Month: August 2014

Pop Song Review: Taylor Swift – “Shake It Off”

So Taylor Swift has gone full-on pop (as if she’s been anything but for the past couple of years), and has decided to stamp this fact on the forehead of the collective consciousness with her latest single, “Shake It Off”. Yeah, again, I’m a little late to this one, but what can you do?

First impressions: Well, it’s certainly pop. Y’can’t deny that. It’s all horns and high-pitched vocals and repetition and that sort of charming quirkiness that wait a minute, do I actually like a Taylor Swift song?

The music: The more I listen to “Shake It Off”, the more I realise how little there is to it. The skeleton of the song is comprised mostly of syncopated bubblegum beats (that actually sound like someone chewing bubblegum – fancy that), staccato horns (mind you, when did you last hear a legato horn in pop music?) and the odd addition of synths to polish it up here and there, along with bolstering the melody.

And that’s about it. It’s pretty bare bones, but I don’t mind it too much. Could it have done with a bit more variation? Yeah, it’s too simple, but then pop music is built on simplicity, is it not? And she wants to prove she’s a popstar now, right? This is a roundabout way of saying that I don’t care much about the structure of this song as I keep telling myself I should. It’s a bit empty, but it’s also loose and vibrant.

I will say that I like Swift’s vocals in this song – the way she starts the fifth and seventh bar of each verse (you know, the “that’s what people say” bit in the first one) on a high note and descends to a “mmh-hmm”? I like that. The way she draws out the syllables in “cruising” and “moving” in the middle eights? I like that. The “woo-hoo-hoos” in the chorus? I even like the repetition in the chorus. Yeah, her vocals are brasher than usual, but then this is a brash pop song. It works for the music: the song’s having fun, she’s having fun… can’t be bad.

And that’s the thing: it’s not all that great a song, but I can’t help but like it at least a little. It’s fun, it’s upbeat and it’s genuinely catchy – and given some of the tuneless dreck that’s being played on the radio right now, what’s wrong with that? Let’s just ignore that weird, Gwen Stefani-style quasi-rap breakdown towards the end and say that musically, this song works for me.

The lyrics: Okay, so the music is generic but catchy, so it gets away with its lack of originality on a likability clause. The lyrics, however? Not so much.

Taylor Swift has pretty much dropped her country image and gone for a pop aesthetic, and with that she’s traded the thought-provoking, charming and slightly naive storytelling of her early work for the same faux-inspirational, “just be yourself” message that all popstars seemed obligated to have a bash at these days. In “Shake It Off” she’s putting herself in the shoes of teenagers who feel like their parents and teachers are always getting them down, but she just keeps on “cruising” because “it’s gonna be all right.”

Despite the sheer ubiquity of it now in pop music, it is a nice message for young people to keep in mind. Thing is, Swift is in her mid-twenties now, so isn’t this all a wee bit disingenuous? I mean, lines like “I stay out too late/ Got nothing in my brain” sound really bizarre coming from her mouth: I don’t recall her ever being criticised for breaking any sort of curfew; and I’ve certainly never heard anyone call her unintelligent.

“Go on too many dates / But I can never make them stay / At least that’s what people say”… okay, I’ll give Swift that one – the media does have a weird fixation with her love life.

The gist of it all, though, comes in the chorus: “I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake it off, shake it off” (yes, I counted the number of shakes) – and by “it”, she means your nagging and your criticism, whoever you’re supposed to be in this scenario. In other words, if people are getting you down, just shake off that negativity and party, peeps! So if somebody has something to say that may not be a glowing commendation of you, your work and everything that you say, do, think and are, just ignore it and keep on being yourself, even if who you are is a pretty stupid and unlikable person. I’m pretty sure this mentality is why teenage pregnancies keep happening, but what do I know?

On top of that, we get another drop of that ever-so-charming buzzphrase, “haters gonna hate.” I should say now that I’ve never particularly liked the term “hater” – to me it always seemed like a cheap tool for people to wave away valid criticism. People who have something negative to say about you don’t necessarily hate you and aren’t necessarily making their criticisms just to spite you. Perhaps they just, I don’t know, wanted to point something out? Besides, wouldn’t it be better to actually engage with the criticism, taking some points on board while explaining why others aren’t necessary, instead of just pretending that it doesn’t exist and that your critics are just stupid and jealous? You’ll fight off more enemies with a gun than a brick wall. That’s a metaphor that makes sense, right?

