Music

A No. 1 Review: “Rockabye” by Clean Bandit feat. Sean Paul & Anne-Marie (plus a lot of other things Sean Paul featured in last year)

I haven’t updated this blog in a while: in between moving house, starting a PhD, working a job, dealing with Brexit and staring dumbfoundedly at Donald “Racist Paedo-Rapist” Trump, the blog has ended up taking a backseat. I’ve been determined to finish my No. 1 reviews though so here we are, a whole bunch of posts giving quick reviews of every 2016 UK No. 1 that I missed while they were in the charts:

So… Sean Paul is back. Indeed, 2016 was awash with Sean Paul. You couldn’t move for Sean Paul. Signal 1 played nothing but him for five months straight, intermixed with the occasional Can’t Stop the FeelingYet Mr. Paul didn’t release a single song of his own that year; he just appeared on everyone else’s tracks. The thing is: no-one really seemed to want him to be there. For example…

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“Cheap Thrills” – Sia feat. Sean Paul

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Cheap Thrills is a mindless party jam about how great it is to go the club and dance. This type of song doesn’t really get made anymore, critiques of club music being much more common. That said, this is a song written by Sia, someone who is an incredibly slippery character. More than that, it seems to say something quite fundamental about her character: namely that she’s becoming increasingly bored with having to make pop music.

A lot of this comes from the album that Cheap Thrills is a part of. Cheap Thrills is from This is Acting, an album comprised entirely of songs that she wrote for other people and had rejected. As Todd in the Shadows points out, the reason why most singers would write a song and give it to someone else is that the song isn’t actually very good, otherwise the first singer would have sung it themselves. So the album is made out of songs that Sia didn’t think were good enough, all of which were then rejected by the people she fobbed them to, resulting in Sia going “Fuck it” and releasing the songs anyway. Built into every single level of this album is the idea that everything in it is, on some level, crap. It’s an album of songs that no-one much likes. As such, the idea of it also being one of Sia’s more mainstream and poppy albums comes with the implication that most mainstream, poppy albums are full of crap. The fact that this album has been successful forms part of it’s critique: we live in such a flagging music industry that you can literally release an album of rejected off-cuts and still have it be one of the best received albums of the year. Now that Sia’s a mainstream success, she doesn’t need to care anymore, and This is Acting basically exists to point this out.

In this context, the title Cheap Thrills can only be read as a critique of the song itself. This song is not good or pristine or well crafted, it’s cheap. It wants nothing more than to be a thrill: something ephemeral, quick paced, gone before you know it. In short, the song’s a mess that’ll be here one minute and gone the next: that’s literally how it defines itself.

As such, the inclusion of Sean Paul comes off as something Sia did for the sake of it: “Let’s get some has-been rapper from a decade ago to do some guest verses because why not; everyone else does it and it’s not like I’m going to put any effort into this”. Sean Paul’s presence is thus little more than a cynical parody of songs that pull stupid shit like getting someone as irrelevant as Sean Paul in to do a guest verse. His very appearance is a critique of itself.

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“Hair” – Little Mix feat. Sean Paul

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The Little Mix song Hair goes even further in this regard. In it, Little Mix equate breaking up from a relationship with getting a haircut: “Okay, gonna bleach him out, peroxide on him / Here on the floor like a memory of him / Now I feel brand new.” The thing about this lyrical conceit is that, underneath it’s bubblegum exterior, it’s almost impenetrably dark. Little Mix’s relationship with this man was so bad that, now he’s gone, they have to completely change their appearance in order to feel themselves again. This man got under their skin, got in their head, completely destroyed their personalities and wrecked them from the inside out. Little Mix’s last boyfriend wasn’t just a prick, he was psychologically abusive.

The forced cutting of hair is a traditional punishment aimed at women too, performed by men to make them less feminine and thus shame them into living however the men wished. Plus, what type of people have to completely change their appearance in order to get rid of other undesirables: those in witness protection and people who are running from violent people for their lives. I could even quote fitting sections of The Rape of the Lock here if The Rape of the Lock wasn’t sexist bullshit pretending to be satire. My point is that enforced hair cutting and male violence against women (in particular, rape) have been frequently equated to each other. As such, the boyfriend in Hair is an abusive criminal and the song itself is about the recovery methods of a rape survivor.

But what role does Sean Paul play in this? Well, he plays the rapist. More than that, he plays him completely unrepentantly:

“Inseparable at the beginning when we started,
Good chemistry between me and you girl we got it,
I spit you game and just to tame you was my target
That was my aim just to be playing with your body
Thought that forever we could continue this party
And now you telling me that your love is departed
Right I’m just saying you gon’ miss your sugar-daddy.
How you gon’ get me out ya hair girl when I bought it?”

