and they mad 'cause I'm hot/and they wish they was /they be hatin' on my name /but my beats they love".  And on a side note, if you look up any Jamaican Dancehall Queen competition on Youtube, you'll find out what dance move he's referring to in "Express Yourself".  You're welcome.

Taking/Universe: Wait this isn't a Madonna cover? I am highly disappointed. This is some odd mix of rap and techno that I have not had the pleasure of listening to. I don't mind rap, and I even can get into it when it's set to a dance beat, so this actually drew me in much more so than I had initially expected. I had never heard of any of the featured artists besides My Name Is Kay before, but maybe that was the point. I got a chuckle out of Lazerdisk Party Sex's name (Oh, nerd humor). On a side note, My Name Is Kay really picked up the slack with her spot on this release, as her initial release didn't impress me much. Of the entire release, "Barely Standing" has to be my top choice, as it has the best vocals of the group, and the most interesting beat, even if it is dubstep.

Vertigo Shtick: I may have mentioned once or twice that I want to copulate with Diplo til the world ends and then resume in the next life. That's not relevant, I'm just expressing myself because Diplo said so and I do what Diplo says. This long-delayed EP demonstrates an attitude of intelligent and defiant experimentation, mild douchebaggery, and a recognition that even techno/dance music designed to piss off the squares should also be fun and make you want to dance or fuck or better yet both at once. Diplo gets some good guests, the unfairly maligned Sabi of "steamin' like a pot full of vegetables" infamy, and the fiendishly great My Name is Kay among them, and they're all totally on board with the attitude and message in their delivery, so you know they're in on the game. Notice how inevitable the tracks seem to play, not because they're old or predictable but because Diplo knows what listeners want before they even do, and he delivers. The last track begins with sounds that evoke the ocean and then dolphins, and then the dolphins start singing "I wanna set it off!" and then moombahton crashes in to announce that it is now time to have some sex. At least that's what I got from it. Who says techno can't be deep?

Pop Messiah: I'm conflicted. The first time I listened to this EP I was on my way to Starbucks and then to work on a sweltering summer day. While the singer in me was aching for more melody, I found myself stomping like I was still in the running to be Canada's Next Top Model. Later, on a quiet second listen in my living room many of the tracks felt overwhelming and brash. The set is packed full of throbbing beats and would be very much at home as the soundtrack to an edgy fashion show. It's energy is undeniable but if you're looking for big exciting feature vocals, go fish! Despite the handful of guest vocalists, the star of this EP is Diplo and production-wise this body of work is at times melodic and entrancing; in others dissonant and jarring but always exciting and evocative. 

Unapologetically POP: Fuckin' Diplo is a genius. I've been an uber-fan since his days doing mash-ups under the name Hollertronix.  When he ballooned into a super-producer I was thrilled for him, but also concerned that he might have plateaued (Calvin Harris on "We Found Love," anyone?). I have long awaited a follow up to 2009's Decent Work for Decent Pay, but it seemed that Diplo was to busy to fuss over his solo work.  Finally, three years later, after lending his Diplo-lite touches to a couple good songs & a lot of lackluster ones, Express Yourself proves that he is still capable of making innovative, fearless, highly-stylized music.  One minute into "Barely Standing," the EP's second track, & I was more or less shouting "WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN DIPLO?!"  Not since "Beat of My Drum" have I been so pleased with his work.  More, please!

Lost in a Melody: Despite having a helping hand in loads of tracks I’ve loved over the past few years, I’ve never really known much about Diplo or his own music. I found this EP surprisingly enjoyable, right from the get go. He knows how to construct songs perfectly – every new squelch and vocal sample coming in at exactly the right moment. I’ve always loved how this style of music is much more minimalist and stripped back than most other types of dance music – focusing very explicitly on the beat. The EP gets a bit repetitive (once you’ve heard one Diplo song, you’ve pretty much heard the template that every other one follows) but it does exactly what it says on the tin. Probably going to download this now too, so it can’t be all bad, can it?

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Katy Perry - "Wide Awake" (Capitol Records, June 18)

Popledge: Katy Perry has basically taken my dream life and look and made it into a video - although I wouldn't have punched Prince Charming - a snog would have been better!  I just love this video and song, great way to finish the Teenage Dream era and Katy looks beyond beautiful in it.