Besides, if you want to really rub your “haters” the wrong way and prove their opinions don’t matter, wouldn’t it be more productive and make more sense just to ignore these people and keep doing what you do? The fact that some widely unpopular bands, shows and film franchises have had continued success for many years is proof that critics don’t have the cultural force many think they do, so why indulge them at all? By calling them out you just draw attention to them. I’m sure Swift’s fans just love having it pointed out to them, in her first new song in two years, that there’s a sizable number of people out there who despise her and everything she does, and that they’re large and significant enough a group to warrant a song about them. Kinda sullies the fun, bouncy vibe of it all, y’know?

Verdict: You know, I’m torn. I keep getting told I shouldn’t like this because it’s generic, hackneyed and dumb – which it is – but I can’t help but enjoy it a little bit. So I’ll give this one a 2 for effort and a 4 for likeability, rounding out to a 3 out of 5. I’m sure Miss Swift is very happy with that – and if not, well, she knows what to do.

Today’s double-up is Guns N’ Roses’ “Used to Love Her,” which provides us all with some helpful context: as annoying as the term “hater” is for dealing with people who complain about you incessantly, at least it isn’t the Axl Rose method.

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Rock Song Review: Nickelback – “Edge of a Revolution”

In addition to pop song reviews, I’m also going to cover new rock singles whenever I can, even if they haven’t technically been released as singles. I might even alternate between rock and pop if I can. So, here’s my review for the new Nickelback song, “Edge of a Revolution.”

First impressions: Given the talk about the new Nickelback stuff being a change in direction from previous material, I can tell you this: lyrically it’s very much a shift, but musically it’s pretty standard Nickelback hard rock and not too much of a jump from their previous album: loud, heavy, catchy… but then this is just the first single. Maybe their reggae-dubstep experiment is still to come?

The music: “Edge of a Revolution” is defined by its marching riff set to pounding drums, likely designed to evoke the approaching stomp of a discontented crowd. Comparisons have been drawn between this song and 2011’s “Gotta Get Me Some,” which makes sense – they both have a slow, grinding groove stemming from a heavier-than-hell riff – but where “Gotta Get Me Some” went for sleazy swagger, “Edge of a Revolution” goes for chest-beating aggression. It does feel more like a victory chant than the rush of revolution, which is strange considering the song’s title implies we haven’t even got to the revolution yet – but maybe I’m putting too much thought into it.

You might feel that the repetition of “standing on the edge of a revolution” gets repetitive after a while, but I think it provides a nice cap to each verse. Pop music relies on the listener knowing what to expect – it’s why the perfect cadence and the four chords of pop music are as popular as they are – and Nickelback, even in their heavier moments, are pretty much pop songwriters, so I’m cool with it. The chorus is a bit too similar to the verses for my ears, though, and could have done with another, more distinctive hook to separate itself from the rest of the song. Still, rather catchy stuff.

The lyrics: Given that Nickelback’s lyrical focus has been somewhat constrained in recent years, it’s nice to hear that they are at least trying to say something different and speak out about world problems. “Wall Street, common thief / When they get caught, they all go free / A brand new yacht and a finder’s fee” is some pretty clever lyricism by Nickelback standards and, even if you don’t like Nickelback, you have to admit that some effort was put into this.

Problem is, a lot of it is too vague to have the impact they were going for. “No, we can’t turn back, we can’t turn away” – away from what? “‘Cos it’s time we all relied on the last solution” – which would be? I’m guessing they mean revolution, but some specificity would have helped here, or at least some different wording – “last solution” might provoke some, er, troubling comparisons.

Basically, like most songs about revolution or class dissent its biggest crime is that it never really specifies why we need a revolution or how anyone would go about putting one together. I get that this is a four-minute rock song and that we shouldn’t expect academic levels of theoretical approach, but if your intent is to actually kick off a mass revolt maybe you should put more thought into your poetry than “we’re angry because oppression. Grrr!”?

Then again, even the Clash never really went all that in-depth with their political statements. Also, revolutions have a nasty history of not actually working out all that well for the masses involved, so there’s that. Maybe a polite lettering campaign would be better?

Verdict: “Edge of a Revolution” gets a 3 out of 5 from me. If you’re one of the many people who don’t like Nickelback this might not change your mind about them, but it’s got a better chance of doing so than anything else they’ve released in a while. As a big Nickelback fan myself, this is a promising, if not incendiary sign of things to come: it’s loud, aggressive and catchy with a nice stomping beat and, though it likely won’t cause any actual revolt (though to be fair, how many songs can you say actually have?), it should go down a storm at concerts.