So Sean Paul is a prick. But listen to that language: “I spit you game and just to tame you was my target.” Doesn’t that remind you of the Blurred Lines lyric “Tried to domesticate you / But you’re an animal”? He’s also got the “game”; he wants to “be playing with your body”: he talks just like any club singer of the past decade, using their turns of phrase and their type of language. Hell, he even refers to his prolonged abuse of Hair’s narrator as a “party”. Sean Paul is fully representative of 00’s era club music in this song. If you felt that many of the songs from this era and genre were overly rapey, here’s a song that purposely presents a 00’s club singer as an actual rapist.

Of course, because this is a Little Mix song, what is the correct way of fighting against your male abuser? Well, go out and have a make-over. Or, put another way, go out and be as confidently girly as possible. Sexism is imposing a certain set of values onto the genders so as to keep the balance of power firmly in one gender’s court: just refuse to believe that your gender naturally diminishes you as a person and carry on regardless. There’s nothing more powerful and disruptive as doing whatever you want even after being told not too. Get your hair done and stick two fingers up to Sean Paul: it’s the Little Mix way.

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“Rockabye” by Clean Bandit feat. Sean Paul & Anne-Marie

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There is potential salvation for Sean Paul though, that being Rockabye which he did for Clean Bandit alongside Anne-Marie. Rockabye is about the trails and tribulations of single motherhood, talking to a baby about her hardworking single mother in order to confirm to it that ‘somebody’s got you’ and that it never needs to feel sad. As such, the obvious question to ask is what’s Sean Paul doing here? Where does the aggressive club dancer fit into this small-scale story of motherhood and intimate spaces?

Surprisingly, he fits into a support role. Mr. Paul appears to introduce the song ‘for all the single moms out there / going through frustration’ before immediately taking back-up vocal duties behind Anne-Marie, allowing her to tell the tale of a struggling single-mother while providing little utterances to emphasize various parts of her story. In certain verses, it almost sounds like he’s listening to Anne-Marie speak, his noises being little filler sounds to show that he’s still listening:

“Facing the hard life, without no fear (Yeah) […]
‘Cause any obstacle come you’re well prepared (Oh no) […]
And you give the youth love beyond compare (Yeah)
You find his school fee and the bus fare (Yeah)

This gives Mr. Paul an interestingly liminal position within the song itself. The only other man mentioned in the song is the single mother’s daughter’s father, a man who is defined by his absence from the mother’s life and from the song in general. Similarly, Mr. Paul’s appearance in this song is defined by it’s lack: by the way that it falls into the background and doesn’t impose itself upon the main narrative thread; by the way that it’s easily missed and not strictly neccessary. Built into this is the song’s opinion on absent male figures: their disappearance is sad and deeply felt, but ultimately they’re not needed and women can go on regardless. More than this, the situation is presented as one where the opinions of men do not matter at all: men can help but they can do so by listening, emphasizing and supporting women, not by imposing their ideologies onto them.

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In conclusion, Mr. Paul is a surprisingly liminal character in the pop world as a whole at the moment: a marginal figure infecting mainstream hits, a club musician haunting a post-club world. Built into his persona are both warnings from the past and potential ways into the future. In short, he is a symptom of a music scene which has rejected its past forms but still doesn’t have a new one. For better and for worse, Sean Paul was the artist of 2016.

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Rapid Reviews 07/06/16

So after spending a long time setting the blog’s aesthetic standards in stone and despairing at the ruination of British society, let’s relax for a bit and release some residual steam on a few easy targets. We can return to things like nuanced analysis (?) next post. Let’s go!



Tears” – Clean Bandit feat. Louisa Johnson

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The problem with Clean Bandit is that they’re only as good as their collaborators allow them to be. Pair them with people like Sean Bass and Alex Newell and they shine: the singers have the technical capabilities to match the music, and thus free Clean Bandit to really go for it with their musical compositions. Pair them Jess Glynne though and they completely fall apart: Glynne is not capable of matching what they’re doing and so their songs end up disappointingly disjointed.