Techno School: There are still fireworks shooting out of Katy Perry's boobs, people!  She really needs to get that checked out, and not by some crackpot quacko feeding her magical strawberries that turn her into a dribbling skeletor!  Okay, seriously, I found myself enjoying this video despite the hodgepodge of unrelated fairy tale and Biblical references and the sour-tastin "oh no, woe is me!" overtone of a song about one's hasty rise to fame and rush into a marriage with a recovering addict of a comedian (no sympathy here, she's 27--most people in Michigan are onto marriage number TWO by then). There were a couple Girl Power redeeming moments, including current Perry's punch right to Prince Charming's button and past Perry's defeat of those Minotaur nurse dudes. It looks like The Thing To Do nowadays is have little girls stomp on the ground to force their opposition into submission (Boyfriend kindly reminded me of the kickass little chick in Skrillex's "First of the Year (Equinox)" video, who pulls the exact same stunt as the one in "Wide Awake").  Overall, I'd call this a decent video for a decent, albeit whiny, song.

Taking/Universe: It's a very little known fact that I'm not too big a fan of Katy Perry. It's not that I think she is talentless, it's just that she has pulled off an entire album (even counting new bonus tracks) of number one hits. How in the world does she do that crap? This is one of those storyline videos where you have an extended "acted out" intro, revived by Ms. Gaga, but this one doesn't go on for fifteen minutes before you actually get to hear the song. After returning to her dressing room she is thrown into a dark and mystical world. Visually, this video is stunning, and is exactly the level of quality that people have come to expect form this diva. I feel like this song and video are both confirming to her fans that she hasn't forgotten who she is (wait didn't she start off as a Christian singer?). I think the video really helps the song in terms of it reaching it's potential. This song is more on the ballad side, as the other tracks out of her insanely popular album have been more upbeat. My only complaint is that she squeezed in both "California Gurls" and "Teenage Dream" as if saying "Remember these songs I sang, too!? They were good! Like this song!!!!"

Vertigo Shtick: The thing that makes Katy Perry so endearingly popular is that fans feel like they know her because she's so real and so open - for a pop star, which admittedly isn't saying much - even as she creates brilliant, impersonal and therefore universal pop. "Wide Awake" is about her split from Russell Brand, but it's not exclusive to Perry's experience - Perry wants the feelings in her music to relate to everyone even when they may (or may not...she never tells) be based on her experiences. Taking notes from Harry Potter, Lada Gaga's "Marry the Night" video, and, strangely, The Shining, "Wide Awake" is both a testament to the song and a summation of the Teenage Dream journey, both entirely over-earnest and undeniably moving. The thing is, we don't mind how blatantly Perry manipulates our emotions, because unlike some hitmakers (Dr. Luke, David Guetta, Chris Brown, Karmin, Rihanna), the manipulation isn't cynical or condescending - it's done with love and a wink, letting the audience feel like they have a choice in allowing themselves to be manipulated.

Pop Messiah: As a single, "Wide Awake" has taken some time to grow on me. While I prefer several of the non-single tracks from the original release of "Teenage Dream" to this one, it has worked it's way into my favor with repeat listens. As a video, "Wide Awake" one-ups the senseless mess that was "Part of Me" and brings a satisfying end to this era of her career. In it, Katy sings about the realization that the fairy tale romance the album explored was all a lie as she navigates a volatile and enigmatic fantasy world with her younger, untainted self in a daydream. In the end, both Katy and her innocence escape unharmed just in time for Katy to feel the true love of her adoring fans as she steps out on to the stage in what appears to be a seamless segue into the opening scene of Katy Perry: Part of Me 3D - In theatres now! (Did you hear that? That was the sound of Capitol Records counting their mountains of box-office money!)

