No 1

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.

A No. 1 Review[s] – “Say You Won’t Let Go” by James Arthur and “Shout Out to my Ex” by Little Mix

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:

Say You Won’t Let Go – James Arthur

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Bog-standard Post Club track where man makes himself look sensitive against a non-existent backdrop of mush. Literally nothing of interest contained in here at all.

Shout Out to My Ex – Little Mix

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Bog-standard Little Mix track in which they respond to male oppression by being so girly as to become untouchable. Of course, this is all that’s required to make the song one of my favourites of the year; it’s just that, from the point of view of this blog, it leaves very little to say other than it’s an repeat of “Love Me Like You“, which in turn was a repeat of “Black Magic“, only without the magic bits.

And… honestly, that’s it. I racked my brain for months for something worth saying about these songs which didn’t just repeat something I’ve already said; alas, there was nothing. 2016 was just horribly boring and uninspired, I cannot overstate that. By way of apology, my next post is a doozy: it barely mentions the song it’s supposed to (which is probably no surprise to my readers by this point) but what it does say, I think, is interesting. And besides, I need to start getting stuff out of the way because, right at the moment, Ed Sheeran needs tackling. Prepare yourselves: the blog’s about to get messy.

A No. 1 Review – “Cold Water” by Major Lazer feat. MØ and Justin Bieber

Part One
(in which I don’t talk about the song)

I haven’t updated this blog in a while. In between moving house, starting a PhD, working a part-time job, trying to understand Brexit and staring dumbfoundedly at Donald “Racist Paedo-Rapist” Trump, the blog has ended up taking a backseat. It didn’t help just how godawfully uninspiring pop music was during mid-2016. Every new pop song released that year became some anonymous man whinging pathetically about loneliness against a murky soundtrack of nothing. These types of song were welcome when they were a bubbling subgenre combating the more sociopathically masculine songs prevalent during the Club era of pop, but as a dominant mode of pop, they’ve just become overbearingly dull.

They’ve also become overbearingly fowl. Pretty much every new song by a male artist recently has been the same, and they’ve all been horribly offensive. To pick just three examples:

Calum Scott – Dancing on my Own 

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A painfully trite vocal delivery accompanied by standard non-existent acoustic accompaniment, designed to sound like the emotional story of a poor boy who’s been unfairly rejected to cover up the fact that the song’s lyrics are actually about a stalker who is tailing the object of his affection while she and her boyfriend go on dates. The narrator has secretly followed his target and her partner to a nightclub and is singing the entire song from the corner of the dancefloor, moaning about how she won’t look at him. Frankly he’s lucky she hasn’t seen him, otherwise he’s liable to have a restraint order slapped on him. And maybe, just maybe, he’d be less lonely if he didn’t spend all his time hiding in nightclubs, pitying himself. The result is a song that requires you to deeply sympathise with a potential criminal as he does the stupidest thing he could possibly do in his situation, trying to morph a self-defeating stalker into some form of tragic hero. Fuck it.

Shawn Mendes – Treat You Better

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Shawn Mendes (again!) is whining about how he would treat his love better than her current partner, because he’s a man and thus knows what’s good for her better than she does. Because that’s what’s best for a woman: to have her opinions controlled by a man who decides what she does/doesn’t like for her. Presumably her current boyfriend is giving her too much autonomy while she should be in Mendes’ bedroom, preparing herself for future sex. Fuck him.

Michael Buble – Nobody But Me

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“Baby, I get a little bit jealous / But how the hell can I help it / When I’m thinking on you? / Maybe, I might get a little reckless / But you gotta expect that / What else can a boy do?”

