Say something… anything: Timberlake and Swift’s Trumpian trap

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‘Sometimes the greatest way to say something, is to say nothing at all…’

This is the major takeaway from Justin Timberlake‘s latest single. Not only does it cop a line from Ronan Keating, it also plays right into Trumpian rhetoric – the steadfast belief that you, as a public figure, have been misinterpreted, not misinformed.

The spectre of Taylor Swift’s ‘Look What You Made Me Do’, looms over Timberlake’s upcoming release Man of the Woods. Attacking the same free press that covered such PR hiccups as her infamous Grammys speech, and Kim K’s Snapchat exposé, the lyrics were embraced and tweeted by far right rag Breitbart.

In the context of their feed – and maybe Swift’s album, since she’s yet to denounce white supremacists – these words push the narrative that hardcore conservatives form America’s righteous oppressed, who’ve been shut out for the sake of political correctness and butthurt snowflakes.

Even if this wasn’t Swift’s intention, she made sure we’d never really know by imposing a media blackout throughout her reputation campaign. No interviews. No justifications. As she wrote in a letter to fans –‘There will be no further explanation. There will be just reputation.’

The difference between Swift and Timberlake is that he is engaging with wokeness. He just sucks at it. Earlier this month, he tweeted support for #TimesUp – despite recently working with Woody Allen. He also preceded the hashtag with ‘My wife is hot!’. Yes, really.

His post-apocalyptic video for ‘Supplies’, meanwhile, gave nondescript nods to Trump, Kim Jong-un et al, and appropriated protest culture with a glibness that would make Kylie Jenner’s Pepsi commercial jealous. Needless to say…

After enjoying a career full of privileged behaviour – letting Janet Jackson take the blame for Nipplegate, an ‘All Lives Matter’-flavoured response to BLM – Timberlake’s finally being challenged by voices with a newly-found platform. The advent of Black Twitter in particular has made him answerable to a community he’s so often pilfered from.

Rather than seize the opportunity to understand the nuances of these discussions and strengthen his participation, Timberlake has hung a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on his conscience for all to see. In his own words, he doesn’t want get to ‘caught up in the rhythm of it’ – because, by virtue of his skin colour, he can afford not to.

Perhaps my analysis is an overreaction, one wrought from an attempt to pin meaning to inexpressive songwriting. Throughout, Timberlake and guesting country star Chris Stapleton trade vague inanities that could literally be about anything – but it’s important to look at the line Timberlake is towing in his promotion for Man of the Woods.

While a politically-engaged Katy Perry returned with ‘purposeful pop’ last year, Timberlake is being purposefully inoffensive. Festooning his music with whisky-warm guitars and donning masc rust-belt chic, he’s not actively excluding listeners with conservative tastes – which is fine, music is for everyone – but coupled with his radio silence on key issues, the project sends a worrying and cynical message.

On February 4th, Timberlake will headline the Super Bowl LII halftime show. The odds of a statement that’s a tenth as compelling as Beyonce’s Black Panther tribute are low, but I’m open to surprises. Whatever happens on the night, Timberlake is right about one thing – if he continues to say nothing at all, it will speak volumes about who he really is.

 

Kesha takes the highest road on “Praying”

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2009’s party classic “TiK ToK” may have sold Kesha – she’s dropped the “$” for now – as a one-note character, but it was one others wanted to play. A force at her initial peak, she wrote Britney Spears’ hit “Till the World Ends”, and had her schtick jacked by Katy Perry (“California Gurls”), Miley Cyrus and LMFAO.

For all the bludgeoning EDM and Auto-Tune, there was a perceptibly punk bent to Kesha Sebert’s music. She can belt like a rock star, but knows dance music is more conducive to free love than any other.

Praying” – her first single in four years, and first shot at a ballad release – is upsetting for many reasons, but the shadow it casts over her dollar-sign days is its first knife-twist. Addressing her troubling legal battle with producer Dr. Luke, Kesha takes the high road, and seeks to see the best in her abuser.

Religious references abound, but more so musically then lyrically. Ryan Lewis’s piano is the song’s backbone, propping up a quiet, dignified chorus, even as it blossoms into a stomping country-gospel rapture: “I hope you’re somewhere praying / I hope your soul is changing”.

