In case you haven’t already deduced this from my past posts, I listen to a lot of pop music. Which means that I also listen to a lot of really crappy pop music, since functionally there’s no difference between the two.
If I were a better hipster, I probably wouldn’t admit to this – or at the very least, I’d try to defend it by calling it “market research” (which is partially true – I get a lot of grist for my proverbial mill from Top 40 radio) or spouting some super-meta bullshit about post-modernism and the nature of fame (“Amanda Bynes is an artist; Twitter is her canvas”). But the simple reality is that I listen to pop music for the same reasons that most people do – it’s catchy, it has accessible themes, and it has pretty girls.
Recently, however, I’ve noticed that this summer’s crop of pop songs seems to be more vapid than usual (which is saying something – I’ve lived through quite a few Taylor Swift and Katy Perry singles in my day). Everywhere I go, I come across pretty faces spouting forgettable – and quite often laughable – lyrics. As the summer progressed, I began to wonder – was it possible for modern pop music to be anything but insipid? Culturally, isn’t this something that we should be concerned with, since pop stars frequently become roll models for the easily-swayed 13-19 demographic?
I was worried about this for all of 5 minutes. Then I had a beer and reminded myself that since no one under 19 actually reads this blog, the chances that you, dear reader, are going to be unduly influenced by Miley Cyrus’s poor life choices are relatively slim. That said, I’m also sure that some of you out there would like to make it through what’s left of the summer without wanting snap your Ray-Bans in half and using them to puncture your eardrums. So I’ve compiled a short-list of some of this summer’s most notable entries by “eye-candy” singers, along with some suggestions for equally catchy musical alternatives from attractive, and more lyrically substantive female singer-songwriters. Admittedly, talking about attractive singers is not my most highbrow of subjects, but… who says style can’t also have substance?
1. What You’re Hearing: Ariana Grande featuring Mac Miller – “The Way”
Now, before I start slinging shade here, I have to give credit where credit is due – Ariana Grande is a beautiful young woman and a gifted singer (as befits her name), as well as a talented mimic. That said, the lyrics in her songs are utter crap. In her most recent single, “Baby I”, she manages to cram the word “Baby” over 60 times into a song that clocks in at under three minutes and twenty seconds – that’s about once every three seconds, which is especially impressive considering that she also shoehorns the word “yeah” into the lyrics an additional 48 times.
Her breakout hit, “The Way” is equally vapid:
Ariana lays it on pretty thick in the first few verses, opining that “I love the way you make me feel” and “on a scale of 1-10 I’m at 100.” With such cliched sentiments, I don’t think that Bob Dylan and Tom Waits are exactly quaking in their boots, when they think about the threat that such songs pose to their artistic license. What takes the cake, however, are the guest vocals from sleepy-eyed rapper Mac Miller.
I saw Mac at Bumbershoot, last year, and he was, you know, alright. While he’s no substitute for the other famous “Mac” MC out there, his raps aren’t terrible and his solo stuff is decently catchy. I wish I could say the same for what he lays down on “The Way.” Consider this gem:
“Come and watch a movie with me, American Beauty or Bruce Almighty, that’s groovy”
Seriously? That’s how Mac Miller seals the deal? AB/BA symmetry aside, that’s gotta be the most random set of movie choices known to man. “Hey baby, what’s gonna put you in the mood, tonight? This thoroughly depressing excoriation of suburban values, or an utterly unfunny Jim Carey movie about God?”
What You Should Be Listening To: ZZ Ward – “365 Days”
So if Sara Bareilles and Adele had a fedora-wearing baby, she would probably look and sound a lot like ZZ Ward. (This is the great thing about music-blogging, by the way – where else in life would you be called upon think about such hypotheticals?)
Not only is ZZ (short for Zsuzsanna) a visually-striking young woman, but she boasts an impressive set of pipes that evoke comparisons to acts like Grace Potter & The Nocturnals and Gin Wigmore.
I came across her single, “365 Days,” about a week ago, and I can’t get enough of it:
You can also check out her other (slightly racier) single, “Put The Gun Down”, here.
Bonus for Portland Residents: If you’re reading this article the day it drops (which obviously you should be doing), you still have a chance to buy tickets to Zsuzsanna’s September 2nd gig at The Aladdin – tickets are available here.
2. What You’re Hearing: Selena Gomez – “Come & Get It”
You know how I know I’m getting old? I don’t get Selena Gomez – I’ll freely admit it.
Earlier this summer, I heard three separate radio personalities make mention of this song in the space of 24 hours. Every time, the disk jockey invariably gushed “She’s soooo hot in this video!” While I don’t usually place much stock in the insights of people like Ryan Seacrest or the folks at Z100, this relentless hagiography aroused a certain languid curiosity in me, so I decided to check out the video in q.