I don’t know, Michael Buble: how about you not be a reckless, jealous asshole; can we expect a man to do that? Michael Buble’s love-interest is so beautiful that Buble can’t help but become a controlling, paranoid arse in her presence. Because a man being a unlikable, quasi-abusive prick isn’t the man’s fault, it’s actually the fault of women because they’re just too damn sexual. And of course, Michael Buble’s intensely sexist nature is treated as something which is light-hearted and funny. He’s so nice, isn’t he, that Michael Buble; so full of banter; so cute; so charming. While he dances around, freely admitting that he knows he’s a terrible person and doesn’t feel like changing that; he’s so nice, isn’t he?.

“I know, know, know that no one would ever blame me”

Actually, yes I will. I blame you, Michael Buble, for being a jealous, reckless, emotionally manipulative, lying piece of shit. It is entirely your fault. Try to be better, or fuck yourself.

I could go on. The Post-Club era of pop has become the go-to genre for assholes to gain empathy and credibility by portraying their pathetic sociopathic personality defects as tragic flaws enacted upon them by women. What used to be a relatively feminist form has now become home to ugly Men’s-Rights bullshit. And this is the default mode of one of the most dominant forms of mass entertainment. It can go die.

There is another type of Post-Club song which is at least tolerable though: the “I want to support my love” type. There are an awful lot of men who don’t want to control their lovers but instead just wish to be there for them, including Charlie PuthZayn (to a lesser extent), and now Cold Water’s Major Lazor, Justin Beiber and MØ. Yes, underlying these songs is the same type of egotism which defines the “I AM EVERYTHING A WOMAN COULD WANT, WHY AM I SO LONEY, ME ME ME WAH!!!!!” type of Post-Club song, coming with the implication that the woman’s life would be unbearable if the man wasn’t there and thus basically writing her own resilience and sense-worth out of the picture entirely. At the very least though, they have the consciousness to feature a man trying to make the world better as opposed to the Michael Bubles of the world who are actively making it worse and have simply decided not to care.

Part Two
(in which I actually talk about the song)

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The problem is that the “Support My Love” songs are still just really bland with there being almost nothing to actually differentiate them. Take this song – Cold Water – which is a minimalistically composed track using a water metaphor to describe the narrator’s emotional turmoil – LIKE. EVERY. SINGLE. OTHER. SONG.

This is particularly painful given the people involved. MØ is an actual credible artist with a individual style and everything. Major Lazer is the fantastic guy behind the idiosyncratic Pon De Floor and the frankly batshit Bubble Butt. And while Beiber is definitely the weak link of the trio, his more recent work shows him finally adding a bit of substance to his work. These people joining together should be able to produce something with a bit of flavour to it. Alas not.

The main problem with this song is just how pre-functionary most of it is. Let’s take the water metaphor, which I’m not sure even counts as a metaphor. Justin Beiber’s and MØ are boyfriend and girlfriend, MØ being so depressed that she feels like she is “drowning” in “cold water” while Beiber is willing to “jump right over into [the] cold, cold water for” her if it’d help. At no point do either use any puns, wordplay, imagery or allusions to sell this scene and it’s emotion to the audience; they just state their emotions and intentions through a vaguely nautical lexis and pretend that there’s somehow a literary quality in this. “You feel you’re sinking.” “I will jump right over into cold, cold water for you.” “I will still be patient with you.” “I won’t let you go.” These are just short, sharp, unemotive statements. They sound like a schoolchild who was given a bad report and is writing how they’ll take steps to be better. There’s a clinicalness to it all; a sense of stoicness which undercuts the fact that it’s supposed to be about complicated emotional states.

Of course, pop music lyrics are infamously declarative. One of my favourite songs ever is So Lonely by the Police and most of that song is just the words “I feel so lonely” repeated over and over again. There are certain types of emotion that this declarative style works for and certain types that it doesn’t though. So Lonely is an angry, desperate song: the repetition of the words “I feel so lonely” is thus an anguished cry made after all else has failed, particularly when squeezed through Sting’s idiosyncratic voice. 90’s rave music was incredibly self descriptive too, one of it’s most famous lyrics being “EVERYBODY DANCE NOW!“, but it was a genre of songs designed entirely to get people dancing: the directness of their lyrics thus serves to keep the audience focussed on the dance and ensures that their central lyrics remain as commands.

