No. 1 Reviews

A No. 1 Review – “Too Good At Goodbyes” by Sam Smith

e06b23fc67d038759ac107f1501fc998.1000x1000x1The perennially late series that looks at each (relatively) recent UK No. 1 in turn and asks what they say about us.

Seriously, I have to deal with Sam Smith again? I don’t have a lot to say about him, and what I do have to say is stuff I’ve said already. It doesn’t help that his new stuff was exactly the same as his old stuff, meaning that all my old complaints still apply. I might as well just copy and paste my old opinions and switch the names around. Hell, let’s do it:

“[For the past few years, we’ve been] in a transitory stage [of pop music that I’ve called] the Post-Club Age of Pop. For years, pop music had been dominated by club songs about sex-crazed drunks dancing, loving, drinking and shagging in clubs. Most people seem to be bored with this type of music now though (in particular reacting badly to the sexism and empty hedonism that the genre encapsulates) and a lot of pop song nowadays can be read as direct critiques and challenges of club music.” [See original]

“[The issue with the early days of Post-Club Pop is that its valorisation of meaningful statements has slammed right into the fact that the pop scene of the time was a breeding ground for hacks who flourished during a time when pop was at it’s most braindead, meaning that most of the people left in charge of producing Post Club music were artists not good enough to pull the genre off. The result was that] most artists [ended up] trying way too hard for their work to be respectable with their attempts serving only to ruin the material they have. Shawn Mendes want[ed] to sell the pain he[ wa]s in so much that he’[d] happily reach for any metaphor he can, resulting a clichéd 10-car pile-up of uninspired dreck; while Ed Sheeran want[ed] us to feel his love so much that he end[ed] up trampling all over his song with the grace of an elephant, turning what are supposed to be off-the-cuff remarks into a series of belaboured groans[. E]ven Zayn’s Pillow Talk, a song I pretty much like[d], suffer[ed] from Zayn wanting it to feel like a reinvention of the wheel when in reality it[ wa]s little more than a wheel with the word ‘WHEEL’ written on it.” [See original]

Sam Smith is pretty much the poster child of a modern artist who’s not deep enough for his aesthetic, forcing him to rely almost entirely upon hollow theatrics.

“He absolutely refuses to hit a single note and just wobbles through as many notes as he can, this being a single style only used by amateurs to hide the fact that they can’t fucking sing. [He] can’t hit a note and so just jibbers about, hitting every single other one instead in the hopes that a) they even out into the note he’s trying to sing, and b) that the mass-overload of notes distracts from the fact that he’s not hitting the one he’s supposed to. It’s the same problem that I have with […] X-Factor contestants[. G]ood singing is having the control and confidence to hit the right notes in the right way at the right time. [Sam Smith] can’t do that; he just sounds completely out of control.” [See original]

“What has always confused me about [him] is that I adore every collaboration he’s done (minus his duet with John Legend), yet I hate the work he does on his own. Admittedly, the only things he’s done outside of his own work are a series of collaborations with Disclosure and Naughty Boy but the point still stands: there’s something about his voice that’s astounding in others people’s tracks which is completely missing from his own.

That said, there is one Sam Smith song I unequivocally love: Money on my Mind. The reason I love it is the chorus: he delivers the line “I don’t have money on my mind” as some form of a bell-curved squawk, producing something truly original the likes of which I’ve never heard.

The question is thus what separates Disclosure, Naughty Boy and Money on my Mind from the rest of Sam Smith’s discography. The answer to that question is actually quite obvious once asked though, the previous songs being electronic dance numbers while Sam Smith himself usually writes soulful gospel-inspired ballads. And the problem is that careening multi-octave warbling placed over gospel music makes too much sense to me.

Thanks to the X-Factor [and the problems of the Post Club age in general], we’re regularly inundated with [songs which] mistakes cramming as many notes as possible over an orchestra for producing something with scale and emotion. The result is that this type of over-the-top singing has now become the standard for this type of music: if you have more than one violin being played in the background, then the singer’s going to be shouting 100 notes a minute at the top of their voice. As such, for all that Sam Smith is a very idiosyncratic singer in the grand scheme of things, he’s actually a pretty traditional singer for the genre in which he works.

Electronic music however is defined by its somewhat inhuman bleeps and bloops: it’s a genre built out of packaged beats and repeated chords. You rarely get people doing particularly inventive singing in these tracks: vocals are either very robotic or very direct. As such, put a Sam Smith vocal track over your electronic song and it suddenly stands out, his voice completely contrasting against what is traditional for its musical backing. The fact that his multi-tonal twaddling then mixes with the music, thus usually elevating it, is a bonus. Compared to these tracks, his other work just feels like him taking the easy route. Of course someone like him would have orchestral backing; of course someone with orchestral backing sings like that. Put next to his more idiosyncratic collaborations, his original tracks have no way of comparing because they’re just not as interesting to think about or listen to.

In many ways, the problems I have with Sam Smith’s songs in general are the problem I have with [Too Good At Goodbyes]: it’s a Sam Smith song and […] sounds like exactly what you would expect from [that fact]. What it doesn’t sound like is something which any originality, passion or thought gone into it: Sam Smith sings about the same things he always sings about, doing so against the same type of music he always makes[, placed in an artistic movement defined by people ruining their music by trying to look respectable rather than actually making anything meaningful.]” [See original]

In short, the problem with Sam Smith is that he wants to be an operatic singer of deep, passionate ballads when he’s infinitely better served by providing meaningfully warped takes on dance music. He’s enough of an artist to be able to provide a fascinatingly idiosyncratic version of something has relatively restrictive as Top 40 dance music. If you’re going to be a full-on balladeer though, you need to have enough personality and writing chops to be able to fill that space and do the genre more justice. Sam Smith doesn’t and from my perspective has spent his career running down the one road that serves him the least. Admittedly that road has given him more money than I’ll ever have, two hit albums and another UK No. 1, but you get my point.

Will that do? Good. Right, what’s next? Post Malone’s Rockstar? Am I going to have to get into modern rap music, soundcloud rap and viral pop marketing? Well, that’s certainly going to be something very different from our usual fare.

 

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A No. 1 Review – “Look What You Made Me Do” by Taylor Swift

taylor_swift_look_what_you_made_me_do_by_kallumlavigne-dbli5ts_grandeThe perennially late series that looks at each (relatively) recent UK No. 1 and asks what they say about us.

I am on record as absolutely adoring Taylor Swift. I spent the entirety of my review of Adele’s Hello arguing that Taylor Swift was better than her. One of my first ever professionally published pieces was a short story called The Month You Were in a Relationship with Taylor Swift. I have a half-finished chapter plan for the book on the album 1989 that I want to write and pitch to 33 1/3. Her work means a lot to me.

Of course, Taylor Swift is surprisingly contentious. (Of course she is; any artist doing anything even remotely worthwhile will attract a significant hatedom pretty much automatically. This doesn’t mean that artists who piss a lot of people off automatically become better ones; more that good art is usually about pissing off the right people.) I’ve dealt with the main critiques of her before. In order:

  1. She only writes about love.
  2. She’s only writes about her public life.
  3. She’s just silly pop for girls.
  4. She has no self-awareness.

Well:

  1. Pretty much everyone writes exclusively about love, particularly in the music world; it’d be harder to find a pop artist who doesn’t constantly discuss it.
  2. Artists regularly draw on their private lives to make their work. You have to draw upon your own experiences and what you know in order to be able to accurately capture it. All art is at least partly autobiographical.
  3. Yes she is. Stating that as a critique is just saying that media aimed at women and children isn’t as important as media aimed at grown men and thus shouldn’t be made. In which case, fuck you.
  4. Her entire persona is defined by a hyper-awareness of herself and her public image.

Honestly, the whole Taylor Swift hatedom just strikes me as an echo-chamber of macho posturing: young girls shouldn’t have media for themselves because what am I meant to get out of it, and female artists shouldn’t be talking about romance because romance irks me, and if they do end up talking about romance and break ups, the least they could do is paint themselves as the bad one because how could the man be entirely in the wrong? Yuck.

So what’s the argument in favor of Taylor Swift? Well, there’s the fact that, when she’s on top of her game, she’s capable of producing material that’s genuinely at the forefront of modern media. Over the course of Red and 1989, Taylor Swift perfected a completely new way of doing romance stories for the modern age. You see, the modern age of neoliberalism hasn’t been great for romance. The more that society has segmented and become work focused, the less that society has had communal spaces in which people can actually meet and form relationships. Capitalist Realism has slowly eroded people into feeling an overall sense of resignedness at the world, a feeling they’ve made bearable through the embrace of various disassociated forms of irony which in turn has made of a lot of society very jaded and cynical. And these two facets are almost fatal for romance which requires a lot of face-to-face contact and a certain amount of unironic openness to work. So how you reinvent romance for this type of day?

