No 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thus was Britain in the summer of 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A No. 1 Review – “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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I

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.

II

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**.

III

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.