Friday, January 25, 2013

Five Spoken Interludes in Pop That Are Better Than Taylor Swift's

I gave my begrudging (and qualified) approval to Taylor Swift's 2012 hit single "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" on this blog when it was released last summer. I had decided the end result was effective enough to ultimately outweigh my critical objections, which I kept to myself at the time. I figured someone out there in the wide world of music journalism would surely address them at some point anyway, right? Not so much. I don't want to hail on the Taylor parade just for the fun of it, but the Swift-worship is really beginning to get out of control and someone needs to provide a little sanity and perspective. The way some folks are carrying on you'd think Taylor Swift was the first person who ever made a witty pop song about a breakup with Max Martin.

"We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" is simply a musical Frankenstein's monster built from pieces of other successful singles from the producers' catalogue: echoes of the acoustic bits on Katy Perry's One of the Boys here, big Kelly Clarkson chorus there, some Ke$ha-inspired attitude, and, for the pièce de résistance, the staged "un-staged" spoken interlude of Pink's "Raise Your Glass." Voila! Instant hit. It's not hard to get the same result when you use the same building material, even if you take one piece from the purple tower, one from the green, one from the blue, and so forth. You can always repaint it Red.
Given the umbrella of goodwill Taylor Swift seems to enjoy with critics and consumers alike, I didn't expect many critics to take umbrage with her obvious ploy for mainstream success - and besides, as I said, it is a pretty great single. But there are some pop music critics out there - not many, but a few - who do tend to give mainstream pop its deserved shrift and seem to more or less "get it," and who, because they are in positions of influence, I look to when the time comes to call our pop musicians on their occasional bullshit, or at least acknowledge it, to keep them in check.

Ann Powers, arguably the greatest of these, wrote an insightful (and incendiary) piece for NPR about the single's debt to punk, so she gets a pass (she does bring up Max Martin's previous work with Pink and Clarkson, among others), as does Maura Johnston since she was in the process of her own breakup with the Village Voice at the time. Sasha Frere Jones sat this one out, having profiled Swift (a "prodigy") in 2008 for the New Yorker. Peter Robinson of Popjustice called it "a fun. single with Kelly Clarkson on top" and added that, given the producers, this wasn't shocking.

But it was Jody Rosen's capsule review in Rolling Stone that stuck in my craw. I don't always agree with Rosen's opinions but usually it's nothing more than a matter of taste, and overall he's definitely another key player on our side. Indeed, it wasn't that he gave the song a positive review that irked me; capsule reviews are really just a journalistic exercise and oughtn't to be taken too seriously, since the critic is unable to defend his opinion beyond "I am a critic for Rolling Stone and I say so." It was this:
And this bit – ". . . I'm just, I mean, this is exhausting. Like, we are never getting back together. Like, ever" – might be the most sublime spoken-word interlude in pop since Barry White died.
I've tried to add up the number of things wrong with that statement and I've lost count. First of all, I happen to think that bit makes Swift sound like a total bitch, and not in the way she's intending (I seem to remember thinking "Actually, you're kind of exhausting" the first time I heard the song). Secondly, I might have been able to suspend disbelief as to the supposed candidness of the snippet had I not heard Pink do the same thing just a couple years ago (I may have initially fallen for that one). I have, though, and I know this supposedly candid speech is totally staged, which pulls me out of the moment (especially because I'm not exactly predisposed in Swift's favor to begin with), a big no-no in pop music, which by nature only works if you can't see the gears.

Third, really? The most sublime spoken-word interlude in pop? Barry White died in 2003; however, he released his last recording in 1999 (I make this distinction for a reason, as you'll see). I even looked up "sublime" in the dictionary just to make sure I wasn't misinterpreting some nuance of Mr. Rosen's analysis: 
1. of high moral, aesthetic, intellectual, or spiritual value; noble; exalted
Nope, definitely not; I mean, he's not crazy.
2. inspiring deep veneration, awe, or uplifting emotion because of its beauty, nobility, grandeur, or immensity
I certainly don't think so, although with Taylor Swift you never know. People looooooove Taylor Swift. 

3. tending to inspire awe usually because of elevated quality (as of beauty, nobility, or grandeur) or transcendent excellence
...I guess, maybe, although I think that might be a LITTLE dramatic.