That problem rears it’s ugly head here: Clean Bandit and Louisa Johnson just don’t work well together. Clean Bandit are known for their classically influenced, precise and multi-layered instrumentals: there’s a lot going on in Clean Bandit’s music and it’s always very tightly controlled. Meanwhile Louisa Johnson is an X-Factor winner and so comes from the school of singing whereby she injects as many syllables into each line as possible, resulting in an overly fussy mess. When you’ve got two people in the same song whose sounds are this busy though, one is going to be naturally drowned out by the other. Unfortunately Louisa Johnson is allowed to take control, filling the song with empty vocal gymnastics while leaving Clean Bandit with very little space to do anything interesting musically. The result, again, is something which is disappointingly disjointed and uneven. Even worse than that, with no space for anything interesting musically, the song just sounds bland. It’s the least interesting Clean Bandit song by a long chalk.

Clean Bandit are just too easily dominated by their guest artists, which is a shame because I’m still to hear a guest artist who isn’t entirely outclassed by them. I just want them to produce an entirely instrumental album, though I suppose that won’t happen while they’re still trying to get in the charts.



Faded” – Alan Walker feat. Iselin Solheim

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This could’ve been interesting, maybe: the lyrics at least have some ideas in them, and they’re not bad ones at that. Sure, “sun and water metaphors being used to describe a relationship” has been the default mode of a lot of pop music recently, but this song twists them by having the boyfriend be the narrator’s “shadow” who is linked to the ocean and blocks her from the sun, subverting the traditional way that these metaphors work. Unfortunately, it’s still not that interesting. Even if it inverts the metaphors, it’s still using the same images as a lot of bog-standard pop at the moment. And, again, the music is just bland: sparce and empty.

I have tried to listen to this song in the same way I listen to Are You With Me – as an atmospheric track that’s meant to sound like pop but fundamentally isn’t – but the subtexts of the lyrics just aren’t there to support this mode of listening. Fundamentally, the song is meant to work as a cathartic release and it details a standard love narrative: it’s 100% pop music on auto pilot, draped in imagery that’s an inversion of the usual so as to look vaguely interesting. It’s like Deadpool or The Fault in Our Stars: narratives which are trying to look like radical deconstructions of their genre but which are ultimately just standard examples of their genre with louder witty asides. There might be something in it, somewhere, but actually finding it feels pointless.



I Know What You Did Last Summer” – Shawn Mendes feat. Camila Cabello

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Shawn Mendes’ girlfriend cheated on him once, they stayed together, but now she’s acting shady again and he’s demanding to know where she’s been, which means the relationship isn’t working and the two should break up. Relationships are about trust; two people can stay together after one cheats on the other but only if trust is regained. Mendes doesn’t trust his partner, is now getting overly aggressive towards her and, as such, they should break up. He’s a whiny demanding arse, she’s self-involved, they don’t seem to have any actual reasons to stay together, yet neither actually reach the obvious conclusion at hand. Instead, we two unlikable people shouting at each other in circles to cover the fact that neither have actually arrived at the most obvious conclusion yet: they should break up.



Love, Hope and Misery” – Jake Bugg

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Jake Bugg is an indie rocker who so obviously wants to be the Libertines, it’s ridiculous. In that form though, he’s at least bearable: wannabe rock stars are omnipresent in the indie rock scene, they just come with the territory. But now the bad boy’s going to show his softer side, and my god is it terrible.

Jake Bugg’s vocal styles for this song combines the nasal tone of Passenger with the vapid whinginess of Shawn Mendes, resulting in a performance which feels like being stabbed in the ear with an ice pick. The orchestral music sounds like it’s been ripped from a low budget 1970’s easy listening record, and the lyrics tick off every Post-Club cliche it’s possible to check off, minus the “actually be good” box. It’s unlistenable. A genuinely terrible song.



Work From Home” – Fifth Harmony feat. Ty Dolla $ign

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For the longest time, I was convinced that this song was Rihanna’s Work. Then I actually watched the music video for Work and found that I was actually listening to something completely different. Also, I was listening to something infinitely better.

Work From Home is nigh-on indefensible. A woman is sending sexts to her partner while he’s at work while complaining about how his work stops him from being able to constantly have sex with her; still she resigns herself to it because he does have to work and, after all, he is “the boss at home”. Meanwhile the husband (as played by Ty Dolla $ign, the man with the worst rap name I’ve ever seen) spends his time talking about how much his wife better be constantly making herself look sexy for him and “putting overtime on [her] body”.

See what’s happening here? The man’s duty is to go off and work, making the money and providing a life for his family back at home. In return, the woman’s duty is to stay at home, comply to her husband’s wishes and make herself sexually available whenever he might want it.

How the fuck is something this sexist acceptable in this day and age? I mean, wow. Fucking wow. Do I even have to go on? When we live in a world with Little Mix, why could we ever need Fifth Harmony? Fuck this song; fuck it.