Today’s double-up is Chickenfoot’s “Avenida Revolucion” – now here’s a song to get your blood going for the uprising. I should also point out that this was a fan video designed to throw a light on the situation discussed in the song. Flippin’ good effort as well.

Pop Song Review: Nicki Minaj – “Anaconda”

Here’s another pop song review, guys, and this week it’s Nicki Minaj’s latest, “Anaconda”.

First impressions: You know, given this song’s press and Minaj’s history of making truly repugnant music, I thought I’d hate it more than I did. Don’t get me wrong, I still hated it, but in a passive, “this isn’t worth getting worked up about” sort of way that came as a pleasant-ish surprise. Minaj’s career basically thrives on two things these days: shoving Beats products into her videos; and attention-seeking. We can deny her one of those things. So getting genuinely angry about this piece of nothing is probably not worth anybody’s time. Instead, let’s just quietly discuss why it sucks and move on.

The music: The beat is taken directly from Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back”, and I feel confident in saying that if you’ve heard that song and any of Minaj’s other songs, then you know exactly what “Anaconda” sounds like. Sure, there’s a few skips and jumps, but it’s essentially “Baby Got Back” with some different rapping, so now there’s no need for you to click that video up there and add to its view count that contributes to its chart placing thereby making sure we don’t get any more of this d’yer understand okay bye bye.

Now, confession time here: I actually don’t mind “Baby Got Back.” It’s fun, in its own strange little way, and just dorky enough to bat off any serious accusations of sexism. But here’s the thing: if I wanted to listen to “Baby Got Back”, I’d just go listen to that song. Minaj (or her songwriters, at least) rips the beat and does absolutely nothing new or interesting. It’s just there to draw comparisons because hey, that song was about big butts, and so is this one. It’s akin to reference humour, essentially – and reference humour is about as lazy as comedy gets these days. Only sarcasm is lazier, I think, but at least sarcasm has some bite to it every now and then.

Also, because there’s no melody here to write about, I have to comment on Minaj’s flow instead. Now, I’m not a rap expert by any means, but her flow is horrendous on this track. At least on her other songs it was aggressively annoying, so you could at least appreciate that she was trying to rub you the wrong way. Here it’s just like, “yeah, butts butts, whatever, wheee”. It’s just so lazy, stupid and ugly, all of it – and no, White Knights, I’m not referring to Minaj herself (although I don’t find her attractive or sexy in the slightest either. More on that never).

One last point to make in this section: on his YouTube show, This Song Sucks, Luke Giordano recently made an interesting observation about modern pop music – that being irritating has now replaced being catchy after the former kidnapped the latter, murdered it and started wearing its skin as a disguise. Even though that was intended as a joke, “Anaconda” makes me wonder if there really is some conspiracy out there to replace catchy, interesting hooks with mantras and beats that hammer into your brain again and again until you’re so peeved off you’re almost forced to remember them. “Anaconda” is more concerned with annoying you than entertaining you because, by being as terrible and abrasive as possible, at least you remember the song… and yet, somehow, it doesn’t even care enough to succeed at that deplorable enterprise: it’s so boring and tuneless, all I remember are the parts she swiped from “Baby Got Back”. Yes, I keep referring back to that song but, in fairness, so does she.

The lyrics: Here’s the lyrical depth of this song, the crux of it all: Nicki Minaj exists, does a bunch of crazy stuff in her spare time, and has a large butt. She is particularly keen for you to notice this sizeable rear of hers. In fact she is so keen for you to notice that she has gone to the effort of slapping together something resembling a song devoted to the promotion of said engorged hind-quarters so that you may notice them and… I don’t know, jump at them or something?

Obviously the main lyrical hook (and from it, the title of the song) comes from “Baby Got Back”, because again, that song was about big butts and this one is too – except the “anaconda” mention in that song was a metaphor for something else, with only a tangential connection to big butts, so it doesn’t really warrant naming the song after it. Yeah, yeah, the anaconda don’t want none unless you know, big butts, herp a derp, whatever, but it’s still dumb.

But wait, you want me to review the lyrics? Analyse them real good? Sorry, but this song doesn’t engender enough interest in me to fully commit that. I’ve looked them over and it all amounts to the same word salad of hip hop clichés you’ve heard everywhere else. I’ve analysed Renaissance poetry and even I could barely wade through that bracken of tired gibberish she calls a set of lyrics. Here, read ’em if you like. You figure them out.

