Look What You Made Me Do

Last week I decided to drive to work downtown instead of taking the light rail because it was a Friday night on a long weekend and I figured there would be light traffic at most. Minutes later, I’m waiting in a line of cars just to get into downtown and I realize something horrible is happening. I look out the window and see an endless line of semi trucks outside of U.S. Bank Stadium emblazoned with Taylor Swift’s face. She’s staring at me, judging me, while she makes me late for work.

It is a fitting incident because Swift is the one pop star I can’t seem to get away from. While I am generally like a 90-year-old man when it comes to being up on current pop music because I just don’t care, Swift sticks in my mind more than I’d like to admit. I have an entire list of grievances towards her: she was born a day before me so I always hear about her birthday on the eve of mine, my college roommate played one of her albums non-stop, and I absolutely despise her music in an active way despite knowing I shouldn’t have an opinion on it. I hate her, in a weird way I kind of admire her, but more than anything, I fear her.

As I type this, I am terrified of Taylor Swift. Because I know that if any massive pop artist were to ever find a random blog post like this and sue me for slander, set her fans on me, or possibly pay to have me killed, it would be her. Nobody in the music industry is more cutthroat and ruthless than Taylor Swift. I believe her life ambition is to make every single person on earth a fan of hers, and she’ll squash anyone who stands in her way like a bug. She once put her music back on Spotify just to get people to listen to her instead of Katy Perry’s new album. Cursory research indicates that she and Perry have “mended their friendship,” but it’s likely just a prelude to Swift’s final unexacted revenge.

Much has been made of Swift’s penchant for writing vengeful songs at various exes and the general sense of neediness that comes out in her lyrics. I view it all as an extension of her weird pathology that requires everyone to love her. While most pop stars have no interest in me listening to their music, Swift badly wants me on her side. Even in the face of massive popularity, she remains obsessed with her “haters” and she writes lyrics about boyfriends who like “indie records that are much cooler than mine.” No success she achieves will ever be enough to satisfy her ambition and ego. A more warmhearted person than I could probably have sympathy for Swift and her inability to be satisfied with anything, but I find everything she does too grating to have any sense of compassion.

The Swift empire isn’t built on any kind of musical ability, but on a carefully curated brand image and the presentation of the character Taylor Swift to the public. Her business acumen is far more interesting than her music, which I find to be dull even by pop music standards. It gets overlooked because Swift is a cute young woman, so people underestimate her and make the sexist assumption that a bunch of men are probably controlling her career. But I think much of Swift’s success is due to her own knowledge of how to play the pop music game and her ability to take advantage of people who underestimate her. She is always in control of her own narrative, and every move she makes is calculated.

The moment that always sticks out is at that one Video Music Awards, when Kanye West stomped all over Taylor Swift’s moment, setting forth the narrative that Kanye is an egotistical dick and Swift was the put-upon and maligned girl next door. You’ll never convince me that this wasn’t a scripted plan, executed like a professional wrestling angle, and it influenced the way people perceived both celebrities. Swift has spent the rest of her career playing off that image of the nice girl who always gets mistreated, partly because it blandly appeals to the most people possible.

It’s fitting that one of Swift’s most famous songs is “Blank Space,” because that’s kind of what she is as a musician. Her music is apolitical, it doesn’t inspire the imagination, and it doesn’t really show any kind of prodigious musical skill. It’s just a series of sounds that exist to advance Swift’s image and narratives about herself. It’s an approach that I find utterly loathsome and antithetical to everything that makes me love music, but I have some begrudging respect for how Swift doesn’t even pretend that her music is about anything but making money. If the concept of capitalism became human and pursued a career in music, it would take all the same steps that Swift has.

