Tag Archives: pop

Lily Allen

Sorry I skipped another week! No excuses, no excuses. Let’s just jump right into this week’s post, shall we?

This week I’m going to talk about some selections from Lily Allen’s sophomore album It’s Not Me, It’s You. The reason I’m not doing the entire album is because, well, it’s kind of boring. At least to me. Yes, Allen showed a lot of maturity in her songwriting and themes compared to her debut album , but sonically, there’s nothing really interesting going on. It’s an ordinary pop album. It’s mostly forgettable. But there are 3 stand out tracks I’ll be discussing here.

The first is the succinctly-titled “Fuck You,” which preceded CeeLo Green’s track of the same name by 2 years. The song has a couple of different origin stories, the first being that the song was written about the BNP (an extreme right-wing political group in the UK). The second origin story, and a much more interesting one in my opinion, starts with a song being initially titled “Guess Who Batman.” GWB. George W. Bush. Listen to the lyrics and it’s obvious that’s who the song is about. “You want to be like your father/It’s approval you’re after”? I mean, come on. Allen might have played it a little coy though because the song was first previewed on Myspace in 2008, but it didn’t come out on the album until 2009 – George W. was on his way out while Obama was on his way in. So there’s that.

The music video isn’t very interesting. This is pretty much the case with all the Allen videos from this album and even the ones from Alright, Still. This one in particular is kind of petty and has nothing to do with the themes of the song at all. Here it is anyway.

Next up is “Not Fair,” one of my favorites from this album. I still find myself returning to and enjoying it. It’s got an distinct sound right away that instantly makes you wonder if this is supposed to be a country track. It’s a great fusion of pop music with country themes that makes it stand out from the rest. Also, it’s about being in an otherwise perfect relationship that is sexually unsatisfying. Like REALLY sexually unsatisfying. I like that there’s this brief back and forth that goes on in her head where she’s asking herself if she’s just being picky (she’s not), and the frustration that comes through in the chorus is great. The video is cool thematically and fits with the sound of the track, but other than that, it’s nothing spectacular.

Lastly, we’ve got my other favorite track from this album, “The Fear.” This is one of her smartest songs, in my opinion (but then I haven’t heard anything post-It’s Not Me besides “Hard Out Here” which was a total failure as a commentary-style track). Allen adopts this character throughout the song who’s mindlessly overfed themselves on pop culture to the point of being jaded (“I am a weapon of massive consumption/It’s not my fault, it’s how I’m programmed to function”). This is made eerily clear to us early on in the song though (“I want loads of clothes and fuckloads of diamonds/I heard people die while they’re trying to find them”). This song tackles every issue related to pop culture that, even though it wasn’t that long ago, still holds true today (“Everything’s cool as long as I’m getting thinner”). Also, the acoustic version is fantastic – just Lily, a piano, and a guitar.

Sadly, for a song this powerful, I think the music video fails again. It just feels like Allen couldn’t decide on an emotion (total disinterest would have been my advice) much less focus on whatever she was supposed to be doing. The direction is also not that great. There are some weird cuts and when interesting things are happening, we don’t get to look at them long enough before the angle changes or the camera jumps to another shot. I’ve got a totally different vision for this video, but it’s not worth describing because, well, music videos are visual and this one is kind of complicated. Plus, that’s not what this post is about. So here’s the official video!

I don’t really recommend this album in general. I mean, give it a listen and preview it by whatever means you can, but these are the only tracks I would spend money on (if I hadn’t already spent money on the whole thing ages ago myself).

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Music

I think I’d always had Madonna in the periphery of my pop culture awareness, but it wasn’t until high school that I really got into her music. I’ve mentioned before that her 1998 album Ray of Light had some influence on me, but so did her 2000 follow up Music, and that’s the album I’ll be talking about today. (I should note that I somehow managed to pass up Ray of Light during that time, so Music came first for me – though I came back to the latter not too long after.)