Unapologetically POP: The song itself is quite beautiful. Though it took a while for it to grow on me, it eventually succeeded, and now I think it's one of the most refreshing pieces Dr. Luke and his protege Cirkut have put out in a while. However, I do feel bad for Tricky Stewart, who produced a solid portion of material on the original Teenage Dream and was waiting for the re-release for Katy to finally promote one of his songs, the tongue-in-cheek "Dressin' Up." I find the subject-matter overly self-aggrandizing. It centers around Katy protecting the child version of herself from fame's poisonous grasp. We find her eating a strawberry (a reference to the iconography of One of the Boys, Katy's debut, which made her famous) like Eve's forbidden fruit. I find this concept so annoying. Katy has always wanted to be famous. In an interview with CBS, she herself emphatically stated (allegedly), "I don't want to be the indie darling, because NOBODY KNOWS WHO THE INDIE DARLING IS." She clearly has the talent to be one, as is proved by the song "Thinking of You," which Miss Perry wrote completely on her own. However, she has no interest in making the kind of music that she herself enjoys (M83, Empire of the Sun, Scissor Sisters, and other alternative fare). I remember another interview in which Katy allegedly said something to the effect of wanting to walk into a restaurant as an older woman and having people identify her as a world-famous singer, not as a D-List "oh, where do I know her from? She looks familiar" celebrity. This girl consciously got in the fame lane, so I highly doubt she has any regrets. Thus, as gorgeous as this video is, I find it nauseating.

Lost in a Melody:My childhood may be over, but that doesn’t mean playtime is…”

Sky Ferreira - "Red Lips" (June 12)

Popledge:  WARNING - CONTAINS SPIDERS!  If you don't mind spiders there is a lot to enjoy here, directed by Terry Richardson who I generally love it features lots of iconic looks set over the Garbage-esque song.  Even at the end when the red lipstick starts going all over her body in a slightly psycho way she still manages to look sexy - damn her!

Techno School: I've got a problem with this video.  Whereas the song is some tongue-in-cheek commentary on the "Be sexy, but don't have sex!" kind of messages young women get these days, the video uses Sky Ferreira's body for shock value.  Which completely erases any sentiment that Ferreira's work is self-aware.  What was the director thinking?  Let's take a waifish blonde girl and put her in white underwear!  Ooh, then let's get a close-up of her rubbing her own breasts with lipstick-covered hands!  Let's show a tarantula crawling down her crotch!  Now, make the lipstick look like blood!  You go, dirty demon-whore! The song I like. The video needs to disappear forever.

Taking/Universe: This is the dirty pop/rock vibe that I have secretly loved for years. This romp through what made the 90's amazing is a nice breath of fresh air from the electro-pop divas of today's age. This being my first impression of Sky Ferreira, I was left begging for more. The video clocks in under three minutes, meaning that the exposure is a bit limited, but the video is shocking and in your face, both of which I have an affinity for. I'm not sure how she was able to get through filming this video without going into shock, because if I had a giant harry spider crawling all over me, I think I would faint. Don't judge me for being more girly than her. This one is definitely my favorite out of the crop this month.

Vertigo Shtick: I haven't really gotten Sky Ferreira until this tune - it's the first time she's sounded totally right to me. Maybe grunge pop is due for a comeback, and Sky Ferreira is going to play Shirley Manson? However, the video is either cluelessly hypocritical (Hey! Let's do this thing with a tarantula and you in your underwear - that's so, like, avant-garde and Lady Gaga! What's the song about? Wait, who cares - SPIDERS! BOOBS!) or a failed attempt at irony. Or maybe Ferreira and intermittently amazing Terry Richardson thought the song sounded kind of like "Criminal" so how about an homage to Fiona Apple? The song is totally solid, but the video is self-indulgent and a waste of a potentially interesting concept on the wrong song.

Pop Messiah: Hmmm... I have a weird feeling this video might divide us because I can see some of you possibly thinking this video is brilliant, but I am mostly just wondering "WTF?" I had no idea that they were remaking Stephen King's "It!" So an unstable bottle blonde paints her face with red lipstick while Mr. Tarantula explores her nether regions? While most sane people were scratching their heads as to why any classy lady with her face painted red would want to have a tarantula crawling on her lady parts, bottle blonde decides she feels like finger painting and smears the red from her face all over her body. While I admit I was kind of digging the song and can appreciate the aesthetic the director was going for, I mostly just felt like the whole thing was creepy in a mostly boring and disconnected way. I suspect if I weren't a total wimp when faced with spiders, that perhaps it wouldn't even have creepy going for it in my book. 