Just Like Fire” – P!nk

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Alice in Wonderland: Through the Looking Glass was a surprisingly decent film, seeming to understand Tim Burton’s version of Wonderland much better than Tim Burton ever did and retroactively fixing a lot of the problems I had with the first movie. (Yeah, I think Deadpool and The Fault in our Stars are overrated and like the second Alice in Wonderland film. Suck it.) There’s one thing that’s horrendously jarring though: that being when the film awkwardly slams into the end credits and it’s tie-in song Just Like Fire starts playing. That song just does not fit what went before it.

Part of this is just a matter of context. Alice in Wonderland is set in the Victorian era and in a surreal self-contained fantasy land: though passing comment on the modern world, it’s fundamentally disconnected from it. As such, to end the film with a top 40 hit from a famous post-2000 singer is like ending The Book Thief with Skillrex track: the song just fundamentally doesn’t belong in the film it’s in.

The song barely fits with the film thematically either. Both are fundamentally feminist texts which feature female characters refusing to be defined by their opponents – whether that’s Alice refusing to sign a man’s business contract which would make her an intern or P!nk fighting against whoever she’s fighting against – but other than that, they’re polar opposites. This can be most obviously seen in how they deal with the theme of madness. In the film, Alice is fundamentally not insane; it’s just that the world treats her as such because it looks at a woman going above her station and inherently sees something wrong with it. Meanwhile P!nk is busy claiming that she’s unbeatable because she’s resolutely insane and no-one can touch her. The two messages are completely separated; they’re saying two different things.

And where did the fire metaphor come from? There’s only one fire in the entirety of the original film: that being the fire which killed the Mad Hatter’s family. So is that what P!nk is: a dangerous fire so out of control that she keeps causing distress and death to her friends and family? That doesn’t work at all. I could go on.

The result is a tie-in song to a movie that the writer has obviously not watched. In a post-Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack world, this is just not acceptable. The fire metaphor is cliche, the music and lyrics are P!nk on auto-pilot, and the song is completely disconnected from it’s source material. No-one cared at any point: once again, it’s blatantly a paycheck mascarading as a song. It’s Faded but stuck at the end of a movie.



Stitches” – Shawn Mendes

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Just to reiterate (again), this is everything that’s wrong with pop music. Genuinely awful.

Pop Song Review: “One Call Away” by Charlie Puth

Previously on this blog: Charlie Puth and Meghan Trainor released Marvin Gaye. I did not like it. Nor had I liked anything released by either artist before then.

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So Charlie Puth is back at the piano and singing another love song which is basically Rachael Platten’s Stand By You but done by a guy. You see, Puth loves someone and they’re going through a hard time but it’ll be ok because he’s there and is available to talk if they need it. He’ll be their rock; he’ll be their strength; he’ll be so strong that “Superman has nothing on him”.

Already a discrepancy has presented itself, and it’s the same one as Rachael Platten’s song: this is a slow piano ballad sung by a soppy person about how badass and powerful they are; it’s another song about strength which sounds inherently weak. First Puth’s song of mourning was devoid of sadness; then his song about sex was devoid of sexiness; now his song of strength is devoid of strength. At this point, the only constant part of Puth’s aesthetic seems to be his inability to produce work which reflects its subject matter; being unable to write tone correctly is his defining attribute.

Yet… I really like this song.

Maybe it isn’t likable as much as it’s relatable. The greatest love I never had was with a woman who moved out of the area just after we started getting close but just before we could get together. She moved away for a new job but found that that job was much tougher than she was expecting and that making new friends in the area was almost impossible. Meanwhile I was stuck in my normal life, only now I was in it without her and it seemed so much emptier than before. We both struggled. Luckily for us, we had telephones. She should ring up and complain about her job and I would sit back and listen to her. We’d laugh, moan, talk about what was on TV. She got someone to fall back on; I got a few more hours with one of the few people I cared about. It was exactly what both of us needed. So a song about a man wanting to be someone’s emotional rock by talking to them over the phone: yeah, I feel that. One Call Away could be considered old-fashioned and trite, but I feel it more than I have any song since Carly Rae Jepsen’s I Really Love You and Lunchmoney Lewis’ Bills.

