I know quite a lot about some things. Popular music is not one of them. When I saw M.I.A. at the Super Bowl halftime show, I thought, “Oh! That one who was in the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack!” Which is downright well-informed compared to my thoughts when Madonna was performing in the same show: “Wow, Lady Gaga really did steal her style.” Today I looked up a list of all the Grammy Award winners for Album of the Year. I own three, and two (Getz/Gilberto, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) are from the 1960s.
From this grew an idea: wouldn’t it be funny if I, a complete pop-culture ignoramus, listened to a bunch of songs and wrote up my totally clueless opinions of them? Answer: funny, yes. Otherwise redeemable, probably not. Embarrassing, almost certainly.
NOTE: I’m not intending to cover the years 2011-12 exclusively. There are some earlier songs that I’ve been dying to complain about which are also included here.
- Lady Gaga: “Bad Romance,” “Telephone,” “Born this Way.” Gaga’s best songs are insanely catchy, with awesome tunes. A lot of contemporary music has a pervasive sameness–in the mood, in the volume/dynamics, in key–which Gaga defies; the major/minor alternations of “Bad Romance” especially stand out. But… gosh, she really did steal everything from Madonna. And, admittedly, inside the Gagaverse there is a new sort of sameness, although at least it’s her sameness.
- The Civil Wars: “Poison and Wine.” Oh, dang it! I just got tricked into some kind of boring country ballad!
- Rihanna: “We Found Love.” This is one of a number of songs where I don’t understand why they thought that the vocal style and the rest of the track belonged in the same song. Also: the lyrics are kind of repetitive, aren’t they?
- The Civil Wars: “Barton Hollow.” I was convinced to give this duo a second chance. Okay, this song is more country-gospel than I could usually stand, except that it’s awesomely villainous-sounding. I’m not sure how I feel about the lyrics (to the extent that they were written rather than just taken from other places), but that sound! It leaves scorch marks. Civil Wars, you’re forgiven.
- Arcade Fire: “Ready to Start, “The Suburbs.” I had really high hopes for Arcade Fire, on basis of hearing something I liked from them once, but “Ready to Start” just felt cold and monotonous and slightly too familiar. “The Suburbs” had a punchier sound but I still can’t warm to the lead vocalist. I tried listening to “Wake Up” but turned it off after 30 seconds.
- Nicki Minaj: “Super Bass.” Wow this is bad. There should be a rule against musicians saying their own names in their songs (except for “We’re the Monkees”). Those little digital synth hiccup noises are terrible. Someone pity me for listening to this.
- Katy Perry: “I Kissed a Girl,” “Hot N Cold.” “I Kissed a Girl” sounds weirdly ominous given it’s about something we all can agree is a lovely experience. Also, Perry’s voice sounds just boyish enough to be a teenager whose voice hasn’t quite cracked yet… you know, like Justin Bieber. Or the Beach Boys. “Hot N Cold” is a totally different experience: it’s sassy and has a slightly deranged sense of humor, and it’s also a really freaking good tune.
- Florence + the Machine: “Shake It Out.” Lead singer Florence Welch has a weird thing going on here. In the initial minute she’s a slightly too affected, weak-voiced indie singer, and then she turns into a commanding presence with, unless it’s my imagination, leanings toward Celtic folk music. The song underneath her confusing-but-good voice is very 80s, very synthesized, but kinda catchy. And the lyrics get stronger as they go along, which makes me okay with this song being fairly lengthy.
- Wiz Khalifa: “Roll Up.” I guess the lyrics are kind of sweet. Actually, they’re almost cute. I’m not used to hip-hop sounding cute (or songs that drop the f-bomb sounding cute). Halfway through, I realized what the synth chorus melody reminded me of: that song Celine Dion songs in Titanic. Ha! I just completely ruined hip-hop for you.
- Telekinesis: “Please Ask for Help.” There’s a whole lot of alt-rock that all sounds the same to me, as if everyone who makes alt-rock got together and said, “Let’s decide on a style and do that.” Telekinesis, like their Pacific-Northwest-Coast-mates the Decemberists and the New Pornographers, seem to be charter members of this pact, but also like the other two bands, Telekinesis is pretty good. This song benefits from unusually well-written, cohesive lyrics.
- Selena Gomez: “Love You Like a Love Song.” Okay, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard this exact same melody in another song before, only with acoustic guitars and tasteful strings rather than an electronic dance beat. …oh, wait, halfway through the tasteful strings show up.
- Adele: 21. Damn. Adele’s voice does not sound like something somebody learned how to do. Adele’s voice–okay, in the age of Photoshop, there are three kinds of picture. There’s the kind that’s obviously real. There’s the kind that’s obviously ‘shopped to look better. And there’s the kind that’s so freaking unbelievable that it has to be real (consider).
Now that voices can, using the miracles of post-production and AutoTune, be more or less Photoshopped, there are three kinds of voices: the kind that’s obviously real, the kind that’s artificially enhanced, and the kind that’s so astonishing it couldn’t be faked. Florence (of the Machine) is the first kind; Ke$ha is the second; Adele is the third.
The knock on 21 is true, of course: it’s all break-up songs about her ex. There’s a huge stylistic range which means the offerings range from great to seriously disappointing. And Adele’s actual songwriting leaves considerable room for growth (what does rolling in the deep even mean? or “you played it to the beat”?). But gosh, the raw materials are there, the raw materials not for a good artist but for a great one. You can already hear the greatness in, especially, “Rumour Has It.”
- Mashup-Germany: “Top of the Pops 2011.” Oh, hey, I didn’t need to hear any of the above, because this brilliantly edited mashup has pretty much all of them. And it’s fun and coheres really well. (Most inspired moment: the contrapuntal combination of “Rolling in the Deep” and “Pumped Up Kicks.”) Maybe in the future I’ll just wait for Mashup-Germany to mash every year’s music together and listen to that. It’s fun and it saves time!
By the way, mashups? Classical music totally invented that.