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Pop Song Review: Little Mix, “Black Magic”

It’s August 2015, and at time of writing I’m about to reveal some astonishing information: I don’t know what a “little mix” is supposed to be. It’s just… it seems like a pointless name to me. Their former name, Rhythmix, was at least a spin on the word “rhythm”. I get that. But a Little Mix? Like a… like a smaller mix than a regular-sized… mix? Do mixes even come in sizes? Who can say. Well, maybe the person who came up with the name. They might be worth asking.

So to sum up, Little Mix is a weird name. I’m glad we could come to that conclusion. And what was the point of me saying all that? There wasn’t one, but hey, it got the review started, so who’s complaining? Anyway, today’s pop song review is “Black Magic” by Little Mix.

First impressions: Huh. For a song that, by its very name, evokes the dark arts, it’s awfully cute.

The music: So after listening to this a few times, what do I have to say about it? Well, the music is mostly forgettable, assuming you realised it was even there in the first place. There’s a strong Eighties influence, if I’m not mistaken: the song is fairly standard, synth-structured candy-pop with a whiff of Cyndi Lauper in the melody, if I’m not mistaken (though i probably am), while the ska-styled bass line in the verses is a near-blatant rip-off of Queen’s “I Want to Break Free”. I feel like I’m the only person who’s noticed that, too. I don’t know how to feel about that.

The song kicks off with another barrage of stomping beats and chanted vocals that I’m sure I’ve heard before in another Little Mix song, if not all of them, heralding another round of finger-wagging female empowerment ahead. For me it outstays its welcome pretty quickly but if they had to have a musical calling card it’s not a bad one to go with. This time around, though, even they don’t really sound all that into it, and given how much force and pep they usually put into their performances, yes, it is noticeable. I get that there’s a posturing sense of girl power to this music, but they could at least make it sound a little more fun. When Cyndi Lauper sings that girls just want to have fun, I believe her. When this lot sing about the girls knocking on their door, I’m wondering if it’s because they haven’t been out in a couple of weeks and their friends are calling to make sure they aren’t dead.

(And yes, I’ve referenced Cyndi Lauper twice in this review. Three times if you count that namedrop right there. And yes again, it’s also the first time I’ve ever mentioned her on this blog. Like buses, they say. Well, I say. Anyway, pointless digression aside…)

And here’s another problem I have with the singers in Little Mix, because ragging on young women is what blogging was designed for, apparently: technically, they’re all good vocalists. They hit the notes fine, they blend well into a nice chorus, and they can even throw off a few acrobatic moves without much effort. The problem is twofold: one, their voices still have that “stagey” quality typical of reality show singers, like they don’t actually care what the words are coming out of their mouth because they’re too busy trying to force the notes out with “feeling”; and two, none of their voices have any individual character. I can’t tell a single one of these women’s vocal styles apart from the others apart from the fact that one’s is a little squeakier than the others. They don’t even harmonise for the chorus: they just sing the same note, so my brain doesn’t believe me when I tell it that that actually is four women singing now instead of the same woman who’s been singing all along, except it wasn’t one woman all along either, and then my brain gives me a migraine because it hates me.

The lyrics: Well, the song is called “Black Magic”, so I’m guessing it deals with the allure of love in a symbolically dark, mystical way, possibly leaning on Gothic influences and the writings of Alesteir Crowley to create a foreboding aura of oh who am I kidding here it’s freaking Little Mix.

“All the girls on the block knocking at my door / Wanna know what it is make the boys want more.” Oh boy, I’m getting “Milkshake” flashbacks. No, 2004, you stay where you are. You were fun while you lasted but I have no intention of reliving you again. Actually, BIONICLE had a pretty great story that year and.. no! No, stay where you are. Stay.

“Is your lover playing on your side?” Sorry, what are you asking me here again? Are you suggesting my lover plays for the other team? What do you know that I don’t?

“Take a sip of my secret potion / I’ll make you fall in love.” Oh boy. Right, okay. I think you know what’s wrong with this line, don’t you? Now, I’m not one of these people who go looking for problematics, as the Everything’s a Problem Tumblr might put it, in everything I see, hear and read, but this lyric still gives me a bad feeling in my stomach, especially when coupled with lines in the chorus such as “get your boy on his knees” and “if you’re looking for Mr Right / need that magic to change him overnight.” And while I’d like to think that the song’s younger audience probably wouldn’t even realise the darker connotations a lyric like this might give off, with the access to the internet and social media young adolescents have these days I can’t convince myself of that.

Let me give you a firmer idea of why this is bothering me so much. I know swapping the gender is a pretty lazy way of pointing out this king of thing, but here goes anyway: just imagine a man singing these lyrics about a woman. In fact, let me do it for you:

“Full of honey just to make her sweet / Crystal balling just to help her see / What she’s been missing.”

Creeped out yet? Here’s some more:

“If you’re looking for Mrs Right / Need that magic to change her overnight.”

One more?

“Get your girl on her knees / and repeat after me.”

Sounds more like a fraternity kegger gone way out of control, doesn’t it? “But hang on,” you say, “didn’t you say you’ve been getting into the band W.A.S.P. recently? And didn’t they have a song called “On Your Knees“? Double standards much?” True, true, but there’s a crucial difference here: W.A.S.P. were actually trying to be offensive. The blatant chauvinism wasn’t an overt display of masculinity, it was an effort to peeve off your parents. Also, they weren’t singing to teenage girls. At least, I hope they weren’t.

Look, I don’t actually believe that young girls en masse are suddenly going to start drugging boys in school because of this song. That’s PMRC-level logic. Plus, the love potion angle has been used in countless pieces of entertainment going back to Medieval storytelling, probably even further. A Midsummer Night’s Dream comes to mind, but at least there was a sense of flawed motivation and consequence there. This song and this band are just a bit too squeaky clean to pull off something like this.

