Month: October 2014

Pop Song Review: One Direction – “Steal My Girl”

Bad news, guys – One Direction still exist. I know, I thought they’d be gone by now too, but there we are. So today’s review is the worryingly-titled “Steal My Girl” which has spent the last couple of weeks or so lodged on the Twitter top trends board in some way, shape or form, empirically proving that the majority of Twitter uses are little girls.

First impressions: Oh my. Oh, oh my. That was just… I don’t even have a word. I mean, I have a little cachet of adjectives handy I dip into but I haven’t replenished it in a while. Let’s check the thesaurus, shall we? Let’s see… “ghastly?” Nah. “Appalling?” Nah. Ooh, how about “abhorrent?” I like that. Let’s go with that.

The music: Apparently One Direction’s songwriters looked at the modern pop charts and thought, “you know what this needs? More cheesy AOR.”. Yes, please experience, for your home viewing pleasure, mature One Direction, everyone. I guess it finally hit them that their core audience of squealing young girls is beginning to grow up and discover more interesting, complex and emotionally fulfilling music, while the next band of hairstyles is marching across from the horizon looking to take the hearts of the newer generation of young’uns. So did they do the honourable thing and actually put together some interesting, complex and emotionally fulfilling music of their own in order to transition into a credible band? Or did they simply take their usual pop sound and suck the fun out of it? Take a wild guess.

I could be cynical and call this a desperate attempt to cling on to an audience that is years away from discovering Iron Maiden by adopting a more “adult” (read: boring) sound… and I am cynical, so that’s exactly what I’m calling it. Still, adults like slow love songs, right? Well, some of them do, I’ll give you that, but even then the songs have to be well-written, sophisticated, emotionally relatable and pleasant to listen to. “Steal My Girl,” however, is such a ham-fisted attempt at mature songwriting that it’s embarrassing: heavy beat, stacked vocals singing the same note and a production that makes the song sound like it was recorded in a wind tunnel. The syrupy central piano line is straight out of a book of Eighties ballad songwriting, the sort of thing REO Speedwagon would have been proud to put their name to thirty years ago (apart from the horrible out-of-breath cod-rap bark they’ve got going, which could be either an attempt to step on Ed Sheeran’s whispery turf or just a magnificent prank on behalf of their producer).

So what are One Direction’s team going for here? Are REO Speedwagon and Journey their idea of mature songwriting? How is it that Glee has zero cultural relevance anymore and yet it’s still somehow diluting the water? Considering that no self-respecting adult is ever going to take One Direction seriously as a musical entity (or at least they shouldn’t) I’m not sure how this is a good move. If they’d kept writing songs for kids they might have put a little more fuel in their tank, but nope, they’re reaching for a higher rung now – except that it’s well out of their reach, so all they’re doing is sacrificing the bird in hand for one in the bush some idiot imagined he saw in there.

Well, anyway, there’s nothing much left to say about this except that it’s plodding, dull, insipid and that if you haven’t already listened to the song, you’re better off continuing to not do so. I can’t fathom how anyone would enjoy this unless they have powerful hallucinogenics or get a kick out of having their day ruined. Also, I never realised this so much before, but these guys are truly horrendous singers. I mean, utterly utterly awful: breathless, tuneless, charmless, anonymous – yet, somehow, famous. Thanks, mankind.

The lyrics: The protagonist has a girlfriend. She is a very attractive and sexy woman. They are very happy together. Lots of other men want to be with her but they cannot be with her because she is with the protagonist. The protagonist is happy about this. Hence the song. So at what point there did you lose interest in what I’d written? I think I dropped off somewhere around the second “very”.

“Everybody wants to steal my girl / everybody want to take her heart away.” Really? Everybody? What, even straight women and gay men? All right, I’m clearly exaggerating, but the hyperbolic use of “everybody” here really does make it seem like he’s afraid somebody – anybody – could take her away from him at any moment. I can’t help but feel that One Direction (or their songwriters at least) see women the way children see lunchboxes.

“Her mum calls me ‘love’ / Her dad calls me ‘son’.” What kind of saccharine fantasy is this? In all the cheesy teen romance songs I’ve listened to in my life I never once heard any where the parents actually accepted the young twerp courting their daughter. Does that even happen? Are One Direction trying to subvert decades, centuries even, of collected wisdom regarding disapproving fathers? Or are they just in denial about why Daddy keeps glaring at them over the spuds at dinner?

