with: Tove Lo, Hey Violet, Lady Gaga, Katy Rose, Letters to Cleo
A hopefully weekly column about: whatever new songs I think are worth your time; whatever new songs aren’t getting enough ears; what’s exciting in my musical world, and hopefully yours.
Tove Lo, “True Disaster”
I’ve heard from a number of pop critics now that pop in 2016 is bleak. By “bleak” I don’t mean “bad” but the actual meaning of the term: depressed in a depressing world. The “world” part, certainly, is sound. The music, though? For a significant portion of 2016, the #1 song on the charts was by Justin Bieber, he of the oblivious Canadian grin; I’d certainly describe the gormless hook and high-fructose-tropical house of “Sorry,” or the campfire condescension of “Love Yourself,” as “bleak,” but I’m wizened and decrepit and hate fun. Then, perhaps via chart gerrymandering, a long stretch of “One Dance,” which is a hard whatever. In a better pop ecosystem maybe its reign would’ve heralded the crossover takeover of Nigerian pop and UK funky. (I guess Wizkid’s getting US guest spots now?)
Let’s leave #1s before we have to remember the existence of that Justin Timberlake thing; let’s look at the rest of the hits. There’s bleakness there — there’s bleakness everywhere. But there’s also: Two separate Jonases, in two projects that reconstruct the corpse of the Jonas Brothers into Chelsea grins in disco suits. Fifth Harmony and Adele, both thoroughly chill. (Can a pop landscape truly be called “bleak” when its requisite Adele single is a breezy thing by Max Martin?) Meghan Trainor, in her own little 2003-revival world. Beyonce, not on the charts and not sorry.
And yet I think there’s something to this. That something is always the same: dudes continue to dude. The history of pop is the history of dudes duding all over the place; the only distinction is one of degree. Right now, the degree is fairly high. The current #1 is illustrative. It’s by the Chainsmokers, who made their career on caricaturing drunk girls and Kanye West, then cemented that career on monetizing young unestablished girls’ pain. “Closer” is two frat boys writing an explicitly contemptuous song about fucking girls — “the spoiled girls of college who have family money but also live this dichotomy of the broke college life”; “lots of hot girls at Syracuse that he would run into and find himself attracted to but forget all the things he hated about them” — for the purpose of getting to fuck hotter girls. As for the other half of the ft., her reward is a disingenuous boast about “looking pretty in a hotel bar,” then exactly as much career benefit as the careers of Daya and Rozes and Phoebe Ryan got, i.e. a foot in the revolving door. In that better pop ecosystem these women might have been standalone singer-songwriters who don’t have to pitch and hitch their toplines to a Chainsmokers song, but they do. You know who isn’t interviewed in that Billboard “ruling the Hot 100” feature? Halsey. Though we do get to hear all about the Chainsmokers awkwardly groping her. Empowerment!
It’s fair to say girls have some opinions on this situation, which mirrors life too well. It explains the simultaneous undercurrent of songs by women about their demoralizing quagmires of relationships with dudes who dude — by no means a new phenomenon, but one reaching critical mass. This dynamic has been everpresent in R&B over the past few years, via the likes of Jhené Aiko and Tinashe writing answer songs to the likes of the Weeknd; when those artists crossed over, so did the mood. Pop was moody before that, but differently: where the undercurrent of 2009–10 pop was manic and apocalyptic, these songs are resigned, sapped of energy. Often these songs are attached to EDM tracks, like Flume and Tove Lo’s “Say It” or much of Bebe Rexha’s work. Sometimes they’re career-launching singles, like Norwegian Idol finalist Astrid S’s “Hurts So Good,” or — again — Tove Lo’s “Habits.”
We talk all the time about male producers dominating pop, and sometimes we even talk about the music they make. But seldom do we talk about the same from female songwriters, no matter how prolific they are or how much of a signature style they have. The songs above are largely the work of two women: Julia Michaels, who just got a solo deal, and Tove Lo, who’s had one for some time. Her new album, Lady Wood, is so much a Wolf Cousins showcase I’m surprised they didn’t emulate The Matrix and self-title it, and much of its bleakness is the Wolves’ trick of writing every song as if it’s the moodiest thing at synthpop night. But more of it is a deliberate conceit on Lo’s part, to elevate the topic of women’s self-destruction to concept-album seriousness. This isn’t exactly new. “True Disaster” is Lo’s version of Fiona Apple’s “A Mistake,” or Carina Round’s “Stolen Car,” or a hundred other tales of deliberate self-destruction. It’s almost transcendently pained, yet you wouldn’t know it from the writeups: “chill,” “dreamy,” “seductive.” This isn’t new either; Selena Gomez got a lot of it with “Good For You,” and so does any pop artist who dares to express vulnerability or sadness in Our Year of Mandatory Confidence 2016. People just don’t hear it. When women express ambivalence, pop critics call it confidence; when women express pain, critics call it alluring; where women lament being prey, critics call them the predators.
