26 May 2011

2010: Katy Perry, Lady Antebellum

Katy Perry
Teenage Dream

Released August 24, 2010 (Capitol)

Short Notes: This is how major label pop ends: not with a bang, but with a whimper that consists mostly of whipped cream shot from aerosol cans attached to large breasts.

Lin: C

My office has taken to this game of rickrolling each other with Rebecca Black's "Friday." I've heard the original so many times now and many of the remakes/parodies. The original video has over 140 million views and nearly 2.8 million 'dislikes.' Perry's album was nominated for a best album grammy and is certified multi-platinum. With maybe two exceptions, I'm not sure I could tell these two artists apart. (Not helped by Perry's "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F)" which is actually inferior to Black's weekend ode.)

Let's get the good parts out of the way. Second single "Teenage Dream" is why I included the album in the first place, as a friend with a generally good taste in music claimed it was one of the best singles of the year. True? No, but it's alright in so far as it goes. "E.T." and "Circle The Drain" provide some much needed gravitas (comparatively) and could be saved by the right type of mixtape.

And now the bad. Generic. Cloying. Tries to hard (c.f. "Peacock" which has barely more subtlety than your average ICP track). Generic. Boring. It loses nearly all the comparison games: compare, for instance, the Snoop Dogg-featuring track "California Gurls" with Robyn's Snoop Dogg featuring "U Should Know Better." It's inoffensive pop music -- a common critique of the genre, but much more damning since it so wants to be edgy. And maybe it is. If you're 12.

Brandon: C

Let's start with the positives. The singles--the ones I'm regularly exposed to, living in a region of rural Ohio without a classic rock radio station, and requiring, despite my impeccable liberal elite credentials, the occasional break from NPR--aren't half bad, as far as these things go. Of course, I'm increasingly mystified by teen-oriented pop (I was warned this would happen, but it snuck up on me a little) but there are things Katy Perry does rather well. I've never particularly cared to be "young forever," there's a certain naive charm to "Teenage Dream," and it's got a big ol' chorus. "Firework" works well as a Pink-style, vaguely rocking song about empowerment, and even though Snoop Dogg's verse is a travesty, "California Gurls" has a legitimate hook. So there's that.

But even evaluated on its own terms, there's a whole lot of mediocrity here, most of which will probably seem obvious to the sorts of people who read our blog. But lest you think I'm some sort of anti-pop snob, I'd like to rehearse the arguments, anyway. This is the sort of music audiophiles provide as evidence that the MP3 format has led to the decline of production values. Even her best tracks sound hollow, with big beats, synths, and the occasional instrumental flourish (as with the sax in "Last Friday Night [T.G.I.F.]") all compressed within an inch of their lives, with no depth to the arrangements. It's not that I have a particularly good sound system, but this record sounds better on the earbuds I use at the gym than on my home stereo. I was surprised at just how obvious the hollowness was--this is a decay in quality that wasn't evident even in the pop records ten years ago. Thankfully, it's still not entirely crowded out more complex soundscapes (Gaga, for example, who despite her reliance on pretty straightforward 4/4 Euro-dance beats, makes music that's at least passable on headphones).

Lyrically, the story is much worse. Beyond the singles, there's really not a listenable song here. Part of it is that Katy Perry's persona is really unpleasant to me--there's not even much nodding and winking here with regards to the sexual content ("Peacock"). Rather than simply being sexy, this just sounds forced, sort of like the cheesy single-entendres of the terrible self-titled Liz Phair record of a few years ago. Perry lacks a musical (as opposed to visual/public) identity. She tries to "rock," but doesn't do it as well as Pink or even Avril Lavigne (whose "What the Hell" is actually quite pleasant, although the video is product-placed within an inch of its life),

and she does the sexual liberation thing lyrically in a way that makes her (or rather, her handlers) seem rather desperate for the male gaze and its approval. She tries to nod towards hip-hop, but as Lin notes, doesn't come within a mile of what Robyn is doing. She's not the singer Christina Aguilera is, and the Auto-tune and pitch-correction are all over the place on these tracks. There's just not much reason to listen to this record given the available alternatives.