Needless to say, I was disappointed. “Come & Get It” as a song is largely forgettable – while it’s catchy, it’s lyrically unoriginal and overproduced. As a music video, its equal parts boring and needlessly sexualized. I realise that I’m not the target demo, but there’s nothing amazingly hot about Selena Gomez, in my mind.
As a right-thinking American male staring down 30, I can safely say that I have absolutely zero interest in seeing a 20 year-old who looks like she weighs 50 pounds writhing around in a swimming pool or doing yoga in a field. In fact, I spent most of the video wondering where they were able to find a location with such a preponderance of blue flora.
What You Should Be Listening To: Lights – “Timing Is Everything”
Leave it to the Canadians to show us how it’s done. Born Valerie Anne Poxleitner, this Juno Award-winning Ontario native legally changed her name to Lights (which is pretty hardcore – I don’t see Natasha Kahn applying to change her name to “Bat For Lashes”) when she turned 18.
Musically, Lights records what I like to call Pop Music for Hipsters. Her stuff isn’t particularly high brow, but her jams are catchy as hell and her writing and execution are clever enough to let you know she’s in on the joke. She’s also a delight to watch live – I saw her open for Lee Fields (of all people!) at Bumbershoot, and crowd couldn’t get enough of her.
If you’re looking for proof that Valerie doesn’t take herself too seriously, look no further than her tongue-in-cheek music video for “Timing Is Everything,” which is obviously an homage to Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical“ and features a pretty decent spit-take.
If you’re watching at home, you can also check out her earlier video, “Second Go”, which inexplicably is unavailable for viewing on mobile devices.
3. What You’re Hearing: Miley Cyrus – “We Can’t Stop”
Ohhh, Miley. What are we going to do with you, child?
So I had been debating whether or not to use Miss Cyrus to anchor this list for several weeks… then the VMA’s came and removed all doubt. I almost feel bad writing about her – it’s like shooting (trashy) fish in a barrel (full of sadness). But they don’t pay me to pull my punches (hell, they don’t pay me at all), so here goes.
Miley’s misadventures with Robin Thicke aside (she’s not the only one to make questionable artistic judgments in his presence – anyone remember Leighton Meester’s attempt at launching a singing career?), the former Hannah Montana star has been a thorn in my side since her “Party In the USA” days, and it’s only gotten worse with time. Her most recent song, “We Can’t Stop,” definitely takes several leaping strides beyond the pale. In case you’ve been living under a rock this summer, you can check it out here:
So, let’s ignore the shameless product placement. And let’s ignore the references to drugs and alcohol. And let’s even ignore the rampant sexual overtones of the video. This is still a shitty song, and an even shittier music video – and a slightly creepy one, at that.
Lyrically, this is song is so vapid the verses practically evaporate before they reach your ears. It isn’t so much as a song as it is a collection of grammatically incorrect, YOLO-esque catchphrases so trite that they make “Achey Breaky Heart” look like The Gettysburg Address. In fact, after having listened to this song several times while writing this article, I’m beginning to wonder if they actually wrote this song by sifting through 13 year-old girls’ hashtags on Instagram… If Cole Porter and Rogers & Hart were in hell, this is what they’d be forced to listen to for all eternity.
The music video is even more of a trainwreck. It seems to be a pretty blatant rip-off of Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” video, albeit with a lot more twerking – never mind that Hilary Duff already tried to ape Fiona’s Sultry-Ingenue-at-an-Orgy theme for her “Reach Out” video back in 2008. But where Fiona Apple seemed genuinely troubled and Hilary Duff seemed to be genuinely having fun, in “Can’t Stop” we’re treated to an endless stream of terrible American Apparel-esque costumes and ridiculous antics, all punctuated at regular intervals by Miley’s unnervingly dead-eyed stare.
Midway through the song, Ms. Cyrus proclaims “Only God can judge us.” Wrong, Miley, wrong. I can judge you – and I’m doing it right now.
What You Should Be Listening To: Nothing.
You shouldn’t be listening to anything right now. You should be scraping out your eyes and gargling with soap and thinking on your sins.
Did you ever see that scene with Sam Neill at the end of “Event Horizon”? Yeah. Do that.
However, that said, if you feel compelled to watch something as a visual palette cleanser, check out the real thing and watch Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” video:
Or better yet, watch the video for Bat For Lashes’ “Laura”. Or CHVRCHES’ “Gun”. Or POLICA’s “Dark Star”. Or Grace Potter’s “Paris”. Or one of the literally hundreds of other talented & attractive female singer-songwriters out there.
My point is this – it’s terribly superficial to like a musician of any gender based on their looks, but if you’re gonna do it, at least do it right. Given the amount of talent out there, right now, you’re cheating yourself if you’re not listening to someone who’s more than just a pretty face.