Tag Archives: California Gurls

Selling out circa summer 2012

Like many things in music, The Who did it best.

What is the most annoying trend in popular music?  With YouTube and Auto-Tune making celebrities out of individuals who should never have come anywhere near a microphone, and genuinely talented singers continuing to struggle for any semblance of a break that doesn’t require an uncle in a senior management position with a record company, how could we possibly distil popular music’s faults down to the most egregious offender?  It’s ultimately a matter of opinion, but if I had to pick a single irritant that most damages my appreciation for today’s sound, it’s musicians recording multiple versions of their songs for different markets.  Nothing is more insulting to listeners than this shameless pandering to commercial interests.  Every time you hear one of these bowdlerized abominations oozing through your speakers, you can feel the greasy fingerprints of the Armani-suited marketing committee as they scrape at your eardrums.  Worse though are singers and bands bringing material to the studio they know they’ll have to re-record to ensure maximum market penetration (an apt metaphor if there ever was one).  It speaks of greed, cynicism, contempt for the fans and a fundamental lack of anything resembling artistic integrity.  And the worst part is, it’s totally unnecessary.

One of the big hits of the summer is Maroon 5’s “Payphone.”  Maroon 5 was every mother’s favourite band for their teenage daughters:  catchy and inoffensive with an easy-on-the-eyes lead singer.  They faded away somewhat after their initial explosion onto the scene but are experiencing a resurgent popularity with Adam Levine’s judging NBC’s The Voice and their infectious smash “Moves Like Jagger.”  But “Payphone” is an embarrassment.  It’s whiny emo nonsense that rings completely false – the complaints of a fifteen-year-old upset that his crush doesn’t love him anymore, with no more depth than a chewing gum wrapper.  Most irritating about the song, though, are the final two lines of the chorus:  “All those fairytales are full of shit, one more fucking love song I’ll be sick.”  What’s that, you say?  I must be making this up, you haven’t heard that?  Of course not – the radio version, the one you’ve heard, goes “All those fairytales are full of it, one more stupid love song I’ll be sick.”  And it isn’t Godzilla-esque bad dubbing either – Maroon 5 deliberately recorded two different versions of this line.  The reason?  They knew the line as originally written wouldn’t be played on adult contemporary radio, and that’s a huge audience to forfeit for the sake of some naughty words.  But that’s the thing – why did those words need to be in there in the first place?  The song isn’t great, but at least the message gets across without the potty mouth.  And don’t tell me it’s to express the depth of the singer’s anger; Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” is a much more honest scream of contempt at the woman who’s left him and contains absolutely no profanity (depending on your opinion of the weight of the word “screwed.”)  “Payphone” is juvenile, a kid giggling at the dirty picture he drew on his school desk, and Adam Levine et al. should know better.  And I say this as someone who admired Levine for telling off Fox News on Twitter after they used a Maroon 5 song in one of their promos.  However, swearing in their songs is just making the case for the likes of L. Brent Bozell and whatever suspiciously well-funded “Parents” group wants to fundraise for the evangelical right on the backs of those evil Hollywood liberals corrupting your children again, and the willingness to record and release a sanitized version for mainstream radio play is evidence of the emptiness of their commitment to branding themselves as rebels, badasses or whatever the point of dropping the F-bomb in the original version was.

“Payphone” contains another example of what pop songs do to try and broaden their customer base:  include a guest rapper in the middle eight.  A few of the singles from Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream contain rap:  “California Gurls” features Snoop Dogg and “E.T.” features Kanye West.  Not that you’d know it if you’ve only heard these on the radio – they play the version where, like with profanity, the rap section has been neatly sutured out for popular consumption, in the studio long before your local DJ gets his hands on it.  I have nothing against rap or the blending of genres (Aerosmith and Run-DMC’s “Walk This Way” collaboration continues to be awesome twenty-five years on), but these aren’t it.  These are stitch jobs.  In all likelihood the rapper and the main performer aren’t even in the studio at the same time – the result is a Frankenstein’s monster of a track where disjointed parts are cobbled together for commercial appeal rather than coherent performance.  The fact that usually the rap can be lifted out without any significant effect (or even notice – it was months after I first heard “E.T.” that I discovered Kanye was on the original version) speaks to the argument that forcing it in to bubblegum pop is misguided, cynical marketing at its most insidious – a way to ensure that even though we’ve got the white kids, let’s make sure there’s something for the black kids too.  More to the point – if the artists know they’re going to have to cut the rap for full radio exposure, why include it in the first place?  The other reason you know this whole phenomenon is marketing B.S. is that it’s never done the other way; sorry for those of you eager for that Jay-Z featuring One Direction number.  Here’s a radical thought – why not just write a better song that can appeal across color lines without pandering to them?

Since there is so much cross-pollination and cross-promotion of entertainment products these days, why not take pop music philosophy and apply it to novels?  (Oh wait, they’re already doing that – witness Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.)  But how ridiculous would it be if, for example, George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones came in both regular and sanitized versions, the latter where anything potentially offensive to Aunt Ethel was eliminated, so that Cersei and Jaime Lannister are just good friends, Bran fell out the window on his own and Eddard Stark died offstage due to a nasty throat infection?  Or if somewhere about two thirds of the way in we had a guest chapter authored by Stephenie Meyer where Sansa mopes over the sparkly Tyrion, because we have to make sure to get the youth vampire audience in as well.  Better yet, let’s do this in movies.  Let’s have the second act of The Dark Knight Rises directed by Brett Ratner featuring Chris Tucker as a wise-cracking Gotham City police officer and Jackie Chan as his kung fu master partner taking on Bane (“When you touch my goddamn radio, y’all have my permission to die!”)  Does that sound like anything we’d want to read or see?  Then why do we let musicians get away with it?  Chopped up, bastardized and sewn together alternate versions of songs ultimately please no one and only embarrass the artist.

