Lately, I’ve been listening to, and thinking about pop music a lot - and with it, the fact that so few pop artists start out great. As much as I love the latest albums by, say, Fall Out Boy and Rihanna, there’s much more to pop than melody - I can barely listen to their early output simply because it’s bereft of the artistry that makes them great. There’s no better argument for the organic nature of pop than the fact that even the Beatles had to grow into their genius.
Though hating on Justin Bieber is now so cool as to be meaningless, I can see in him the roots of something deeper. He’s objectively talented - and though I have no love for the marketing-over-talent Baby etc., I’ll gladly say “I told you so” to the kneejerk masses in a few years’ time.
Which brings me to Jay Sean, one of the least likeable - least anything - popstars in recent memory. The sappy, contrived Down resembles Chris Brown with a lobotomy - in its inescapable transatlantic crossover success, Cash Money seem to have sold the pure idea of the sensitive, romantic man as reassurance to the masses; romantic cliché served on a cafeteria platter, with nothing of the little, personal details that truly make us fall in love with another person.
Then I heard Me Against Myself - and I’ve honestly never been more shocked by an artist’s prior talent in my entire life.
Me Against Myself, the title track of Jay Sean’s fairly underground 2004 debut, has a concept to make Eminem jealous - a 3-minute, no-chorus battle between his rapper and singer personas. His raw talent and personality is stunning - the rapping in his native British accent as nimble as any 21st-century rapper, his R&B singing as melodic and nuanced as Justin Timberlake. But the lyrics, hilarious throughout, are even more unique - the (other-)self-deprecating rapper hurls every possible criticism, whilst the singer confidently articulates the difficulty of walking the line between his ambitions for fame and artistic integrity. It’s an internal dialogue many artists go through - but airing it in public is both fascinating and brave, and a powerful defense against accusations of selling out.
He presents part of Me Against Myself at the end of his video for Eyes on You, from 3:17 onwards, depicting the singer as the clear winner, with the audience’s (metaphor for the public’s?) support. But that’s problematic - in the full song, the singer’s short final response feels like an afterthought, and with the benefit of hindsight, it’s the rapper who has the greater attitude and charisma. The singer’s defense is reasonable, but it doesn’t even apply to post-Down Jay Sean, his personality so sanded-down he’s ditched his British accent in favour of sounding like an emasculated, auto-tuned puppy. Even his skin colour’slighter - and yes, back then he’d marketed himself as a distinctly Indian popstar in the British/Asian markets, but really?!
For the most part, I think the concept of “selling out” is a rockist-perpetuated myth - even in questionable cases like Metallica and Weezer, their commerciality stemmed from artistic choice, and good music did come of it. But Jay Sean may be the single purest, most contrived example of commercial desperation I’ve ever seen.
So pure vocal talent may not be a prerequisite for good pop music, but for the aspiring popstar, nothing is more important than personality. Jay Sean merely has a target market without a unique marketing angle. Maybe he’s trying to establish a commercial presence before revealing his abilities - but why play dumb in a world that wants Lady Gaga-sized ambition? In fact, Me Against Myself is a better song than anything Lady Gaga wrote prior to 2009!
The signs don’t look good. 2012 (It Ain’t the End), the first single from his upcoming album Freeze Time, is more of the same generic sound that’ll date well before the year arrives, and, unlike the future/present/past-tense swap Prince’s classic 1999 has undergone, its concept is about as enduring as Y2K Bug (It Ain’t the End). Nicki Minaj demolishes him in her usual effortless style, but it’s not true proof of her overwhelming talent - knowing what Jay Sean’s capable of, it’s outright depressing.
By oversizing her personality, Nicki Minaj’s developed the strongest of cult followings. Even if she doesn’t have a Bad Romance-sized event song to indicate her popstar ascendancy, her debut Pink Friday is guaranteed to hit #1 in November, and (hopefully) establish her for years to come.
By downplaying his personality, Jay Sean’s had the most successful song in the U.S. by a British male since Elton John’s Candle in the Wind 1997, spending two weeks at #1. Comparatively, his 2009 album All or Nothing peaked at a mere #37 on the Billboard 200. His problem’s obvious - really, who gives enough of a shit to buy an album by someone as talentless and indistinguishable as Jay Sean?
My necessarily over-the-top plea to Jay Sean (and really, anyone who wants to make it big) is this: A few of us may know the truth about you as a person, but what’s no longer on display may as well not exist. So great, you have a platform for now - use it for good. Three minutes can change the whole world’s opinion of you into respect - it changed mine. If you really have had a lobotomy, let us know! Otherwise, I ask, for your benefit as much as everyone else’s: will the real Jay Sean please stand up? We know you’re in there somewhere.
Appropriately first played live at Elton John’s White Tie and Tiara Ball back in June, You and I is the sole track Lady Gaga’s debuted from her upcoming album, to be released in early 2011. For those solely familiar with her singles-as-events, hearing Gaga recreate ’70s AOR may be alternately baffling or, to the rockist holdouts, her most impressive work yet - but more than anything, it represents her exponential, easily overlooked growth as a songwriter. Before-she-was-famous YouTube videos show a young then-Stefani Germanotta playing the traditionally earnest female singer-songwriter, but piano ballads like the tepid Brown Eyes misplaced her sincerity amongst the overall narcissism of debut album The Fame. However, the vast improvement of The Fame Monster brought with it the first crack in Lady Gaga’s steely masquerade - the Oasis/Queen hybrid Speechless was a genuinely moving ode to her alcoholic father.
