Zayn

The Worst UK No. 1’s of 2016 (posted April 2017)

With Rockabye covered, we’ve finally got to the end of 2016. At last, we can finally chuck the year away and leave it to fester in it’s well deserved pit. But first, time to cross some t’s and dot some i’s with the mandatory Best-Of and Worst-Of lists (posted only a quarter of the way into the year that came after it). First up is the worst list, purely because more people always prefer to read the negative stuff:



Special Mentions

‘Dancing on My Own’ – Calum Scott

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This would’ve been No. 1 on this list had it reached No. 1 in the charts: a detestable track done by an unpleasant stalker pretending to be deep and sensitive. As I’ve already said: this song wants 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‘. As I’ve also said: ‘Fuck it‘.



The List Itself

#5: ‘Say You Won’t Let Go’ – James Arthur

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This song isn’t bad. In fact, I think it’s fine. It knows what it wants to do and it does it in a way that isn’t actively unpleasant. It is boring though. It takes every trope that every dull male artist used this year and proceeds to do nothing with them. Nothing. And unfortunately for it, there were only 11 UK No 1’s during 2016, meaning that the lower end of this list was always going to feature things I didn’t care for as opposed to things I actively hated. The No. 5 spot eventually became a choice between this song and Justin Bieber’s Love Yourself; Love Yourself does more interesting things so this got the chop. Sometimes ‘fine’ doesn’t cut it.

#4: ‘Pillow Talk’ – ZAYN

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Again, I don’t hate this song. I am disappointed by it though. It was the first single from a departing One Direction member, promising a new direction for Zayn as an icon and a new type of music primed to shake up the charts. It delivered on neither of those promises. The end result is something which wanted ‘to feel like a reinvention of the wheel‘ but was ‘little more than a wheel with the word “WHEEL” written on it‘. The world does not need a post-One-Direction Zayn and it didn’t need this.

#3: ‘One Dance’ – Drake feat. Wizkid & Kyla88
I don’t get Drake and I particularly don’t get this. It’s a miserable, confused, unsatisfying piece which apparently counts as a romantic club hit. I mean seriously, how are people enjoying this? That said, this got it’s position not due to it’s internal qualities but due to its effects on the industry as a whole. Firstly, it was No. 1 for 15 weeks. 15 weeks! Given how dull and contentless this track was, that constituted a complete pausing of the entire record industry for the whole spring. And because it was a massively successful record produced by one of the biggest names in pop, it was immediately followed by a lot of copycats. The result was the second half of 2016: a bloated, unmoving monolith of musicless tracks mumbled by an endless series of uncaring hacks. This song ruined pop music in 2016; culturally, it’s the worst thing Drake has done since “YOLO”.

#2: ‘7 Years’ – Lukas Graham

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My review of this song is a 3,000 word monolith of me trying to figure out if I like it or not. As time has gone on though, I’ve been able to come down on a firm opinion on it: it’s crap. I can appreciate it for it’s scale and grandiosity; what I can’t appreciate is how malformed the syntax is, how messy the lyrics are, and, most fatally, how awfully self-important it is. Even worse than this is Lukas Graham himself whose sense of ego wafts off him like BO from a well-worn gym sock, particularly given that he doesn’t have the writing chops to justify it. This song needs to get over itself, much like Lukas himself.

#1: ‘Stitches’ – Shawn Mendes

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The vapid whining of a nasal hack. Fuck it.


So that’s the shit dealt with, now onto the good stuff. Next time: the top 5 UK No. 1’s of 2016…

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.

Revisiting “Pillow Talk” by Zayn Malik

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I don’t like going back and editing my work after it’s been posted; I’ll correct spelling errors and syntactical issues as much as I can but I prefer to leave the larger stuff alone. You’ve made the statement; now you have to stand by it. But I’m highly tempted to edit my review of Zayn Malik’s Pillow Talk, honestly because I’m not convinced it’s correct.

I agree with it up until the middle of Section II: boy band music does work through quasi-subversive sexual repression, and Zayn Malik uses Pillow Talk to talk quite openly about this effect. But the idea that Zayn discusses this so as to ruin the effect and stop it from working, thus allowing his audience to move onto new things, doesn’t seem to truly hold water. I don’t believe it.

The issue for me is that the song’s written in the present tense. Zayn isn’t talking about the past where you used to fuck each other senseless while his four friends watched, he’s talking about the present where you’re fucking each other in a private location with no-one else around. Furthermore, while the song isn’t in future tense, the implication seems to be that you two will keep fucking like this long into the future – many people will disapprove of this but you’re happy so who cares? As such, this song doesn’t seem to be deconstructing the use of sex in boy band music as much as it’s admitting that this use happens while hoping to use it itself sometime in the near future. Which, of course, is not half as interesting or progressive a message as I originally prescribed the song with having.

This does fix one of my major issues with Pillow Talk though. I previously complained that Pillow Talk promised a new vision of pop without actually delivering one. If seen as a grand denouncement of Zayn’s previous work designed to ready the public for a entirely new type of pop, then Pillow Talk is crap because very little in it can truly be considered that interesting or new. When you adjust your view of what it’s trying to do though, it turns out that the song does have a distinct vision; it’s just that the the vision is “Exactly the same as the old stuff, only slightly more honest about what it’s doing and done in a somewhat more artsy way”. Which, actually, sounds a fair enough vision to me. It’s not quite the pop cultural revolution that it could’ve been (and was sold to us as) but for what it is, it works quite well.

Since my original review, I’ve had to scale back my views of what this song was doing, but in doing so I’ve found that it’s not as flawed as I first thought. It’s just a shame that the album it came from was largely underwhelming and that the other single from it has largely disappeared without a trace. Zayn’s work is good but ultimately underwhelming; it started well enough but I doubt the pop world’s going to be truly troubled by it anytime soon.

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.