1989 is pretty much the most complete answer to this question we’ve had so far. The thing that’s underappreciated about Taylor Swift is that there’s usually multiple narrative levels going on at the same time in her work. Take Style for example, in which Taylor Swift discusses a current relationship in the past tense and in a way which is based entirely on service level imagery from the fifties. The effect of these framings is that the song’s central relationship feels very dated and fictional, like an old film that Taylor Swift just so happens to be living. This sense of fakeness isn’t a barrier to the relationship though but instead becomes it’s defining attribute: the relationship is romantic because it feels like it’s a movie from decades ago. Relationships in classic movies are perfect, meaningful and grand, unlike the real world and modern romance which is increasingly falling apart. By presenting the relationship in this song as a classic movie relationship, Swift is thus able to revel in the romance inherent in its imagery while positioning these images in a way that makes them palatable for a jaded audience. It uses cynicism as a vessel in which romanticism can be housed. And the album is full of stuff like this. The influence of 1989 can still be felt to this day. The recent careers of Carly Rae Jepsen, Charli XCX and Poppy owe a lot to how Swift used retro-electronica to create stuff that speaks to the modern day. There’s bits of it in Dua Lipa and Calvin Harris’ One Kiss too, as well as acts like The Chainsmokers and more. I genuinely don’t think it would be underselling it to describe 1989 as one of the defining pop albums of the late 2010s.

I’m not going to claim that Reputation, Taylor’s 2017 album, is even close to 19891989 is a rather experimental album for Taylor Swift but it’s hard to actually recognise that fact given how effortless all of the tracks pull their experiments off. Reputation meanwhile sounds very much like a bunch of stylistic experiments, some of which work and some of which don’t. For every Don’t Blame Me, there’s an Endgame.

If Reputation is an experiment though, what is it experimenting in? Well, having proved that Taylor Swift could take the narrative techniques and styles that she developed in her country work and apply them to 80’s electronic music in order make something geuninely new and original, Reputation is an experiment in seeing if she could do the same for 00’s electronic music. This would be genuinely useful: I’ve talked quite a bit about how modern club and trap songs just don’t sound romantic despite mostly being silly love songs, so getting someone like Taylor Swift to find ways of taking contemporary sounds and imbuing them with an actual sense of emotion and poetry could’ve really bumped the industry up a notch. OK, so she didn’t really pull it off (being beaten on these stakes by artists like Clean Bandit and Dua Lipa) but it’s better to try and fail than not try at all.

As such, most of Reputation is dedicated to taking Taylor Swift’s songwriting mainstays and redoing them with her new, more aggressively modern sound. The main thing that this sound allows her to do is attack her usual narratives with a new sense of directness. Don’t Blame Me, for example, allows her to use a drug metaphor to describe a relationship. The metaphor of romance as a drug addiction summarises Taylor’s schizoid relationship with romance perfectly: when you’re in it, it’s the greatest thing in the world, but when you’re out of it, it feels like you’re dying. She couldn’t have used it in Red though because it’d have been way too adult and she couldn’t use it in 1989 because it’d have been too dour for the album’s nostalgic tone; it’s only in the context of Reputation that the most fitting metaphor of Swift’s worldview could possibly work. Meanwhile, Delicate is a take on the traditional Swiftian romantic ballad whose harsh instrumentation forces Taylor to abandon any pretense of poetry and just straightforwardly describe her emotional insecurities, making for the honest sounding and personal song she’s ever written.

And, last but not least, while her love songs become more direct and her sad songs become more honest, her “Being a celebrity is hard but I’m a badass bitch” songs are finally unleashed to become as ludicrous as they possibly can. Which brings us to Look What You Made Me Do in which Taylor looks at the more demonised parts of her public persona and decides that if she can’t control her reputation, she can at least enjoy playing the fuck out of her stereotype. “I’m sorry, Taylor can’t come to the phone at the moment. Why? Because she’s dead(Oh!)” is a line that comes directly out of a B-movie action flick, and when approached with the same level of semi-ironic appreciation of the simultaneously cool and crap that B-movies require, this song really clicks into place and reveals itself to be a lot of fun.

This is an aesthetic that Taylor Swift has never been able to really do correctly before. Her previous styles have always required Swift to be extremely sincere, particularly during her teenage-girl-writing-acoustic-country-love-songs days where a certain sense of over-earnestness would’ve been a pre-requisite part of her whole persona. Even when she’s been silly in the past (and she’s purposely silly far more than she gets credit for), we’ve still had to read that silliness as inherently sincere. The main characters in Stay Stay Stay, for example, are two very silly people whose relationship is defined by an aggressively and self-consciously kooky aesthetic, but at no point are we asked to read them as anything but two people who are genuinely in love. Even during 1989, she was never able to get away from this. Blank Space is pretty much Look What You Made Me Do in all but style, yet still features an extremely developed persona that blurs the lines between Taylor as a person and Taylor as a persona. The directness of Taylor Swift’s new sound allows her to throw this away and just fully embrace a certain level of shallowness, creating what is essentially her first out-and-out comedy single. She’s free to wear her public persona like a Halloween costume to an extent never seen before. And so she goes around, camping it up because she can. It’s very much a song that revels in it’s own existence.

This said, we’re getting close to the point where Taylor Swift’s singles work like Ed Sheeran songs. Basically, the main way of enjoying this song is deciding that Taylor Swift (the person) camping it up while playing Taylor Swift (the persona) is a fun thing to listen to based purely on that idea’s own merits. The only real way of liking it is actively deciding to. The result is the same form of hollowness that defines Ed Sheeran: there’s a lot of noise revolving an empty hole. Then again, the entire song is about enjoying the liberties provided by the embrace of that hole. It doesn’t entirely defend the song, but it shows a surprising amount of self-awareness for a track that’s about someone who completely lacks it.

So is Look What You Made Me Do Taylor Swift’s greatest hour? Nope, not at all. But is it an obscene amount of fun which represents the extreme side of Swift’s continued evolution as an artist? Oh hell yes. That said, I will admit that it is a song which will pretty much work for one central audience: Taylor Swift fans who will like most things she does. Good thing I’m one of them.

A No. 1 Review – “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Artists for Grenfell

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We’re going a bit out of order here. After Clean Bandit’s Symphony, the next No. 1 was I’m the One by DJ Khalid, Justin Beiber and friends. After that was Despactio (Remix) by Louis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee and (again) Justin Beiber. Then we got Bridge Over Troubled Water, then we got (again) Despactio, then Wild Thoughts by (again) DJ Khalid, then (again) Despactio (again). Thus was pretty much Summer 2017 according to the Pop Charts, with Calvin Harris and Taylor Swift appearing at the end to move us into the autumnal months.

Because I’m the OneDespactio and Wild Thoughts are so closely related to each other by time, personnel and style, I’m going to review them all in one big post which attempts to cover Pop Music in Summer ’17 in general. Which then leaves Bridge Over Troubled Water as the odd-one-out: it really doesn’t belong to the same psychogeographic space as the other tracks around it (whatever that might be) but is instead a product of the state of politics in 2017 post-Brexit Britain, particularly the 2017 general election and the Grenfell Tragedy. So instead let this be one of our regular “What is the state of British society today” posts (a semi-sequel to last year’s Brexit blog) where we try to find out what British society was at the time when DJ Khalid and Justin Beiber ruled the airwaves.

To understand the current moment though requires you to understand recent British history. Of course, any attempt to describe and understand recent British history is going to be futile – we’re much too close to the events, we don’t know how any of these moments are going to end, and as a card-carrying Corbynite, any history I’m going to give is going to be ridiculously biased. But let’s do it anyway, because we’re on the internet and don’t have to worry about actually being right! (In your face, academia!)

(And my apologies to any British readers for whom I’m about to recount the past few years of your life; weirdly for a blog about the UK charts, the vast majority of my audience is American, meaning I should probably go into detail.)

Seen as I’ve already mentioned him, let’s start with Corbyn. After a dismal defeat in the 2015 British elections, the then-leader of the Labour party – Ed Milliband – left and Labour had to find itself a new leader. The proposed candidates were the usual type of center-left politicians cut from the same type of cloth as Milliband was, causing an election where the choice was between a gaggle of almost indistinguishable people who were identical to the last leader. It was barely inspiring. That was until Jeremy Corbyn got added to the ballot, put there basically as a protest vote by Labour MPs who were tired of how homogeneous the party had become and were interested in livening things up. Corbyn was properly left-wing to the point of identifying as a socialist, something no-one had done in decades. He was never meant to win – not even Corbyn himself expected to – but he’d at least liven things up and remind the party that maybe there were more approaches to take than a center-left one. It was ridiculous gambit, but hopefully worthwhile.

Corbyn won the leadership vote by a landslide. It was staggering. For decades, Britain had been run as a neoliberal state running via centralist principles with the major political debate being whether you wanted your neoliberalism center-left flavoured or center-right flavoured. Everyone in power had agreed to this and wanted it kept in place: the politicians, the bankers, the newspapers, etc. So to have Jeremy Corbyn, an unrepentant socialist, become the leader of opposition was unthinkable. There was an actual opposition in opposition? The world had gone mad.

