2013: The year of underdog pop?

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Beyoncé ruined my year-end essay.

Actually, that’s not entirely fair: a lot of the ideas that follow here are pretty much the same as they would have been had the pop star not released her surprise self-titled album last week. But, as humorously illustrated by this GIF that made the rounds on Friday, Beyoncé certainly throws a wrinkle of sorts into 2013′s pop narrative.

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Reports are that Beyoncé sold more than 600,000 copies last week which, for 2013, is a staggering number. Only three records all year reached that total in a single week, and Beyoncé’s success is even more impressive when you consider it a) was iTunes exclusive, b) sold at a higher price point (due to the videos), and c) was only out for three days of the sales week.

I’ve seen the word “genius” thrown around quite a bit in relation to the album’s surprise release strategy; “cunning” and “shrewd” are the words I’d substitute in. Beyoncé’s statement upon releasing the album talked about providing an “immersive experience,” and not letting “the single” or “the hype” get “between the music and the art and the fans.” And hey, fair enough. As someone who thought the real story of Radiohead’s In Rainbows release was the self-release, minimal advance promo element (more so than the “pay what you want” that sucked up all the headlines), I’m clearly on board with that sentiment. But whether the idea came from Bey or from someone at her label, I bet there were some smart people at Sony who breathed a sigh of relief.

Because there’s no hit single on Beyoncé. And in pop 2013, the singles game was a crapshoot.

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Now, you might be thinking to yourself, “McNutt, get real, there are lots of singles on Beyoncé!” And sure, the album’s catchy ode to oral sex, “Blow,” is on its way to radio, and the power ballad “XO” (one of my favourites on the record) is planned to follow. But let’s play the counter-factual game: is there any song on Beyoncé that would have been, on its own, big enough to generate the kind of love, fever and headlines — not to mention sales — that the surprise album release did? I doubt it.

Which is why I’m sure Lady Gaga and her team at Interscope are green with envy as those Beyoncé sales figure come in. There’s a lot of common ground between Beyoncé and Gaga’s more-underwhelming Artpop. They’re two sprawling, stylistically broad pop records in which the performer seems to exercise a great deal of artistic authority and persona autonomy, despite a number of high-profile collaborations. Both records are greatly concerned with sex (in Bey’s case, easily the most explicitly sexual album she’s ever made) and both albums, despite some undeniable high points, also have their share of misses — certainly a few more on Gaga’s end.

The difference is that Gaga played the singles game. She pushed “Applause” hard — splashy video, big radio attention — and it debuted at number four on the Billboard Hot 100, but was overshadowed by Katy Perry’s “Roar” (we’ll get back to Katy in a sec) and quickly fell outside of the top 10. She then released a number of tracks in advance of the record, with really only “Do What You Want” catching any significant radio attention after “Applause.” The album’s sales have sputtered — only 305,000 copies in its first two weeks — and Gaga didn’t even get the typical SNL iTunes sales bump. Unlike her first three records, all of which were sales dynamos to varying degrees in addition to single-generating machines, Artpop was D.O.A. on both fronts.

Perry’s Prism hasn’t done much better: Billboard’s year-end sales figures have it all the way down at number 49 on the list of best-selling albums this year. (For comparison: Teenage Dream finished 14th in 2010.) She benefitted from having “Roar” to work with — a deliciously manufactured piece of Dr. Luke pop — but much of her record is a dull bore, with nowhere near the material to even come close to pulling off the five number-one singles that Dream could boast.

Then again: how much respect should we even give the Billboard Hot 100 anymore? This was the year of the Harlem Shake, after all — yep, that actually happened in 2013 — with Billboard rewriting its formula to allow video streaming to count towards chart placement and leading to all sorts of weird outliers all year (like Kanye West’s “Gone” breaking the top 20 nearly a decade after its release due to its use in a viral video). It seems hardly a coincidence that two of the biggest singles success stories of the year — “Blurred Lines” and Miley Cyrus’ one-two punch of “We Can’t Stop” and “Wrecking Ball” — relied on attention-grabbing “you gotta see this” music videos. I’m ambivalent-to-negative about “Lines,” and big on Miley’s hits (more on that tomorrow), but in both cases, the artists followed those singles with  underwhelming records. Bangerz at least has a few ballads worth keeping around; Blurred Lines felt like a lazy, Timberlake-y victory lap.

Ahh yes, Justin Timberlake. We should, by rights, be considering him the returning hero of Big Pop for 2013: the year’s best-selling album (at 2.3 million, no one else even comes close), a hit power ballad with real legs on the charts (“Mirrors”) and part one of The 20/20 Experience makes him one of few stars this year to actually deliver a pretty great pop album (predilection for excessive outros aside). The problem is that Timberlake tried to deliver two of them — according to some reports, to follow through on his Live Nation contract — and, in the process, diluted his place in the pop marketplace. Part one had the hits and an album experience; part two clearly sounded like leftovers to most. It was The 20/20 Experience: The Complete Experience that was submitted for Grammy consideration; in a fitting slight towards Timberlake’s hubris, it missed out on the big categories almost entirely.

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All of this is why, until Beyoncé showed up and complicated things, I was prepared to call 2013 the year of the pop underdog.

There was something fulfilling about “Royals” becoming the dominant song of the fall. I’m not willing to go as far as Ann Powers did and consider her “the Nirvana of now,” but Lorde’s bedroom-electro minimalism felt refreshing from the moment it started sneaking into the pop conversation and “Royals” is, by its very lyric, an underdog anthem, an explicit rejection of the symbols of wealth and fame. After “Blurred Lines’” exhausting domination of the summer pop conversation, “Royals” felt like a palate cleanser.