Swift’s ability to become one of the most popular musicians on earth while possessing little to no musical talent is a testament to her true genius as a marketer and businesswoman. Maybe this is a misanthropic viewpoint, but I don’t think the actual music really matters anymore when it comes to being a pop star. It’s all about marketing yourself, having an image, and probably paying certain people to do certain things. Once you’ve established a fanbase, you can do pretty much do whatever the hell you want in today’s era of creepy, cult-like fandoms, and through years of shrewd machinations, Swift has built an army of people who will defend anything she does, even if it’s “borrowing” a hook from Right Said Fred.

Swift understands all of this because she’s smart, and she’s figured out that success in today’s climate isn’t about music. The songs I heard from her last album were so half-assed that for a moment I almost thought it was some kind of Lou Reed anti-art thing. But it’s more Swift realizing that all she needs to do is get the internet buzzing for her, positively or negatively, and that means having some vaguely controversial lyrics and tinkering with her image/persona, not having actual good songs. All of her detractors, including me, got their zingers about those songs in on social media, but as always, it was Swift who had the last laugh: Reputation was the best-selling album of 2017, she sold out both of those shows at U.S. Bank Stadium, and she made me late for work.

 

This New Janelle Monáe Song is Not Good

On her debut full-length, The Archandroid, Janelle Monáe established herself as a unique and daring voice. The album refused to belong to any one genre, instead blending funk, hip-hop, soul, folk, and psychedelic rock. Its lyrics might have been even more ambitious: inspired by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Monáe’s songs were based around the concept of a messianic android named Cindy Mayweather and touched on themes of afro-futurism and cyborg feminism. It felt completely new and it justifiably made her a star.

Eight years later, it’s hard to find a starker contrast to The Archandroid than one of Monáe’s new singles, “Django Jane.” While her first album felt like the work of an artist with something to prove who was overflowing with creative energy, on “Django Jane” she reveals herself to be someone who has become complacent and bought into her own celebrity hype. Where once there were lyrics that told fantastical stories with deep, thought-provoking themes, now there are only smug boasts. “Already got an Oscar for the casa,” she brags about winning a meaningless award chosen by the same group of voters that gave Crash best picture. “Runnin’ outta space in my damn bandwagon,” she later adds, smirking as she revels in her popularity.

It’s hard to argue with the last part: Monáe is massively successful now, a star of music and film, and this single was met with a wave of admiration on social media. Many are empowered and inspired by her music, and who am I to tell them they’re wrong. But I find this type of pop song, that’s so focused on the artist’s own success and greatness, to be possibly the worst thing in music. If someone walked up to me on the street and started bragging to me about the awards they’ve won and how many people love them, I wouldn’t find them inspiring. I’d find them annoying. And I would probably think they were compensating for something.

It’s not just the egotism of the lyrics that grates. Musically, there is no attempt at innovation or genre-bending like on The Archandroid. Monáe spends most of the song half-rapping while autotuned over generic pop sounds that anyone could have made. It makes such poor use of her phenomenal ability that it almost feels like self-sabotage. There are few other ways to explain why this artist whose music once exuded musical freedom is content to put herself into this tiny box.

In a promotional interview with The Guardian, Monáe flaunted her independence, proclaiming that “you don’t own or control me.” It’s a good message in theory, but it’s hard to reconcile that quote with this song that sounds so desperate for external validation. The Archandroid was the work of a truly independent artist who clearly did not care about how people perceived her — ironically, it sounded more confident than this song because it took risks and didn’t conform to any expectations. “Django Jane,” on the other hand, feels like an artist who is under the control of the music industry and her own increasing thirst for fame and adulation. Its pandering lyrics and generic sound indicate an artist who craves the approval of the puppet-masters who run the Grammys more than one who is interested in music as a form of real self-expression.

As is often the case with pop music, I suspect what makes me absolutely hate this song is what makes other people love it. It’s that Monáe, to use the parlance of our times, “gives zero fucks,” and is simply owning her stature as an artist and giving herself credit. She came from nothing to be what she is today and has earned the right to brag about it. I can see how her confidence and lack of restraint in showing it could be empowering. As a white man, I’ve never had to be empowered ever, so I’ll concede that this song potentially has a power to many listeners that I can’t fully know.