And the Corbyn craze wouldn’t stop growing. An entire organisation called Momentum sprung up to boister him. Labour membership numbers kept on increasing. There was a leadership challenge that Corbyn won with an increased majority. An entire opposition culture was building around him. It wasn’t the fact that Corbyn was there and voicing oppositional worldviews, it was that if you agreed with him, you could now go out and find groups of other people who did too. After Occupy Wall Street and this, the alternative to neoliberalism was beginning to get organised again.

These groups were then particularly emboldened by the 2017 General Election. Conservative leader David Cameron started the Brexit vote as a way of shutting up his more rebellious backbenchers who were clamoring for it, assuming that only a minority of the country would actually vote for it. He was proved wrong and stepped down from the job as a result. His replacement, Teresa May, was then left with having to actually deliver Brexit and, aware that she’d be pissing off a great proportion of the population whether her Brexit worked or not, decided to call for a snap election, expecting Corbyn’s large hatedom (he’s as hated as he is loved) to result in her winning by a large majority that she could then use to shut up any nay-sayers. This plan was as bad for her as Brexit was for Cameron. The Conservatives pulled off one of the worst election campaigns in modern history: May didn’t make any public appearances for the first few weeks and the party were slow to announce any policies; then the policies they did announce were reviled and almost instantly revoked; and the scant events that May did eventually appear at included such inspiring images as her talking to about 20 people in an empty aircraft hanger. Even though they ultimately stayed in power, they didn’t even win enough votes to gain a majority while Labour saw their vote-share sky rocket. The Tories were looking increasingly small and ineffective while Labour was only becoming more bold and capable. Labour had the infrastructure, the figurehead and the people required to kick the Tories while they were down; meanwhile the Tories hadn’t looked more kickable in decades. The opposition were fighting against the rulers and increasingly showing that they could win.

With the increase in Corbynism also came an increase in class consciousness. I don’t think that Corbyn can actually be attributed to the return of class consciousness. Neoliberal politics has historically been resistant to the idea that class still exists within it, mostly because it primarily sells itself through a narrative in which the market makes a level playing field where the only barrier to success is how hard you’re willing to work, something that doesn’t necessarily sit well with class narratives where certain subsections of people get head starts towards success due to their parents. The idea of classnessless particularly took hold during the days of New Labour, whose image of providing a classless society meshed well with their want to be seen as a genuinely progressive, forward thinking movement. But as the promises of New Labour got squandered and people got sick of Tory-imposed neoliberal austerity, the utopia of classnessless fell out of vogue and people have got back to complaining en-masse about the unfair nature of society. The first person to actually capitalise on this was probably Nigel Farage, the man whose retro appeals to the alienated poor make him essentially the right-wing Corbyn (or make Corybn the left-wing Farage). But Corbyn has took advantage of this return to class issues and in turn advanced them greatly by making them acceptably mainstream (at least to a certain subsection of people).

All of these facets came to a head with the Grenfell Tragedy. On 14th June 2017, a few weeks after the 2017 election, the Grenfell Towers (a 24-storey tower block of public housing flats located in West London) caught on fire, killing over 70 people. Residents had been trying to get their landlord company – KCTMO, a government outsourced ‘tenant management organisation‘ – to improve the fire safety conditions of the flats for years and received little more than legal demands that they stop. Instead KCTMO spent a lot of money covering the tower block is cladding, placating the demands of the richer people in the local area who wanted it to be turned into less of eye-sore while also making the property a more attractive proposition for new residents. This cladding was a non-fireproofed version bought and used because it was relatively cheap, despite the fact that it failed all safety tests and probably should’ve been illegal to buy in the UK. Then, when a fridge-freezer on the fourth floor caught fire, this cladding was what allowed it to spread so quickly up the entire block. Meanwhile, all the recent refurbishments to the tower block that KCTMO had done only worked to restrict fire exits and make it more difficult for a) people to get out of the block and b) the emergency services to get in.

Everything about the disaster shows exactly where KCTMO’s (and the entire housing industries’) priorities lay. Every improvement to the tower block done by KCTMO wasn’t done to improve the lives of the people living in it but was done either to placate the wealthier (and thus more influential) people who lived around the flats or to bring more people into them, increasing the worth of the company’s assets and thus the company’s incomes. Anyone who was actually living in the blocks weren’t cared about: they were already paying KCTMO their monthly amount of money so there wasn’t anything to be gained out of improving their experience. Their lives were only deemed worth helping if it would simultaneously open up new income streams. In the landlord’s eyes, their clients were nothing more than capital, only worth investing in if they were to receive a sizable return.

And, of course, the tower block residents were predominately poor: they were the people without the sustainable or reliable income to not require government assistance to acquire accommodation. Even then, the government fobbed them off into council housing where the landlord duties were outsourced to another company. They were the powerless being acted upon by institutions who didn’t care for them, priced out of having a say in their nearby surroundings and thrown into situations which ultimately led to their endangerment and death. Which is how the neoliberal housing market, combined with austerity, was always going to end up. If neoliberalism is the reduction of everything into the market, as David Harvey would argue, then it is also concerned with the reduction of the worker into capital, as Marx would argue. From the perspective of KCTMO, their tenants were indistinguishable things which produced a certain amount of money each month. If improving their lives would cost more money than their worth, then their lives wouldn’t be improved. If stopping them from dying was more expensive than not stopping them from dying, then they were allowed to die.

So far, so Marxist polemic. But surprisingly, this is exactly the way that the tragedy was framed by large sections of the media. Interviews with residents showed long-standing resentments between the rich and poor; the fact that the victims were poor and that there was a large amount of wealth inequality in the area were repeatably discussed in the media as potential causes of the tragedy; and members of the opposition’s shadow cabinet claimed that the residents were ‘murdered by political decisions’, by which they meant Conservative neoliberal policy. The tragedy got discussed primarily through the theme of class consciousness with the dominant message being that the Grenfell victims were poor people failed by an austerity government and left to die due to neoliberal market forces.

At a time when class consciousness was on the rise and the Tory’s election campaign had shown them to be nowhere near as infallible as they had previously presented themselves, the aftermath of the Grenfell Tragedy became a moment where people started seething with rage again at a right-wing establishment made of incompetent sociopaths running a failing system that killed people based on wealth. This wasn’t even the leftward outsider’s view, this became the argument through which the entire event was framed. There was no getting around it: neoliberalism was killing people and the Tory party – as the main representatives of modern neoliberal policies now that the opposition party was becoming increasingly socialist – had to be shouted into making penance for the pain they had wrought.

And tying into this in it’s own small way is A Bridge Over Troubled Water by Artists for Grenfell. At this point, 2000 words in, I should probably explain what our primary text is. A Bridge Over Troubled Water is a charity record produced by Simon Cowell to raise money with which to support the victims of the Grenfell Tregedy. It’s a cover of the Simon and Garfunkle song A Bridge Over Troubled Water done in the style of other charity singles such as We Are The World or Do They Know It’s Christmas?, wherein a bunch of celebrities have been brought into a room and a different person sings each line. Behind this has been laid a choir, A Bridge Over You style.

If neoliberalism is about individualism and opposed to collectivism, then this song is firmly on the side of collectivism. It brings a large group of people together to sing one unified anthem, this anthem being about support, care and working together. The choir then gives it a home-spun angle; a communal hymn sung by the people for the people in favor of the poor affected by the Grenfell disaster and against the rich who caused it.

These types of charity song are usually considered to be awful, condescending crap. Usually, this is because the songs are horribly colonial. According to Do They Know It’s Christmas, the main issue with poverty in Africa is that there’s less people in the world to celebrate Christmas – i.e. there’s less people to celebrate a western holiday primarily through the form of capitalist consumption. Or how about We Are The World, in which a bunch of Americans proclaim how much the world needs Americans’ help (something they rarely give without a little, shall we say, ideological realignment required of the helped party). The actual people being helped by these songs usually end up getting erased within them, mostly because everyone wants to be seen helping poverty but no-one wants to actually look at it for too long. At least Bridge Over Troubled Water fights against this: it’s not about one bunch of people helping another bunch while completely ignoring their beliefs and customs, it’s a bunch of people showing genuine support for the song’s nominal subjects.

No, the real issue is that Simon Cowell is not an example of “the people”. He’s a multi-millionaire whose style combines an aggressive populism with a complete dismissal of the idea that art actually means anything. In the most recent years, he’s main output has been focused on shows like The X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, programmes which ruthlessly take advantage of the idea that a song doesn’t have to be meaningful as long as it’s packaged in a way that gives it a external narrative. The X-Factor is a show in which a series of completely interchangeable people sings a random medley of nothings, but because we’ve watched them be cut down from thousands to one, we feel like we’re actually watching something happening around a song with some internal importance to it. The result is a music competition where the music is the single least important thing about it; it’s a hollow programme, completely and utterly. And it’s cultural dominance made it the main cause of the very movements in pop music that this blog was started as a reaction against: the way that pop music is now almost entirely immaterial, disconnected from everything but it’s own image, performed by a bunch of interchangeable no-ones singing about nothing to an audience increasingly demanding more, etc, etc.