And this leads to Brandon's deep thought for the day: When will artists like Katy Perry simply stop releasing albums all together? Given that her sales (less that 200,000 units in the first week) really don't compete with what was possible in the late 1990s, and given that pop albums like this get huge initial sales bumps from deep discounting at places like Amazon, why not just release a steady stream of $1.50 singles, rather than an album that ends up being marked down to $5 to get a big sales bump? If an artist like Katy Perry can release three or four Top-5 singles in a year, why bother with filler-laden albums that get slagged not only by me, but even by more mainstream critics? Since album sales don't seem to drive the revenue stream the way they once did, why dilute your best product with the likes of "The One That Got Away?"

Lady Antebellum
Need You Now

Released 26 January 2010 (Capitol)

Short Notes: It's one of the biggest albums of 2010, but when your grandchildren see it at their local post-modern flea market in 2045, they won't even recognize it.

Lin: C+

Five dollar albums from Amazon will be my death, allowing me to pick up, on a whim, zeitgeist albums without a significant amount of guilt. (Most albums are worth getting for $5, you see.) I knew, of course, the quadruple platinum, Song of the Year, Record of the Year, most downloaded country song EVER (and 9th overall), the all-around massive chart hit "Need You Now." Hell, it's my father's ring tone. I like the song, but it's unclear at this point if it's due simply to familiarity or the psuedo-nostalgia of being loved by people I love. So there's that.

The rest of the album is generally generic pop country that Main Street Nashville has been producing for years. Maybe it's because I generally stay away from the genre, but I have a higher tolerance for the unexicitingness of mass produced country as compared to mass produced pop, hence the higher grade than the Katy Perry, even though they have similar sins. Lady Antebellum's songwriting is stronger, with some moments that threaten to break through the walls of my cynical detachment. ("American Honey" and "Something 'Bout a Woman" being the two best examples.) For better or worse, Lady Antebellum sounds more earnest in their begging and pleading than a number of the artists we've reviewed, even though it's been overmanufactured, removing the rawness that is necessary for it to truly be a positive. Anyway, more likely than not, you already know whether or not you need to pick this one up, and I'm in no position to convince you one way or another. For what it’s worth, this is the best ‘C’ album of the year.

Brandon: D+

My reaction to this album is the mirror of Lin's. I think I tolerate fluffy pop (I do watch "Glee," after all) better that I tolerate post-Shania/Faith country dreck. There’s really nothing here I find either interesting or clever. This is pop-country crossover at its most eager, referencing Skynyrd and Springsteen (“Perfect Day” and “Stars Ahead,” in which they refer to themselves as a “rock and roll band”) in the lyrics while aiming square at the teenage girl/mother of teenage girl nexus. There’s an equal number of happy and sad songs (although nothing too unhappy), and with two lead singers (Hillary Scott and Charles Kelley), there’s enough variety here to keep anyone from catching on to the underlying lack of variety. Lin’s right that the songwriting is stronger here than on the Katy Perry record, but this is still country/pop by the numbers--professional, but forgettable.

The day that I listened to this record, I also happened to attend a flea market. Since there aren't a lot of buried treasures at a rural Ohio flea market (mostly, people are selling recent NASCAR memorabilia and used DVDs), I typically look through the stacks of old records that are often an afterthought for most vendors. I've occasionally pulled some good stuff this way--especially country from the 1960s and lesser-known classic rock albums--but mostly, the sorts of LPs that end up at these kinds of things are what people were actually listening to 50 years ago. I see an awful lot of dog-eared copies of Andy Williams, Johnny Rivers, Peter Nero, and Herb Alpert--sappy, sentimental, and string-laden, and often in the form of Christmas records or record company samplers.

My point isn't to be needlessly mean, but when people my age (even musically plugged-in kids like me), think about what was important about pop music in the 1960s, this isn't what comes to mind. Sure, it was on the charts, but so was a lot of other better material. We forget just how ubiquitous this sound was in lower middlebrow American culture, and when I hear Lady Antebellum (or Rascal Flatts, or the execrable Sugarland), this is what I think of. If it were the early 70s, Lady Antebellum would be guesting on the "Lawrence Welk Show." This is the kind of music that, in an earlier time, would have left a demonstrable physical presence of its former popularity, but no one in the future would have been able to hum.

But times change. This record has moved 3.2 million, but with the rapid change in technology, it’s unlikely to have a flea market afterlife. This is the record that, in effect, defines pop music in 2010. No one I know thinks of Whipped Cream and Other Delights as the music that best captures the essence of 1966,

but it was the best selling album in the US that year. It’s unlikely Need You Now will be as well-remembered as its chart success would suggest. Since its legacy isn't guaranteed by an overwhelming quantity of physical media, how will we remember it at all?

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