“I don’t exist if I don’t have her.” Great job there applying frenzied stalker logic to a pop song. How’s that shrine to her in your bedroom coming along? Collected enough cuttings of her hair yet?

“Every jaw drop / when she’s in those jeans.” Does her father know you’re thinking of her like that? I’m sure he wouldn’t be so keen to call you “son” if he did. Also, I have to ask, why is he so concerned with what other people think? Didn’t pop songs used to be about how the protagonist and his/her lover were all that mattered? How nothing could come between them and their desire for each other? “Steal My Girl” seems to be doing all it can to involve everyone else in this and, if I’m honest, that makes me uncomfortable. It’s almost like the protagonist is inviting us to try it on with her just so he can bat us away and look like the big man in front of his lady. “Fancy stealing my girl? Come on, mate, take a swing at it.” Leave me out of this, One Direction.

“Couple billion in the whole wide world / find another one ‘cos she belongs to me.” Yeah, because women are basically Pokémon cards, right? Neighbour kid won’t give you his, just go out, collect a few more and you’ll find another one among the pile. Couple billion out there, amiright? What are the odds this doofus calls his girlfriend “shiny Charizard” when they’re having sex?

I can see what’s going on here, though: the songwriters clearly aimed to depict a loyal, devoted relationship to go with their (snicker) more mature music. Instead, however, they ended up with a braggy, possessive, insecure doucheturd who treats his girlfriend like a trophy to show off to other drooling men. Despite the flat-footed attempts the music makes to sound all-growed-up, the mindset of the lyrics is still woefully adolescent – they might as well be going “nah-nah-na-naah-nah, you can’t have her”. Is the protagonist worried she’s going to start flirting with other guys? You jealous, brah? And how do we know she wants the same things and dreams the same dreams as you? We only have your word to go on here and, frankly, I don’t see you as a credible source, you cretin.

“She knows / that I’m never gonna let another take her love from me now.” Oh yeah, there’s a Stanley/Stella thing going on here.

Verdict: One Direction are garbage, but their music can at least be tolerable when it’s got some sort of vim to it. This is easily the most sluggish, boring, valueless song they’ve ever had their name put to. Expect a few more weeks of hype, some more trending hashtags on Twitter, maybe an X Factor performance around November time and an eternity afterwards of who could honestly care less. I wager even Heart FM won’t be playing this five years down the line and that really is saying something. The easiest 1 out of 5 I’ve ever handed out.

Today’s double-up is “Shut Out the World” by Eve to Adam. “All that matters is you and me.” See, One Direction? It’s really not that difficult.

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Pop Song Review: 5 Seconds of Summer – “Good Girls”

There’s probably a crack I could make about 5 Seconds of Summer releasing a new song in autumn, but I’m sure someone somewhere has already made it. Today’s review is the new 5 Seconds of Summer single “Good Girls,” another song about young women from a band people actually think to call “punk,” “rock,” “credible” and “good”. It is at this point that I would like to remind the reader that The Treatment exist and are really rather good.

The music: I’ve already had my mini-rant about people considering this band pop-punk, so instead can I have another mini-rant where I suggest that we stop eulogising punk as some sort of sacred art form? I’mma lay some unpopular opinion on you lot out there: for the most part, at least, punk blew. The vast majority of the genre was occupied by boring, arrogant, three-chord pub rock from people who couldn’t be bothered learning how to write actual music. I always thought progressive rock was far more interesting and had way more to offer despite its pretensions; I also kinda resent that it’s still treated as some sort of boogieman of popular music thanks to the effect of a short-lived movement on an establishment that eventually became infested by all these old punks and their stubborn, misguided, misty-eyed assertion that the punk movement was more than just the bloated marketing fad that it really was. It is at this point that I would like to remind the reader that Jethro Tull exist (or rather existed) and are (or were) ruddy brilliant.

