Beyoncé, Carly Rae Jepsen, and The Song Machine

Blowhard, Esq. writes:

beyonce-lemonade

Please do not make eye contact with Her Royal Highness when she’s communing with the Muses on Mount Olympus.

Beyoncé has released a new album, Lemonade, to predictably rapturous reviews. Ever since her halftime performance during the 2013 Superbowl, her every emanation has been greeted by the Beyhive with an ecstasy that puts the average Marvel movie fanboy to shame. Curious about they hype, I decided to give it a listen and, though I have absolutely no shame about proclaiming my girlpop fandom, I thought the album was pretty boring. Fans have lauded its musical eclecticism, but it sounded unfocused and schizophrenic to me. “Hold Up” has a nice vocal hook, but I liked it the first time when Karen O did it in “Maps.” “Sorry” features a herky-jerky rhythm that recalls the black debate style that’s en vogue. “Love Drought” consists of airy vocals over moody atmospherics that wander aimlessly. (I was reminded of Zayn Malik’s latest — is this kind of production a trend in contemporary R&B?) “Sandcastles” is a lumbering piano ballad while in “Freedom” Beyoncé exhorts herself to “keep running because a winner don’t quit on themselves.” The only song I enjoyed was “Daddy Lessons,” a jazzy country rave-up. Don’t put your money on me, but I don’t see any future radio staples like “Crazy in Love” or “Single Ladies.”

What the album lacks in pop songcraft it makes up in raw attitude. It reminded me of contempo literary fiction — sure, it may be a drag to listen to, but it feels vital because it hits all the right themes. In this case, it’s “intersectionality,” that of-the-moment combination of black nationalism (“Freedom” and “Formation”) and feminism (“Hold Up,” “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” and “Sorry”). It’s the kind of work that gives Pitchfork writers and Millennial cultural critics a lot to gas on about.

carly-rae-jepsen

I’m a sucker for the ye-ye girl sweater-and-tights combo.

Beyoncé’s undeniable success the past few years is a good reminder that, above all, a pop star has to project a larger-than-life personality to command the public’s love. Good songs aren’t enough. Take the case of Emotion released by Carly Rae Jepsen last year. Song for song, Jepsen’s work is superior to Lemonade in terms of pure craft. Heavily influenced by 80s pop, Emotion bursts with candyfloss vocals, electro-dance beats, and perky hooks all held together by slick production. The album has plenty of fans, but sales have been disappointing and it hasn’t produced any major singles like Jepsen’s monster hit “Call Me Maybe.” As many critics have pointed out, the Canadian-born Jepsen doesn’t have a distinctive persona. All you learn from Emotion is that she likes boys and being in love. Like many former Idol contestants, she has the technical ability but lacks an interesting point of view. Even her album title is nondescript.

But the main thing that struck me about reviews of Beyonce’s album, and even Jepsen’s, is that the music press and fans seem to have a deep need to believe that La Knowles isn’t just a star performer — they need to believe she’s a musical genius. This GQ writer praises the album as a showcase for “the most formidable musical prowess on the planet.” He commends the “endless procession of musical details to freak out over” and is gobsmacked that “one artist is capable of making all [of the album’s] stylistic transitions.” At no point does he mention that the record had fifty-two — that’s a 5 followed by a 2 — writers and producers. This piece acknowledges Beyoncé’s phone book-like roll call of collaborators, then goes on to cite that as proof of her brilliance before likening her to Michelangelo overseeing a workshop of assistants. “Pop music is a kind of auteurism,” she writes:

It’s undeniable that Beyoncé had her hand on the controls for the creation of every piece of this album. Beyoncé is a credited writer on every single song. She is also a credited producer on every track but one. She touched everything. She tweaked the lyrics. She remixed the vocals. She made decisions big and small and perfected her art until it was ready for public consumption.

Right, and she probably mastered the album too before sitting down at a drafting table to create a new typeface for the liner notes. Look, Beyoncé has been in the music biz for almost two decades. During that time she’s been a part of 11 albums as either a group member or a solo artist during her climb to the top, so I’m not about to deny her musical savvy, but there’s little evidence that she’s an auteurist studio maven like Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, or Stuart Murdoch. More importantly, there’s nothing wrong with admitting that. Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, and Aretha Franklin, to name just a few, are all considered titans of American song even though each did very little songwriting or producing during their careers.