In short, these declarative lyrics are good for release. Sting has pent-up emotions which have built-up until he has no option but just spurt them out at quickly as he can, while rave music wants people to stop moping and start dancing (and by God will it make them). The problem is that Cold Water isn’t about release, it’s about managing things, working through issue and remaining methodical. It needs to feel thought-through; there needs to be some substance to it. Yet there isn’t. Directness was the wrong path to take; we needed something more subtle.

Part 3
(in which I conclude)

That said, above all else, the main issue is that both the “I AM GREAT” songs and “I WILL HELP YOU BE GREAT” songs are just not being written that well and they are not being written by people who seem to audibly care. “I WILL HELP YOU BE GREAT” songs are the better type as at least they remain dull as opposed to actively punchable. This does not mean these songs are good though; it merely means that they are not as bad as they could be. Ultimately the reason why I took a break from writing this blog was the frequent sense that I was trying harder than the song writers. This is one of the songs that stopped me writing.

(Cue people in the comments: “And you should have continued not writing!”)

A No. 1 Review – “I Took a Pill in Ibiza” by Mike Posner

Previously on The Written Tevs: Pop music has moved away from being predomeninately Club Music to being what I refer to as “Pop-Club Music”, characterised by dour men whining against minimal synth/acoustic guitar accompaniment while women run around club shouting about sex.

And now back to our scheduled program:

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Mike Posner has written a Post-Club song. Mike Posner. Mike Posner has a Post-Club song.

Mike Posner is one of those artists who’s regularly in the charts, yet has never produced a single note that anyone’s ever remembered. I promise you, most of the people who listen to this song on the radio will not know who sung it and will never realise they’ve heard another song by him. The reason for this is that the guy’s a pop culture chameleon: he writes whatever’s popular at the time in an actively inoffensive way, thus ensuring that a) unadventurous trend followers will buy his work in their millions and b) no-one will ever recognise the work as his because it’s lack of identifying features will allow it to disappear into the back of whatever party playlist it eventually becomes part of.

You can see this if you compare his biggest hit – Cooler Than Me – and his latest song – I Took A Pill in Ibiza – to the other songs that were popular when they were released. Cooler Than Me was released in the second half of the Club Age of Pop and had techno instrumentals, a cocky vocal delivery and an entitled set of lyrics which befitted pop’s self-aggrandising hedonistic nightclub ideology of the time. Now though, things have changed and so Mike Posner’s last hit is an underwritten acoustic whinge lamenting his wasted days clubbing in Ibiza (thus making this song pretty much a straight rejection of the ideology underlying every other song he’s released for a decade now).

Even with his inoffensive blandness though, Mike Posner still manages to be infuriating because if he does have a personality, then it’s one of a whiny self-involved douche. This is particularly true for Cooler Than Me which is primarily composed of Posner moaning about a girl at a party who won’t sleep with him because she thinks she’s “cooler than me”. The only problem is that, by the lyrics own admission, the woman is someone who’s enjoying herself and has tons of interest from several other men while Posner is sat in the corner of the room, moaning to himself about how he’s not getting any. She’s totally cooler than him. She’s completely in the right. If I was that woman, I wouldn’t sleep with Mike Posner either.

This sense of sneering that Posner cultivates feeds into I Took a Pill in Ibiza too. When he mournfully sings “I’m living out in LA / I drive a sports car just to prove / I’m a real big baller cause I made a million dollars / And I spend it on girls and shoes”, it’s meant to be an ironic counterpoint which takes the hedonistic images of club music and turns them into empty icons of defeat; but to me it just sounds like he’s still bragging about these things, only he’s doing it in a way that allows him to pretend he feels sad about it all. “Oh I live in a nice house with a manicured lawn and meet my fans in the streets and drive nice cars and have lots of money; it’s horrible.” Bite me. It’s a brag song pretending to be the opposite; I don’t believe in it.