I think it was the sound of the album that drew me to it. I wasn’t really into pop at the time – I was very anti-boy band and -pop princess at the time actually (although I liked the Spice Girls and even a little Hansen strangely enough). So it was kind of weird that I got into the Queen of Pop. But at the time, while she was still making pop, she was making a different kind of pop. She was setting herself apart from the likes of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. And I really dug it.

“Music” was the first single to be released ahead of the album, and so it was the first time a Madonna song had truly grabbed my attention (it’s also the first track on this album). While it distinguished itself from the rest of the pop scene at the time, it was also very accessible. Madonna wrote and produced the album with the help of  DJ and producer Mirwais Ahmadzaï, whose odd sounds caught her attention. You can hear his influence right away on the title track “Music.” There’s a lot of electronic noise on behind Madonna’s electronically manipulated voice, but it works so well here. The production on this track is amazing. Start to finish, there isn’t a dull moment.

There are some club influences on this album that are most apparent in the following 2 tracks “Impressive Instant” and “Runaway Lover” (though you can absolutely hear them in “Music” too). These first three tracks are among my favorites from this album. In “Impressive Instant” her voice is distorted throughout by a vocoder, Auto-Tune, and other electronic effects, which could have been a disaster, but thanks to Ahmadzaï’s production, it’s just pure magic. The lyrics are pure nonsense, but who cares? It’s just a fun, danceable track and it sounds great regardless.

After that we have “Runaway Lover,” a track which, to me, is kind of a bridge between Ray of Light and Music. It almost would have fit in on either, but makes its home just fine on the latter. (Madonna worked with producer William Orbit on Ray of Light and brought him back for this track and a couple of others, so there’s that.) It’s one of the more intense and fast-paced songs on this album.

We get some respite from the previous intense club sounds on the dreamy track “I Deserve It.” It’s really nice to hear a minimal song with just Madonna’s unaltered voice and some soft acoustic guitars. It’s an introspective track, so it deserves some quiet, though the accents of electronic noise help it to fit in with the rest of the album. They do a good job of meshing with the more organic sounds, rather than distracting from them.

“Amazing” is another Madonna-Orbit track – and another one of my favorites. It’s got a psychedelic, hypnotic intro and I really, really like Madonna’s vocals here. She sounds so desperate and plaintive and a little bit pained. I especially like the part at about 2:23 where almost all the noise drops out and we hear her voice with the subtle piano (that now becomes more pronounced) before diving right back in to the frantic beats. It’s a very noisy track overall but it’s pulled off just right. It seems like Orbit may have been taking some cues from Ahmadzaï here.

I have to say “Nobody’s Perfect” is my least favorite track on here. Blatant/Obviously intentional Auto-Tune is tricky for me. M.I.A. can pull it off really well, for example. As for Madonna, there are other instances on this album where it DOES work. But here, I just can’t stand it. It just sounds ridiculously corny and annoying, and it distracts from the otherwise well-done background melodies. About the only part I like is about 2:44 in, when the Auto-Tune goes away and we get to hear her voice with some distorted acoustic guitar (which is a fantastic sound). Still, it can’t save this song, and so I always skip it.

But it’s okay, because then we have the next track (and next single) “Don’t Tell Me” – one of her best tracks not just on this album but maybe one of the best of her career. Sure, it’s not as epic as “Like A Prayer,” nor is it as peppy as “Material Girl.” But right from the intro, the stop-and-start guitars make this one instantly unforgettable and recognizable. It’s hard to categorize this one because the guitars give it this country flavor, but the beats make it more like a hip hop track, while the strings give it a sweet softness. It’s made up of all these different sounds that shouldn’t fit together but they do. Apparently, Madonna’s brother-in-law wrote the song though it wasn’t originally meant for her. It was his wife (her sister) who suggested he send it to her. They both had their doubts; he didn’t think it was the right song to send to her, and she wasn’t sure it would fit with the sound of her album. But with his permission, she rearranged it without changing the lyrics and, with some production magic from Ahmadzaï, pulled off an amazing track that surprised everyone and would still sound great 15 years later.

