Yeah, I apologise about all these Meghan Trainor posts. Blame Drake: he’s been at No. 1 for way too long now and I need something to talk about. Seriously, One Dance does not deserve to be No. 1 still.
The problem with most current (Post-Club era) pop music is that it’s being written by hacks who are over-stretching themselves, trying too hard to be respectable, and (as a result) are writing things which they’re not suited to doing. As an inverse of this, Charlie Puth has recently written a good song by not trying to be respectable and by writing something that fits his public persona, while Meghan Trainor has finally written a good song by simplifying her work to the point where she’s actually capable of doing it.
If Meghan Trainor’s No represents a step forwards for her though, then her next single, Me Too, proves that she hasn’t improved as much as she’s progressed. You see, improvement implies that someone was making mistakes they don’t make anymore, while progression implies that they’ve stopped making old mistakes and are now making brand new ones. Meghan’s current works fit the later.
The problem with Trainor’s first album, quite surprisingly, was that her work was actually ridiculously complicated and thus somewhat out of her reach. Me Too, much like No, fixes this by actually being very simple: it’s a bog-standard brag track, nothing more, nothing less. More than that, it’s a song which requires Trainor to be a sickly egotist, something she does well. Add to this over-the-top egotism an over-the-top club beat (and note how I’ve frequently equated ego and club songs on this blog, making them good matches for each other) and you have a song which fundamentally makes sense as a cohesive piece. It isn’t over-stretching itself, it works entirely on it’s own terms, and it works within a framework in which Meghan Trainor’s personality fits. Unlike anything from her last album, there’s a genuine accusation of competence to be made here.
I really like the music too. It’s highly processed and wobbly: in short, it doesn’t sound like a Meghan Trainor song. This might sound like damning with faint praise but Meghan Trainor is meant to be a subversive figure: as such, her work should be actively trying to subvert expectations. The doo-wop sound doesn’t do that anymore (it’s too closely associated with her, and it’s not exactly like old fashioned music is rare on the radio nowadays) but Me Too does, shocking you because it’s exactly the opposite of what you’re expecting Trainor to sound like. Again, it’s a step forward for her and one that marks a movement away from the “respectable” sound of the innocent 50’s to a more challenging one.
So Me Too is yet another song that doesn’t over-stretch itself, isn’t concerned with using respectable forms and is directly tied to the singer’s personality. To all intents and purposes, it’s good pop music.
Except it’s missing one thing: a point. For art to mean something, it needs a point; if you want to speak to people, you first need something to say. Pop music has historically done even more than that though. Pop music, for most of it’s history, has been positively alchemal.
Pop music largely came around in the 1950’s alongside the invention of Rock ‘n’ Roll and the teenager (this is greatly disputable but let’s slightly bawderise the invention of pop for the purposes of what is fundamentally a blog post) and has historically been the way that youth culture has imposed it’s values and ideas on the world around it. Rock ‘n’ Roll; Glam; Punk; New Wave; Grunge; Rap – all of it is the new generation commenting on and imposing itself upon the world of the old generation. Tellingly, all represented stepping stones to a better world: Glam and New Wave were about transgressing the modern world in order to bring a more utopian one into existence, Rock ‘n’ Roll and Punk were about tearing down the modern world so it could be replaced, and Rap was about creating a media form in which black voices would actually be taken seriously. As such, a fundamental part of pop music is to critique, challenge and (attempt to) supplant the world around it. Through the power of word and sound, new worlds are created, old ones are crushed, and everything is rendered better. It’s magick.
As such, to me, a fundamental part of pop music is alchemal critique: in short, a pop song should identify a problem and then create a solution. No does that – if being hassled by men, tell them to piss off. One Call Away does that – if your girlfriend’s sad, talk to her and help. I Really Like You and Bills did it, as did Black Magic – if you’re feeling done-in, express that feeling; if sexist society is trying to repress you, actively refuse repression.
Which returns us to Drake’s One Dance, the song that doesn’t deserve to be No. 1 still. If pop needs a problem and a solution, then my issue with One Dance is fundamentally that this song lacks both (Drake has no problems because he’s in love, even if he doesn’t sound like it; and if the song does present us with a problem, then it’s the need to close the disconnect between the words and the way they’re presented, something which the song never does). Thus the reason why I’m so set against it: in many ways, I can’t truly define it as pop. It barely counts as a song to me.
To a lesser extent, the same goes for Me Too. This song has no problem because Meghan Trainor, in the context of the lyrics, is so awesome that nothing will ever be able to affect her. If the song does present a problem/solution though, then it’s the same one present in Black Magic – sexist society keeps bringing women down, so Meghan Trainor isn’t going to let it. The only problem is that Black Magic is about womanhood: when Little Mix enter the club, they represent every woman who has ever done so. Me Too has too many references to Trainor’s adoring fans, her work in studios and her general lifestyle to be about anyone but Meghan Trainor though; as such, the song’s solution to institutionalized sexism becomes that you should be a mega-successful, award-winning pop star, something which is highly unlikely to happen and, as a piece of advice, is next to useless. Plus, a large of the song is that most people want to be like Meghan Trainor and will never manage it, meaning that a valid reading of the song’s meaning would be “Society actively tries to repress you; you can’t win; so give up”. So it might provide a solution, but it’s solutions are awful.*
What this song does allow us to do though, alongside One Call Away and No, is finally define what aspects make a song good/worthwhile and what aspects don’t (as least according to the aesthetic standards of this blog). In order to be worthwhile, a song needs to do four things:
- Use an appropriate form for it’s message, not just what’s popular at the moment
- Work within the singer’s character and abilities
- Work within the writer’s character and abilities
- Identify a problem and propose a valid solution
Conversely, bad music chases the zeitgeist no matter what, overstretches the singer/writer beyond their abilities, and either has no problem to solve or no valid way of solving it. In short, pop music needs to have a purpose for existing and be written well. Is that too much to ask?
Of course, now we’ve defined it like this, there’s almost certainly going to be a large batch of songs which prove me wrong. Either that or there’ll be songs that appear which fulfil all the above criteria but which I still don’t like.** For the moment though, I think it explains a lot of my problems with Post-Club Music, and it represents a new starting point that we can build on later. It might not be an improvement but signifies a progression: it won’t make up for the blog’s mistakes of the past but at least it will allow me to go off and make some brand new ones.
* Please note that it is not enough to make a solution, it has to be a valid one. A valid solution doesn’t have to be an easy-to-achieve one though, nor does it even have to be particularly sane: it just needs to give the listener something to do which they could feasibly manage.
** Hell, I’m not convinced that my review of Stitches hasn’t already disproven me. I suppose it depends on how you define the word “valid”: Shawn Mendes’ problem was that his girlfriend’s dumped him and his solution was to be a whiny self-important prick, something I don’t consider valid.