In short, having a parade of rich people sing about how much they’re going to help the victims of Grenfell when the whole event was caused by society constantly prioritizing the rich over the poor feels like a bunch of butchers singing about how much they’re going to help the lambs after their traumatizing trip to the slaughter house. The style of the song and its good chart performance shows the type of collectivist approach which is increasingly challenging the neoliberal status quo, but it’s being spearheaded by the one person who’s done the most to make pop music useless at doing things like “talking about working class existence” and is being supported by people who have no business being here. I mean, Simon Cowell lived in the Grenfell area: he’s one of the rich people the council were trying to attract and placate when they put the fatal cladding up. Get rid of the celebrities and release a cover of the song performed by the choir: we don’t need the rich to tell us where our sympathies should lie anymore.

The victims of Grenfell still need help; the Conservatives actual support for them as been less than stellar. Support the Justice4Grenfell group or any other charity dedicated to helping them. Join your local groups like the Grenfell Action Group to try to stop things like this happening again. Critique the political ideologies which led to the fire and demand more from your elected representatives. Hell, demand that they and their system be replaced if you think it’s too corrupt to be worth it. The opposition is getting organised and, like everywhere else, the fight’s getting heated. People are punching up again, which means others are going to try to punch down.

Thus was Britain in the summer of 2017.

A No. 1 Review – “Symphony” by Clean Bandit feat. Zara Larsson

I’m way behind on my attempt to review every UK No. 1 of this year. Let’s pretend this song is still immediately relevant to the charts, yeah?

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I’ve historically been a bit conflicted with Clean Bandit. They’re certainly the best instrumentalists working in mainstream pop at the moment; their songs sound sublime and are musically so far ahead of their contemporaries that it’s almost embarrassing.

The issue is that they keep collaborating with their contemporaries despite them never quite seeming to gel. Place one of Bandit’s precise, complicated instrumentals next to an over-singer like Louisa Johnson and you get a track with no room to breathe, forcing their less ostentatious sound into the background and allowing the song to be dominated by it’s worst element. Similarly, place it next to a wholly uncomplicated artist like Jess Glynne and you get music which is entirely unsupported by its lyrics, resulting in something unsatifyingly meaningless. Too far to either end of the spectrum and you get stuff that doesn’t work: there’s a specific vocal style that serves Clean Bandit well, but it’s so percise that no-one quite seems to know what it is yet.

They’re getting better though. You’d think that Rockabye, the song they did with Anne-Marie and Sean Paul, would end up criminally overloaded given that it features not one but two guest artists, yet it’s actually quite controlled. The thing that makes it work is that there’s an in-song reason for one performer to overpower the rest. The entire track is about the hard work but ultimate self-sufficiency of Anne-Marie’s single mother character, providing a surprisingly deep portrait of how single mothers need more support but are still strong on their own. To reflect this, every single element of the song other than Anne-Marie takes a supportive role to her vocals, from Sean Paul making singular utterances which highlight the important parts of Anne-Marie’s story to music which largely keeps itself out of the way unless needed. Everyone’s working together to highlight and bolster one element.

The fact that this is rare for a Clean Bandit song says something about the band which I haven’t quite said yet. Because I usually prefer the instrumentation to the lyrics in any Clean Bandit song, I have a tendency to argue that Clean Bandit is a great bunch of musicians being underserved by guest artists who don’t get what they’re doing. This perspective implies that Clean Bandit don’t have any control over their guest artists though, which is almost definitely wrong: while I don’t know exactly how they write their tracks, I doubt that they just record the music, send it to the record label and then leave it to everyone else to add some vocals on top of it. Which means that if Clean Bandit have a major flaw, it’s that they don’t write their intricate music to play to the strengths of their collaborators. If you’re going to keep using guest vocalists, you might as well start adjusting your sound for each one. Clean Bandit have never really done this, and so are as much to blame for their songs never quite coalescing as everyone else.

Meanwhile, Rockabye has everyone on the same page and working together to produce a singular effect, everyone being given well-defined roles which feed into the song’s central point. This is what truly separates Rockabye from the rest of Clean Bandit’s discography: the feeling that the music and the vocals are actually working with and off each other as opposed to being merely played over each other in the final dub.

And while Symphony – Clean Bandit’s latest No. 1 recorded with Zara Larsson – never quite reaches the heights of Rockabye, the interplay between Clean Bandit and Zara Larsson is there, working off each other to produce some really quite interesting effects and some very solid storytelling.

The song is about a lonely person who’s developed a crush on someone, the song serving to express their desire to date. It starts off by setting the scene: the narrator talks about how she was tired of “solo singing on [her] own” and talks about how her crush helped to imagine an unlonely life. This is communicated through a very sparce opening where the only instruments are a piano playing single notes in a very separated plinky-plonk fashion, over which is laid the narrator’s voice and an awful lot of echo, making it feel like the narrator is singing to herself in a large, empty room. Then the pre-chorus kicks in and the lyrics move to present tense. The single notes become chords which speed and build up, leading to a sense of forward momentum. This is where the singer and her crush come together, where everything fits into one…

Except it’s not. The music drops out of the chorus and we’re left with the singer largely singing to herself while the piano music flits between the pauses. And so a tension is created: the singer and her crush haven’t got together. And you feel that tension: the music built you up and has left you hanging. You feel in limbo. An effect is made, and it’s a palpable one.

With this framework, the song has now set up what the rest of it has to do: keep building up the instrumental passages until they eventually reach a crescendo, resolving the songs tensions and allowing its characters to finally come together. And so it starts doing that, introducing new instruments to the mix constantly and using the ebbs-and-flows created by it’s verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure to maintain its sense of tension while constantly moving towards an increasingly inevitable finale. While the finale feels inevitable though, it never feels certain. The first musical fake-out has taught us that the crescendo promised by the song is not guaranteed. And of course, despite the ending being inevitable, the song never actually features the singer and her crush getting together. As such, we’re left with a tumultuous snapshot of a relationship-to-be, preserved in amber and carrying all the nerves, joys and fears that developing a new crush tends to bring. It’s effective and beautiful; compare it to the relatively aimless Rather Be and you’ll see that Clean Bandit’s abilities as storytellers have improved greatly.

And the real joy of it is the way that the lyrics use a symphony metaphor in which the singer’s “solo-singing” merges with her crushes melodies and tunes in order to form a full symphony, this being exactly what the music does. The music explains the lyrics and the lyrics explain the music: everything fits and feeds into each other. There’s no difference between vocals, instruments and melody here, they all fit together into one text.

This might seem like I’m making a mountain out of a molehill – a song has matching music and lyrics, big whoop – but a lot of pop music nowadays shows nothing even close to the fundamentals being displayed here. As I’ve said before, despite me being a very harsh critic of modern pop music, it’s really has to do very little for me to like it. In a world where something as confused as One Dance can be No. 1 for 15 weeks and Ed Sheeran is somehow an apparently acceptable songwriter, a song as proficient as this is frankly exemplary.

Clean Bandit have always tried very hard to be as good as they can and now their efforts are finally playing dues, fulfilling at least some of the potential evident in their earlier works. It’s not quite Rockabye but that’s mostly because using some interesting narrative structures to liven up a bog-standard love song isn’t as half as interesting as using interesting narrative structures to illuminate a very specific tale of single-motherhood in the modern age. What it is though is very good. As their worst, Clean Bandit are one of the most interesting bands going; based on the strengths of these two songs, you could plausibly argue that Clean Bandit are currently the best pop groups in the charts right now.

A No. 1 Review – “Sign of the Times” by Harry Styles (plus other Post-1D Songs by former 1D artists)

Oh crap, I’m way behind schedule again. Time to rush through as many songs as I can again…

Introduction

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Sign of the Times is surprisingly hard to write about. It’s a very good song, but it’s good in ways that are pretty obvious. I could talk about how the song’s young tiredness fits into the current social climate but that’s already well worn ground; the song’s basically Closeronly you don’t have to say “it’s supposed to be bad” to justify it. It doesn’t help that this aspect is so foregrounded by Sign of the Times that analysing it feels like little more than pointing at the lines and going “What this says”. I could go What Do You Mean on it instead and make up a deliberately over-the-top reading which situates it within a context it’s obviously never meant to be read in, but that’s funner to do with basically adequate material that I’m desperately trying to find something interesting to say about. To do that with a song that’s already good feels like a disservice.

Luckily, there is one context in which discussing the strengths of Sign of the Times seems useful. Last year, we had the great dissolution (sorta) of One Direction. The first person to split from the group and start a solo career was Zayn, and his arrival as a solo artist was heralded (by his production team) as a brave new frontier in which the rulebook would be rewritten and a new form of pop would come to be. Of course, this was somewhat exaggerated. After one mildly interesting single, Zayn quickly settled down into a series of uninteresting shlock, none of which I can remember the names of. This culminated in a Fifty-Shades-Soundtrack duet with Taylor Swift, a song which is stunningly empty to the point of barely constituting an example of sound. To put it politely, he’s been underwhelming. The world doesn’t need a post-One-Direction Zayn.