Fans nowadays are determined to elevate their favorites to the status of golden gods. This Bustle article tells us that Jepsen, like a modern day Berlin or Gershwin, “wrote” 200 songs for songs for Emotion which she then whittled down to a mere dozen. Uh-huh, sure. More accurately, this review notes 200 songs “were assembled” from which Jepsen selected twelve. The passive voice of “were assembled” nicely avoids telling the reader those 200 tracks were written by a legion of professional songwriters.

Why the deception and weasel words? Have the recent deaths of Bowie, Prince, and others created an anxious need for musical svengalis? Madonna is irrelevant, Rihanna is floundering, and Lady Gaga is too weird, so perhaps there’s a Pop Queen vacuum that needs filling. OK, fine. But why are so many music writers clueless about how songs are actually created?

the-song-machine-john-seabrook

Maybe these questions are swirling around my head because I recently enjoyed The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory by John Seabrook. Seabrook, a staff writer at The New Yorker, gives a good tour of the music industry over the last couple of decades — from the death of CDs to the rise of filesharing and streaming services like Spotify. He looks at not only how the business of music has evolved, but how music production (at least for top 40 pop) changed. The book also contains a number of mini-bios of hitmakers like Dr. Luke and Max Martin. Martin, a Swede who prefers anonymity, is probably the closest heir we have to studio geniuses like Spector and Wilson. He’s written and produced dozens of hits, including:

If you hate this crap, now you know exactly who’s responsible for it! But what I appreciated most about the book was the songwriting anecdotes and behind-the-scenes gossip. For example, we learn that Martin was a huge fan of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps” but was frustrated by its lack of a killer chorus. So he rewrote the song with a killer chorus and came up with “Since U Been Gone.” As for gossip, I’ve read my fair share of pop music history and I’ve lost track of the number of times a singer is introduced to a song, they hate it, they’re practically forced by their record company or management to record it at gunpoint, yet the song goes on to be a huge, career-defining hit. To the list that includes The Supremes with “Where Did Our Love Go” and Françoise Hardy with “Tous Les Garcons et Les Filles” we can add Clarkson and “Since U Been Gone.”

People are already calling Martin’s latest work for Justin Timberlake the song of the summer. Hey, Beyoncé worshipers, this is what a pop genius sounds like.

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About Blowhard, Esq.

Amateur, dilettante, wannabe.
This entry was posted in Books Publishing and Writing, Music and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Beyoncé, Carly Rae Jepsen, and The Song Machine

  1. peterike says:

    I’m not at all a fan of contemp pop, except when I am. Listening to Beyonce for more than 30 seconds literally makes me angry – that’s how much I hate that music. Of course, part of the endless media adulation is because she’s black. You’ll note that for quite some time now, it seems the only people labeled musical “geniuses” are blacks — a trend that started with Stevie Wonder I think. As a white guy, you have to get dead first, like Bowie, and how much would the media have fawned over his corpse if he hadn’t been the original cross-dresser?

    “Right, and she probably mastered the album too before sitting down at a drafting table to create a new typeface for the liner notes.”

    Lolz! Very funny.

    I found the Timberlake song like a catchy television commercial, which grew tiresome in 90 seconds. The most interesting thing about it is the video: all black and white people. Where are the hispanics? Where are the Asians? What, no rainbow of diversity? I bet I could start a twitter storm about this if it hasn’t happened already. Really, it was almost startling to see a standard “bunch of people dancing” video and you DIDN’T get an obvious parade of fifty different racial and ethic groups. My, my.

    On the pop front, as much as I detest it, now and again something punches through the murk that I like, even if it’s not all that different from what I hate. In this case, I quite enjoy Ingrid Michaelson and the Swedish pop duo that goes by the terrible name of First Aid Kit. I really like Guster too, but that’s more a typical classic pop band, not a contempo-pop group.

    Liked by 2 people

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