Anyway, the verses to “Good Girls” are built on tiptoeing staccato guitar flicks set to a mid-tempo pulse, switching to louder, more distorted guitars and a leaden, plodding chord sequence for the chorus, with a heavy emphasis on loud-quiet dynamics. Nirvana incorporated this technique quite extensively into their music. However, Nirvana also incorporated original songwriting, catchy melodies, world-weary lyrics of personal pain and the powerful, harsh and emotive vocals of Kurt Cobain. 5 Seconds of Summer have one Blink-182 album they’ve been playing on repeat for the last three years.

It’s rock in the sense that there are loud guitars and rebellious themes, but the chords, the vocals, the lyrics and pretty much everything else are set to a pop agenda. Good rock music doesn’t even need guitars – 99% of Morphine’s back catalogue uses a saxophone instead, and those guys could still rock harder than 5 Seconds of Summer. What good rock music does need, though, is a sense of freshness, passion, urgency and aggression that the pop-by-numbers composition and slick, polished production don’t add to “Good Girls”. It feels more like the result of a GCSE songwriting exercise than an attempt to bring something meaningful into the world. Sure, it’s catchy, but that’s a prerequisite for getting into the pop charts. I’m not giving these lads a pass for doing the bare minimum required of them.

The verse vocal structure gets astonishingly irritating in very little time as it alternates between sung vocals and spoken word. The American accent has pretty much become the standard for popular music these days and it’s often jarring to hear an artist that doesn’t use it (listen to Twin Atlantic, for example, where the singer’s thick Scottish drawl frequently distracts the ear from the performance), so I don’t want to rag on 5 Seconds of Summer’s vocalist (whichever one he is) too much for affecting that twang. For some reason it feels particularly forced here, though, as if they’re only doing it to sound more like Sum-41.

Then again, I shouldn’t be surprised because everything is forced about these guys: the very fact they exist is due to some evil git forcing them on to an unsuspecting and upsettingly-willing public. If 5 Seconds of Summer were any more heavily marketed their songs would be about Cheerios and the benefits of a 24-month contract with AT&T; but the target audience here is middle-school girls not yet emotionally mature enough to enjoy Iron Maiden music, so of course they’re singing about school, boyfriends and truancy.

The lyrics: Let me sum up the lyrical subject of “Good Girls” for you right here: “She’s good, she’s good, but oh she’s bad, she’s very bad indeed, heh heh.” It’s all about a young girl who, in public at least, behaves herself, is committed to her education and is supposedly quite intelligent. Ah, but she also has a rebellious side, you see. “She sneaks out the window to meet with her boyfriend / here’s what she told me the time that I caught them”. As you can see, she–wait, the time he caught them? What is he, the neighbourhood watch or something? What exactly was this brat up to when he “caught” this girl sneaking out to meet her boyfriend? He’s not the boyfriend, either, so this is all sorts of weird I didn’t need today.

“In the back of the room where nobody looks / she’ll be with her boyfriend  / she’s not reading books.” Yeah, so? That’s the strange and unsettling thing about these lyrics: what is the narrator’s fascination with this random girl in his class? She has a boyfriend, which he seems fine about, and is therefore unavailable to him, so why does he have such a vested interest in her “naughty” side?

Or maybe – maybe – it’s him (and whenever I use the pronoun I mean whoever’s singing at any given moment, because I haven’t got a clue who’s who in this band and I haven’t got the time, energy or interest to start finding out) using this song to openly fantasise about what he thinks the prim, educated girls in his classroom REALLY get up to behind closed doors (I’m putting my money on backgammon and Irish whiskey. Dunno why, I just am), sung to and for an audience of young girls who, as evidenced by their enjoyment of 5 Seconds of Summer’s music, are possibly too bland to actually get up to such shenanigans themselves. So it’s a shared teenage fantasy. Double weird.

Apart from these few lines the lyrics are mostly a series of clichéd “she does but she doesn’t” schoolgirl contrasts: she studies in her room but really she’s sneaking out; she says she’s at the library but really she’s not reading books, or something; she cleans her room every evening but really she’s harvesting corpses from the nearby graveyard and stitching them together at night in the hopes of running an electrical current through the resultant golem and creating artificial life (I may have made one of those up).