Kesha’s naked vocal is impressive, and her zesty, adenoidal tone channels the melody better than any studio trickery could. A quiet admission of “I’m proud of who I am” is the link between her old and new material. Kesha’s self-love has suffused her search for both carnage and catharsis – so as long as she has it, the party is far from over.

Katy Perry’s “Bon Appétit” – “House-pop parfait with a cold, tart centre”

bon appetitForget fresh – Katy Perry’s “Bon Appétit” is practically antiseptic. That kitsch title comes with her signature lowbrow wink, but this electropop parfait has a cold, tart centre. Hackneyed ‘food-as-vagina’ puns are deadpanned in an alluring whisper. Eurodance synths stabs come thin and quick, and prick like a needle.

One of the song’s bigger risks may be the inclusion of hip-hop trio Migos. Following the streaming monster “Bad and Boujee”, Quavo, Takeoff and Offset are hot property, but their off-colour remarks about gay rapper iLoveMakonnen should raise brows – particularly as Katy’s own supposed brushes with bigotry have recently emerged.  

The good news is that Perry and Migos seem to be on the same prog-pop wavelength. She certainly makes them feel at home, with the house beat dropping into chill trap for a mercurial four-part verse. Speaking of drops, producer Max Martin lands a doozy for Katy’s base but velcro-like chorus: “Got me spread like a buffet / Bon appétit, baby!

Harry Styles’ “Sign of the Times” is a shaky six-minute pose

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For millennials, the past two years have been a crash course in uncertainty. Will the EU crumble? Should we ready our outfits for #nuclearholocaust? Go vox popping and you’ll find there’s only one thing the youth know for sure: Harry Styles will be a superstar.

Flanked by millions of fans and fêted by the media, Styles’ success is a rare inevitability. The One Direction heartthrob could afford to tear up the rulebook, but debut single “Sign of the Times” doesn’t even dog-ear a page for fear of creasing a holy text.

‘Sources’ were keen to cite David Bowie’s influence, apparent in the sense that he too had a Y chromosome and was known to sing over piano. At best, the song recalls Robbie Williams’ chest-puffing balladry – at worst, it’s a shaky six-minute pose.

Styles’ falsetto cuts through the neutered guitars and crashing drums, but strains to add meaning. Only a truly privileged artist can scream “We’ve got to get away!” while digging their heels into the safest sound imaginable. Now that’s a sign of the times.

Zara Larsson’s So Good: “Promising newcomer falls at the final hurdle”

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Zara Larsson and Rihanna share more than a cadence that’s catnip for radio.

Just like the Barbadian superstar circa 2006, Larsson holds immense promise, yet her international debut is at best a benign vessel for a half-dozen plastic-wrapped hits.

Last summer’s “Lush Life” is still a sticky party-starter with more choruses than sense. It’s also the best thing on So Good by far, and prefacing it with the feeble “What They Say”, a #motivational Instagram post set to music, is a telling cop-out.

A flexible singer, Larsson slings hooks like a sailor aboard everything from moody electro (MNEK duet “Never Forget You”), to schoolyard hip hop (“Ain’t My Fault”), to vogueing dance-pop (“I Would Like”). Aside from some killer singles, only “TG4M”’s dreamy tropical lilt really adds to her CV.

There’s never been a bigger gulf between title and song than on “Make That Money Girl”. That sassy name, along with the teenager’s unabashed feminism, suggests a banger for the ages, but its funereal beat is more befitting a documentary about sweatshop slavery.

Larsson has everything it takes to go A-list, but too often, So Good overlooks the spunky musicality that put her on the map. Drippy ballads like “Only You” and “One Mississippi” actively drain her charisma, and could be fronted by any Rihanna-lite ingenue.

Thank goodness then for Clean Bandit’s “Symphony” – a feel-good smash and vocal showcase that’s bought Team Larsson time to plan a crucial next move.

5.5/10

Grab some tissues and watch Clean Bandit’s self-directed “Symphony” clip below.

 

The PC Music movement stalls with Cashmere Cat’s “Love Incredible”

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“Love Incredible” isn’t just a drum roll for Fifth Harmony dropout Camila Cabello’s solo launch. It’s a big moment too for co-producer SOPHIE of PC Music – the London record label and EDM subgenre hoping to turn hipster hype into mainstream success.