The old-fashionedness of the song isn’t exactly a negative either. This song shares a lot of its DNA with the soft pop songs of Phil Collins and Lionel Richie, etc, whose music is similarly “weak” but undoubtedly romantic. And the main way these types of songs work is by being entirely unconcerned with being artistic or respectable*. I’ve complained about this before but most artists nowadays are trying way too hard for their work to be respectable with their attempts serving only to ruin the material they have. Shawn Mendes wants to sell the pain he’s in so much that he’ll happily reach for any metaphor he can, resulting a clichéd 10-car pile-up of uninspired dreck; while Ed Sheeran wants us to feel his love so much that he ends 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; and even Zayn’s Pillow Talk, a song I pretty much like, suffers from Zayn wanting it to feel like a reinvention of the wheel when in reality it’s little more than a wheel with the word “WHEEL” written on it. Phil Collins doesn’t care though. He expresses himself how he deems fit, nevermind whether the result is respectable, zeitgeisty or not. The result is that his songs sound honest; even his crap ones (and he has a lot of them) sound fundamentally like him. This gives his work a sense of intimacy and thus a genuine sense of romance; something which is hard to achieve for artists whose works are overly workshopped and masterminded for mass appeal. When I listen to Mendes or Sheeran, I can only feel the mechanics which underlie the song’s attempts to elicit emotion; when I listen to Phil Collins, I only hear the emotion. It’s the same when I listen to One Call Away. The song’s not trying to sound cool; it’s not trying to sound bigger than it is; it’s not trying to be clever. It just is what it is. It’s honest. It’s simple. I’m able to ignore the construction of this song and just feel it because the emotion feels actually genuine.

It also helps that the song actually plays to Puth’s image. Too many people in the pop world are trying to over-reach themselves, resulting in a pop landscape of people constantly falling short of their own standards. You can see this in Puth’s last song, Marvin Gaye, which ultimately asks him, a nerdy white boy, to sell himself as a credible sex symbol comparable to one of the greatest sexual icons there’s ever been. Meanwhile See You Again asks him to deeply mourn someone he’s obviously never met before. Both just obviously ask for too much; he can’t do either. One Call Away, though, features Charlie Puth, a nerdy white boy, sitting around on the phone and trying to compare himself to the comic book character Superman. It sounds like him in a way his previous songs don’t.

It’s even internally consistent. My main complaint about Stand By Me is that Rachael Platten tries to portray herself as someone who can fight against her enemies and protect someone else from harm; this doesn’t work though because she doesn’t sound like she could fight anything. Charlie Puth isn’t fighting anyone though; the fight’s already happened and Puth’s lover has lost. Charlie’s role is thus entirely supportive here; he doesn’t sound strong but he doesn’t need to because his strength doesn’t come from his resilience and muscles. Indeed, that’s the whole point of this song to me: what we’re told are weak characteristics for a man to have are actually the strongest and most useful attributes he has, hence the “Superman” line which might sound corny (because it is) but which says some really great things gender-identity-wise. The character in this song just works; he feels like a real person. More than that, he feels like the type of person I’d like to be. Charlie Puth isn’t just likable in this song; he’s a genuine male role model.

Everything just works for me here without any of the usual mistakes that every other pop song seems willing to make. For one song, me and Puth are entirely in sync. It took him a few attempts but he’s finally released a love song which I actually find romantic. I know: the sky is falling; cats and dogs living together, mass hysteria; etc. The next thing you’ll tell me, Meghan Trainor’s released a song I really like.

Well, about that…

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* Phil Collins’ weak and sappy songs were considered weak and sappy, even when they were in the charts.

A No. 1 Review – “Stitches” by Shawn Mendes

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After a solid month of Bieber chart domination, we finally have a brand new UK No 1 and the first new No. 1 of 2016. Shame it’s bloody awful.

What’s it about? Well, Shawn Mendes’ girlfriend has broken up with him and he’s not dealing with it well. You see, life is difficult and Mendes’ girlfriend was the rock that let him deal with it. But, in his words, “now I’m without your kisses / I’ll be needing stitches”. He’s now dreading the upcoming period where he gets over her and is somewhat pessimistic about the future.

At first glance, this doesn’t seem too bad. Once again, we have a male protagonist who’s insecure, lonely and wanting to communicate that fact, something which has become a welcome trend lately. It’s also nice to have a man who isn’t going to try to keep the relationship going despite his partner’s wishes; his girlfriend has put her foot down and he’s respecting her autonomy, whether it hurts him or not. These are all good things.

But there are five massive problems that make me detest this thing:

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Problem 1: No-one producing the song cared about it at any point.

This will become more obvious the further we go.

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Problem 2: “Kisses” and “stitches” don’t even rhyme.

This doesn’t seem that bad at first but it’s the song’s main hook and they couldn’t even be arsed to get that right. Even if rest of the lyrics were skintight (which they’re not), that line would be enough for me to consider this a failure almost immediately. They just didn’t care.