Another great track follows with “What It Feels Like For A Girl.” The beats and background noises here are much simpler, which is important for this song. This is very much a track where the lyrics need to stand out the most. The intro features a spoken word sample of Charlotte Gainsbourg from the movie The Cement Garden. Even if you haven’t seen it (I haven’t) or maybe especially if you haven’t seen it, the line is instantly recognizable and resonates with the listener. Even long before I was calling myself a feminist, this song resonated with me. It lists just about every double-standard a woman faces. 15 years later, it could be said not much has changed, and the song still stands strong lyrically, aurally, and morally even today. However, what this song is perhaps most remembered for is the music video (featuring a dance remix by Above & Beyond), which was banned from MTV:

“Paradise (Not For Me)” is unfortunately my second least favorite track on this album, though depending on my mood, I may or may not skip it. The background melodies are great here, and Madonna’s voice is nice enough, but it’s kind of corny and heavy-handed. The drama is just overdone in places. This wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if it sounded sincere, but it just doesn’t here.

“Gone” is the closing track, appropriately enough, Some of that country flavor returns here with the acoustic guitars, punctuated by simple but deep-hitting beats. I like this as the closing track. It rounds the album out nicely and, well, it makes sense. Actually, it even sums up the album pretty great. “Selling out is not my thing” she sings, letting you know that while she may still reign as the Queen of Pop, she’s not going to feel threatening by younger pop stars nor is she going to give into pressure to be more like them. (Although, for me, she would betray that promise with Hard Candy – but that’s a post for another day. If I’m up for it, ugh.)

Admittedly, I don’t have a lot of Madonna, at least not when you consider her entire body of work. But this is still among my favorite Madonna albums. It just felt so natural and true to her. I haven’t given Rebel Heart a chance yet, but it feels like she’s lost some of her spark as of late. There’s been the occasional glint of brilliance (Confessions On A Dance Floor) but other than that, it feels like she’s trying to play catch up to today’s pop scene rather than just go at her own pace. I feel like that might be due to pressure (probably from record company executives) to “stay relevant,” whatever the fuck that means. I guess while indie artists can go pop, there’s no such thing as going the other way. Ray of Light and Music are my favorite sounds from her career. I’m not asking that she just make more of those from now on but…damn, I wish I knew what I wanted to hear from her these days. I guess I wish she would just do her.

I didn’t mean for this post to end in a depressing ramble! So, uh, how about that Music? Certainly a pop tour de force by Madonna. I still place it behind Ray of Light, but just barely. These albums practically go hand in hand. If CDs were still as big a thing as they were 15 years ago, I’d loan this one to anyone who hadn’t actually heard the whole thing. It’s that kind of album.

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Shake It Off

I’ve never really felt strongly about Taylor Swift’s music one way or another. But I do believe that when you say you have a guilty pleasure in music, you should never actually feel guilty or embarrassed for enjoying it. So that is why I am unapologetically enjoying the latest Taylor Swift single “Shake It Off”!

Oh my goodness, it’s just so much FUN. I hadn’t heard the whole thing until recently. I’d heard part of it before and liked what I heard. Then one day I had the radio on and I got to hear it start to finish. I just could not get enough of it! It was in my head all day! I knew this one was going right in the old iTunes library ASAP.

I’m reading that this is Taylor Swift’s first full venture into full, straight-on pop, and “Shake It Off” is a pretty good first step! Okay, it’s more than that – it’s a brilliant leap with a beautiful landing! It’s upbeat and catchy and makes me want to dance. In other words, it’s everything a pop song should be!

It actually reminds me a lot of Toni Basil’s “Mickey,” at least in the beginning and in the underlying beat throughout. Taylor’s voice sounds great here. There are even times when I think she sounds a little like Christina Aguilera. Not as an imitation, but in the strength and clarity of her voice.

What’s the opposite of a diss track? I feel like this is that, in a way. She’s dusting off her shoulders, holding her head high. She’s not going to lower herself to the levels of her critics, she’s going to celebrate herself as she is.