Were an algorithm set to merge popular vocal tics into one bankable voice, Cabello’s soprano might be the end result. Even live, she sounds reedy, processed, and very 2017, making her a canny match for SOPHIE’s wry, bug-eyed hyperpop.

Adrift in Cashmere Cat’s monochrome alt-R&B, Cabello unravels the swooning hooks and big-ish chorus with ease. A strange, yawning outro hints at PC Music’s novel aesthetic, but it’s a fleeting concession to the blogosphere on an otherwise trendy single.

Ed Sheeran – Divide: “Listless balladry and boundless opportunism”

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If only Ed Sheeran could produce an album that split opinion. Despite commercial success being a given for the Suffolk-raised singer’s third LP, the erroneously-titled Divide is about as edgy as a sausage roll.

The pandering doesn’t even end with a base-covering single campaign that made a smart play for Radio 1 (catchy “Cheap Thrills” knock-off “Shape of You”) and 2 (“Castle On The Hill”). Divide isn’t afraid to exploit cultural generalisations in order to connect.

Opener “Eraser” is a self-pitying take on drinking like a twenty-something. Here and elsewhere, Ed romanticises his humility. He’s a Grammy-winning everyman “without a nine-to-five job or a uni degree”, singing to millions in “the same old jeans”. It’s pure department store fodder, so perhaps a fan will pick him up a pair.

Even worse is “Galway Girl”, combining flavourless Irish trad and noughties boyband melodies to soundtrack a one night stand with a fiery Celtic waif. Any pop chorus beginning with “She played the fiddle in an Irish band” should by right lead to a filthy couplet about handjobs, but Ed shows no ambition beyond reaping marketing royalties from Ireland’s tourism board.

Banality is occasionally swapped for bitterness, as on the unlikely highlight “New Man”. Underneath the slick acoustic-pop is a mean-spirited sketch of an ex’s metrosexual lover, right down to his plucked eyebrows and bleached arsehole. Ed’s observations border on bigotry, but hey, at least it’s interesting, right?

A wet mass of listless balladry and boundless opportunism, Divide shirks any duty to say something new, and will no doubt achieve homeric sales throughout the year. When Britain’s biggest popstar sings “Love can change the world, but what do I know?”, the modesty is hard to stomach. Ed Sheeran knows exactly what he’s doing.

03/10

Lorde is all go on “Green Light”

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Feels so scary getting old…Lorde sang on her artfully blasé 2012 debut Pure Heroine. She was 16 then, but life doesn’t sound any easier on new single “Green Light”.

The titular metaphor refers to the moment one feels freed from a bad breakup. In a hushed yet haughty preamble, Lorde taunts an unfaithful ex with flat, self-indulgent barbs: “She thinks you love the beach, you’re such a damn liar.

When flapping synths circle Lorde’s voice, the song finally bottles the brooding, youthful valour that made her a household name, only to pour it over a delicate house-piano riff.

Troubled thoughts stack up, even as “Green Light” flings itself into skirt-twirling euphoria. Lorde’s assiduous phrasing isn’t a natural fit for house music, but every bellow of “I wish I could get my things, and just let go” casts a long, upsetting shadow.

A last-minute surge of handclaps, scuzzy guitar, and reverb-drenched chants make this an ideal progression from Pure Heroine’s electro-chamber pop. Anyone older than Lorde knows adulthood isn’t that scary, but for now, her growing pains are our gain.

Katy Perry is wide awake on “Chained to the Rhythm”

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“Chained to the Rhythm” is the closest Katy Perry has come to a political statement. Over an italo-disco groove reminiscent of Carly Simon’s “Why”, the singer both condones and condemns a generation adept at blocking out the world’s woes.

Producer Max Martin doesn’t budge from his power-pop formula, swaddling Perry’s epiphanies in pastel synths and slippery bass. At times it even works as a snarky endorsement of cheap escapism (“Put your rose-coloured glasses on, and party on”).

The chorus is wordy and elastic, ending on a clunky hook that betrays Sia’s co-writing credit. Perry’s moral awakening is perhaps best summed up by Skip Marley (grandson of Bob) in a rousing and hopeful verse: “We’re about to riot / they woke up the lions!