Devoid of even a trace of electropop, You and I is the most revealing depiction of Gaga’s psyche to date. In a recent Rolling Stone feature interview, she attributes her entire fame to the strength she gained after breaking up with an ex-boyfriend, a metal drummer she’s been fixated on ever since. You and I sees her finally ready to address their relationship directly, depicting their reunion after the lonely “two years since I let you go”. Instead of her trademark self-empowerment, she’s at her most submissive - singing “I’d give up anything again to be your baby doll”, she allows herself to be swept off her feet. Yet it’s also the most musically passionate she’s ever been - the heels-on-piano-keys solo and her climactic belting of the song’s title redeem the unashamed retro vibe. With all the whiskey-soaked glam imagery and none of the forceful come-ons that’ve seen her crowned the most fascinating artist in pop, it is - ironically, for a style of music built on romance - Lady Gaga’s first true love song.
Though her appearance changes so frequently that it barely even constitutes “phases”, there’s something symbolic in her current, strangely ordinary wardrobe of sunglasses, denim and, significantly, boyfriend-sized Mötley Crüe shirts. Having established a career out of artifice in the best sense possible, Lady Gaga seems to have rediscovered Stefani Germanotta, the inner, doe-eyed romantic. The resulting intimacy fits her like a glove. Provided she’s not crippled by the hype, her next album should offer what she’s been promising all along. 2011 can’t come soon enough.
P.S. I am starting that Gaga-fixated blog I’ve been threatening to do for a while… look for it and the return of Iconography soon!
Fantastic article, of course, but I have to disagree somewhat with the assessment of Madonna. Maybe early on, her sexualised image was as titillating for guys as it was empowering for the wannabes - but while Gaga does it for the fans, Madonna was always driven by herself. Even though Vogue was a rallying cry for the gay community, it was just as much her daring the audience to think any less of her than the golden-age Hollywood icons she paid tribute to.
Really, her image has for a long time been too powerful, too potentially emasculating for most straight guys to get off on. And as a self-proclaimed feminist, that’s something I love about both Madonna AND Gaga.
Brilliant observation on Gaga’s role as “den-mother” too… really, she’s positioned herself as the patron saint of certain types who could use a little of her fearlessness in their lives. And as much as I empathise with Gaga’s mythos beyond the music, of all the “freaks” listed - “fat girls, gay boys, lesbian girls, Goths, nerds, everyone who gets picked on at school” - I’m not quite any of them. A freak among freaks, perhaps, but maybe more unhinged from normality. Hmm.
I’m considering starting another Tumblr for commentary on Gaga’s more eventful comings and goings - something to really look at what’s going on, to offset all the fawning and unconditional love that reblog buttons make even easier. Nothing Iconography-length, but I hope people enjoy it nonetheless.
about gaga: i am sensing some jealousy. when i try to compare you two, i just cannot. lady gaga does not equal joanna newsom, vice versa. you two are completely different planes of music, and i don’t see a cross-section. at all.
… tl;dr — i love joanna newsom, i love lady gaga, and i love madonna. and i’m frustrated that joanna had a petty moment in the spotlight because i know she’s better than that.
Talk about saving effort - I agree with every damn word of this. I have nothing else to add.
I have never seen anyone sing with such a complete and utter lack of emotion. Take the passion out of pop music, replace it with stupid blank facial expressions and arrangements that’re self-consciously “interesting”, piling on the wank in a way that adds to the YouTube view count but brings absolutely nothing of relevance to the music, and you have… this pile of worthlessness. I generally can see redeeming values in just about anything - hell, I even like (moderately) St. Anger - but Pomplamoose seriously ignites my hatred.
It’s because they play covers. Beyoncé sings Single Ladies with a woman-done-wrong’s passion; Telephone’s lyrics are merely about being hassled by one’s partner in a club (just turn off your phone!), but Gaga makes it larger than life. On the other hand, Nataly Dawn could make Shakespeare sound like the phonebook. Problem is, I can totally see them being as some kind of +1 genre credibility for indie types who don’t actually listen to/appreciate music that’s self-consciously pop… and therefore overlook the original versions’ passion that Pomplamoose so deliberately suck the life out of, so they ACTUALLY ENJOY IT.
In an NPR article on their financial success via YouTube and iTunes alone, Pomplamoose’s instrumentalist Jack Conte says:
"I guess I kinda don’t like how there’s such a pedestal for music culture and especially for band culture. It just feels fake; it feels like smoke and mirrors. I feel like music doesn’t have to be like that. It can be something that’s very normal and very accessible."
Does he realise the definition of “popular” is accessible - (generally) simple, comprehensible arrangements, not stacked noodly jazz as an excuse to split your YouTube video into more portions? When you sing like some kind of vocalising robot with twee as your only setting, isn’t that infinitely less authentic than a self-aware use of auto-tune? Granted, neither NPR nor the band are citing their example as any kind of “future of music” on a grand scale - but if word of mouth leads to enough success to live off this kind of emotionless, view-baiting music, give me so-called corporate, pop monoculture any day.