Have you ever noticed how Adele can write two albums about breakups and exes and angst and win Grammys, and she’s celebrated for it? Taylor Swift does the same thing and she gets classified as a self-absorbed teeny-bopper. The difference? I guess one sings R&B and the other sings country pop? Oh, no. I guess it’s the fact that they’re both in their mid-twenties and one has supposedly dated more high profile men than the other. Gee, this whole time I thought we were judging musicians based on their music, not their personal lives.

This song is a great reaction to all that criticism. Taylor Swift is just living her life. She considers what people say about her: she stays out too late, goes on too many dates (and here she rightfully laughs at what a ridiculous idea this is), but she can’t make them stay. But she keeps cruising and won’t stop moving because of the music in her head. Yes! Music makes everything better! She’s dancing to the soundtrack of her own life.

There’s even a bit of spoken word in the middle: “Just think while you’ve been getting down and out about the liars and the dirty, dirty cheats of the world, you could’ve been getting down to this sick beat.”

Don’t waste time on the haters, heart-breakers, and fakers. You’re so much better than that and life is so much sweeter! As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Okay, so this is one of those famous yet disputed quotes. But she definitely said “Do what you feel in your heart to be right — for you’ll be criticized anyway.”

So now I think it’s time to talk a little about the music video. There’s been some criticism for her featuring twerking. The video features many other types of dancing, but twerking was the style that was criticized. The reason being that she is a white woman and twerking is seen as belonging to African American dance culture, therefore by featuring it in her video, she is using African American women as props.

Now, let’s go back a little to the time that I talked about Lily Allen’s “Hard Out Here.” Looking back, I think I still agree with the criticisms I made. I mean, she sings “Don’t need to shake my ass for you ’cause I’ve got a brain” and then features women of color shaking their asses. It was defended as parody or satire, but I fail to see whether she’s shaming women who shake their asses or celebrating them. There’s a lot of doublespeak going on in this song and video.

So I’ve also been thinking about whether I can apply these same criticisms here, and I don’t think I can. Where Lily focuses almost exclusively on African American bodies (the twerking AND the champagne being poured on their butts AND the slapping of said butts), Taylor doesn’t particularly focus on any one type of body. If the African American women (and it’s not exclusively or even mostly African American women) who are twerking are props, I think so is everyone else in all the other styles of dancing. And there are people of color in all the other styles of dancing (except, it’s been noted, the ballet dancing, sadly).

I think the difference here is that the dancers (every one of them) are all scenery, in a way, and Taylor is trying so very hard to fit in by imitating them, though she’s not doing a very good job of it. And that’s because she was never meant to. She was meant to be herself. She’s not graceful like the ballerinas. She drops her pom-pom when she tries cheer leading. She’s not able to immerse herself in interpretive dance. And she sure can’t do that awesome finger-dancing (or whatever that guy is doing at 1:17 – it’s hypnotic!).

But I can see where the twerking (and even hip hop) segments would make people uncomfortable. I feel like she could have tried break dancing – like trying to spin on her head but flopping over. Would’ve worked for her! Twerking is a tricky one though. In an interview, Taylor admitted that the dancers were trying to show her how to twerk, but it just confounded her. I think she could have made this more clear!

If you want to read more about this, Feministing had a great point-counterpoint about this (the counterpoint article links to the point article). As for me, I’m not going to say anyone’s right or wrong about this. I’ve stated my opinion and respect all others.

Anyway, Taylor Swift looks like she’s having SO MUCH FUN in this video, and I love that! I just want to jump in there and dance with her, like she does with her fans at the end. Yes, those are some randomly (I think?) selected fans! And that is where we see her at her most comfortable, her most Taylor. This is the Taylor the fans love, and when it comes down to it, aren’t those the people who matter most?

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Pumpkin Soup

Hey, everyone! Remember “Oops!…I Did It Again”??? Oh boy, that’s a song I think of when I think of high school. Not that I listened to Britney Spears back then (not that I don’t listen to her now, haha) but it is just one of those many generation-defining pop songs that happened to come out in those years.

