You'd probably never guess this about me (or hey, if you saw me at the med school prom, maybe you would), but I keep up with pop and rock music. (There's less of a distinction than I'd like, nowadays.) For “pop”, read “dance, hip-hop, contemp, some rap”—or, more accurately, Billboard's Hot 100.
I owe this, like so much of my muscial education/experience, to Drew. I've said once before that he has the most encyclopedic knowledge of popular music of anyone I know—only Mixy Spinha even comes close—and he's been reading Billboard every week since grade school (so far as I know—it might be since kindergarten, which wouldn't surprise me at all). I used to pride myself on some knowledge of popular music, and a near-comprehensive knowledge of current cinema and publishing (often but not always contiguous with 'literature'). So when I started to lose my grip on cinema (publishing, believe it or not, went sometime during law school—my acquaintance with it now comprises med school and the 653—at last count—non-school books on my shelves), I decided that music was something which I could not let slip. My last desperate fingernail-hold on any claim of being cultured, as it were.
So, to make far too much backstory short, I check up on new songs in the top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100 at least once a month.
But “check up on” doesn't always mean “listen to”. Or at least, not all the way through.
There're a few songs that've gotten by me—the ones that didn't grab me at the beginning—and Ke$ha's “Tik Tok” is one of them. Considering how long it's spent at number one, that's some severe not-grabbing, but until it hit its 7th week, I avoided it. I was somehow certain that, when I listened to the whole song, I wouldn't like it.
I am so right.
I YouTube “Tik Tok”, listen to it turn over, watch it start to rev, thinking, Okay, matches the single cover art, and then—
And then Ke$ha comes onscreen and opens her mouth and I swear to god, the first 5 seconds I see her—even before the boots—I think, Whahuh? Redneck white-girl rap? (Similar to stoopid-girl rock—except, y'know, not. Because hey, Fergie can actually sing, even if her solo lyrics are total crap.)
The rest of the song doesn't improve my opinion. I listen to the hook—catchy as all hell—watch her and wince at her efforts at any kind of rhyme, and think, Wow, suburban girl trying to slum. And failing. Seen her up and down Third and Broad back home in Nashville—hair, boots, all smirk and no smoke. And what's with the faux-trashy?
Remember, this is before I know anything about her. Definitely don't know she's from Nashville. Or that she lived in Brentwood. (Posh suburb of said hometown.) And when I find out all that, I think, I feel so disloyal, and Damn, she's our first big hip-pop hit? I've seen better on my street corner, literally, and How can you live in LA for 5 years as a singer and not know what real trashy looks like?—okay, except for that gold Trans Am...
Her voice is okay, her rhythm marginal, her lyrics abysmal. And a sense of showmanship? Forget it.
But her production is stunning. I can understand why, even as a rookie, Dr. Luke and Max Martin wanted her—they're superstar producers, sure, but you don't get this kind of infectious groove without solid input from the artist. She has talent, all right. She just shouldn't be behind a mic.
The things that make me flinch, though—and what prompted this wrathful little outpouring—are some of the reviews. Ann Powers comparing her to Salt-n-Pepa? Really? Really? The song is danceable and slick, and cherry-sweet-and-dirty as a dropped lollipop—but that kind of lyrical flow? Of talent? Really? Comparing her to Lady Gaga (on whom more—much more—at some other time)? Fergie's lyrics are better (not to mention her voice).
When your rhymes can't stack against “Fergielicious”? Go do something else.
James Reed is the only one who got it right: Compared to “Tik Tok”, “Party in the U.S.A.” is practically a Bob Dylan/Phil Spector song. Yeah, Miley as Mournful Prophet, baby. All the way.
Ke$ha. Quit singing. For god's sake, don't ever try to drop a beat. But produce some pop for someone who can write decent lyrics and has a really good voice. It might not hit the top, but it'll probably be something that won't make people shudder in disgust 2 years from now.
Which brings me to Jay Sean. But my problem is less with him and more with, well, us.
If I were British (which I'm not), or Punjabi (which I'm not), I could sort of claim him as a homeboy. As it is, the best I can say is that I feel some kinship because his folks are from the same subcontinent as mine, and that it's nice to see views and stereotypes of Indian culture and descent shifting. (So okay, the violent, seismic part of the shift came from MIA, whose parents aren't from the mainland, and Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy, a couple of Brits. But hey—gifts, mouths, horses, and so on.) I spent way too much of my childhood as the only Indian kid within a 10-mile radius, answering questions on Indian culture based on “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”—though I do give the people who asked credit for at least asking, instead of assuming. And no, I'm not joking. Oh, how I wish I were.
...Where was I? Oh, right. Jay Sean.
“Do You Remember” is totally forgettable (what the hell happened, Lil Jon?), but “Down”'s slippery synth hi-hat and sliding hook are impeccable, and the melody is the musical-note equivalent of Ebola. The song is an example of why formulaic production standards exist: it works when it's done right. (Though WTF is up with the Autotune? As my brother Sunil observed, it was tired 2 years ago. Find a new effect or—here's a thought—let us hear your voice. And speaking of which? Having Lil Wayne on your lead single is great and all, but he showed you up.)
Jay Sean's cute, occasionally bordering on hot; he's got a nice voice; his lyrics are, um, okay (a small step above Fergie's...maybe, sometimes); his tunes are virally infectious; his beats pop; his feel for showmanship is edgy and opportunistic. (Nice mansion, man. Get yourself a better choreographer.) All of which means he knows how to make himself look and sound good. Really good. Not surprising he hit number one with “Down”.
What's bothering me is something utterly tangential that I found out today, and it's this: The last time a British male artist sold this well in the U.S., it was Elton John with “Candle in the Wind”.
Another Really? moment. But worse: Hello, Cognitive Dissonance. And here I thought the conversation was going so well.
Elton John. One of the greatest songwriters of our time. More importantly, his gorgeous, aching tribute to Marilyn Monroe—the one that acknowledges her immense frailty while mourning her beauty. The one that became an elegy for all lovely things lost beyond regaining.
This one's on us. Our visual arts have gotten immensely more polished—and more shallow. Of course they have—the advent of instant visual communication could portend nothing else. But that shouldn't affect music, the stuff we carry with us in our heads in a way (as we're learning this week in med school) that's not well understood, but that wields incredible power over our feelings and behavior.
And while it's true that muscial styles shift and “Candle” is very clearly of the past, we measure musical talent and the durability of music across decades, if not centuries. Hence comparisons between Stephen Foster and Bruce Springsteen—between Cole Porter and the White Stripes. Cross-comparison is what gives the spectrum of music its continuity.
I'm not suggesting that any fill-in-the-blank next-British-male-artist's hit release could easily measure up to “Candle”, whether in content or style. The Brit-male number one between “Candle” and “Down”, “You're Beautiful”, didn't measure up either (and I didn't particularly like it); but Blunt's deeply emotional and lyrical craftmanship is evident throughout the song. It doesn't measure up to “Candle”, but it displays a level of word- and tunesmithing that acknowledges the songwriter's role as an artist focused as much on creation as on performance.
The contrast between “Candle in the Wind” and “Down” is—agonizing. A Roman aqueduct versus a beautifully-painted water tank. Cringeworthy, at the very least.
And not because Jay Sean should've made it differently.
No, it's because we value both equally.
Like I said—this one's on us.