4. supreme or outstanding.
Okay, I'm going to assume he's using this sense of the word (I hope).
I'm not sure if this particular statement has remained lodged in my psyche for so long because of some need to set the record straight, or because the false record involves Taylor Swift (would I care as much if this were, say, Katy Perry?), but in any event, I think it's simply my duty to intervene with a counter-argument. Below is a short list of a few other spoken-word interludes in pop since Barry White died retired, and in the demonstration of this evidence I'll argue each one far outdoes Ms. Swift's borrowed gimmick in sublimity.

5. Ke$ha - "Party at a Rich Dude's House"

As it happens, Pink wasn't even the first of the Martin bunch to use the humorous faux-candid spoken interlude. Like so many elements in the subsequent work of Martin and Dr. Luke, it actually originated (in its current form) on Ke$ha's debut album, Animal, on the Shellback/Benny Blanco-produced "Party at a Rich Dude's House." After the rhythmic spoken crescendo of the bridge - "'Cuz we're young and we're broke/And I can't find my coat/And the sun is coming up/And oh my God, I think I'm still drunk!" she lets out a "woo!", pauses, and asks, "Where's my coat?" over the thematic electric guitar lick, which decrescendos and then builds to the four-bar instrumental leading the final chorus. A moment before the full instrumental comes in, she asks, "Where?!?" I actually laughed out loud the first time I heard the song; she says her second "Where?!" as though someone has informed her that it's draped over a weather vane on the roof or stuffed inside a doghouse.

Because Ke$ha is clearly playing one of a series of characters, or at least variations on the same character, as she does throughout Animal, the interlude isn't presented with any pretense - we already know it's an act. Well... those of us who actually paid attention to what Ke$ha was doing on Animal (unlike a lot of critics...seriously, it angers me that people actually get paid to write about something they either don't understand or don't care to).

4. P!nk - "Stupid Girls"

Before Pink's m.o. changed from "push boundaries" to "play it safe and just say 'fuck' a lot," she included a very different kind of spoken interlude from the ultimately impotent joke in "Raise Your Glass," and the difference between the two perfectly exemplifies the difference between old Pink and new Pink. The interlude, played out in the music video as a scene in a girls' bathroom, starts with one ditzy-sounding girl (Pink playing characters, as she does so well) saying "Oh my god you guys I totally had more than 300 calories today it was so not sexy." It's funny, but then you hear someone vomit, and the girl says "Good one! Can I borrow that?" More vomiting ensues, and the girl choking on the vomit cries out "I WILL BE SKINNY!!!!" It quickly becomes horrifying: the depiction of bulimia is not for laughs, and though the overall tone of "Stupid Girls" is one of lighthearted mockery, Pink makes it clear that she's serious - something she never seems to be on her more recent records.

3. Lady Gaga - "Poker Face" / "Judas"

Lady Gaga's most reliably successful songwriting formula, which she's used for four songs across her three albums thus far, includes a spoken interlude, and to her credit she has managed to make each one as deliciously bizarre as the last. It'd be hard to choose one as the best of the bunch, but the interludes of "Poker Face" and "Judas" strike me as particularly worthy of being rated "sublime." The former is significant as one of the earliest hints at the avant-garde quirk-fest Gaga would eventually become once her success allowed her the freedom to unleash the meat dress-wearing postmodernist roller coaster we now know and sometimes love:
I won't tell you that I love you,
Kiss or hug you
'Cause I'm bluffin' with my muffin'
I'm not lyin', I'm just stunnin'
With my love glue-gunnin'.
She goes on to jam a few more gambling and card game references into another four lines of spoken dialogue, mirroring the very songwriter-y lyrics of the verses, but nobody remembers that part because they're still laughing about her muffin, or possibly wondering what the hell to make of the glue gun. The spoken interlude also happens to reiterate the underlying meaning of the song, and it also made for a useful example to critics who found her persona and her music at the time to be characterized by an "aversion to a genuine human connection."

