Review

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: “Rockabye” by Clean Bandit feat. Sean Paul & Anne-Marie (plus a lot of other things Sean Paul featured in last year)

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

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

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“Cheap Thrills” – Sia feat. Sean Paul

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

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

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

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

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“Hair” – Little Mix feat. Sean Paul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!”)

Pop Song Review: “Me Too” by Meghan Trainor

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.


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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.

Pop Song Review – “No” by Meghan Trainor

Previously on the Blog: Charlie Puth finally delivered a good song by eschewing respectability and concentrating on just being emotive. Then it turned out that Meghan Trainor’s somehow produced a good song too.

I

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My issues with Meghan Trainor are well documented by this point: I’m not sure just how feminist her “feminist” pieces are; her attempt at a “sexualised doo-wop music” shtick just doesn’t work; and the slightly crappy way that she gets handled by her record company seems to constantly threaten to tip her into total irrelevancy. I’m just not convinced that anyone associated with the Meghan Trainor brand is truly working at their full capacity.

My main issues with her are the first two – her politics and her doo-wop aesthetic – so let’s go through them in turn:

First, the gender politics. Trainor’s work is trying to be definitively feminist: she is a sassy, empowered woman who will demand the best from her partners and is all about body positivity. The problem is that, for how progressive her messages are, they always come with highly regressive elements. Dear Future Husband is her defiantly telling her husband that she will be the perfect housewife who fucks him on demand. All About That Bass is about how much men should objectify women with large butts instead of just the “skinny bitches” (like they don’t do that enough). Her songs are problematic is my point, almost to the point of constituting a feminist-tinted fetishisation of objectification. Third wave feminism has empowered Meghan Trainor to decide to be a sex object for men who stays at home toiling over hot stoves. Which is… actually fair enough – third wave feminism is based upon the idea that women can choose to be what they want – but my god is it a strange version of a feminist ideology to shout as loudly as she does. It accepts sexist narratives about women at the same time as it openly challenges them; it’s both sexist and feminist, or maybe it’s neither, or possibly it’s both at the same time.

Secondly, the over-sexualised doo-wop aethestic. As I said in my review of Marvin Gaye: “There’s a truly adult and subversive music project to be built out of making highly sexualised songs with a 50’s doo-wop sound but the power of that project will come out of the contrast between the innocence of the music and the debauchery of the lyrics. Meghan Trainor uses innuendo and last-word switches to pretend that the lyrics of her songs are as innocent as the rest of her music and thus the point of the sexual lyrics are completely lost.” The idea just doesn’t work, and results in something as messy as her politics.

You see, doo-wop music is synonymous with 1950’s white Americana and thus can be seen as representative of one of the most conservative periods of a highly conservative country’s history. By taking this type of music and filling it with sex and innuendo, Meghan Trainor’s work could be read as an attack on this conservative era, filling it’s icons with exactly the type of messages that it served to repress and thus completely undermining its politics. But…

So much of Meghan Trainor’s lyrics are jokes based on subverting the supposed sexiness of her lyrics. Take the lyric in Dear Future Husband which is “I’ll be sleeping on the left side of the bed / Open doors for me and you might get some… kisses”. The whole joke is that those lines sound like a blowjob joke, up until the point that they don’t. So the point of Meghan Trainor’s lyrics is that they sound like dirty subversions of doo-wop music, but actually they’re not. So Meghan Trainor’s songs aren’t challenges of rightwing American ideologies, they’re actually subversions of leftwing challenges of rightwing American ideologies, baiting feminist listeners into thinking that they’re listening to a joke being played on a sexist audience until it turns that the joke’s being played on them. Only…

If Meghan Trainor’s work is actually anti-feminist, then why is it so goddamn openly feminist? All About That Bass is a self-empowerment anthem telling people who are frequently told that they’re ugly by the media that they are beautiful and deserve as much love as everyone else gets. Dear Future Husband is her definitively telling any man in her life that she wears the trousers, no matter how much it looks otherwise.

So who is this woman? Is she a feminist or a parody of feminists? Are her works challenges to the status quo or challenges to challenges to the status quo? They’re both, and thus neither, and thus both again. She’s definitely making a definitive political statement; but fuck knows what that statement actually is.

It. Just. Doesn’t. Work.

Which brings me to my ultimate problem with Meghan Trainor. Her act is actually really complicated, based upon balancing a lot of highly contradictory impulses into one political statement that needs to have full control imposed on it by it’s writer to be effective. The thing is: Meghan Trainor doesn’t seem to realise how complicated it is. She seems to think that in-your-face doo-wop songs about a woman loving her ass is enough, and hasn’t considered the full breadth of anything she’s done. The result is something incredibly overambitious being done by an incredibly unambitious person: Trainor’s works are both overstretched and desperately need more stretching.

II

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Which is what makes No so refreshing: because, ultimately, it’s a very simple song which works in a very simple, direct way.

Meghan Trainor is strutting around town, enjoying being sexy because that’s what she does, and men keep catcalling her, thinking that her being sexy means that she’s being sexy for them; she has one response to their advances though: “No”. Instead of being inspired by doo-wop music, this song’s influences appear to be R’n’B girl groups of the 90’s, taking it’s inspiration from feminist acts like Destiny’s Child and from the heyday of Girl Power. It’s simple, it’s precise and, you know what, it’s effective. She gets her message across in a clean two letters: “No”. Job done. The result is an uncomplicated immediacy that actually results in something quite enjoyable.

It also helps that the message is one that really needs saying. Men need to be told “No” more (of course, getting us to listen in another thing, but we at least need telling). This gives it a one-up over even All About That Bass which, while being a very pronounced version of the form, is ultimately just another body empowerment anthem of the type that has been made a lot during the past few decades; hell, the only thing truly separating it from Baby Got Back is the gender of the singer. Meanwhile, I can’t think of another recent song whose central message was “It’s ok to say no to sexual advances if you don’t want them”. I’m struggling to think of another song with that message period. It’s saying something that needs saying but that no-one else is; combine that with the fact that it says it rather well and you have a song which can genuinely be considered to be important.

Solidifying the need for this song is the way it’s currently being treated by radio presenters. After it was played on Signal 1*, the presenter came on air and said that Trainor “would never get a boyfriend with that attitude”. A presenter on BBC Radio 1 pretended to be Meghan Trainor singing the song, giving her the voice of an ugly spinster due to the song’s message. Well done on missing the point, you fucks. If this is how the people being paid to play the song as part of their shows are reacting to it, then my God is this song needed. Hell, they should play it instead of the presenters. I’m half tempted to start a radio station where this song is played 24/7 on a loop just to even out the balance.

At this point, the fact that it fixes a lot of my problems with Trainor’s earlier works is just the cherry on the cake. I really like this song, and am glad that I keep hearing it on the radio. It’s Trainor’s best song by a country mile. And that’s because it keeps it simple.

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Her latest song though: that’s something much more complicated…

* A radio station designed for people afraid of actual content. Listening to the station for more than a single day is the aural equivalent of listening to a tumbleweed with access to a Facebook account; it’s awful.

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

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

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

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

Yet… I really like this song.

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

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

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

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

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

Well, about that…

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