Maybe I’m being unfair on the song though. Indeed, I’m almost definitely being unfair on the song. It does raise the very good point that a life of fame isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, and the idea of making it an acoustic song with subverted club lyrics is very clever, if somewhat zeitgeisty. And a world in which even the most uninspired of artists are paying lip-service to Post-Club values is a better world than one where they’re not. All in all-

Wait, the song that actually hit No. 1 is the SeeB remix of I Took a Pill in Ibiza?

THE CURRENT UK NO. 1 IS A CLUB REMIX OF A SONG CRITICISING CLUB MUSIC?!?

Why would you even remix such a song? Posner’s original lyrics took club tropes and manipulated them to satirical effect; to then revert these lyrics back into a traditional club song just misses the damn point. I don’t believe Mike Posner’s original song but I can at least respect what it’s doing; this remix is less than pointless, it actively refutes it’s own meaning.

That said, I actually quite like the remixes’ sound: it has this nice half-club/half-ambient sound which reminds me of Lost Frequencies’ Are You With Me and improves quite a bit of the bland acoustic stylings of the original. It’s also much nicer to listen to than contemporaries such as Stitches (whose music is almost non-existent) and Lukas Graham (who’s still too hokey for my tastes). It still doesn’t need to exist though and doesn’t sound good enough to make up for that fact.

So yeah, all versions of this song just suck. In the case of the original, it’s mostly Mike Posner: no matter what the lyrics say, it’s still the voice from Bow Chicka Wow Wow telling me how hard his life is. In case of the remix, I don’t even know why it exists, nevermind why it’s popular. Mike Posner, even when he’s basically alright, is still hard to like. I would say that I hope that this is the last I time I hear him but I know that it won’t be; I just need to wait for the next zeitgeist to come along.

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What was I saying about Posner not being original?

A No. 1 Review – “Pillow Talk” by Zayn Malik

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Boy bands don’t write about sex, they write about relationships. The Jonas Brothers, One Direction, N*Sync, etc: they’re squeaky clean poster boys who present themselves as safe gentlemen (occasionally with a “dangerous” edge) who want to hold your hand in secret and very little else. This happens largely because we think that sex isn’t the type of thing that little girls should be preoccupied with. Even when bands like Five Days of Summer talk about their girlfriends being in nothing but their underwear, they’re more concerned with the specific brand of underwear than what their girlfriends actually look like.

Of course, this repression makes all boy band songs entirely about sex. Their audience still sexualise boy band members and fantasize about them (of course they do, they’re teenage girls) but now it’s entirely disconnected to the music itself and thus becomes a subversive act, carrying with it an exciting thrill because it’s exactly the thing they’re told they shouldn’t be doing. Now the listeners and the band truly do have a secret between them and thus have the personal bond, strengthening the idea that the band and the listener have a relationship that’s important. As such, when One Direction sing about how they and their audience go on “secret rendezvous”, they’re actually talking about the very act of listening to One Direction songs themselves*. Listening to your favourite boy band is a sexual experience in itself.**

This effect does provide former boy band members with an easy way of separating themselves from their past work though: just make your first song directly about sex instead of defining it by it’s lack and bam, job done. This is what Justin Timberlake did in his first song post-N*Sync: “Just be limber […] You will know the difference when I touch you […] Funny how a few words turn into sex“. And, of course, this is what Zayn Malik does in his first solo song, Pillow Talk.

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I mean, it’s there in the title: Pillow Talk, the period after sex. Indeed, it’s interesting that Malik has set his song immediately post-sex: you and Malik have just slept together (doing so when you listened to him during his One Direction days) and now this song is about the two of you talking about it retrospect, moving away from the sexual action itself and getting into the nitty-gritty of what that sex meant to each other.