“Good girls are bad girls that haven’t been caught.” Well gee, what an original observation you have there. Did these idiots just watch “Bart’s Girlfriend” for the first time the other week? And what about good girls who actually are principled and actually do behave themselves? Are they not conventionally attractive or desirable enough for the band to project their fantasies on to? Or do they just avoid guys like this so much the band have no idea what they’d look like enough to write a song about them? Funnily enough the boys only give two examples of what makes this good girl so secretly bad – sneaking out at night and hanging out with her boyfriend in class – and those activities are only considered shocking and subversive if you live in a Coronet short from the Fifties. Not only are 5 Seconds of Summer probably the most boring young men to have ever existed, they’re about to get the shock of their lives when they find out about camgirls.

Verdict: It’s not terrible, I guess, but it’s certainly not anything approaching good either. It’s just there: another forgettable juvenile fantasy for young girls who (I can only hope) will eventually know better. Then again, you could make the argument that rock ‘n’ roll is an immature fantasy of sex, drugs and rebellion and that 5 Seconds of Summer are simply rendering it through a different prism for a different audience focus. Then again, shut your hole. 2 out of 5.

Today’s double-up is “Girl Gone Bad” by Van Halen. Alternately you can have “The Doctor” by The Treatment, “Rainbow Blues” by Jethro Tull, “Aneurysm” by Nirvana, “Potion” by Morphine and/or “2 Minutes to Midnight” by Iron Maiden. Really, whatever it takes to wash “Good Girls” out of your system.

Does the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Really Matter?

On the 9th of October 2014 the 2015 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees were officially announced. This also happened to be the day that I finally decided to stop caring so much about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

I’m just going to come out and say it: there’s a metric tonne of artists I think should be in the Hall that aren’t, and a similarly large amount of artists that are in there which I think shouldn’t be. It’s a clichéd statement to make at this point that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame isn’t really all that rock and roll anymore, if it ever was. Too many arguments have been started over what constitutes “rock and roll” and I’d wager not one of them has come to a conclusive answer on the matter (there’s a similar kerfuffle that ignites every time the MOBOs swing round over what exactly can be called “black” music).

So let’s sidestep that for today and ask: does the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame matter at all? How does an artist even get in? What are the criteria to be nominated? There is a committee that votes on this, but how do they decide? Well, Def Leppard are one of only six artists to have two albums sell ten million copies each in the US and they aren’t in, so it can’t be anything to do with sales figures. Deep Purple, Iron Maiden and Mötley Crüe can all be considered some of the most influential rock bands of the last few decades and none of them are in, so it can’t be anything to do with prestige or significance within what is typically defined as the “rock music” scene. My guess is the “fame” part of the title is more key here than we think, and by “fame” we’re talking about a deep-set and ongoing cultural presence among critics and the wider mainstream audience rather than fans and aficionados of rock itself. There’s a reason, after all, that Madonna is in the Hall before Thin Lizzy and The Cult. It’s a dumb reason, but a reason nonetheless.

So who’s in there? By the looks of it, a few token artists from each style of popular music to give it some sort of credibility without going into the depth that would make it a truly respectable institution or authority on rock and roll music, or music in general. The surface of each genre will be scraped and no further: Pink Floyd are the prog representative even though, personally speaking, bands like Jethro Tull and Yes made far more exciting, eclectic and worthwhile music than Floyd’s languid keyboard noodling; Black Sabbath were inducted in 2006 but it might as well have been Ozzy the then-TV star on his own for all Joe Public cares about Tony Iommi and co., or most other heavy metal bands for that matter (the New Wave of British Heavy Metal is still totally unrepresented, by the way); Chic’s potential induction won’t open the floodgates for other pioneering funk and disco acts to be recognised, just as Metallica’s induction didn’t leave the door open for Megadeth and Slayer to stroll on in; and for all the guff about the Hall “enshrining” grunge with Nirvana’s induction earlier this year I don’t see any nominations for Soundgarden or Mudhoney cropping up any time soon. Expect maybe Pearl Jam to get in for 2016 and the Hall to subsequently forget the Seattle scene ever happened.