Yet Harry Styles has been able to carve an actual space within the pop sphere in which he’s managing to do something. And say, isn’t there another One Direction member currently trying to break as a solo act as well? The blonde one… Apparently he’s called Niall? Yeah, his song hasn’t had half the impact of Harry Styles. And what about the other one: the one whose entire act has become him threatening to get naked on the internet? Where did they go wrong and where did Harry go right?

Well, that’ll be our question then. Four One Direction members making solo careers, three of whom don’t feel like they matter at all, one of whom actually managed to make something that felt important. How did Harry manage it when his mates didn’t? Let’s wildly speculate, shall we?

SEX

If you compare the works of the three relatively unimportant ones, you’ll find a shared subject which Harry avoided: sex.

I’ve talked about sex and boy bands before. In short, most boy bands are so aggressively chaste as to be impossible to read as anything but sexual, becoming a series of teases revolving a very well defined sex-shaped hole. Because this sex is defined through it’s absence, the act of projecting sexual desires onto a boy band (as all boy band audiences do, what with them being teenage girls and that) becomes a subversive and secretive act. This is then backed up by songs which focus on secrets, intimate moments and things that only the boy band and its audience members share, creating the sensation that the boy band and each individual fan has a genuine, deep connection which is unique to them. (The fact that each relationship can’t be truly unique doesn’t matter, all that matters is what the audience feels.) Because we usually define “adult” as “not for children” and define “children” as “innocent” or “non-sexual”, former Boy Band members thus have an easy way of redefining themselves as “adult” artists: they merely take the implicit sexual nature of their songs and make it explicit. Wham bam, thank you mam: they’re now people who talk about “adult” (and thus more “serious”) topics, allowing them to attract a wider, more adult audience without alienating their previous fans or without even fundamentally changing their act that much.

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Thus we had Zayn’s first song, Pillow Talk, in which the standard boyband/One Direction tropes got openly recontextualised with a sexual veneer. In it, Zayn and the listener are lovers who, for some reason, have their relationship largely frowned on by everyone around them. Their refusal to bow to societal pressures and end the relationship means that they are now pitted against the world and Zayn sees this as an all out battle, wanting sex so loud that it’ll “piss off all the neighbours” with their bed being both their “paradise and [their] war zone”. Embedded in all this is the same type of relationship that’s present in all One Direction’s music – a marginalised one in which sex is a subversive act – but the relationship is played in a much angrier way which allows these subtexts to bubble to the fore. It is also a straight rejection of the “secret” element of boy band music: Zayn is tired of having quiet sex under the covers and wants to celebrate his relationship in as violent and direct a way as possible. As such, he does, singing a boy band song with the sexual elements foregrounded in the mix. The anger in this song does at least give it an entirely different feel to boy band music, even if the mechanics under the hood are pretty much the same, and there is something satisfyingly violent about how confrontative the song actually is. You can see why it’s the second-most successful song we’ll talk about.

Picture

Niall’s song – Slow Hands – similarly ramps up the sex quota. Niall is in a club and flirts with a woman, looking forward to having sex with her. He mentions “sweat dripping down our dirty laundry”, tells us that “I want you bad”, and the phrase “slow hands” effectively makes you imagine hands carefully running over skin and being all sexy-like. But ultimately it’s a standard boy band narrative coated in a sexier lexis. Admittedly, there are a few cute attempts to do a few things differently: the lines “We should take this back to my place / That’s what she said right to my face” are, according to Liam, supposed to be a great reversal of social roles – “Usually that’s what the guy would say, but we flipped it that the girl would say that, and that’s what she said right to my face“. Alas, the song fails to carry on the reversal any longer than the first two lines; the entire rest of the song is the male main character carrying on as male main characters in these types of song do. And while the song is more rugged and gritty than was usual for One Direction, they still fit in exactly with the “Man talks about sex while playing acoustic guitar” trend that’s been common in the charts lately, and was still outdone by Zayn’s much more radically different techno direction. The result is a song that thinks it’s doing something new and radical, without realising that it’s doing the exact same thing as everyone else is. If it is new and radical, then it is in comparison to One Direction songs, which isn’t exactly a hard baseline to surpass.

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And then we get to Liam, the guy who literally promised to strip naked online if his fans got his song to No. 1. The song’s called “Strip That Down”. It has Liam naked on the cover. It’s about Liam meeting a woman and wanting to “strip that down” and “hit the ground”. In the chorus, he talks about how he was in “1D” but now is “free” to be the party boy that he used to be before his 1D days. It’s just so… blatant in its intentions, and its intentions are just to shout SEX and PARTY really loudly. Its intentions are so obviously bullshit too: it’s the fourth most talented member of One Direction and (co-writer) Ed Sheeran pretending to be out-of-control, sex-crazed partiers, an act which fits both of them so badly that it just becomes funny after a while. I like to compare this song to a goat. Goats are my favourite animals because they’re goofy, scruffy buggers who nevertheless love themselves. The discrepancy between how they look and how they act is obvious, yet they don’t care. And I love them because I’d love to have their self-confidence in the face of such obvious inadequacy. Strip That Down is a goat of a song. It’s incredibly easy to like, but that’s not the same as saying it actually works.

The issue with all of these songs is all that they have one basic flaw which, while not making them strictly unenjoyable, certainly stops them from being undeniably “good”. Strip That Down is way too unjustifiably over-earnest; Slow Hands is trying to be interesting but picks the least interesting ways of doing it; and Zayn’s attempt to mix sex and violence doesn’t quite work because the music itself doesn’t really sound like either. And sex forms part of all of their flaws: Strip That Down uses sex as part of it’s OTT hedonism which gets too broadly played to feel genuine, while Slow Hands and Pillow Talk use sex to be edgy while missing that fact that everyone else is talking about it too. There’s a sense here that sex is ultimately being used by them as a crutch; they want to produce something “adult”, default to discussing sex as pop music’s single “adult” topic, and then see where they should go from there. The results are rarely bad but none are the mature smash that they think they’re being.

For adult versions of pop songs, they feel very immature.

Closer

So how does Sign of the Times work?

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Firstly, it must be noted how close to the traditional boy band formula this song sticks. Harry Style speaks directly to the audience and the constant use of “We” puts Harry and the audience in a close relationship with other. He doubles down on this by defining their relationship in relation to the world around them, separating them from the rest of the world in the same way that Zayn’s Pillow Talk does. Whereas Pillow Talk purposely separates its characters from the rest of society to defy it though, Sign of the Times represents two people who feel separated from the world around them and wish to escape it. “Just stop your crying / It’s a sign of the times / We gotta get away from here / We gotta get away from here”.

Both Sign of the Times and Pillow Talk talk about environments in which their protagonists are united together but separated from the world around them. The various political readings of this in the current British contexts are plentiful and obvious. Given how opinions towards Brexit were very split in terms of age groups with the youth generally being more pro-EU and the old generally being more anti-EU, the idea of two young people set against a world dominated by older ideologies can be easily read as a potential youth reaction to the whole result of the vote. The implication drawn from this reading is that the world this generation wants to live in has been taken away from them. Harry Style’s reaction is to run away to somewhere more accepting; Zayn’s is to more aggressively impose his ideology, Brexit vote or not. [1]

At it’s core though, Harry’s approach is no different from anyone else in One Direction’s: simply wed the traditional structures of boy band music to a more “adult” topic and watch the money pour in. The difference is that the rest of One Direction’s adult topic is “sex” while Harry’s adult topic is “politics”. [2] It’s a more mature conception of what being adult entails, defining the difference between childhood and adulthood not as “sexless/sex-filled” but as “free from the world’s issues/having to deal with the world’s issues”. This sense of maturity is also filtered through the song’s lush instrumentation, referring back to the love/power ballads of the 20th century rather than the post-club tracks of now. The result is a song that sounds old, merging with the lyrics to provide the song with a genuine world-weariness that fits it perfectly.

The irony is that Harry’s song is actually very childlike in the way it tackles it’s mature topic. Harry still defines himself and the listener as young people put against an adult world. Given that Harry defines childhood as “being free from the issues of the world” and being an adult as “having to deal with them”, the song thus becomes about a desire to run away from the issues of the world and back into the world of childhood. Sign of the Times basically desires for the pre-Brexit world where Harry Styles and his 1D friends could sing happy-go-lucky pop tunes together as opposed to having to constantly justify themselves alone in an increasingly fractured landscape. In many ways, Sign of the Times is nostalgic for a world which didn’t need Sign in the Times.

Conclusions

Ultimately, Harry’s song is just the most respectable out of the bunch. It sounds older, more mature and thus its points come over as more considered and considerable. Young people can listen to it and see their issues at the world reflected; more aged people can listen to it and relate to the tiredness of it. It’s a rebellion that the Radio Two audience can enjoy. Multiple audiences get joined together and so the song gains more sales and positive reviews than the ones which are directly focused on one audience and that one only.