And what was that sex according to Malik? Well, it was a subversive act. “So we’ll piss off the neighbours / In the place that feels the tears / […] Yeah, reckless behavior”. By listening to each other, you were breaking the rules and that confliction (between the “paradise” of sexual release and the “war zone” of modern gender politics) was what made the experience so satisfying, so important.

Basically, Malick spends this song explaining how his previous ones worked. But why? Well, to stop them from working.

As said before, the sexual trill of listening to a boy band is meant to be a secret; that’s what makes the songs so meaningful to the listener. But this song reveals the secret; as such, it’s a secret no more and so the thrill of listening to the music is gone. The secret is dead, and so is the boy band. Now Malik and his audience can finally move onto other things and produce new work which is listened to in a different way**.

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The only problem is that there isn’t really that much showing what this new work might be like. There are clues that his work will be more “adult”, what with it’s respectful piano music, the conscious use of swear words and movement from relationships to sex. But if this is the new direction that Malik’s going in, then it’s a deeply unsatisfying one because this direction can barely be considered “new”. The piano work has shades of Adele, John Little, Jamie Lawson, Sam Smith and even, God forbid, Charlie Puth. It’s rawer than those artists, yes, but even that rawer direction shares a lot of it’s themes and techniques with modern-era Justin Beiber, keeping Malik tied directly to another artist predominately known for being a teenage heart-throb. Lastly, the song’s use of swear words and sexual allusions sound to me to be what immature people think mature work is like; i.e. stuffed with sex and rude words. As such, if Zayne Malik is going in new, edgy direction leading us towards his new vision of pop, then his plan is flawed because his vision for pop doesn’t actually appear to be that original at all, nor does it seem to be particularly cohesive.

Not that I’m uninterested in where he goes next. If this song is about him deconstructing the world so as to make room for the music he wants to make, then it’s highly possible that his new vision for pop music will be revealed in the next song as opposed to this one. As it stands, Pillow Talk is a surprisingly interesting and ambitious song which Malik genuinely couldn’t have made within the limitations of One Direction. Even if time does prove it to be failure, at least he tried. It’s certainly better than One Direction’s History at any rate.

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* At one point, I do have to write an essay about how all of One Direction’s songs are metafictional works about the relationship between the band and the listener themselves; this theme has a tendency to come up.

**Of course, this works to normalise the idea that female sexual desire should be kept secret and shouldn’t be shown in polite society – little girls are taught that the most important feature of sex is the idea that it’s secret and that by voicing this desire, they make their sexual experiences less worthwhile – but still.

*** This can also be read in a feminist way, removing the idea that female desire that should be kept secret and instead arguing that it should be fully indulged in, whether other people like it or not. I think Malik himself is more focused on the metafictional properties of his song though, the Little-Mix-esque feminist reclamation being little more than a very welcome side effect.

TheWrittenTevs’ Top 5 Best No. 1’s of 2015

It’s time. My Top 5 UK No 1’s of 2015. I’ve run out of ways of introducing these lists. Let’s get to business.

No. 5 – “Sorry” by Justin Bieber

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2015 has been the year where Bieber rose from being universally derided to surprisingly likable. Completely accidentally, his rise has been pretty accurately captured in microcosm on this blog: burnt out on this summer’s tasteless dirge of completely incompetent trash, I savaged Bieber in my first review of his work before giving it more of a chance and finding that actually his current work’s alright. For the first time in his career, it seems like Bieber is an actual living thing; it’s amazing how much being basically human will make people like you.

It does also help that Sorry has a pretty nice beat and an above-par set of lyrics. I even grew to like the line “Because I’m missing more than your body” which originally sounded like a standard singer-trying-to-be-emotional-but-unable-to-get-past-sex sentiment when in reality the sentiment’s closer to singer-wants-to-be-able-to-get-past-sex-but-can’t.