Pop needs underdogs: to refresh, to inspire change and, perhaps above all else, to maintain the form’s populism. If we love larger-than-life stars because they seem untouchably superhuman, we need underdogs who unexpectedly enter and succeed in the pop arena because we see ourselves in them. When “Royals” reached number one on the alternative chart, Katy Perry retweeted Grimes congratulating Lorde — the spectrum of pop personality spanned in a few quick digital interactions, from icon to upstart. The album that followed “Royals,” Pure Heroine (why didn’t someone think of that album title sooner?) is a bit one note, but there’s ample charm in that note, in no small part because its intimacy feels like something we, the listener, are an active participant in. Its sensation is personal surprise.

The year was full of great pop surprises: some from true underdogs, and some from familiar outsiders. How about Daft Punk not only reemerging with new material, but ending up with an honest-to-goodness pop hit out of it? What about Tegan and Sara delivering on “Closer’s” promise with a shamelessly great capital-P Pop record? What to make of Ariana Grande coming out of nowhere with a deliciously Mariah Carey-esque R&B throwback record? What of Icona Pop, who managed to follow up last year’s heart-rush “I Love It” with a solid set of shout-along anthems? How about pop-punkers Fall Out Boy and Paramore fighting with valour against the idea of rock music as a nostalgia exercise, playing with radio-friendly sounds and delivering big, exhilarating records? (You can read my thoughts on the latter in more detail here.)

Over at AUX this week, I wrote about the man behind some of 2013’s most successful (in terms of quality, at least) pop records: producer Ariel Rechtshaid. After playing a key part in Usher’s slinky, smooth “Climax” last year, Rechtshaid found himself at the centre of underdog pop’s wave, producing the breakthrough debuts by Haim, Sky Ferreira and Charlie XCX. (He also helped give Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City its wonderfully diverse sound.) His work fuses nostalgia with currency but, just as importantly, it’s committed to a full, emotional experience. Rechtshaid produces pop albums, ones that embrace both the immediate, physical experience of pop and its deeper, under-your-skin pathos that separates the records that stay with you for a few weeks from those you can’t shake for years.

The past two years have been a real journey for me in terms of discovering both my ear and my language for pop. I’m still wary of the term “poptimism” — I prefer “popist” because it doesn’t sound like a feel-good course correction against a competing philosophy— but I’ve become much more interested and attuned to the complicated tensions at the heart of great pop music: physically versus intellect, tension versus release, expectation versus surprise. And I root for great pop music regardless of where it comes from.

Some of my favourite pop moments of 2013 came from Big Pop’s superstars but most of them were quick and fleeting, like a summer song you barely remember when fall rolls around. The records that I kept returning to, the ones with a permanent place in the corner of my pop heart? They were underdog records.

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Which brings me back to Beyoncé and Beyoncé.

Queen Bey complicates my thesis because, at least in the immediate sense, she has managed to release a Big Pop album that’s successfully connecting with audiences in a way that nearly all her peers failed to do this year. Beyond avoiding the singles game, there’s a number of reasons this might be the case — the goodwill Beyoncé’s persona built up over the past couple of years, the “event” sensation of the album’s release, or just the general quality of the record — but here’s one that I’ll put on the table as a parting thought: Beyoncé demanded our attention, but it never felt like it was begging for it.

In his year-end piece for Grantland, Steve Hyden highlights a few of the big, sprawling promotional campaigns for some of the year’s biggest albums, each launched with the apparent goal of garnering as much attention (in social media, on blogs and music websites) over as wide a period of time as possible. From Arcade Fire and Daft Punk all the way to Katy Perry and Lady Gaga, these campaigns were long, drawn out and, at times, simply exhausting. It goes back to something I wrote about in my essay on year-end lists: in an attempt to reach as many people as possible, music marketing can actually alienate or exhaust fans and non-fans alike.

It can also seem like begging for attention. Earlier I described Timberlake’s two-album strategy flop as “hubris,” but maybe that’s not quite the right word. Perhaps what alienated people was its incessant neediness: the need to always be part of the pop conversation, to take over whatever airspace is available and push-push-push for presence. (Timberlake’s excessive MTV VMA Vanguard Award performance was pretty much this in a nutshell.) It’s like having an insecure friend who just can’t get comfortable with the fact that yes, you actually want to hang out with them.

There’s miles of space that separate Queen Bey and Lorde’s “You can call me Queen Bee,” but here’s what unites them: this year, they made you feel like an actor, not an audience. With pop’s underdogs, you had a personal stake in their success, rooting for them, cheering them up the charts. Beyoncé offered a collective experience — listen, watch, share, discuss — that invited, rather than begged for, your participation.

Pop music has always been about “me,” to some extent, about finding musical cues to soundtrack the moments of our lives. Now, our digital information networks are all about “me” — our friends, our interests, our daily website roll we work through when we need that five-minute sanity break at work. The headlines on various Buzzfeed articles about Beyoncé are telling: “Watch the exact moment Beyoncé’s album blew up”; “How to dress like Beyoncé from every new video”; “The 41 most unbelievably flawless and life-changing moments from Beyoncé’s new album”; “How Beyoncé’s new album redefines perfection.” These headlines don’t argue their case: they presume you agree and invite you to share their enthusiasm. Their promise is participation, to be part of something.

In 2013, pop that pushed faltered. Pop that invited your participation thrived.

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One response to “2013: The year of underdog pop?

  1. Pingback: Hit so hard: Why “Wrecking Ball” was 2013′s great pop heartache | McNutt Against the Music·

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