I have critiqued this sense of respectability before, discussing it in the post where I argued that Adele and Taylor Swift have the same act but that Adele’s is unfairly considered better purely because it’s more like operatic and adult while Swift is just silly pop for teenage girls. In that post, I argued that that position misunderstands what pop music historically is for, and has sexist/classist/ageist overtones. Here, respectability means that out of Sign of the Times and Pillow Talk, both of which explore antagonistic youth perspectives against the dominant culture, the one that’s most successful is the one which actually never directly attacks that dominant culture in any way. Like most of post-club music, Sign of the Times comes off as a rebellion workshopped to the point of ineffectiveness. As such, by the aesthetic standards of this blog, this means that Zayn’s Pillow Talk has to actually be considered the more worthy song of the two, if only because this blog is of the opinion that directly fighting against certain sections of modern society is preferable to hiding from the world within nostalgia. “Most worthy” and “the best done” don’t have to be synonyms.

That said, it is pretty much undeniable that Sign of the Times is just the better written song which achieves much more within it’s own remits. It is the one with the most layers that does the most stuff, wrapped within music which genuinely packs an emotional punch. Sign of the Times is the best of the One Direction songs because it’s a mature piece of music which a bigger proportion of the population can identify with, while everyone else in the band is producing more adolescent works aimed at kids. Sex sells; sometimes quality sells better.

 



Footnotes:

[1] I know that Pillow Talk was released about half a year before the Brexit vote, but it’s surprisingly easier to contextualise post-Brexit than it was pre-it. The debate had been going on for months when it was initially released; it just seems that Zayn tied into a series of ideas drawn from the society having the debate which have happened to become more relevant the further on we’ve got.

[2] Zayn’s position is most accurately “Sex is politics”, though the politics is filtered through the sex rather than the other way around, the sexual elements being the ones which get foregrounded.

A No. 1 Review – “Shape of You” by Ed Sheeran

(or: My Attempt at a Definitive “Ed Sheeran Sucks” Post, Written in the Hopes of Never Having to Discuss Him Again)

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Ed Sheeran is not a good artist. He is a promising artist who’s capable of producing good work, but he is not – I repeat, not – a good artist in general.

The main issue is that Ed Sheeran is fundamentally trying to be two people at the same time. One is an exaggerated novelty act where a ginger nerd endearingly fails to be a hip-hop star; the other is a smooth and romantic acoustic artist delivering meaningfully sensitive platitudes to people who mean a lot to him. This is a difficult balancing act to manage.

I mean, you can see why it’s become popular: the two guaranteed sellers in the past few years have been R’n’B/hip-hop dance tracks and Post-Club sensitive men playing acoustic ballads. By combining examples of both styles into individual albums – and by successfully craving a niche in both genres through a) not looking like the average person who produces that type of music and b) being the one person in each genre who also writes the other thing – Sheeran has been able to consolidate the audiences of the two biggest selling genres of his time into one, the result being the one artist at the moment capable of such mammoth selling achievements as getting an entire album in the UK Top 20 or having nine songs in the UK Top 10 simultaneously.

The problem with this (and I don’t quite believe that I can so directly compare Meghan Trainor to Ed Sheeran here) is that this act requires Sheeran to consolidate a lot of artistic impulses into one vision when they’re pretty much constantly fighting against each other. Two extra problems come with Sheeran’s obvious desire to be a consummate entertainer and his increasingly obvious sense of hubris, both of which frequently undermine work which is already conflicted to begin with. And this is ignoring the fact that “ginger nerd endearingly failing to do hip-hop” is already a highly complicated act that someone could sustain an entire career on alone. The result is an artist with a highly successful discography of messy songs that never quite work.

Let’s take some case studies:

The A Team

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This is a look at the life of a homeless woman desperately trying to stay alive. And in some ways it’s admirable, highlighting the plight of a forgotten underclass and providing its character with a quiet dignity in face of the indignities she frequently has to endure. In many ways, it’s our generation’s version of Phil Collins’ Another Day In Paradise. Except it isn’t.

Phil Collins details the plight of a homeless woman living in poverty, focusing on images of her trying to get help and being ignored by people before coupling this with a chorus that directly links both himself and the audience to the people ignoring her: ‘Oh, think twice, cause it’s another day for you and me in Paradise’. Phil Collins’ lyrics here are an attack at both himself and the audience for ignoring people like this woman; it’s a call for people to be better, be more sympathetic, and to take more affirmative action to help those who need it.

Ed Sheeran does not do this. Instead, he links the woman in question to a very romantic and softly-spoken lexis in which the image of her dying in the winter sleet becomes ‘an angel […] covered in white’. More than this, he keeps mentioning people outside of the narrative, looking into it: he talks about how ‘we’re just under the upper hand’ and how ‘they say she’s in the class A team’. The whole song becomes framed through various collectives looking in on the woman and making aesthetic judgments on her behalf. Lost in this is the idea of listening to the woman, engaging with her situation or helping it; instead, we’re invited to sit on the sidelines of her life and just watch her suffer. More than this, we’re invited to take aesthetic delight in the beautiful image of a homeless prostitute dying in the street. The song is so far away from a critique of audience passivity that it almost becomes an endorsement of it, inviting us to engage purely aesthetically with the life of a poor homeless woman almost entirely to gain the self-satisfaction of empathy and meaning. The woman gets written out of her own story and we are invited to gain intellectual and moral satisfaction out of watching her die, because her death is so beautiful man, it’s so beautiful.

This comes largely out of the genre that the song belongs to: it’s an acoustic ballad, of the type which Todd in the Shadows usually calls the White Guy With Acoustic Guitar genre. This genre is stereotypically linked to laziness, the usual implication being that the genre is full of talentless hacks who gravitate towards the style because a) it requires the least amount of practical set-up, b) it requires you to only know a few chords and be able to basically keep a tune, and c) it’s usually read as being a sensitive and mature art style, resulting in the musical genre which gets you the most indie points for the least amount of work. Too many artists use the iconography and sound of the acoustic guitar to signify “deep and meaningful music” when their actual composition and lyrics can’t do it on their own. You can see that right here: by writing a quiet acoustic ballad about a homeless woman, Sheeran thinks that he’s writing a meaningful expose on a life which too many people ignore. The issue is that that’s where he stops, resulting in something deeply problematic.

Then his boisterousness comes in. His desire to be perceived at least partly as a novelty act belies a willingness to be perceived as the class clown: the person who exaggerates how little they belong somewhere to justify it the eyes of others, doing so to ensure that the direct focus of everyone around remains on them. This in turn belies a general willingness to overplay his hand: it is not merely enough in an Ed Sheeran song to express a sentiment about something, he has to always make the statement which is big and broad enough to break the soul of anyone who listens. So the homeless woman he sings about isn’t just anyone who could live in the streets: she’s a ‘Class A’ homeless woman, and she’s on drugs, and she’s a prostitute, and she’s dead – but didn’t just die, she died in a snowstorm, and it was beautiful, and everyone saw it, and everyone agreed, it was tragic, and beautiful.

The issue with this is that the song quickly stops being about the woman’s suffering and becomes about how sad Sheeran can make that suffering look. This is what leads to the song being easily accused of egotism: this is more directly about Ed Sheeran feeling bad about a homeless woman than it is about the homeless woman. The experience of listening to this song thus becomes the simulation of sympathy: it’s not about empathizing with a dying homeless woman, it’s about looking like you’re the type of person who empathizes with dying homeless women, all because you then get the indie cred, a purged conscious and good sales, all without doing actually anything to help her.

So Sheeran adds a sense of over-importance to a vapid music genre in order to produce something that allows him and his listeners to pretend that they’re being sensitive at the expense of the song’s subject. It’s hollow, exploitative and morally bankrupt. Phil Collins is better than this.

Thinking Out Loud

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Now, let’s move onto the big one. I’ve said multiple times that I consider Thinking Out Loud to be one of the worst songs I’ve ever heard, particularly in my post where I called it the worst song of 2014. That post has become quite infamous, to the point where I’ve had several Sheeran fans on Twitter tell their followers to spam my blog out of existence due to it. I can see why it’s gained this status. I used the “Worst Song of 2014” title to justify a more exaggerated tone than usual, allowing me to release some pent-up emotions which were ultimately more to do with the song’s disproportionate critical praise than the song itself. My line-by-line critiques of the song could be quiet petty too, and maybe the blowjob joke was a step too far. In short, I imagine that people who like the song would probably find my review of it to be unfair: to them, I was either not listening to it in the way the song intended or I was purposely over-exaggerating my critiques to gain political points. My defense though is that the song pretty much actively denies anyway of listening to it that isn’t overly petty.