Wait a minute – Bieber’s dissatisfied with making songs about hollow sex and wants to make more fulfilling material about genuine emotions? Holy crap,  he’s a Reconstructionist. That’s how much the pop world is changing under our feet right now. Damn.

Full Review

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No. 4 – “Not Letting Go” by Tinie Tempah feat. Jess Glynne

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Surprise!

I can’t stand Jess Glynne. If Bieber is representative of the best trends of 2015, Glynne represents the worst. Her lyrics are disconnected from any sense of real emotion, they barely manage to fit together, there is absolutely no variation between any of them, and she just doesn’t seem to care about anything she produces. Unsurprisingly then, Glynne is easily the worst element of this song: she comes in spewing a bunch of her own cliches, doesn’t care that they’re entirely disconnected from the verses, and largely serves to drag everything down.

Goddamn if I don’t love the verses though. Tinie Tempah raps about a girl he likes and he sounds like he means it: that is fucking rare at the moment. More than that, the person he describes has a personality: she likes records, she enjoys singing, she’s carefree and fun. She’s alive. We actually had a love song in 2015 which was about someone.

People keep telling me that I’m needlessly harsh on pop music. I’m not though; I just want it to be written with a bit of competence. If you’re writing a love song about someone, I want to know about them and what makes you love them. An ass does not a relationship make; an ass does not a girlfriend make. Tinie Tempah’s verses were the only ones in the charts this year which sounded like they were actually written about someone, and for that they got the No. 4 spot.

Full Review

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No. 3 – “What Do You Mean” by Justin Bieber

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I’m as surprised as you are that Justin’s appeared twice on this list. When I started writing my essay on this song, claiming that it was a well crafted exploration of loneliness in the postmodern age, I was being a bit facetious: I thought I was taking the piss. Once I finished the essay though, I was actually convinced I was right. More than that, I actually grew to like the song the more I wrote about it. That essay is now my favourite post this year. It just goes to show, you can convince yourself to like something through concerted effort. Thanks Bieber, I’ve learnt so much from you this year.

Full Review

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No. 2 – “Love Me Like You Do” by Ellie Goulding

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I have spent a lot of time on this blog complaining about how most pop music is just vapid men oogling women because they’ve got attention spans even shorter than their overcompensated dicks. I’m still a straight man though and I have to admit: this song is sexy. Ellie Goulding’s delivery is sexy. The production is sexy. The lyrics are sexy. Pretty much every song on the charts nowadays is about sex, but this is the only song released this year which I’d consider sexy.

And the amazing thing is that this song is pretty much fanfic based on Fifty Shades of Grey, a deeply unpleasant book which tries to romanticise a man who is clearly a sociopath and borderline rapist. This song is aware of the problems with it’s source material though and is able to negate them while still staying true to the book. That is an astoundingly hard thing to manage. Every word has to have the exact right connotation to avoid sending the entire piece directly to Problemville: the control has to be immense. Yet Ellie Goulding pulls it off. The fact that she’s actually able to make the lyrics sexy too is just the icing on the cake. Out of all the No. 1s this year, Love Me Like You Do is the easily best written by far. It’s not quite my favourite though.

Full Review

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And finally, my favourite No. 1 of 2015:

No. 1 – “Black Magic” by Little Mix

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It’s a feminist magick trick designed to change “wanting sex” from being a predominately male thing to something that both genders can do (without shame and all!). That should be genuinely enough to justify it’s place on the list. How many songs can be summarised as a “feminist magick trick”? If the answer was more than one, we’d live in a much better world than we do now.

I’m not even really sure what to say about this: I just really like it. Much like I Really Like You, it’s joy is infectious; it just makes me happy to be alive. I love Little Mix’s Love Me Like You too, and their album Get Weird is pretty damn good. I just love that there’s a group aimed at teenage girls who are telling them that they can be as strange as they wish, as long as they’re happy. I love that they’re telling them that they can be weird and individual, yet still can have friends, love and sex; that they can still be accepted as functional members of society even if they decide to do their own thing. In a world featuring You Don’t Know You’re Beautiful and Nick Jonas’ Jealous, we have a band who are telling teenage girls to be proud of themselves and to live full, enriched lives which are defined entirely on their own terms. Little Mix are important. They’re a shining beacon in a world of shit. I love them.