I bring it up because I wanted to compare it to Kate Nash’s “Pumpkin Soup.” Super great comparison, because they basically are about the same thing!

“I just want your kiss boy” is the chorus, and was almost the title of the song. It makes it pretty clear what it’s all about. I really enjoy a song that’s upfront about not being about love. That is everything that’s going on here. Listen for the line “Whoops, I think I’ve got too close.” I think it might just be a direct nod to Britney! Kate Nash knew what she was doing when she wrote this song.

I like that it throws off that stereotype that women are generally looking for love and men are generally looking for sex, because it’s clearly the opposite case in this situation. “I hate lookin’ like a fool” she sings about falling in love. “I’m not in love/I just want to be touched” she puts forth candidly later in the song. Yes! Fantastic!

I think the music video works really well for this song too. It’s very colorful and almost Valentine’s Day themed. And over the top cheesy with those giant fluffy white cats. That holiday can be rather cheesy. So can hackneyed expressions of love. When you listen to the song and watch the video, it seems like the lyrics and the visuals are almost at odds with each other. This is all the stuff Kate doesn’t want and yet she’s being forced to face it because this boy thinks that it’s what she does want. See the wedding scene and hear the lyric “I hope that you don’t think I’m unkind.” I love the frankness at the worst possible moment and place.

This is one of my favorite Kate Nash songs. It’s fun, it’s playful, and a little bit coy while being flirtatious. I like it much better than “Oops!…I Did It Again” even if it never reached the same meteoric level of fame. It deserves some credit though! Kate Nash has a talent for making relateable songs. This is one of her best.

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Hollaback Girl

I think a problem I have with this blog is that I write too nicely about everything. The idea of disparaging music that someone else might like doesn’t sit well with me. A little dig now and then is okay (who doesn’t enjoy making a joke about Justin Bieber every now and then? Oh, and remember Rebecca Black?) but I mean flat-out hating on something. I really try not to do that. Music just means too much to me. I can’t help but feel a little down every time someone rages about a song or artist I enjoy. I’m too sensitive, I know. So this will be my attempt at giving a bad review, I guess.

Besides wanting to write a not-loving review of something, I chose this song because of something that happened recently. I won’t get into specifics (it was all on social media and the evidence is gone anyway), but basically someone said something not so nice to me that I think may have been meant in jest but came off as totally stuck-up, rude, and passive-aggressive. It was pretty annoying. But I took the higher ground and ignored it. Still, this song came to mind a few days later.

Yes, love it or hate it, it’s Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl.” It’s super passive-aggressive, which is something I loathe on social media (if that wasn’t clear before), but enjoy in music. It’s a great outlet for when you’re feeling passive-aggressive but need to stop yourself because what, are you twelve? So at the barest of bones, at its very core, at its most honest this song is really nifty.

But that’s about it. The lyrics could have been sufficient, but the intro and hooks are so banal. Do I even need to go into “This shit is bananas/B-A-N-A-N-A-S”? I get that it’s a diss song, but even vocally, Gwen has done a LOT better. The production leaves a lot to be desired. That horn-synth sound is so bad. This song was a hit when it came out but I really don’t think it holds up well, even less than ten years later. It’s one of those songs where you go: “Hey, remember ‘Hollaback Girl’?” And someone else goes: “Haha, yeah, what the hell was that about anyway?”

It seems a lot of the critical response to this song involved people not knowing what a “Hollaback Girl” was. I think it’s pretty straightforward, really. In case you didn’t know (or forgot) the story, it goes something like this.

Courtney Love: “Being famous is just like being in high school. But I’m not interested in being the cheerleader. I’m not interested in being Gwen Stefani. She’s the cheerleader, and I’m out in the smoker shed.”

Gwen Stefani: “Y’know someone one time called me a cheerleader, negatively, and I’ve never been a cheerleader. So I was, like, “OK, fuck you. You want me to be a cheerleader? Well, I will be one then. And I’ll rule the whole world, just you watch me.”