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Problem 3: The story’s communicated to us entirely in cliches (all of which have already been used to much greater effect in other songs).

Your words cut deeper than a knife.” “I need someone to breathe me back to life.” “Got a feeling that I’m going under.” “You watch me bleed until I don’t breathe.” “Like a moth drawn to a flame.” “Your bitter cold heart.” “I’m left seeing red on my own.

This can barely be considered Mendes’ song: there’s no originality or depth on display at all. Of course, this shows just how deeply Shawn Mendes truly actually feels about his relationship: i.e. he barely feels anything about it at all. Why even write this song if you can’t be bothered to use more than the most basic sentiments? It wasn’t written for emotional release, it was the basis for a paycheck. They just didn’t care.

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Problem 4: The cliches are combined in ways that don’t even make sense.

“You watch me bleed until I can’t breathe.” What do bleeding and breathing have to do with each other? If you bleed enough, your organs will stop functioning and that means you’ll be unable to breathe – yes – but that’s an awful lot of dominoes that the line’s skipped just so it doesn’t have to say “You watch me bleed until I die.” But what’s wrong with the line “You watch me bleed until I die”? It’s not like every other line is a cryptic conundrum waiting to be solved; it’s not like every other line isn’t depressingly banal and self-explanatory. And if you’re going to pick one line to not do the obvious in, why pick a random line halfway through a verse and why would you still not actually manage to write it well? Even when they’re trying to raise the bar, they’re trying to do it as lazily as possible. They just didn’t care.

“Just like a moth drawn to a flame / […] Your bitter heart cold to the touch.” So is she “a flame” or “cold to the touch”? First she’s hot, then she’s cold; she’s yes, then she’s no; she’s up, then she’s down; she’s an inconsistently sketched blank space who I have to assume was inspired by no-one and doesn’t actually exist at all. They just didn’t care. And while we’re on this lyric:

“Just like a moth drawn to a flame / Oh, you lured me in.” So the first line is describing the situation from Mendes’ perspective, while the second describes it from the girlfriend’s. Yet these two lines are linked together and structured so that it sounds like it’s talking exclusively about the girlfriend: she lured him in the same way that a moth is drawn to a flame, something which doesn’t make any bloody sense at all.  All they needed to do was add something in the first line which directly tied it to Mendes: “I was a moth drawn to a flame / Oh, you lured me in”. Bam: lyric fixed. I changed two words. They just didn’t care.

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Problem 5: The main character is an unlikable arse.

Part of this is the song’s lyrics, part of it is the song’s sound. Shawn Mendes’ nasal voice just makes him sound whiny, particularly given the neediness of the lyrics. I just can’t feel sympathy for him. He’s the one who’s pinned all of his personal defects on his partner; he’s the one who used her as a battering ram against the fact that existence is hard. While certainly the blame of the relationship’s failure doesn’t entirely rest on him, he also can’t be said to be entirely without blame: he wanted more than she was willing to give and neither were willing to compromise, making things fall apart. That’s pretty much every relationship breakup in a nutshell. But does the song show anywhere near that amount of balance? Of course not. “You watch me bleed ‘til I can’t breathe […] You lured me in [and have a] bitter heat cold to the touch”. He’s just externalising his grief now: “How dare you be so attractive that I unsustainably pinned my entire personality onto you! How dare you show up all my insecurities and leave me when they become too much! This is all your fault! The relationship was entirely about my needs! None of this is my fault! Me! Me! Me! Me!” Shut up, you twat. At least when Adele writes this type of song, she has the humility to admit that some of the blame has to be carried by her. When Taylor Swift writes this type of song, she has a sense of wit. This is just the vapid whinging of a hack without an ounce of self-awareness. It is hateable. They just didn’t care.

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So it’s a song about an unlikable arse which doesn’t even have the dignity to put effort into his vindictive sneering. This song has many of the tropes of the Post-Club Age of Pop but these tropes have been used without care or attention. Stupid hacks who want to get rich on the barest of effort aren’t going to suddenly flee the pop world; as such, for every genuinely artistic song we get which is written with purpose and skill, we’re also going to get 50 songs which try to sound like it but fail. This is one of the 50: a song that gets most of the best trends currently creeping into pop but proceeds to suck at fulfilling any of them.

They just didn’t care, and that’s the worst crime of all.