In the end, quality is quality, and it begins from the ground and proceeds organically – piling stuff on top after the fact, or half-assing out a different version, is a sign of a last-minute lack of confidence fueled by focus groups and marketing gurus who need to look up from their spreadsheets.  Like books and movies, there should be one song, and one song only.  Putting out multiple versions for different demographic markets only reinforces the concept of music as product – the last thing I suspect anyone who fancies themselves an artist wants to admit.

We need to go darker

Katy Perry in the video for “Wide Awake,” conjuring some musical magic.

Katy Perry’s “Wide Awake” has been on my playlist all week long, an incongruity even sandwiched inside an eclectic playlist that includes Hendrix, Dylan, the Byrds, Tom Petty, Richard Ashcroft, Thomas Newman, Jerry Goldsmith, Mychael Danna and Hans Zimmer.  I cannot stop listening to it.  It accomplishes the remarkable feat of being both catchy and soulful, bruised yet full of hope.  Apart from innocently fancying Ms. Perry herself (which my Alexander Skarsgard-adoring better half assures me she’s totally okay with) I’ve been indifferent toward her music until now.  Her breakout hit “I Kissed a Girl” is the giggle of a nine-year-old too chicken to truly explore questions of confused sexuality lest her parents think badly of her.  “Firework” is a well-meaning song undermined by Perry’s inability to hit and sustain high notes.  The lack of proper rhymes in “California Gurls” and the Brady Bunch-esque misdeeds of “Last Friday Night” are a saran wrap-deep package unwilling to chafe against the very successful mould in which she’s been forged.

Then her marriage to Russell Brand broke apart, and she wrote, recorded and released “Wide Awake” as a meditation on what she’d been through and where she is now.  And it’s a great song.  This isn’t a pig-tailed goofy girl jumping up and down on a beach – it’s the honest testament of an emotionally bruised woman picking herself up off the concrete.  Katy Perry has established such a niche for herself that she didn’t have to record this song – she could have released yet another ode to partying in the sunshine and achieved plenty of accolades and album sales.  But she chose to try to say something profound about who she is and how she’s feeling about the world.

I’m not going to go faux-Lester Bangs and suggest that “Wide Awake” is a watershed moment in music.  But it illuminates a larger question that I think most artists grapple with.  Is introspection by its nature a journey of sadness?  Does something have to be dark to be good?  Is the stuff of genius found only in the minor chords?  There’s an old axiom that says all real comedy is born from pain.  So too does it seem that the best music is that which reflects lessons learned at great cost.  This is not to say that everyone gets it right – it seems that every Kelly Clarkson song is about breaking up with someone and being better off because of it, but unlike Katy Perry in “Wide Awake,” you get the sense that Kelly’s just reading the lines someone else wrote for her instead of feeling them through the notes, and that’s why, at least to my ears, “Wide Awake” will have greater staying power than the grating and empty “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)”.

Bob Dylan told John Lennon when they first met that he needed to get personal in his lyrics.  You begin to witness the transformation through the Beatles middle period as songs like “I’m a Loser” on Beatles for Sale and “Help!” lead to angry kiss-offs like “Norwegian Wood,” the existential exploration of “Nowhere Man” and the psychedelic dream state of “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and the Sgt. Pepper era becomes the truly dark, soul-baring Primal Scream anguish that closed out the Fab Four and realized itself fully in John’s solo career.  Had Lennon and the others chose to rest on their laurels and sing nothing but upbeat generic pop for their entire careers, they might have done very well.  They might still be touring casinos and retirement homes today.  But they wouldn’t be legends.  It was their choice to share their vulnerability, their humanity, that made them so – the gods who dared to admit they were the very same as the mortals who worshipped them.  In the documentary Imagine, there’s a scene where Lennon confronts an obsessed fan who is trespassing on his property, who wants to know how Lennon could have known so much about this fan’s life as to write songs that seemed to be about him.  Lennon responds, frankly, that “I’m singing about meself.”

The stories that have the deepest impact on us are tales of catharsis; of people like us who are tested to the limits of their endurance, who go all the way to the point of breaking and come back changed, improved, and renewed.  To find the brightest light, one must brave the darkness, because it is only in the dark that light can shine.  Every artist who starts out warbling giddily about rainbows and lollipops will face a crossroads at some point, where they will be forced to decide whether to continue skipping along the yellow brick road or stumble off into the gloomy forest – with no guarantee that something better waits on the other side, only faith that it does.  It’s a journey that is always worth taking.  The Dixie Chicks’ music improved immeasurably after their fracas with the American right over their Bush-inspired version of John Lennon’s “bigger than Jesus moment”, when they got away from karaoke-ready dreck like “Goodbye Earl” and opened up with powerful anthems like “Not Ready to Make Nice.”  Brian Wilson struggled his entire career against the goofy surfin’ tunes that characterized the Beach Boys and that his record label insisted he continue to produce, and as a result we were blessed with lasting gems like “God Only Knows.”  I have no doubt whatsoever that someday Justin Bieber will grow a goatee and release an acoustic album, and you know what – done with the right intentions, and not just as a sales gimmick, it’ll be terrific.

Until then, play “Wide Awake” again and think to yourself, damn, Katy Perry makes for one fine-looking goth.