And that’s what a “Hollaback Girl” is! What? Still not clear? Okay, it’s basically someone who doesn’t respond to insults. They don’t holler (holla) back. Even though that is basically what is going on in this song and is the ENTIRE REASON it exists. Think Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain.”

Taking many, many (many, many) steps back from “Hollaback Girl” I actually feel okay comparing it to “You’re So Vain.” I think it could have had the potential to become the “You’re So Vain” of this generation, but somewhere along the way it fell in a ditch and pissed itself. Why is that the analogy I come up with? I don’t know, but somehow it’s fitting.

One other thing that really gets on my nerves. At the beginning of the music video, Gwen Stefani says “Aww, super kawaii!” and it just makes me CRINGE until I want to barf because it reminds me of the most weeaboo of weeaboos (like this song, I don’t think anyone uses this word anymore, but it fits in that way).

I really can’t say much positive about this song. I don’t hate it, but I can still say it’s not great. It’s still fun to listen to if you can acknowledge it for what it is (pop music not taking itself seriously). The beat has the potential to get you really riled up, but the rest of the song falls flat. Let’s just acknowledge that Gwen Stefani has done a lot better than “Hollaback Girl” and move on.

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Habits (Stay High)

So I finally got over being radio curmudgeon and I’ve actually been enjoying the radio a lot lately. It’s led to a lot of great musical discoveries, but I have yet to pursue them to the point of purchasing a new album.

The one I’ve been enjoying the most lately is “Habits (Stay High)” by Tove Lo, though it’s several months old. Plus I’ve only bought the single. I gave the rest of the Truth Serum EP a listen on the iTunes store, but I’m not too impressed. It’s mostly mediocre pop, as far as I can tell, though maybe I’ll give her another chance if she releases a full-length album. “Habits” has impressed me though. It’s got a lot of potential.

For some reason, the remix version of this song, “Stay High,” is more popular on iTunes. I can’t figure out why. The production on the original song is actually really good, and her voice is plaintive but not too heavy-handed (the remix turns it into a high-pitched Aqua-esque squeak).

I also really like the lyrics. They’re gritty and noir. “I eat my dinner in my bathtub/Then I go to sex clubs/Watching freaky people getting it on.” The way she describes the habits of her song’s namesake make them sound repulsive. (She later throws up in the bathtub she had her dinner in.) And yet she sounds so detached, until she reaches the chorus. That’s where the emotion really comes in and hits you.

As a random aside, I was pretty proud of the fact that I correctly guessed she was Swedish when I first saw her name. I don’t know why this pleases me.

So I’m looking forward to future work from Tove Lo. Though, as I said, I’m not impressed with the EP, the popularity of this single (and even the remix) could help shape her debut album. She’s apparently written songs for other artists, most notably Icona Pop, so she’s got the writing chops. She just needs a little help in the production department. I think, with all the right ingredients, she could put out a pretty good debut album.

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Do You Want the Truth or Something Beautiful?

I don’t have a lot to say about this song, except that hearing it is like a punch in the heart. It’s dripping with emotion and drama. It’s very retro-noir. And it’s very human.

Whether you know the feeling of what it’s like to lie to someone because you know that telling the truth would just hurt them more, or you’ve known the feeling of having something that seemed perfect shattered by the truth, there’s something so familiar and sincere about the way Paloma Faith sings “Do You Want the Truth or Something Beautiful?” (from the album of the same name).

I think the video is well-done, but not overdone. I love the way she goes back and forth between looking dejected when no one is looking (“the truth”) and putting on a smile and a show (“something beautiful”). Her expressions really show what a struggle it is to do the latter each and every time. In the end, she just gives up and shows them the truth. And in the end, the audience loves a tragedy because all they see is something beautiful.

Paloma Faith’s voice is very smoky but strong, alluring, and enticing. It draws you in and makes you consider the question. “Do You Want the Truth or Something Beautiful?” I always prefer the truth.

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