A No. 1 Review: “Are You With Me” by Lost Frequencies

This year, I’ve challenged myself to write a review of every song that manages to get to No. 1 in the UK charts. Yes, I do realise that I’m running very behind schedule. Here’s the latest one:

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In my review to OMI’s Cheerleader, I asked what the miserable-sounding singer would’ve sounded like before he found his boo. Well, now I have my answer: he’d have sounded like Lost Frequencies’ Are You With Me. The two songs are almost identical: one is a minimalist melancholy club beat about a man who really wants a girlfriend, the other is a minimalist melancholy club beat about a man who really wanted a girlfriend and now has one* – they’re the same story, just set at different points in the timeline. This made it really difficult for me to like Are You With Me for a while. I couldn’t come up with any reasons why this song needed to exist when we have so many songs like it around. I couldn’t tell why people were listening to it.

It’s grown on me though. The muffled quality to the music, alongside the club-esque beats played on acoustic instruments, gives it the feel of a party which is happening really far away, placing you in two places at the same time: inside the party and outside of it, like you’re in a place which is there and also not, neither real nor fake. It creates a barrier between the listener and the party: combine this with the song’s wishful lyrics – “I wanna dance by the water ‘neath the Mexican sky” – and you really get the feeling of this song desperately grasping for something it’ll never reach. Certainly this makes it a better song than Cheerleader – it knows what atmosphere it’s going for and manages to actually achieve it, rather than OMI’s effort which I still can’t tell if it’s meant to be happy or not.

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It also follows a trend that I’ve been talking about for a long time: the Post-Club Age of Music. By taking club-esque beats and treating them as an unreachable ideal, the song reveals the utopian ideals which underlie club music for what they are: ideals and iconographies which are ultimately detached from real human experience. Who wants sex, booze and drugs and money when money is scarce, sex is unsatisfying and drugs will kill you? The narrator of Are You With Me thus represents the modern tragic hero who most people are nowadays – one whose social structures tell them that they can do anything and be whatever they want, yet whose social structures simultaneously lock them away from that ideal (and note how popular music, being made by the cultural elites for the mass populace, directly profits from there being an ideal to sell) – and his representation in this song is thus a bringing back of club music to the material reality of everyday life (and away from the invented reality).

This of course contributes to a running theme of pop songs doing this in recent years: Am I Wrong? and Nobody to Love were doing pretty the same thing this time last year. The bizarre thing is that this is a trend in the first place. These songs are deconstructions in the full Derridean sense. Indeed, the deconstructionist Post Club songs seems so distinct its own genre that I’m tempted to actually split my original definition of Post Club songs into separate camps: Deconstructionist Post Club Music and Reconstructionist Post Club Music.

Deconstructionist Post Club Music is the music I’ve talked about here: club songs which take the club form and modify them into deconstructions of themselves. Reconstructionist Post Club Music meanwhile is the music which is deliberately trying to break away from club music not by critiquing it but by supplanting it with something different: these would be songs like Sing by Ed Sheeran, Uptown Funk by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars, Bills by Lunchmoney Lewis, etc. The difference between the two is that Deconstructionist Post Club Music is dark and sad – it works by revealing the music it’s based on to be inherently unfulfilling and crap – while Reconstructionist Post Club Music still wants to be happy and danceable, it just also wants to weed out the problematic elements which have plagued former songs. Deconstructivist Post Club Music is about club music’s flaws while Reconstructionist Post Club Music wants to throw away the flaws and pretend like they don’t exist.

And then, of course, there’s the traditional club that just wants everything to say as it is: this is the works of Jess Glynne, Jason Derulo, Meghan Trainor, etc. These are the cultural elite everyone else is railing against.

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Assuming the above to be true, then my initial reaction to Are You With Me might’ve been due to me misreading what it’s trying to do. I couldn’t see why people would want to dance to this, but that assumed that the song was designed to be danced to. Post Club Music is instead designed to feel like it should be danced to when in reality it isn’t; the underwhelming lack of satisfaction to be gained from these songs is indeed the entire point of them.

And taken as a song that I’m not supposed to truly like that much, Are You With Me might be one of the best Post Club songs I’ve heard all year. At least, it is the one with the strongest command on it’s tone and purpose. Previous Post-Club songs have tried to be either danceable with sad lyrics or sound sad with happy lyrics; Are You With Me is as a sad song which is supposed to be sad and, as such, is the one that works best as a singular piece. It is the song which best fulfils the criteria of what a Deconstructionist Post-Club song should be.

Now with the current state of war between the Deconstructionists/Reconstructionists/Cultural Elite set into words, let us sit back and see how it develops in the future.

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* And heaven knows he’s miserable now.