The song details Sheeran and his girlfriend lying together (possibly under the light of a thousand stars) with Sheeran just saying… things. Tiny things, random things, meaningless things; all connected together because they sound romantic and refer to Sheeran’s girlfriend. It doesn’t actually matter what these statements say, it only matters what they express: the love and dedication that Sheeran has for his girlfriend. As such, my previous arguments that none of Sheeran’s statements make sense are indeed me missing the point. Within the song, it doesn’t matter whether the statements make any sense or are romantic at all, all that matters is that they appear romantic. In the same way that The A-Team is about the performance of sympathy, this is about the performance of love. Indeed, this song is a step-up on The A Team in that the lyrics actually realise that’s what they’re about and uses it in their favour.

This is even a song that would work well within the context of an acoustic ballad. It’s small, intimate, simplistic, doesn’t require well-written lyrics: it’s perfect. This song screams for a laid-back atmosphere where a man hazily and indistinctly lists a bricollage of vaguely love themed stuff for no reason other than it’s romantic. It’s a beautiful and crystalline sliver of an acoustic pop song.

But then comes Ed Sheeran, the consummate entertainer who needs everything he says to be a massive statement of intent. And he wrecks everything.

Sheeran’s performance is way too strained and tries way too hard. The worst moment comes near the end where he just blurts out the line PUTYOURHANDSINMYLOVINGARMS as if it’s genuinely hurting him. This is just the wrong decision for what the lyrics are trying to do. The whole point of the song is that it’s meant to be a small, quiet and intimate thing, capturing the image of two lovers alone at night, whispering in each other’s ears and talking about life. Yet what Sheeran is apparently doing in this line is shouting at his lover while writhing around on the ground. Imagine two people sat in a field at night, snuggling with each other and ildy talking about their emotions and futures. Now imagine two people sat in a field while one shouts “HUG ME! HUG ME!” at the other. It ruins the image.

And because Sheeran strains every line and because the music then has to be boistered to fit the performance, the lyrics have to suddenly start making sense. When you’ve got a song that goes out of its way to foreground it’s emotional content by over-enunciating every line and syllable, the words and sentences need to be able to support a lyric-focused mode of listening. But these lyrics can’t. Because they were never designed to support this type of listening in the first place. It doesn’t work.

And this returns us to our central problem. Here we have Ed Sheeran, the boisterous maker of definitive statements, singing a song written by Ed Sheeran, the ginger clown trying to be a pop star and charmingly failing. At no point does the song try to bridge the gap between these two personalities: it just throws them together into a song that ends up fighting between two contradictory personalities. Hell, it doesn’t even do that: Sheeran writes the song in one style, sings it in another, and then expects that the two are naturally going to work. The result is a track without a single functional element, not because any of them are inherently rotten but because no single element gets supported by any of the others.

Galway Girl

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And now we move to the rare one: the Ed Sheeran song where I agree with the prevailing opinion. No-one likes this one. The record company begged Sheeran not to release it. Many reviews of it have been negative. I can name several celebrities who listened to the song to see if it was as bad as everyone said, only to go onto Twitter and confirm that yes, it was. Only three groups of people seem to like it: Ed Sheeran fans (who like everything he does); Galway Girls (who find the idea of there being a song about Galway to be a novelty); and people who find it So-Bad-It’s-Good. You’d be hard pushed to find someone who enjoys it for the quality of the song itself.

Firstly, we have lyric issues. For a song that ties itself so specifically to a single location (the aforementioned Galway), Sheeran doesn’t seem to know much about it. Grafton Street gets mentioned, despite the fact that Grafton is in Dublin, not Galway. The song itself is a tribute to the Irish artist Niamh Dunne, who’s from Limerick. And so on. Elsewhere, when he isn’t getting things wrong, he’s dealing 100% in Irish cliches: the girls in Galway apparently drink a lot, play folk music and listen to Van Morrison. Presumably they also wear green clothing and eat soda bread. As such, the song can’t be read about relating to Galway at all: everything is purely coded “Irish” with the invocation of Galway seemingly done purely for the alliteration.

Then there’s the music which doesn’t hold together in the slightest. Firstly we have Sheeran’s rap style, something which can be charitably described as clumsy. I mean, he defines himself as the ill-fitting hip-hop artist who doesn’t produce hip-hop songs; of course it’s clumsy. It’s on purpose. But the issue is that his rap verses here sound like all of his other rap verses: the rhythms, cadences and flows are all Sheeran audibly working on autopilot. And then we get the fiddle section which comes out of nowhere, doesn’t match with any of the other music, and occasionally features Sheeran quazi-drunkenly mumbling over it in a way that almost matches the tune. And again, this seems to be the point – this song is ultimately meant to sound like a charmingly amateur Irish pub singalong; its stupid, messy and ridiculous nature is meant to be part of the appeal. The issue is that the song never quite justifies how messy it is. The fiddle music is there because Irish music apparently equals fiddles. The rap music is there because the lyrics feature boozing, partying and drunken love; and the lyrics feature boozing, partying and drunken love because those are the subjects of most rap songs. And though the song is made of two distinct elements, there’s never any attempt to combine them: the rap part just cuts to the fiddle part before cutting back, creating an audible whiplash. Because the fiddle music is so idiosyncratic and because the cuts between song sections are so jarring, the result is a song that goes past being infectiously silly and ends up being nigh-on bewildering. And then the rap and the fiddle music isn’t even being played well (again, on purpose), making it difficult to figure out whether the sudden jarring cuts are artistic decisions or pure incompetence. The result is that it’s hard to figure out even what the song is: it aims for “stupid enough to work” and ends up “unfathomably bizarre”.

These aren’t even my critiques anymore, but they’re all echoes of things I’ve critiqued in Sheeran’s other songs. The fact that Sheeran uses “Galway” and “Irish” as synonyms belies the same lack of depth which makes him mistake “describing dead homeless woman” with “sensitive lament for the plight of the homeless”. Similarly, Galway Girl throws Folk Music and Rap Music together is the same way that Thinking Out Loud throws Boisterous Ed Sheeran Song with Sensitive Ed Sheeran song, resulting in the same sense of messiness. The only difference is that the flaws are more obvious here. Sheeran’s messy mixing is more noticeable in Galway Girl than it is in Thinking Out Loud, for instance, because the difference between a rap song and an Irish folk song is easier to discern than the difference between two types of Sheeran song. Galway Girl is ultimately the straw that broke the camel’s back; the time he stepped too far over the line.

‘Sing’

At this point, it’d probably be prudent to ask what a good Ed Sheeran song is like. Luckily, there’s an easy example to point to: Sing, the first single released from his album x.

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Sing is a club song played with an acoustic guitar, telling a story of how Ed Sheeran wants to sleep with someone at a club but is waiting for them to show interest and consent before going for it. This is another example of him merging genres, only this time it works. The use of acoustic instrumentation to play a nightclub song situates Sheeran as an acoustic artist first and foremost, creating a liminal relationship with the club genre. This is then backed up by the song’s character: he’s in a nightclub but obviously doesn’t quite get it, not understanding the unspoken rules which govern club interaction and providing an alternative version of them. The result is a rejection of those rules: a dance song merged to a more sensitive aesthetic which stresses the importance of consent, even within a club environment. It’s an effective piece of music which fulfills it’s good intention well.

It’s worth comparing Sing to Galway Girl, given that Galway Girl similarly mixes acoustic instrumentation with club music and rap. In doing this though, you are just left with the sense that Sing has been thought through more. In Sing, Sheeran hasn’t just picked two genres and decided to mash them, he’s picked two genres, thought about what the combination of those genres would imply, and built a set of lyrics which reflect the combination. This combination is also one which provides a public good, giving us a feminist-tinted version of the club form as opposed to its more common predatory version. In contrast, Galway Girl suffers from just having no conceivable point: Sheeran thought that mixing Irish fiddle music with acoustic hiphop would be funny, slammed them together, found out that the resultant song was messy enough to be accidentally funny, and just went with it. The result is that Galway Girl rings hollow in a way that Sing doesn’t. Sing reformats an entire genre to provide a social good, while Galway Girl is Sheeran messing about with Irish music because he can.

The irony is that Sing is easily the most disposable of Sheeran’s recent singles. Though it does interesting things with its genre, it’s trying to be nothing more than a bog-standard party jam. This is greatly to the song’s benefit. It takes two genres which fit together well but are rarely written together, thinks through what joining them together means and then plainly plays it out, resulting in something which is clean, sharp and focused. In contrast, Galway Girl mixes a random collection of things for no discernible reason, decides to play the resultant mess for laughs and then wobbles away without actually amounting to anything.

Sheeran ultimately works best when concentrating on smaller scales. When he goes big, he goes too big, apparently expecting any cracks to be automatically covered by the sense of scale. Meanwhile, give him something purposely small and he finds himself with nowhere to hide. All of his genre hopping and over-the-top tendencies are crutches he uses to hide when he’s not being as good as he could be, something which is a genuine shame because they obscure the fact that, when he wants to be, he is in fact a very good songwriter.