I just hope that more people take their lead. At the very least, I definitely want more Little Mix in the charts as we head our way into the vagueness that is 2016.

Full Review

TheWrittenTevs’ Top 5 Worst No. 1’s of 2015

So the year’s over and we’ve covered all of 2015’s No. 1s; I guess there’s nothing left but to rank them and come to some final conclusions. As such, here’s my list of the Worst No. 1’s of the year (posted before my best list because people always prefer to read negative things than the positive).

No. 5 – “Fight Song” by Rachael Platten

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I don’t know if my review of Fight Song comes off as too positive or not. Certainly the song is better than most other songs in it’s subgenre: it identifies the problems inherent in other songs and fixes them quite nicely. The problem is that it doesn’t do anything other than that, resulting in a song that isn’t “Good” as much as it’s “Not bad”. It also results in a song which is almost personality-less, a particular problem when the song is about defining Rachael Platten’s personality in defiance of everything around her. The entire thing is just a massive disappointment: every time I listen to it, I want to be listening to something else.

Full Review

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No. 4 – “Lips Are Moving” by Meghan Trainor

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At the time, I predicted that this song would turn Meghan Trainor into a one hit wonder. She then went on to gain another No. 1 hit and contribute to the soundtrack of a relatively successful animated film. I’m still not convinced I’m incorrect though. Firstly: the other No. 1 she got was by appearing on someone else’s song with all of her own singles post-Lips Are Moving not receiving half the success enjoyed previously. And yes, she provided one of the songs for a popular animated film but have you actually heard it on the radio (particularly given how Happy and Let It Go are still pretty common tunes)? As such, I stand by my original statement but with a few minor adjustments: Lips Are Moving is the song which turned Meghan Trainor from a world-conquering icon into a B-list artist few people care about. For that, I suppose I should be thankful; it still doesn’t make the song any good though.

Full Review

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No. 3 – “See You Again” by Wiz Khalifa feat. Charlie Puth

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An obituary written by people who obviously didn’t care for the deceased. I didn’t like this song from the start but it received it’s final sentencing in a Todd in the Shadows video where he played it over several sport montages, proving just how un-sad it sounds. This has been a really morose year in pop – Adele’s moaning about her exes again, Beiber’s confused and sorry, people keep going down to rivers and thinking about what they’ve done – yet the one song that’s definitively written about the death of someone that most people know can also be used to soundtrack American Football games: that’s how unfit for purpose See You Again is.

Full Review

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No. 2 – “Drag Me Down” by One Direction

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Out of all the songs this year, few were outright unpleasant. This was. An ugly attempt to cling onto their fanbase by being relentlessly mean to them, it just left a bad taste in the mouth. I don’t understand how anyone behind the scenes thought that any of this could work. A mean spirited failure: One Direction’s worst song by a mile and one of the worst songs I’ve ever written a review for.

Full Review

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And the Worst No. 1 of 2015:

“Hold My Hand” by Jess Glynne

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Well, who else could get the top spot?

This blog has a certain set of values for what it calls “Good music” and what it calls “Bad Music”. No artist so relentlessly rejected the good music values while embracing the bad than Jess Glynne did. Her work pretends to be interesting when in reality it’s meaningless; it pretends to be artistic when it’s cliched and worthless. Its deceitful and thinks its audience are idiots. Unfortunately, given how many Jess Glynne songs hit No. 1 this year, we kept proving it right. As far as this blog’s concerned, Jess Glynne is Public Enemy No. 1, and now she’s got this year’s No. 1 Worst Song.

Full Review

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So those are the songs I hated; which ones did I like? Stay tuned and find out.