A No. 1 Review – “Uptown Funk” by Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars

This year, I’ve challenged myself to write a review of every song that manages to get to No. 1 in the UK charts. Here’s the latest one:

I’m very glad that this song is the current UK No. 1, if only because I’m about to start posting my Top 5 No. 1 Songs of 2014 and this song is No. 2: I’ve already written the vast majority of this entry, the blog’s easy this week. I’m also glad that this song is No. 1 because I absolutely bloody love it.

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This is a massive genre pastiche of disco music which gleefully revels and celebrates it’s own influences. There’s this glorious bit about 3 minutes in where Bruno starts singing “Uptown funk you up” to the tune of The Gap Band’s Opps Upside Your Head before he starts singing “Dance, come on it!” as a direct reference to The Sugarhill Gang’s Apache (Jump On It); meanwhile in the background is a bass track which has been put through the same filter as Bon Jovi’s Livin’ on a Prayer which then turns into a slap bass breakdown leading to the chorus – this song is just a collection of the funnest, most memorable elements of the funkiest, feel-good songs ever made, all put into line and compressed into one 4-and-a-half minute parade of everything groovy. More than that, it’s expertly put together: it knows what type of song it wants to be, it knows everything about what makes up those songs and it knows exactly how the replicate them. In word of retro throwbacks where it’s contemporaries include such dross as Rude by Magic!, this song is an absolute masterpiece.

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I do have a few problems with the song, but only in terms of the way that I contextualize this type of music. I currently consider us as being in a transitory stage into 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. Lorde’s Royals and Macklemore’s Thrift Shop are the two most obvious examples of course, but I’ve written arguments claiming that Clean Bandit’s Rather Be and Zedd’s Stay the Night are too. I’d also argue that any song purposely trying to sound retro counts as Post-Club music too; the subtext of those songs seems pretty obvious to me, they’re the producers going “I’m bored to working with this stale crud, I’m going to back several years into the past when we used to make music which actually did something for me”.

The problem with producing retro songs so as to combat against the state of current music is that you’re not actually progressing anything forwards; you’re not actually producing anything new. The best periods of music’s history are driven by angry people dissatisfied with current pop music going into brand new territories and producing things never before heard – think punk music, early electronica, the Golden Age of Hip Hop, etc. I’ve heard songs like Happy, Get Lucky and Uptown Funk and I adore them, but I’m not excited by them. When I first listened to the Cardiacs, Sex Pistols, The Normals, OMD, Art of Noise, Nirvana, Grandmaster Flash or NWA, they excited me. My mind was opened to new possibilities, new ideas and new perspectives. That’s not what I’m feeling now. This is a revolution that doesn’t feel like a revolution and if Uptown Funk is part of it, then it’s part of something which is inherently flawed to me.

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None of that wannabe-socialist undergraduate toss actually means anything when I listen to the song itself though. It’s a brilliantly put together, self assured, knowingly ridiculous piece which just radiates fun from every pore. It was the only song in 2014 which, every time I listened to it, made me want to dance. It’s just perfect club music, and the fact that it’s still No. 1 means that I now have to chance to put it on 2015’s Best Of list too. If I don’t end up doing that, then pop music will have had an amazingly good year.

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Worst No. 1 Hits of 2014 – No. 3: “I Don’t Care” by Cheryl

I decided that I was going to review every song to make it to No. 1 in the UK charts. I managed to review about four. Instead, I’ve organised the songs into a list and will review the ones I liked and disliked the most. Here’s one of the ones I particularly disliked:

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You know who I don’t care about: Cheryl Cole. And this is easily one of the worst things she’s ever done*.

Firstly we already have a song where a female singer shouts “I don’t care!” over a synth beat: it was called “I Love It” by Icona Pop and Charli XCX and it was released only two years ago. This makes Cheryl’s song at worst a complete rip-off and at best surplus-to-requirement. Plagiarized or pointless: take your pick.

Secondly, the song just doesn’t work. If you’ve been inflamed by something so much that you had to dedicate an entire song to shouting about it, you’ve failed to show that you don’t care about it. “I Love It” negates this problem by having two singers shout “I don’t care, I love it!” at each other; no-one else comes into the equation, they do only care for themselves. Cheryl meanwhile is on her own, shouting directly at the audience, using the f-word at us just to make sure we’re really paying attention. She sure cares a lot about letting us know she doesn’t care.

This basically makes the song into the audio equivalent of that person who posts about how terrible their life is on Facebook only to say “it doesn’t matter” when anyone asks her what’s wrong: it’s passive-aggressive, insincere, weak, lazy, unimaginative, unbelievable and just crap. I don’t care for it at all.

* And she’s been done for assault.