But that’s hardly Lo’s fault. Nor is it something Lo will change with a song, even an entire album, even two entire albums, even two good albums. If you can’t lift the bleakness, offer a soundtrack and a life rope for those mired in it. On Lady Wood, two songs do this best: “Keep it Simple” —which’d earn its spot solely on being a way more emotionally honest song about sexting than “Work From Home” — and “True Disaster.” The song isn’t perfect — there are those two clunker lines (you know what they are), and the fact that it describes a breathless rush but presents a steady groove. (At the very least, you’d expect something in the song to go faster and faster, right?) But the core of it is perfect: verses that chug with seductive determination, a bridge where Lo sings “I’m gonna get hurt!” as if she’s been told she’s getting a pony, a chorus like collapsing, resigned, into the wrong arms. Masochism seldom sounds so gorgeous, no matter how often it’s on repeat.
Hey Violet, “Guys My Age”
The bleakness of Hey Violet, according to old fans, is the acrimonious departure of former frontwoman Julia Pierce, the dismantling of former incarnation Cherri Bomb, and the band’s subsequent abandonment of pop-punk for radio malaise. (“Guys My Age” is getting actual radio adds, which didn’t happen in their Dollyrots incarnation.) There’s a lot to unpack there — some unexamined assumptions about pop and ambition being automatically bad, for starters. But if I boycotted bands for secondhand internal drama I’d have to boycott half the music industry. And I happen to like this year’s radio malaise, if not its root cause.
Oh, does “Guys My Age” have malaise: a track like an answer cut to “The Hills” (you can sing the verses to it), a chorus that wants to be cocky or bratty but just sounds resigned, a lyric that portends nothing good but can’t even be argued with. Guys their age don’t try. And even if the alternative means worse, and even if the song’s uncomfortably close to an attempt to identify the last remaining corners of girls’ self-destruction that haven’t been colonized by pop song, they’re not wrong, nor are they bad. Rising pop artists tend to get the new, or at least newly recycled, production tricks, and this has plenty: that crunchy guitar in the background, distorted in time with Rena’s voice; the bridge like, of all things, ‘N Sync’s “Pop.”
Lady Gaga, “Sinner’s Prayer”
(no embed; perhaps Team Gaga will make a YouTube audio clip available, in the merry, merry month of probably never)
The bleakness of Lady Gaga is easy: it’s in all her music. It was there from the start — remember, Lady Gaga’s first single was about date rape. People forget that. If you said, in 2009, that people would forget Gaga’s incessant interview campaign about The Fame and its subversiveness, nobody would believe you, but here we are. Go back and listen to it: Gaga stumbling through an over-garish RedOne track, keys, phone and mind gone, while Colby O’Donis — the Lockwood-esque insult to injury — swoops in for the pickup while crowing, “I got it, I got it.” It’s very bleak, yet people hear something else.
Joanne is billed as Lady Gaga’s “most personal album,” a PR statement that means one of two things: 1) the album is new, or 2) the album is significantly more acoustic than its predecessor. Gaga’s actual most personal album was Born This Way. Born This Way was bleaker still — in places it approaches Ladytron or Client — and more self-mythologizing. “Government Hooker” and “Bloody Mary” are dispatches from a dark place to rival Blackout; “Scheisse,” “Heavy Metal Lover,” “Marry the Night” and “Electric Chapel” are graspings for a way out. Certainly it’s dressed like a personal album (with Gaga, dress is always fair crit): conspicuously makeup-free photography, sudden titling with a real name — not her real name, but technicalities.
So what is Joanne, then, if not more personal? It’s not the preordained flop many have made it out to be. It’s not exactly more indie — it’s got Blood Diamonds and Tame Impala, but so did Beyonce and Rihanna; their involvement isn’t an artistic renaissance so much as an industry (and money) consequence. It’s country, as many have noted, but it’s not entirely a reinvention — “You and I” was basically Southern rock already, even before Gaga released new versions replacing “Nebraska” in the lyrics with various heartland cities and states. And this is country theater, anyway; country songwriters like Hillary Lindsey have cuts, but far more cuts belong to master pasticher Mark Ronson. Country loves its theater, though — the pageant circuit intersects with the Broadway circuit enough that the likes of Laura Bell Bundy and Kristin Chenoweth are welcomed to the fold — and perhaps as a result, Joanne sounds earned enough. A couple songs off Joanne sound like country-pop crossover from the other side, the side with Gretchen Wilson and Danielle Bradbery.