But I do know Monáe’s music and what she’s capable of. I remember being so absorbed by The Archandroid, wondering with excitement about how she would follow it up, and thinking that she could be another Björk — an artist with otherworldly talent who merged different genres and existed outside of the typical pop/indie divide. So to hear her sink to the level of this song is really depressing. The artist I initially loved never would have made a song that sounded this lazy. “Django Jane” could generously be described as an intriguing political statement, but it’s barely music.

Savages’ Regressive Revolution

Savages are the kind of band I used to love. This is documented for posterity in my post about them back in 2013, when their first album Silence Yourself was released and I penned a historically bad “review” where I completely bought into the band’s hype and stupidly defended them against some detractors I had seen in my Twitter feed.

It was easy to be fooled by Savages, who marketed themselves as an exciting new rock band, and back in 2013 they looked and sounded the part. Their music was very striking and confident while their lyrics were strident, almost like a call to arms. Some songs, like “Shut Up,” even came with mission statements. These were virtues I admired a couple years ago, but since then my sensibilities and tastes have changed and I’ve become more aware of the phoniness of Savages and their “mission.”

With a new album, Adore Love, on the horizon in 2016, Savages are once again positioning themselves as the self-appointed saviors of rock. One of their new songs is called “The Answer,” fitting the band’s perception of themselves as the solution to all of music’s problems, while the video shows them melting people’s faces in an underground punk show like hardcore rockers. The album’s cover is literally a closed fist in the air, further signalling that Savages are a Revolutionary Band. The video for “Adore,” which the music press breathlessly labeled “stunning,” features singer Jehnny Beth STARING into the CAMERA INTENSELY, as if waiting for viewers through the screen to congratulate her on her bravery and fearlessness. It’s a video that reeks of effort and desperation as the band painfully tries to will their own self-described importance into existence.

Beth’s performance in the “Adore” video serves as a useful proxy for my experience watching the video and listening to the song. I stared blankly at my screen for five minutes, waiting for something to happen that never did. The song goes nowhere and ends with Beth unconvincingly shouting “I ADORE LIFE,” a trite lyric that is delivered like it’s the most radical thought anyone has ever had. This “adore life” message that seems to be the primary theme of their album rings particularly hollow given that Savages are possibly the least fun band to ever exist and make Radiohead look like Andrew W.K.

While I initially liked Silence Yourself, it quickly left my rotation in 2013 as something about the band left me cold. I didn’t figure out why that happened until I discovered a band called Nervous Trend from Australia. They had just released their first demo tape, which I saw linked on Twitter, and when I listened to it I was blown away. This band was drawing from many of the same influences as Savages, but made something that sounded much more original and exciting, without any of the manifestos and other media branding nonsense that had made Savages a small phenomenon.

I don’t think Nervous Trend and Savages are in competition with each other, and I can easily see people liking both of them. But for me, the Nervous Trend demo (keep that in mind, it’s a demo) exposed a lot of the flaws in Savages that I hadn’t considered before, and it helped explain why Silence Yourself had held up so poorly. Beneath all the imagery and attitude, the actual music Savages made wasn’t as inspiring as their portrayal of themselves indicated it was. Nervous Trend showed what a band drawing from similar influences could sound like, and how to have socially-conscious lyrics without being pretentious about it.

Part of my bitterness here is that Savages are a relatively big band, while Nervous Trend remain obscure — they just released an EP last year that I didn’t even hear about until yesterday, because the band doesn’t have a Twitter or Facebook account and has zero traction in the music press. It illustrates to me how Savages are a sanitized version of much better music, but have built themselves into an “important band” through branding, non-musical elements, and a music press that eagerly bought into their self-mythology because the band provides easy talking points.