Unapologetically POP had no comment.

Lost in a Melody: I managed to get up to the point where she tried to make out with the tarantula and then stopped watching. Way to ruin a perfectly great song Sky. This “I’m the anti-popstar” shit isn’t pretty.

*   *   *   *   Singles *   *   *   *

NERVO - "You're Gonna Love Again" (Astralwerks, June 4)

Popledge: Again another new artist to my ears, it was hard tracking down a UK source just to listen to this song! First off I love the single artwork for the song - full of lovely pastels.  Again I'm pretty sure I recognize them from a Britney Spears connection - they opened for her in the US on her last tour.  Really enjoyed this track, very 'of the moment' in terms of the dance sound, it reminded me of 'Levels' in a lot of places, I also like the fact that they are a female fronted dance group we need someone out there to rival all this male DJs and producers!

Techno School: I was all ready to lay into NERVO for taking sounds that Avicii's current image is based off of and putting them front and center in this track...and then I found out this is an Avicii-NERVO collaboration.  Oops. NERVO certainly takes the backstage in this one, with ho-hum lyrics and musical input so great that I thought they were just ripping off their co-performer's tracks. Something about their music just doesn't click with me--still strikes me as College DJ Superstar--and "You're Gonna Love Again" certainly doesn't help.

Taking/Universe: NERVO always makes the best songs. The song starts off with a long build up to a amazing explosion at, and from there the song is nothing short of fabulous. This is what I love -- when an artist takes time to work on a quality track before pumping it out. It's been a while since I've listened to "We're All No One", but with the release of this, I have revisited and once again fallen in love with these two. I'm sure by now my colleagues have realized I really like songs with lyrics that I am able to relate to, which makes inspiring lyrics like "You're gonna love again" shoot straight to the top of my faves.

Vertigo Shtick: I so want to love NERVO's music because I love what they represent, i.e. a female producer/performer/DJ act in a genre with about as much gender equality as the Augusta National Golf Club. But golly if they haven't proven slow starters since the act formed in 2010. Their first singles with Ollie James were just okay, and I actively dislike their official debut “We're All No One.” “You're Gonna Love Again” is at least an improvement in that I don't hate it, and I even listen to it occasionally, if it comes up on shuffle and my hands are full or something. I feel like I've heard it already, for one thing: it sounds too much like mid-2011 David Guetta for June 2012 (especially “Sunshine,” his collab with Avicii on Nothing But the Beat; perhaps not shockingly, Avicii was apparently involved with this tune too). If the Nervo girls really want to shake up the techno scene they need to be more than just DJs with boobs – that's why we have Britney, these days. Instead they should be DJs with boobs who make innovative, exciting dance music that benefits from their unique skills in songwriting and performing and proves that chicks can play this game too.

Pop Messiah: This is the kind of huge club anthem that has potential to haunt dance floors in the clubs for years after it's chart peak (See: Da Rude - "Sandstorm," Daft Punk - "One More Time," for example). While both lyrically and vocally effective, the songs ultimate strength is in it's epic production. The "hook" is less about the words the Aussie twin sisters are singing and more about the uncontainable surge of euphoria in that soaring synth melody when the vocals take the back seat. Really nice track and getting better with each listen!

Unapologetically POP: Now this is real house anthem - super expansive, super impressive, & totally over-the-top.  If this doesn't win NERVO some extra fans, I don't know what else will. My one complaint is that "You're Gonna Love Again" could use an extra edge, something that cuts just a little bit sharper & little bit deeper. Either way, the EDM scene desperately needs to level the gender playing field & NERVO deserve more exposure. Isn't that right, Techno School?  Can I get an A-woMEN?!

Lost in a Melody: I don’t know much about NERVO (didn’t they write the criminally underrated "Try Again" for Nicole Scherzinger?) but I definitely wasn’t expecting this. The vocals are a bit generic, but the beats are very “now” and if I heard the chorus in a club, I’d probably end up jumping up and down a fair bit. Is it just me that’s getting quite bored of this type of track though? There’s definitely room to have much more complex melodies on the choruses of these songs, but so many artists adopt the lazy approach.