Is it really worth worrying about who gets in, though? Well, let’s think about the acts that are in for a change. Years after their induction, does anybody care that AC/DC are in the Hall, or Aerosmith or ZZ Top? Has their induction had any effect whatsoever on their music, their influence or anything about them? How many people are even aware they’re in? If you ask a random person on the street to define Led Zeppelin, exactly how many of them would answer “a 1995 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee”? From what I gather inclusion in the Hall amounts to three things for artists: a brief spike in album sales (though I’ve yet to see any concrete data to support that); a party on the night; and something to stick at the top of the press release when they announce a new record or tour. All good for them, I guess, but why should we care about that?

So what is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, when it all comes down to it? Answer: a building in Cleveland, Ohio. That’s it. You can go there and visit it if you like. Being nowhere near Cleveland I’ve no intention of trekking over myself, at least not for the foreseeable future, but apparently it’s a pretty nice place to go see if you’ve got an afternoon to kill. As for the nominations and the ceremony, the media goes nuts about it because it’s something to talk about, but even they lose interest in it once the plates are cleared and the tables have been folded away, only for that same interest to pick up again when the latest batch of nominations rolls in fresh from the oven that autumn, lather rinse repeat. That’s what it boils down to, really: a museum and a media circus. Why do we get sucked in by it every year? Because that’s what media circuses do: get you all riled up so you go clicking all over their articles and earn them all that nice ad money (of course, I don’t make money from this blog so it’s, er, completely different in my case. Ahem).

Now, thinking about artists who aren’t in the Hall, I could put my energy into a campaign to have, say, Judas Priest nominated, but even if it was a success what purpose would I ultimately be serving? So people will recognise their importance? People already do: it’s why they’re one of the most popular heavy metal bands of all time. So more people will start listening to their music? Perhaps, but not enough to make any sort of impact – Taylor Swift fans aren’t suddenly going to go out and pick up British Steel because CNN mentioned the band in a headline. I never listen to Green Day’s music on my own account and their nomination for next year certainly isn’t going to change that.

So what would it be? In my opinion it’s all down to the unspoken assertion that induction into the Hall somehow validates or legitimises our musical tastes and opinions. If an artist is in there that you like, that means you win at music, right? It could also be the inverse, of course: the kneejerk negative reaction to a group of faceless, anonymous strangers claiming to have an authority on what is and isn’t “Hall-worthy” music is a tempting one, for all that it’s worth. Additionally, there is an argument to be made that inclusion into the Hall is a way of affirming an artist’s position in music history and ensuring that they won’t be forgotten in a century’s time, but isn’t that what the music itself is supposed to do?

Look, I’m someone who could easily be criticised for using his musical tastes as a stick to beat others with, usually because my tastes were (and often still are) tied to my self-worth. It’s not a mentality I’m proud of by any means and it’s one I’ve done a lot of work (and to some extent am still working on) to get out of. Despite what I go on about in my pop and rock song reviews there really isn’t any such thing as good or bad music (assuming of course that it is at least music, which I’m not sure something like this is). It’s all subjective: my opinions on music are no more or less valid than yours and, by extension, those of whatever committee decides goes into this thing. The Hall wants to nominate NWA and The Smiths? Fine, let them. The Hall thinks one artist is more important than another? Sure, go ahead. In ten years time nobody will care, so why bother ourselves about it now? The media circus might be annoying, but it’s all over quickly. Enjoy the music you like and leave it at that.

If you’re somebody who gets worked up about this every year, though, here’s a simple trick for getting over it: imagine, for a moment, a day somewhere sometime in the far-flung future, where every popular artist is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. All your favourite bands, singers and musicians have been recognised for their prestige, talent and influence, and at the same time none of them have, because when everybody has the same level of prestige the concept itself becomes meaningless. Would the inclusion of Motörhead, Cheap Trick, Kate Bush and Kraftwerk make the Hall a more respectable venue? Nope, because there’s always going to be an artist left out that somebody somewhere thinks should be in there. At the same time, though, they can’t all be in there because the honour that supposedly comes with being inducted into the Hall would lose value exponentially. When you think of it that way, the idea of a Hall of Fame for rock and roll becomes irrelevant and a lot sillier.

Admittedly, though, I could get behind a Rock and Roll Hall of Artists Who Aren’t in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Actually, can we get someone working on that?