Savages end up being a particularly brutal combination: a band that believes deeply in their own importance and ability, but makes music that is regressive and uninteresting. There are tons of bands, from the 80s through today, that have worked in a similar musical space and are much better, but aren’t as known because they lacked the flashiness and eye-catching press releases of Savages. It also makes it more insulting when Savages are perceived as fresh and exciting, when their music is mostly an imitation of bands like Bush Tetras.

Savages have ended up being a useful band for me personally, as the original post I made about them was a turning point where I realized I was too frequently liking music and thinking it was important because I was told to by others. It also made me far more skeptical of any band being trumpeted as exciting for reasons that don’t have much to do with their songs. The music decides whether a band is important or not, and in that regard Savages fall woefully short.

“Ho Hey” and the Scourge of Mainstream Folk

I’m hard-pressed to think of a song in recent years that I’ve hated as much as “Ho Hey.” It has to be one of the most inexplicable hits ever. For one thing, just on the most basic level, the song is annoying to listen to: it has people saying “ho! hey!” in the background after every line, which makes me want to punch all of them, something I believe is a rational, human reaction to anyone saying “ho! hey!” But like any song I truly despise, what makes “Ho Hey” so detestable is a unique combination of being overplayed, loved by people who should know better, and the musical trends that the song represents.

What’s most frustrating about “Ho Hey” isn’t necessarily that it’s popular, but it’s the people that it’s popular with. A few years ago, The Current was a station that offered a reprieve from the overplayed music that we were forced to listen to when we went to shopping malls or grocery stores or parties. Now, its listeners just voted “Ho Hey” as the number one song of 2012. Interestingly, they didn’t have other pop songs on there like “Call Me Maybe” (which is an actual good song), indicating that the same people who love “Ho Hey” also think of themselves as educated listeners with discerning tastes. It’s easy to picture a Lumineers fan scoffing at those who listen to corporate pop artists while simultaneously listening to the most overplayed song in music today.

In this respect, The Lumineers (along with other folk bands like Mumford and Sons) have pulled off the biggest trick of all: they’ve become massively popular while somehow maintaining a certain amount of “indie cred.” Music critic David Greenwald dubbed this genre “festivalcore,” calling Mumford and Sons, despite their popularity, “the kind of band your friends might not know if you ask, the kind that feels like a secret.” The Lumineers seem similar: despite the fact that they’re literally everywhere on the radio, people who listen to them still perceive themselves as special, as if they’ve uncovered a diamond in the rough.

The success of “Ho Hey” is really just the chilling and horrific end-game of our unfortunate national love affair with mopey bland white guy folk. It takes popular trends in indie music (guys wearing silly antiquated clothing! soft guitars! non-threatening vocals!) and boils them all down to a nonsensical two-word catch phrase. One gets the impression that literally thousands of bands in the country could have written this song, but The Lumineers were the only ones willing to stoop to this level of pandering simplicity. Credit to them I guess: they seem like decent enough people, and I’m sure this has been a wonderful, unexpected surprise for them.

That doesn’t make the bewildering success of “Ho Hey” any less annoying. It just really bums me out to see this kind of deliberate mediocrity become huge while many more deserving indie bands remain underground. And this isn’t some indie snob thing: I can appreciate a well-written, mainstream-oriented pop song. But “Ho Hey” is none of those things. It’s a dashed-off, stupid song that is only popular because it shamelessly caters to our culture-wide fascination with sad, goofy white guys that play the banjo. (I keep saying dudes or guys because this genre is completely male-dominated, which makes it even worse than it already is.) Surely we can do better than this.

It’s almost like “Ho Hey” is popular in part because it’s so terrible. The Lumineers are “real” because they can’t write a hook and use gibberish instead of real words for lyrics, unlike those fancy pop stars who have legitimate talent and write songs in actual English. Sort of like how some people worship Adele because she doesn’t look like the other pop stars, maybe people worship The Lumineers because they don’t sound like the other big-name musicians (because they’re horrible)?

Whatever. I’m done trying to figure this one out. This one’s on you guys. I had nothing to do with it.