Alexandra Stan - "Lemonade" 

Popledge: Much better than "Mr Saxobeat," but it didn't excite me, it sounded more like an album track.  It reminded me of Aqua or Gaga's "Eh Eh (Nothing Else I Can Say)" in places..a sweet little ditty but I wouldn't say it was going to change the face of modern music as we know it.

Techno School: To my own surprise. this is one of my favorite songs of the whole lot.  The guitar and simple percussion are well-complemented by a bubbly, warbled keyboard harmony, all of which positively ooze of summer.  A bit worried that Alexandra Stan suggests that her faraway lover "look into the sun" (permanent damage to your vision!), I otherwise find the song touching.  I'm usually a sucker for techno breakdowns, but I actually find the one that happens in this song (around 2:30) to be out-of-place.  It does serve a purpose, though. For the 20ish seconds that we are confused by unnecessary pauses and record scratches, all the other instruments drop out, leaving us with a relatively quiet, basic bout of music.  When the bridge abruptly ends, the rest of the music suddenly resumes, and I jump to my feet to dance out the remainder of the song.  Replace that weird, awkward bridge with something more fitting for a Latin-inspired upbeat track, and you've got summer pop song perfection.

Taking/Universe: And the song stars out with a not-so-subtle dubstep intro. I can already tell this is going to be painful. The song (at least in my professional headphones) seems to be poorly mixed, having a hard time hearing what exactly she is saying over the WAH WAH WAH IMDUBSTEP beat. The breakdown is even more painful than the rest of the song. I have a feeling I would like this song a bit more if I knew what she said, but the fact that they took an Islander sounding track and infused generic dubstep with it leaves me with very little drive to look up said lyrics.

Vertigo Shtick: I looked into Ms. Stan's album Saxobeats last year when it dropped in the US and I guess they decided not to go with the original title, Here's That Romanian Saxobeat Song You All Like and a Bunch of Songs That Sound Exactly Like It Plus One Terrible/Amazing "Fergalicious" Ripoff (though I bet later they pitched it to Fiona Apple). Basically everything about Alexandra Stan screamed “one-hit wonder,” which is why I'm surprised and impressed that her sophomore effort is both refreshingly non-Saxobeaty and almost as good as “Mr. Saxobeat,” which was one of the two how-the-fuck-did-that-happen Billboard hits out of Romania last year (Edward Maya's “Stereo Love” being the other). The melody on the verses is lovely (and she sounds rather nice), and the song has two choruses. Two choruses, people! Sure, the first one is better than the second and you can't tell what the hell she says between “sunny” and “money” (and by the end she stops trying), but... TWO CHORUSES! If this song isn't stuck in your head at some point you might want to get checked out. I doubt it'll do much damage in the US unless Ms. Stan re-records her vocals a bit more cleanly so radio listeners can sing along, because otherwise this is a perfect summer smash. And not in the manipulative, recycled, “haha, you dumbasses” way of say, the new Pink or Flo Rida or Owl City/Carly Rae Jepsen singles currently gunning for the title. But even if she is destined to remain a one-hit wonder to the general US public, in this critic's book she's proven anything but.

Pop Messiah: I have no idea who Alexandra Stan is but it's evident that her goal with "Lemonade" is to try and stake claim on one spot in the soundtrack to summer of 2012. In researching, I discovered that she was responsible for 2010's "Mr. Saxobeat" and in light of this I will give her credit as this song doesn't sound anything like that one or does it sound like any other tracks on North American radio that I can think of right now. "Lemonade" goes unsurprisingly out of it's way to drop every summer song buzz word possible, rhyming "sunny" with "money" and singing about being on holiday and sipping lemonade. Thanks but no thanks, Alexandra. The Pop Gods will not Stan for this tripe. (Apols. I recognize that was really quite a stinker. I'll do better!)

Unapologetically POP: "Lemonade" is straight up summer, from the production to the song title (Alexandra has decidedly updated from the saxobeat, thank GOD.).  My biggest gripe is that its dubstep breakdown is annoying & unnecessary, making it sound like a bonus track on Cheryl's A Million Lights.  Either way, "Lemonade" is everything one could want in a eurotrash smash - nonsensical lyrics, transliterated verses, repetitive choruses & heavy Romanian accents.  POP Approved.