The one thing I will say, though, is this: for a song so ostensibly about big butts, the verses have astonishingly little to say about the subject. In fact, big butts aren’t even mentioned until the “chorus” kicks in, at which point the song suddenly realises what it’s supposed to be about and just straight up demands that we “look at her butt”. Lazy, dumb, tired… shall I go on? No. No I shall not. I’ve wasted far too much word space on this song as it is.

Verdict: Yeah, this is awful. An easy 0 out of 5, the repulsive effect of “Anaconda” would have been more potent were it not so tedious and nondescript – several listens later I can still barely remember how it goes. I’m guessing the song and video are supposed to be deliberately stupid in a self-knowing, ironic sort of way, because the whole thing is just so brain-rottingly bad I refuse to believe actual human beings thought this was anything approaching a quality product; but deliberately stupid things are still stupid and I can’t condone that. Just… let’s just forget this thing ever existed, okay? Can we do that? I think we can do that.

This week’s double up is Judas Priest’s “Snakebite”. Yeah, anacondas don’t bite their victims to death, but it’s a more solid connection to said animal than anything that song I reviewed has.

Pop Song Review: Nico & Vinz – “Am I Wrong”

So here we go – writing ’bout pop songs – and what better way to start this train of fun off on its tracks than with the current UK no. 1 single, Norwegian duo Nico & Vinz’s “Am I Wrong”? That’s right, there isn’t one. Unless there is, but for now let’s pretend there isn’t.

First impressions: From what I can tell this song is another entry in the “dance songs that don’t really sound like modern dance music, but you can still get drunk to them” box. I have mixed feelings about said box: while these songs are trying to be a bit smarter and more eclectic than the average EDM garbage, they’re still obviously pandering to that market. To my slim, sexy ears this song sounds like it’s doing the same thing: the production and the instrumentation give it a bit of flavour, but the watery synths and the Autotuned cooing in the chorus remind me that there’s probably at least a dozen bad club remixes of this on YouTube right now, and that makes me uncomfortable. It’s… okay, is what I’m saying here. Not great, though.

The music: Apparently this song belongs to the Afrobeat genre, one that I’m not overly familiar with but according to Wikipedia is “a combination of traditional Nigerian and Ghanaian music, jazz, highlife, funk, and chanted vocals, fused with percussion and vocal styles, popularised in Africa in the 1970s.” So a bit of funk, a bit of jazz, a bit of world… I’d be down for that. Both members of the group have African origins, after all, so it could work.

Unfortunately, for me, a second listen reveals just how little there is to the song. The music is all positive and upbeat, but it’s also strangely demure and polite, as if they were worried that going all out with the African elements – what little there are here – would put people off, so they smoothed away the edges with a minimalist club-pop production. The “am I wrong?” hook is repeated too many times, which I get is the point of a hook, but it wasn’t a particularly great one to begin with and repetition doesn’t bring out any sudden burst of musicality from it. It’s catchy, in the sense that it sticks in your head after the fortieth time you hear it, but that doesn’t mean it’s any good. I do appreciate that there’s an actual middle-eight instead of a rap verse like in so many other pop songs these days, but it’s not a particularly good one. I would have appreciated the use of horns in the chorus more if half the time they weren’t synchronised with the vocals so tightly that they have no effect. The rhythm has a charming bounce to it and the beat has that African percussive style that I like, but even then the production stilts it so it sounds forced; again, they should have gone all out with the Afrobeat elements instead of holding back. It really is that modern dance production to blame: it polishes the song but it also suppresses any genuine joy it might have been trying to evoke (then again, I am a pretty joyless person, so maybe I have a harder time perceiving it than others). Ultimately “Am I Wrong”‘s is just not all that catchy or fun to listen to, and that’s all I’m really asking for from a pop song.

The lyrics: “Am I wrong for thinking out the box from where I stay? / Am I wrong for saying that I’ll choose another way?” So it’s another “shoot for your dreams, don’t be brought down by those around you, baby you’re a firework, you were born this way” song about… well, all that stuff I just mentioned. It’s also asking you the question of whether they’re wrong or not instead of just telling you they are or aren’t, which is confrontational but also evasive. Are they actually asking for my judgement on this? Well, they seem pretty confident – “my prediction, I’mma be on top of the world” and “don’t let them control your life” seem like assured statements of intent to me – so what’s the need for the rhetorical questioning device? You guys should know if you’re wrong or not, so why bother asking? People who think you are, in fact, “trippin’ for having a vision” aren’t going to do a sudden 180 just because you asked them like that. “You know, I did think he was tripping at first, but then he asked me about it and now I’m not so sure…” No, that doesn’t happen, especially when you never make it clear exactly what your vision is: famous musician? Chess champion? Professional Kraken tamer? Give us a clue, at least – and don’t be so polite, man. Be more sure of yourself. Just say “I ain’t wrong, so screw you” and be done with it.