The thing is, this could actually have worked out all right, which I know because it’s been done before. You might remember a Leiber/Stoller song from the Fifties called “Love Potion No. 9“, a neat little pop rock number in which the protagonist tries to procure a love potion from a gypsy. Not only is that song actually about black magic, with much smarter and more in-depth lyrics, but it also has a funny twist at the end that gives the song a wicked punch that leaves the protagonist the same desperate yearning fool he was at the beginning. There’s an actual story told here, and it’s told in half the time taken for “Black Magic” to repeat the same sentiment over and over again: you’re going to fall in love with her. That’s it.

Also I now wish it was 1959 and I was reviewing that song.

Verdict: This wasn’t a great review for me, I’ll admit, but to be fair I’m a little out of practice. For all my complaints the song is… well, it’s not good, but it’s not really bad either. It’s just there, you know? It exists and has continued to exist since its release, which is about as high praise as I can give it. So, 2 or 3 out of 5. You pick.

Today’s double-up is, obviously, “Love Potion No. 9”, here performed by Ronnie Dio and the Prophets (yes, that Ronnie Dio).

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Pop Song Review: Wiz Khalifa feat. Charlie Puth, “See You Again”

Well, as fascinating as these Eurovision reviews have been it’s nice to pop into the Western monoculture every now and then to see what I’m supposed to be paying attention to this week. With that said, today’s pop song review is “See You Again” by Wiz Khalifa featuring Charlie Puth.

First impressions: So is this supposed to be a tribute to someone? I feel as though they’re holding back on me there.

/freaking obvious sarcasm

The music: First of all, let’s get this out of the way: yes, this song obviously has a greater emotional context to it due to its association with Furious 7 and the tragic death of lead actor Paul Walker in November 2013. That is something that is still deeply saddening and it’s actually pretty inspiring that it still sends emotional ripples through popular culture to this day. Even if he never got his chance to truly shine, I think it’s great that we can celebrate what he did offer us in his too-brief time on this planet.

That said, screw this song.

Look, it’s an unpopular opinion for sure, and I don’t expect any martyr cred for this one, but someone somewhere had to be the git to point out that this is just not a very good song at all. I get that an up-tempo, all-pistons-blazing hard rocker would have been an insensitive tribute considering the circumstances of Walker’s death but… honestly, could we not have had something with a little more, I don’t know, passion put into it?

I mean, meet me halfway here: context aside, what am I actually supposed to like about this song? The melody is predictable and yet utterly forgettable: you know what’s coming but you somehow don’t know anymore once it’s actually been and gone, which is to say that this melody actively removes information from your brain. If it strayed any further from its perfect cadence it might get the variation it needs to be somewhat memorable, but nope – as soon as it’s out it just races back to that fifth before I can get too interested. Puth’s voice is technically strong but undeniably bland while Khalifa’s delivery is his usual disinterested monotone, propped up in the verses by a skipping beat and the pre-chorus by those butt-ugly synths. And then it all drops for that chorus, just Puth and his piano, before it explodes for the ‘ah-ah-ah-oh’ bit you’ve heard in a thousand pop songs before it. Er, passionate, I guess.

(Also, do I find it a little odd that an artist whose main lyrical focus up until now has been weed and general opulence has been tasked with fronting such an emotionally-charged song? Yes. Yes I do. Thank you for asking.)

Maybe it’s because I never knew Paul Walker and have no interest in these films, but the whole thing strikes me as a little too calculated and a little too exploitative. “Oh, you’re not crying? You’re not getting the feelz? What are you, some sort of heartless monster?” Call me crass, but surely Paul Walker deserved better than a bored-sounding stoner trading vocals with a Sam Smith clone?

The lyrics: Right, I don’t want to rip on the lyrics too much because that really would be me being unnecessarily mean about this whole thing. The music is lazy but these lyrics may very well have a deep personal resonance with the subject matter… assuming they’re even about Walker.

“Damn, who knew? / All the planes we flew.” Wait, hold on, planes? When did they ever fly a plane in a Fast & Furious film? Okay, there’s my first red flag telling me that this wasn’t actually written about Walker himself but was given juuuust enough lyrical relevance to make people think it was.

“How could we not talk about family when family’s all that we got? / Everything I went through you were standing there by my side / And now you gon’ be with me for the last ride.” Okay, that’s nice. I’ll give them that.

“It’s been a long day without you, my friend / And I’ll tell you all about it when I see you again.” I want to give this line the same props, just for its admirable simplicity and emotional rawness, but I’m still having trouble shaking the feeling of disconnect I’m getting from it. Puff Daddy’s “I’ll Be Missing You” might have been mawkish but at least that tribute had some emotional weight due to the close personal relationship between the two artists. Did either Khalifa or Puth even know Paul Walker?

“First you both go out your way / “And the vibe is feeling strong.” I know I’m nitpicking here, but both? Who’s this third person Khalifa’s mentioning?

“Remember me when I’m gone.” You… do know we’re paying tribute to Walker at the moment, don’t you, Khalifa? We can plan your memorial later.

Verdict: Let me just reiterate that I in no way intended to discredit either Walker or the sentiment behind this tribute with my review. That doesn’t change the fact, though, that this is a boring, generic piano ballad with no value of its own beyond its unfortunate context. It’s brilliant that they wanted to celebrate Paul Walker’s life and work – I get that completely and I’m 100% behind that – but that doesn’t mean I have to like the way it’s been done. Frankly I think he deserved better than “See You Again” but, obviously, millions of people disagree, so who cares what I think, right? 2 out of 5.

Today’s double-up is “Say Hello 2 Heaven” by Temple of the Dog.