Lost in a Melody: Laid-back, exotic and has a light dubstep breakdown - all the essential ingredients necessary for serving up a simple, throwaway tune to soundtrack the few sunny days we’ll be having here in the UK. Oh and FYI she’s the one who did that "Mr. Saxobeat" song, although I didn’t really care for it, so that’s neither here nor there. File under “For fans of Cover Drive and No Doubt”.

Esthero - "Never Gonna Let You Go" (Esthero, June 5)

Popledge: When the track started I immediately thought of The Cure's 'Love Cats' song mixed in with some Muse-esque sounds - good start! When Esthero's voice kicked in it was also another layer of awesome for me - very punchy and full of spark and spirit. The initial blast of the song wore off a bit for me towards the end of the track but I still enjoyed listening to it. I just felt there was something missing from it as it wore on, just that extra 10% to elevate it from just getting a bit repetitive in places.

Techno School: The crazy, controlling, abusive girlfriend trope has been, er, beaten to death (see P!nk's "Please Don't Leave Me", Carrie Underwood's "Before He Cheats", and Ke$ha's "Stephen").  Esthero performs the character well, though, with commanding vocal performance and a strong piano accompaniment to boot.  The back-and-forth between piano and keyboard adds a layer of complexity to the track that I enjoyed; the piano supports the sinister verses whereas the keyboard follows with a dance-able, catchy chorus. I could use without "Never Gonna Let You Go", interesting as the music is, simply because I'm tired of representations of women as immature, dangerous, revenge-seeking animals.  The radio-waves do not need another one floating out there.

Taking/Universe: You have no idea how close I came to making this Song of the Week on my site. I enjoy the song, but something about it bugged me, and I hastily tossed out the idea at the last minute. Her vocals remind me a lot of singers along the vein of Norah Jones, and the fifties style singing make for a great way to hook people's interests, but I can't help but not feel satisfied by this song -- at least not fully. To me it's like that song on your iPod that you wouldn't skip over while on shuffle, but you wouldn't really know many of the lyrics other than the chorus. The song will more than likely grow on me over the next month (I bought it on iTunes after all), but for now I'm not crazy about it. Blame Justin Bieber and his annoyingly catchy album.

Vertigo Shtick: Esthero is one of those artists I say I love even though I've only ever heard one of her songs. But when that song is a knockout like “Wikked Lil Grrls” (which I first heard in an adult video store and had to ask the cashier to identify because Shazaam was still a few years off), who can blame me? It's been a long time since “Wikked Lil Grrls,” though, and I had no idea if its jazzy girl-group throwback style was Esthero's norm or an anomaly. So I was relieved to find “Never Gonna Let You Go,” as different as it is from its predecessor, still teeming with the mix of modern and old-fashioned that made Christina Aguilera's “Ain't No Other Man” so great. By the end of my first listen I was singing along to the chorus, which is the ultimate indication of catchy songwriting. I appreciate the realness of the blend of defiance and vulnerability in lyrics like “Wrap your heart up in my fragile state of mind,” and the “oo-oh-oo-oh-oo” after the second chorus gave me a little tingle. Ultimately, “Never Gonna Let You Go” has made me open to checking out any further music Esthero should release.

Pop Messiah: I was thrilled to see this track listed on the panel assignment for July because I adore Esthero and had NO idea she had a new single/album coming up. "Never Gonna Let You Go" is probably one of her most accessible singles yet and I may be speaking too soon but I'm so infatuated with this song right now that I'm prepared to name it Pop Gospel. Esthero has an endlessly cool tone and sassily delivers her vocals on point. The track has the swing and bravado of Gaga's "Teeth" but manages to menace with lyrics like "Baby I don't wanna break your legs but I'll do what I've gotta just to make you stay." That being said some part of me still wishes that beat were harder, kicking my ass the way the lyric and melody do, but I scrambled to buy the single on iTunes anyway. For those of you interested in hearing it with a more electronic backing, check "Studio Matt's Take You Back Remix," which heads a tad towards the melancholy. 