Earned-sounding, of course, is not the same as earned; even when touring the Bible Belt Gaga can’t resist dropping references to specific NYC streets. (Counterfeit bags: they’re not just a New York Thing(tm)!) But I don’t give a fuck about authenticity; my fucks go toward unexpected synchronicity. For instance: “Sinner’s Lament” bears an uncanny resemblances to crossovers from other genres, like Tori Amos’s “Trouble's Lament”: the same Southern-gothic instrumentation, the same addresses to other girls. Forget Florence Welch, forget Father John Misty, definitely forget Tony Bennett already; this is the duet Gaga needs right now.
Katy Rose, “Didn’t We”
See, this is why we need to support rising vocalists. You remember Katy Rose, right? Her big single was “Overdrive,” the one boasting about sitting in Jayne Mansfield’s car; in Mean Girls Regina George personally victimizes you for not having heard of it. This was 2004, one of the last years there was enough of an infrastructure for female singer-songwriters that you could put on a tour with Rose, Charlotte Martin, The Cardigans and Liz Phair. (Never mind that the infrastructure wasn’t supportive enough to not name that tour “Chicks With Attitude”; never mind that this was Liz Phair circa working with The Matrix and being critically disowned.) Rose’s next album, Candy Eyed, is one of the decade’s best lost pop albums, particularly “Unprofessional,” one of the defining West Coast burnout dystopian pop songs. I say “lost” because despite it being on Spotify, at least, it got negligible support. (A sobering sentence, from Wikipedia: “Rose announced the album on the day of its release in a ‘friends only’ blog on her Myspace page.”) The album’s not far off from what Tove Lo’s doing, cutting pop down to the bleeding edge; just in a rock idiom, and with the trajectory extended out toward obscurity.
Katy Rose deserves far more than obscurity. “Didn’t We” isn’t even the only song she’s released in 2016, but as far as I can tell, this post is the only serious consideration given “Didn’t We,” certainly the only consideration by a working critic. Which is a shame; “Didn’t We” is a elegaic California ballad, kin to Kay Hanley’s “I Guess I Get It.” Katy’s voice is the sort of wistful rasp that codes, here, as having seen things, and the career undertones are there in the lyrics if you’re listening for them. The sweep is graceful and, in another year, would be the definition of radio-ready.
Letters to Cleo, “Can’t Say”
“I Guess I Get It” was from Kay Hanley’s brilliant 2008 album Weaponize. Aside from her remarkably devoted fanbase, not a lot of people know she had a brilliant 2008 album. Possibly related: Of all my fandoms, my Kay Hanley fandom is the one that’s caused the most editors to think I’m stupid. It’s not that I don’t understand — it’s never hard to feel secondhand contempt — but that it doesn’t seem fair. If you put a band and their contemporaries in the teen movies, then have their singer write the soundtracks to and be the voice of the next wave of teen movies, can you blame the audience — blame me — for finding them formative? Certainly they’re no less formative than the usual set of bands I’m expected to find foundational. (I swear to God I’m going to Zizek Game the next person who tries to get me to give a shit about Hall and Oates or Steely Dan.)
“Can’t Say” is from the new Letters to Cleo EP, which I suppose you’d call a comeback. “There’s nothing nostalgic about it,” says drummer Stacy Jones (veteran of the new genre: American Hi-Fi, Meg & Dia, Hey Monday), and while I’m sure this is just an attempt to stave off the usual dismissal that greets alt-rock comebacks — comebacks that are often quite good — it’s got some depressing truth to it. Female-fronted pop-rock is one of the greatest and least-#remembered parts of the ’90s. I don’t mean unrevived — Best Coast and Colleen Green are doing it in the indie realm, and Paramore and their contemporaries are doing it for the Warped crowd, about the only place you can get away with it in pop anymore. But it’s curiously absent from recollections of the era, no matter how defining I found it.
What does “Can’t Say” sound like? Well, obviously, it sounds like a Letters to Cleo song, one from their least alternative era. It also sounds like a rewrite of Throwing Muses’ “Terra Nova” as a statement of optimism. (Every member of Throwing Muses would hate that, but again — technicalities!) There’s a particular cadence to the guitar that evokes a TV theme — specifically, I hear the Tara Duncan theme, because let’s just kill all my credibility while I’m here — and a switch-up to the chorus that shimmers. It’s nostalgic, in that a couple thousand synapses in me were reprogrammed over a decade ago to respond to this very sound. Nothing bad about that.