Pop Song Review: Professor Green feat. Tori Kelly – “Lullaby”

Hey gang, guess who’s back? Yeah, it’s been a little while since I posted. I started a new postgraduate course recently so I haven’t had much time to even think about pop music, let alone write anything on it, but let’s see what we can get out this week. Today’s pop song review is “Lullaby” by Professor Green featuring Tori Kelly.

First impressions: I feel like I’ve heard this song before. Don’t we get one of these every few months: these half-rap, half soul emotional ballads with beats heavy enough for a club remix? From what I’m hearing so far this really is just more of the same.

The music: So this is urban pop that tries to mix the grit of urban hip hop music with the smoothness of pop, which really is like putting lipstick on a bulldog. Tori Kelly tries to coo a gentle, romantic vocal over a stomping hip-hop beat while Green raps in the verses, and the result is confusing. What am I supposed to do with this, exactly? The harshness of the beat won’t let me relax to it and the softness of the melody won’t let me rock out to it. Pop music doesn’t have a clue what it’s doing anymore and nobody cares – how did we become okay with this?

The melismatic vocal part in the chorus sounds like something from an Eastern-European Eurovision entry. It’s not particularly memorable but I guess it’s nice: Kelly has a lovely voice and sings her part professionally without trampling over the melody with any vocal gymnastics, which I appreciate, even if she’s no more interesting than any of the other modern soul-pop singers who could slot into her place. The melody is pleasant but not particularly catchy: only the “woah-oh-ah-oh” part leaves any impression. There is a harsh contrast, as well, between her vocals and Green’s which are too nasally and tough to work with such a soft song as this. Sure, it’s mixing two different styles to create one more eclectic product, but it’s like mixing thumb tacks into an angel delight: it’s different but I still don’t want to eat it.

The lyrics: What I can deduce from the rap lyrics is that Green is trying to evoke the feelings of depression: anxiety eating away at him, no hope on the horizon, sleeplessness and the worry that he’ll end up the way his dad did (Green’s father took his own life in 2008). So it’s pretty heavy stuff we’re working with here. Not having ever been depressed (at least that I know of) I can’t really comment on how accurate it is as a depiction, but one of the YouTube comments I read (from someone who currently suffers from depression) seemed to really appreciate what Green was talking about, so it does look as if it’s having a positive effect. That’s just lovely – because of that I’m not even going to pick at or make fun of what Green is saying here.

What I will pick on are the chorus lyrics, which are less to do with depression and more about some random couple having relationship problems. “All the time I have laid in your love.” Ew. Sorry about that: “when your love kept me safe in the night / all the time I was sure you were mine.” So it’s unrelated to the verse lyrics and it’s painfully vague? Tremendous. His (I assume it’s a he she’s addressing given that it’s a man delivering the verses; I could be wrong but until the English language comes up with a gender-neutral singular pronoun I’ll run the risk) love kept her safe in the night – not sure how that works, unless he had to act as a human shield at one point. “All the time I was sure you were mine”. So he actually wasn’t hers? Was he somebody else’s? Did his love keep that person safe in the night as well? And all this has precisely what to do with depression?

“And before time demands our goodbye / Can you sing me a last lullaby?” Mature, fully-functioning adults of the internet, I ask you sincerely: you are aware that lullabies are simplistic, languid tunes intended for young children, right? Unless you’re into some pretty kinky stuff, asking your lover to sing you a lullaby is objectively weird. Even on a purely metaphorical level it’s still bizarre because lullabies aren’t romantic ballads of affection: they’re sleep aids for developing minds, usually sung by parents to their children. So what exactly is going on here between these two? Admittedly I like the idea of Professor Green attempting to sedate his lover with a rap rendition of “Rock a Bye Baby”, but I don’t think “uproarious laughter” was the sensation they were trying to evoke here.

Verdict: As a song it’s pretty dull, but what Green is talking about is a pretty important topic that doesn’t get discussed as much as it should be. As much as I ragged on the whole “lullaby” thing, if you suffer from depression and find some sort of comfort in this song, that’s fantastic. I’ll give it a 3 out of 5, more for the lyrics than the music, and leave it be.

Today’s double-up is “Wake Up” by Mad Season. I’d also like to divert your attention towards Twinkle Twinkle Little Rock Star, a company that makes lullaby versions of famous rock and pop songs. They’re astonishingly good, too.