Unapologetically POP: I have to admit that I have never heard of this woman in my life, but from what I can gather from this little ditty is that she can make some jazzy piano POP. I absolutely love the line "You say your handcuffs are a little tight / What's wrong now man?/ You used to love this game."  Ballsy lyrics win me over every time.  Other than that, the song is a little too bland to be really memorable.  Better luck next time.

Lost in a Melody: I really want to love this – it has all the right ingredients after all. It stomps along with a deliciously devilish vocal, before reaching the clap-along middle eight and spooky final bridge. It would be perfect if it didn’t feel a little watered down, if it were up to me, the synths would be much louder and I’d be encouraging Esthero to really let rip during the chorus, because I feel like she’s holding herself back, with disappointing effect.

Carly Rae Jepsen - "Call Me Maybe" (Interscope, February 22)

Popledge: LOVE LOVE LOVE IT!  I have been listening to this song off and on since its release - over here in the UK it is currently raining like every day and I just find when I listen to this tune it makes me HAPPY, and on the whole isn't that what we all want in life?  The video is also amazing (you've got to watch it right through to the end) and I'm sure her links with Bieber won't go a miss either.

Techno School: I think the only good things to come out of "Call Me Maybe" were those awesome business cards and the plethora of spoofs that have been done.  In that light, I will share Boyfriend's rendition of the obnoxious hit:

    Hey, I just met you!
    This shit is crAzy!
    But here's my number!
    So, call me, Girlfriend!

    And all the other boys,
    They try to chaaaase me!
    But I'm not gay, so,
    So, call me maybe!

For serious.  I refuse to talk about this anymore.  Can we please move on, now?  I hear Carly-Rae Jepsen actually has a new single out!

Taking/Universe: Is it bad I actually like this song? Like legitimately? It's so cute, she's cute, the premise is cute. IT'S JUST CUTE, OK? This track is the ultimate ear worm track. That chorus gets stuck in everybody's head, and will drive everyone crazy by the end of the day. On top of this, we have a hilarious video that adds to the already unbearable cuteness that is Carly Rae Jepsen. Pardon me while I text the love of my life how I missed him before he even came into my life.

Vertigo Shtick: “Call Me Maybe” may not be THE best pop song of the last five years, as her manager claimed a few months ago in Billboard Magazine, but damned if it isn't one hell of a pop song. Someone at NPR hit it right on suggesting that the song is almost “violent” in its relentless charm – when that kick drum comes pounding in just before the second chorus it sounds like an act of war. The wobbling decrescendo at the end might be the gears of a machine powering down, an apt musical analogy for a song that seems to hit every conceivable mark of a pop smash hit perfectly. The most remarkable thing about this song to me, though, is that the writer/producer, Josh Ramsay, has done almost nothing before this (ok, he produced one song on the last Girlicious album. No, really). How on earth did he just whip out the hugest pop song/cultural phenomenon since “I Gotta Feeling?” And how on Earth are he and Ms. Jepsen ever going to top this? Still, as Pyrrhic victories go, this one's sure a doozy.

Pop Messiah: I would just like to point out that while most of the world is just starting to realize how sick of this song they are, I - being from Carly Rae's homeland have been dealing with "Call Me Maybe" since September 2011. I have gone from despising it to appreciating it's catchiness, flat out loving it and right back around to hissing at the radio whenever it comes on, which unfortunately is ALL THE FUCKING TIME. Yes, it's a catchy song and she's very adorable and there's a hot guy in the video and maybe that first lip-synching YouTube video was sort of fun.. Justin Bieber TOTALLY said he loves her so obviously we all do too, but in the name of Pop Heaven, can we PLEASE just get on with it now? 

Unapologetically POP: What is there to say that hasn't already been said?  Eclipsing Bieber with only one song, the fresh-faced Carly Rae is clearly on top.  Like I wrote in April, "Call Me Maybe"'s brilliance stems from its ability to bridge the teem POP audience & the Euro heavy adult dancefloor.  Five-year olds & 35 year olds love this song. Carly Rae may look like a Disney star, but she is not.  She is, in fact, a force to be reckoned with.  We are waiting on her next move.

Lost in a Melody: Hey, it’s been five months
                              Since I first heard this
                              And I’m not bored yet
                              Cos this song’s perfect.

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