Verdict: I’ll give this a 3 out of 5. There’s obvious effort that went into making this and I do like certain things about it – the message, as vague as it is, is a nice one – but there’s just not enough to keep me listening to it again and again. I understand its popularity to an extent, but understanding something is not the same as agreeing with it. For a song about being as unique and incredible as you can be it’s weirdly listless and safe. That said, I wish Nico & Vinz all the very best – just try and step away from the dance scene, guys. It won’t do you any favours in the long term.

Also, as an homage to Luke Giordano’s “Song I Like Today”, at the end of each review I’m going to suggest an alternative song to listen to that is along the same thematic lines as the single I reviewed. If you don’t like the single, there’s another song for you to enjoy; and if you like both songs, then you’re simply doubling up. Simple, right? It’s a no-lose scenario. Aren’t I kind? So today’s double-up is Audioslave’s “Be Yourself”. It’s not a particularly great song, but at least it’s direct about what it has to say.

That’s my opinion, anyway – what’s yours? Am I wrong? Right? Sexy? Leave a comment below and let me know what you think.

August Update

Here’s a wee confession and an explanation for why I haven’t been writing much here recently.

First of all, I’ve spent the last couple of months trying to cobble together ideas for my creative writing. I start a Masters programme in the autumn, you see, so I’ve been working out potential ideas for future writing projects to keep myself busy. Mainly I’ve been flexing my literary muscles on what will hopefully one day be a full-length novel but, for the moment, is about ten thousand words of random, barely-connected slabs and shards of prose. There’s also a play in the pipeline, along with a bunch of other ideas for future books, but at the moment it’s all a bit cluttered and sparse – much like my frame of mind at the moment. With all that scurrying about my head, I haven’t had much time to think about this blog, and that’s sad. Mostly for me, because I would like to keep this blog going for the foreseeable future.

Now, I will soon start reviewing the second series of Red Dwarf and maybe some current television programmes (though the summer TV schedules are pretty quiet at the moment), so that’s on the table. I have been listening to a fair amount of music recently, a lot of it new, but I think I’ve come to a not-so-startling revelation based on my two album reviews for this blog, and it’s that I’m no good at music criticism. I mean, when it comes to actual analysis of the music I’d say I’m okay, pretty decent at best, but the whole premise of me reviewing an album is somewhat flawed. I’m not on Spotify, you see, and I’m not a big fan of MP3 downloads, so I buy all my albums on hard-copy with my own pocket money – and I only really buy albums from artists I like, so there’s not much to say about anything I’ve been listening to other than, “yeah, this is good, I like this, you should hear it”. I’ve had several half-finished album reviews cluttering up my drafts list for a long time now because I haven’t been able to find anything interesting to say about the albums. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed them all, but what is there that’s fascinating or amusing to say about that? All I could do is just describe how each song or each album is good in a different way to the previous one – and if you think that’s boring to read, just imagine how boring it is to write.

That’s why that’s stalled, but what I think I’ll start doing as soon as I can is to write about pop music. I’m not one of these people who thinks we’re going through a particularly awful time for pop music at the moment because, let’s face it, the mainstream music scene has always been a bit rubbish. I used to review new pop singles quite regularly on my old blog, normally just making fun of them by analysing the lyrics and stuff, but if there was a song I liked I’d give it its due. Since I started writing this blog I’ve been watching a lot of Todd in the Shadows and Luke Giordano’s This Song Sucks, and both have inspired me to start writing humorous piffle about pop songs again. I’ll probably be sticking to the more famous stuff crawling up the charts, though, because a) it’d be overly mean to pick on a struggling artist who clearly cares about their music; b) it’s easier and more cathartic to make fun of artists who are clearly shilling themselves out for cash and fame without any thought for how it might be affecting their product; and c) a third reason.

So I’ll hopefully start doing that again here soon, but I’d also like to write about rock music and all the stuff in my record collection (which is pretty large and constantly growing). There’s also lot of great rock music being put out there right now as well that the mainstream press is just outright ignoring, so I’d like to give those artists a bit more traffic. As for creative writing bases stuff I wouldn’t mind putting up some poetry or short stories, or maybe even some sort of serial. I’ve had several poems published online, so apparently I’m quite good at it. We’ll see, anyway.

For the time being, though, here’s some Hollies, because why not?