We moan a lot — like A LOT — in this recurring feature about how music was brimming with personality, imagination, and ambition in the eighties, and how it is currently bereft of all these qualities. But are we ancient doddering cave-people, as sentimentally attached to the music of our distant youth as our forefathers were to the crooners and big band combos of yore? Is Pitbull a straw man we keep bringing up to cast aspersions on what is actually a music scene as vibrant and compelling as Taylor Swift says it is? Only one way to find out. In a shocking break with formula, we’re going to put our regular UK vs US slapfest on ice and pit the current US chart against a vintage American Top 5 from the same week.
US Top 5, Week Ending July 14, 2014
5. ”Stay With Me,” Sam Smith
JB: Back when we were in heavy Mad World: The Book interview mode, two of the most common examples we’d bring up of the eighties superiority to our current predicament were the plethora of gay artists and the presence of so many non-US artists on the chart. Well, this Top 5 contains exactly one —one!— American artist, and it also makes room for the recently-outed Sam Smith. “In The Lonely Hour” is the must-have good-taste album of the moment. He’s a very capable singer, but this is a wee bit too precious for me. I feel like the audience whose hearts grew three sizes bigger when they heard John Legend’s “All of Me” put this right next to that on their sappy playlists.
LM: I know that “All of Me” is the wedding song of the year (decade?), but I’ll take Smith and his “Stay With Me” high notes over Legend and his dying-dog chorus any day. When I talked with my old friend Ron Fair, currently the chief creative officer of Virgin Records, at our Book Soup signing in West Hollywood, he was over-the-moon that Smith was poised to have a smash with this record. Fair knows from great voices. He’s brought us Christina Aguilera, and he was the one who convinced the Black Eyed Peas to take in Fergie from his girl group Wild Orchid. I’ve heard people call Smith “the male Adele.” Why? Because he’s English and he can sing? That only serves to illustrate how few truly gifted vocalists there are on the pop charts today. Perhaps this has always been true; and a great voice isn’t necessary an interesting one or a must-have for an artist to be a deserving pop star. However, we currently have all of these TV talent shows where the contestants are expected to have pitch-perfect voices with inhuman ranges. And yet, look at who the judges are. Paula Abdul. Jennifer Lopez. Kesha.
4. “Am I Wrong?” Nico & Vinz
LM: What he said.
3. “Problem,” Ariana Grade ft. Iggy Azalea
JB: I thought Miley Cyrus was the worst actress and best singer that tween TV would ever produce. Wrong on both counts! Emily Nussbaum, the great TV critic of The New Yorker, whose lead I have followed on several occasions (without her recommendation, I would not have discovered The Fosters and thus spared myself many tears) made the claim that Sam & Cat, the Nickelodeon sitcom that co-starred Ariana Grande was a Laverne & Shirley for the emoji demographic. Literally, I have seen cracked lobster shells with more life in them than Ariana Grande reciting lines in front of a camera. In front of a microphone, though, it’s a different matter. Her debut album was surprisingly solid 90s R&B-pop of the Marian Carey you-got-me-feeling-emotions variety. “Problem” is one of my favorite songs of the year, stitching together, in a Frankensteinian fashion, Jomanda-reminiscent 90s club sax, a crunk-pop whisper chorus and, once again, a vintage swoony Mariah Carey-esque breakdown (I wonder how MC, whose current album took a big bath, feels about one of her acolytes enjoying success with her old style. Probably doesn’t love it). Oh yeah, there’s someone else who contributes to this song, but we’ll get to her in a second.
LM: Back at no. 5 I remarked that there is a dearth of great singers on today’s music scene. Ariana is that rare specimen: a pop star who doesn’t need Auto-tune. Too bad this song is just blah. Music hacks have been nominating this for Song of the Summer, but that’s just lazy. “Problem”‘s problem is it isn’t fun. And it doesn’t stick to you like sand after a swim like a good SOTS should. As inane as “Call Me Maybe” is, you couldn’t help but sing along. Ditto “Somebody I Used to Know,” “ Royals,” and, going back a few years, “Umbrella.” The video’s cute, though.
2. ”Rude,” MAGIC!
JB: Maroon 5 threw down the gauntlet last year. They put out a reggae song that was like a dare. Like, let’s see how much the audience will accept, let’s see if anyone calls us out on our bullshit. Of course, no one did. And here’s MAGIC!, not only hellbent on proving themselves the opposite of fun. but determined to outdo Adam Levine with a song so insipid, so lifeless and feeble, it’s probably inspired a vast groundswell of low-aiming copycats.
LM: The other day a Facebook friend posted that this will go down as the year he finally fell out of step with popular music. Maybe the same goes for me, because I have no idea what this is. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it before…but it sounds like so many other songs I have heard before. The video has no redeeming qualities either. And what’s with the all-caps in their name? And are they trying to be like fun. by insisting upon having a punctuation mark at the end?(I just said that-jb)
1. ”Fancy,” Iggy Azalea ft. Charli XCX
JB: Song of the Summer, no doubt, but is this a real win for Iggy Azalea? What sticks with “Fancy’? Charli XCX’s hook. DJ Mustard’s Nu Shooz-like production. The Clueless call-backs. But Iggy’s facility on the mic? Not especially. I don’t care that her persona’s phony and she doesn’t write her own rhymes. That’s also the case with Rick Ross and my iTunes is groaning under the weight of his shit. My big picture gripe with Iggy Azalea is that she’d probably have been just as successful if she’d put less effort into coming across as a product of the Dirty South and simply presented herself as what she is: a blonde Australian woman.