Which is ultimately my issue with Ed Sheeran’s music: the sense of complacency within it. All too often, Ed Sheeran will grab the first idea that comes to him, throw together a first draft, decide that no further work is needed, and release it for public consumption. Indeed, Sheeran seems to be open and proud about this: he little more than bragged about how he wrote the Beiber song Love Yourself in 20 minutes straight. The result is that the working components of his songs never quite fit together, resulting in them never quite managing to mean anything. That’s the thing about first drafts rushed in 20 minutes: they’re always going to be imperfect. That’s why editing is a thing. Hell, that’s why most good writers would argue that writing is editing. Yet Sheeran doesn’t seem to care. His songs don’t work pretty much because he rarely shows any interest in making them work.

The tragedy is that he could so easily be better. The idea behind The A Team is not a bad idea for a song; it’s just that Sheeran hasn’t thought about his use of it enough to realise that it’s shallow and problematic. Similarly, Thinking Out Loud isn’t a bad idea for a song, it’s just that Sheeran hasn’t thought enough about his performance to realise that it’s fighting against his lyrics. Even Galway Girl is not a bad idea for a song (mixing folk music with pop music isn’t unheard of in the slightest); the issue is entirely with how Sheeran uses these ideas, or more accurately how he can be barely said to use them at all.

This lack of effort also contributes to the sense that Sheeran’s work is just hollow. His discussion of homelessness doesn’t talk about homelessness but merely simulates sympathy towards it; his song about Galway fails to tie itself to Galway in any identifiable way; and his romantic song is more concerned with sounding romantic than actually being it. Yet the tracks foreground how big and meaningful they are in such a forceful way that they pretty much demand to be treated like sensitive, meaningful works of art. As such, Ed Sheeran songs aren’t ultimately about the audience actually feeling something but are about listening to Ed Sheeran pretending that he’s making you feel something. Ed Sheeran songs are enjoyable as long as you take them in the exact way that Ed Sheeran demands you to – as minor representations of potentially interesting ideas which you should consider meaningful without ever thinking about them too much. Any alternative readings are not allowed because they distract from Sheeran’s authorial vision. None of Sheeran’s songs are about their purported topics at all, they’re all about listening to Ed Sheeran talking about things. All of his songs foreground Sheeran as an artist, to the detriment of the songs.

This is why Sheeran’s fanbase are so rabid in their support of him: they like Sheeran himself. Because all of Sheeran’s songs are almost entirely about him, the boundaries between Ed Sheeran as a person and Sheeran’s work as a discography get broken down. This is why my critique of Thinking Out Loud went down so badly in Sheeran circles: from their perspective, I wasn’t just calling one of his songs poorly constructed, I was directly critiquing him as a person for being morally insufficient. (Ironically, it wasn’t until this post that I started doing that.) Because his fanbase is so much invested in Sheeran as a person, this then became me personally critiquing them as well. I wasn’t just a music critic reviewing one song, I was an arsehole deliberately insulting their lifestyle, taste and friendship groups. Of course they wanted me spammed off the internet.

The thing is, this audience is being completely disserved by Sheeran. Most songs feature Sheeran putting the minimum of effort into them, using the fact that he’s Ed Sheeran to get away with it. People who like Ed Sheeran then put up with it because he’s Ed Sheeran. As such, Sheeran never has to try again: we’ve proven time after time that we’ll just buy anything with his name on. So now Sheeran goes around, picking up stupid ideas that make him laugh, rushing first drafts onto CDs and selling them for public consumption. It’s horribly cynical and shows an almost complete contempt for its audience. Ed Sheeran’s fanbase is dedicated to a man who barely considers them worth trying for. And they keep allowing it to happen. We keep allowing it as a listening public overall.

In these terms, Shape Of You is quite instructive of Sheeran’s work overall. He’s only interested in the “shape of you”, the broadest strokes, the widest net. He’s only “in love with your body”, obsessed with husks and shells. Sheeran’s work is ultimately the romanticism of hollowness: a product through which you can hear a man congratulate himself for having such clever ideas. His work is nothing less, and certainly nothing more.

The Best UK No. 1’s of 2016 (posted April 2017)

Right, let’s finally finish 2016! Only four months late! Then move onto Ed Sheeran! Oh God, pop music is torture!



Special Mentions

‘Paradise’ – Charli XCX

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A staggeringly gonzo bricolage of 90’s rave tropes, all turned inside out and formed into a club smash that’s romantic, exciting, alien and more. I didn’t enjoy a single song in 2016 as much as I enjoyed this.
[Listen]

‘Suitcase Jimmy’ – Evans the Death

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Evans the Death continue to be my favourite British band going at the moment. Their latest album – Vanilla – was recorded on a barge using guest musicians they found on Facebook, continuing to both diversify of their sound and increase the anger in their work. A particular highlight of the album is Suitcase Jimmy: a stonking barrage of trumpets and shouting which would be the defining sound of British Indie if only I had my way.
[Listen]

‘Madeleine Crumbles’ – Major Parkinson

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A beautiful nightmare; all sweeping violins, ethereal choruses and gritty verses. It’s parent album can’t come soon enough.
[Listen]

‘Higher’ – Carly Rae Jepsen

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I didn’t start listening to Carly Ray Jepsen’s Emotion album until early 2016, meaning that it missed out on being included in my Best of 2015 list. I’ve always been slightly ashamed of this: the album’s great. Luckily, Jepsen’s 2016 appendum – Emotion Side B – is just as good as it’s big sister, even if it doesn’t quite hit the same heights. ‘Higher’ probably comes closest to those highs, hence why it’s on the list, though shout-outs have to go to the songs ‘First Time’, ‘The One’, ‘Body Language’, ‘Cry’, ‘Store’… hell, all of them. Everything gets a shout out. Carly Rae Jepsen’s the best.
[Listen]

‘Same’ – Clarence Clarity

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Clarence Clarity specialises in throwing discordant noises, random computer sounds and distorted voices together into labyrinthine messes that somehow work as solid, cathartic pop songs. Same is technically the B-side to his single Vapid Feels Are Vapid but I prefer it, so on the list it goes.
[Listen]

‘Stained’ – HMLTD

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A baroque piece of 80’s throwback goth electro, married to an actively tasteless aesthetic which combines The Damned and Bauhaus into something distinctively new. Its music video also wins the prize for most disgusting of 2016, so you know the band’s doing something right.
[Listen]

‘Ain’t It Funny?’ – Danny Brown

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Maybe funny’s not the right term: boisterous, demented, trumpet-filled and swinging are better. The most enjoyable rap track of 2016 for me.
[Listen]

‘Me And Your Mama’ – Childish Gambino

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An immense two-part soul throwback featuring intense vocals, biblical gospel backing, meaty instrumentation, and the most delightfully childish name of the year. An astonishingly fun track with some real impact behind it.
[Listen]

‘One Call Away’ – Charlie Puth

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What can I say, this song just gets me. Is it trite, cheesy and overly earnest? Yes, it is. I love it.
[Listen] [Original Review]



And now the list itself:

#5 – ‘Love Yourself’ by Justin Bieber

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This is my least favourite song of Bieber’s ‘Actually Quite Good Phase’, coming well under both What Do You Mean? and Sorry in my estimations. Unfortunately, due to the absolute dirth of No. 1’s in 2016, the number five slot either had to go to this or Cold Water by Major Lazer, Justin Bieber and MØ. I can’t remember what Cold Water sounds like, despite the fact that I last listened to it five minutes ago. Love Yourself it is.

#4 – ‘Shout Out to my Ex’ by Little Mix

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Easily the least interesting song Little Mix has ever released. As previously explained, it’s little more than “an repeat of Love Me Like You, which in turn was a repeat of Black Magic, only without the magic bits”. Love Me Like You and Black Magic are both fantastic hits though; being a direct retread of them still means that you’re a pretty good pop song, particularly given how joyless everything else was that year. Little Mix on autopilot is still better than almost everything else in the pop scene; that’s how good a band they are.

#3 – ‘I Took a Pill in Ibiza (Seeb Remix)’ by Mike Posner

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It grew on me. Though I’m still convinced that the remix instrumental completely misses the point of the song, I can’t deny that it sounds wonderfully atmospheric, resulting in the minimalist pop hit of early 2016 that was the easiest to lose yourself in. This became the song that I most enjoyed listening to in the first half of the year; at least, it was light years ahead of it’s nearest contemporaries Stitches and 7 Years.

#2 – ‘Rockabye’ by Clean Bandit feat. Anne-Marie and Sean Paul

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Possibly Clean Bandit’s best song, combining their trademark pristine instrumentation with a solid tale of single motherhood and female strength. Even Sean Paul is used to the best of his abilities, being slotted into the background so as to provide pretty vital backing vocals. A fully fleshed out and realised track: at last, Clean Bandit have a song that feels worthy of them.

#1 – ‘Closer’ by The Chainsmokers feat. Halsey

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Yeah, it’s a failed mess, but it’s exactly the type of failed mess we need right now. The Chainsmokers are not good artists but, for just one track, they managed to accidentally hit gold, producing the track that most encompassed what 2016 was – for better and for worse.


Right then Ed Sheeran, I’m coming for you!