The interlude in "Judas" is at once the most absurd of the four (well, of the English ones - I suppose proclaiming yourself Mother Monster in casually imperfect German is also pretty absurd) and the most insightful.
In the most biblical sense,
I am beyond repentance
Fame hooker, prostitute, wench
Vomits her mind

But in the cultural sense
I just speak in future tense
Judas, kiss me if offenced
Or wear an ear condom next time.
Taken as a whole, Gaga's message here is arguably more of a Madonna ripoff than the much-ballyhooed "Born This Way," although of course her Madgesty hardly holds exclusive rights to Catholic rebellion. It's certainly an interesting way of expressing a rather simple and hardly uncommon observation (i.e. in terms of the Bible, my goose is cooked, but in secular terms I'm changing the world, so fuck the Bible). The first stanza ties the religious theme of Born This Way in with her previous work with the word "fame," which is in the titles of both previous albums; the vomit is like the screams on "Bloody Mary" or the Wonderbread in the video for "Telephone," tossed in just to keep things weird (although all three make sense in context). The last two lines are infinitely more fantastic than Christina Aguilera's "And if you don't like it, fuck you" or Madonna's "If you don't like my attitude, then you can eff off," etc. So what if "offence" isn't a passive verb?

2. Robyn - "Be Mine"

Robyn is an expert at singing about terribly sad stuff like she doesn't give a shit and somehow making it work. Part of it is probably that Swedes just don't seem to show emotion much - they just sort of go through life like "Yep, this is happening," with an unspoken acknowledgement that they're better than you, because they usually are. (I should mention my knowledge of Swedish behavioral habits is based on the three times I've seen Robyn in concert, my imagined conception of Dr. Luke, and an engineering professor I used to work with.) But don't for a moment believe Robyn is limited in performance by her even-keeled nature - she can not give a shit until you cry, not give a shit and make you laugh, or not give a shit and make you dance around the living room, all without discernible changes in expression, volume or tone. One of the many benefits of this ability is that a ballad dissentient like me can appreciate Robyn's ballads, since they're not really delivered as ballads in the usual sense (see: every high school talent show ever), and I don't have to wade through treacly emotion that may or may not be sincere in the first place to get to the crux of the song. But watch it, because Robyn will get you when you let down your guard, like she does on her 2005 single "Be Mine," the predecessor to her 2010 hit "Dancing On My Own." Over an upbeat tempo and staccato cello line (real cellos were used in the making of this record - I know, *gasp*) Robyn sings in her "yep, this is happening" voice about a guy she longs for but can never have, and it's all fun and games until the interlude, in which she says:
I saw you at the station.
You had your arm around whats-her-name.
She had on that scarf I gave you
And you got down to tie her laces.
You looked happy, and that's great!
I just miss you. That's all.
In most other hands, a spoken interlude like that would overload the saccharine circuits, especially if it came off as a cynical manipulation of the waterworks. Because Robyn plays it straight, the way she sings, the segment not only plays believably, it stings the listener at the pace at which the words sink in. Robyn knows that you don't have to work as hard to sell it when the material is good, and she is one of the few pop stars that trades in understatement rather than ostentation (Britney Spears and Kylie Minogue are two others of note). But even if Robyn is acting as a stand-in for whomever identifies with the situation at hand rather than specifically as herself from her own experience, the delivery is in character for someone trying to appear disaffected and casual ("whats-her-name" ... you can bet she probably knows her name all too well) to conceal the fact that she's torn apart by unrequited love. Who hasn't been there? It's hard to argue this is, if not the most sublime of all, at least the most sublimely devastating interlude of the period in question.

1. Britney Spears - "Oops!...I Did It Again"

I'm fairly certain the Robyn interlude clinches my case against the Swift supremacy, but if by some chance there is any doubt, this is definitely my trump card. For Taylor Swift to talk in the middle of her single in 2012 is so whatever - they've been doing that for years (see above). In 2000, when, in the middle of her smashing lead single off her hotly anticipated sophomore album, Britney Spears broke off into a spoken dialogue referencing Titanic, it was like "what the fuuuuuck?" This is the reason I don't get on Max Martin's ass as hard as I do Dr. Luke's when he slips up, as he does ("Domino," to name one egregious example): how can you stay mad at the man who brought us Britney on Mars in boob-job-or-growth-spurt red leather as a spaceman delivers the Heart of the Ocean (having retrieved it from the sea floor) while Ground Control watches on their monitors eating popcorn? You can't.

It was cheesy. It was unexpected. It was pointless. It was hysterical. It was self-mocking. It was iconic. It was absurd. It was unapologetically pop. And it was sublime.

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