LM: Agree: This is the Song of the Summer. First time I head this I thought, “Hey, Gwen Stefani’s got a new single out?!” I liked it instantly, but probably because it reminds me of Nucleus’ “Jam On It.” And it’s actually accompanied by a cute concept video which is well-timed with Buzzfeed’s big 90s nostalgia push. And yet I can see Millennials putting this in their time capsule. In 2034, when some Sirius SM station is playing the Hits of the Teens, this song will be in regular rotation.
US Top 5, Week Ending July 14, 1984
5. “The Reflex,” Duran Duran
LM: This was a Song of the Summer circa 1984, thanks to Nile Rodgers’ radical remix of the rather dull Seven and the Ragged opener. Though I usually hit the bathroom when Duran plays it in concert these days — sadly I always manage to make it back before the end of the “ta-la-la-la” audience singalong — “The Reflex” single was Duran Duran at the height of their powers. It was a fun, upbeat dance song that translated into their first U.S. number one. It was accompanied by a glossy promo clip that simultaneously showed them to be video vanguards and an exciting live band. It was released while America was in the midst of Duran mania, the result of several months of sold-out Tiger Tour dates. All this, and they couldn’t possibly be any more gorgeous. sigh. Who is today’s Duran Duran? Crickets.
JB: What she said.
4. “Eyes Without A Face,” Billy Idol
JB: “Rebel Yell”-era Billy Idol was the best. It was the one time in his lengthy career he had the songs to back up the rock god buffoonery. “Rebel Yell” itself, “Blue Highway”, “Flesh For Fantasy,” “Catch My Fall”: all winners- and this, his big sensitive ballad inspired by a French art-gore cult movie about a mad scientist attempting to graft the faces of his victims onto his hideously disfigured daughter.
LM: That’s what “Eyes Without a Face” is about?! I’m riding a Billy Idol wave at the moment, probably in anticipation of his forthcoming autobiography, which will be published in the fall. I’ve included “Blue Highway” and “White Wedding” on our recent colors-oriented Mixtape; last night I heard “Flesh For Fantasy” for the first time in forever at Barcade (while playing Ms. Pacman, I might add). Over the years Billy’s become a bit of a cartoon (cut to that scene in The Wedding Singer when he’s cheering on Adam Sandler’s serenade of Drew Barrymore). But at his height, Billy was a hit-making machine — so much so, that the rocker could even record a fantastic ballad. And this was the time before power ballads!
3. “Jump (For My Love),” Pointer Sisters
JB: The Pointer Sisters’ Breakout album was huuuuge for me. I played it to death. “Automatic”, “Neutron Dance”, “I Need You”, “Baby, Come And Get It”, “Telegraph Your Love”: one hit and should-have-been-hit after another. Prince inspired a brief new wave r&b sub-genre. I don’t know that The Pointer Sisters were aware they were part of it but the producers and songwriters who made every second of “Breakout” gleam knew exactly what they were doing.
LM: This song was huuuuuge for me too, and I was kinda embarrassed by that fact. Thanks for making me feel better about it, JB!
2. “Dancing In The Dark,” Bruce Springsteen
JB: One of the big recurring themes of MW:TB is British punks turning themselves into pop stars and what we have here and in the record that follows is kind of the American version. I’m not saying Bruce Springsteen was a barely-known oddity before “Dancing In The Dark” but this was his most massive commercial gambit: a huge-sounding record with an iconic video and a massive hook and what was it about? Writer’s block! The frustrating art of creation. You don’t get that from Nico and Vinz!
LM: True Bruce fans knock this song, but I love it. And, really, it sums up what the year was all about: the decade’s icons at their biggest. Bruce, Prince, Madonna, Duran, Culture Club had mega singles, while Michael Jackson and Cyndi Lauper were still riding high with smash albums. When we think about the year that defined the music of the 80s, we think 1984.
1) “When Doves Cry,” Prince & The Revolution
JB: Two years before “Purple Rain” came out, the head of Sony Records had to threaten MTV with the withdrawal of every rock video if they did not air “Billie Jean” from Michael Jackson’s just-released “Thriller” album. Two years later, “When Doves Cry”, “Purple Rain” and the movie it soundtracked were all number one. America changed a lot in two years. You can attribute that to Michael Jackson and MTV and the influence of the British new wave influx, all of which coalesced in Prince’s feverish brain and produced this weird record that– and I know I say this a lot– sounded like nothing else anyone had heard at that time. But, previously, records that sounded like nothing else only found an appreciative audience in people who wanted records that sounded like nothing else. In 1984, mainstream America sounded like this record.
LM: As I was saying: 1984! Prince at his most royal. To my then-13-year-old ears, this song sounded important. This song felt huge. It was EPIC. And he was 26! Just think about how many deserving nominees there were for SOTS that year! Was it this? Or “Let’s Go Crazy”? Or “The Reflex”? Or “Dancing in the Dark”? Compare that to today.
JB: Tough call. JK! 1984 was a notoriously awesome year, but when Ariana Grande is the pinnacle of pop, we’re in a dark place.
LM: This was an interesting experiment, but YIKES! I may be sad that my eyesight is going and my advanced age is giving me major problems in the baby-making department, but I’m glad I came of age when I did.