The month in popular music (May 2007)

go go gadget mainstream!

Here we go again!

Linkin Park – What I’ve Done

Although criticized by some fans for being too similar to their first album, I thought that Meteora was a bit of a turning point for Linkin Park. Through a series of hit singles (“Faint,” “Numb,” “Breaking the Habit”), it seemed like the band was starting to break out of its nu-metal scream-laden angst, trading it in for something a little more melodic, a little more mature, and potentially a little more interesting.

In this context, “What I’ve Done” is a disappointment for being anything but interesting; it’s downright boring. It’s pretty much identical to “Numb” in structure and sound, but with a more understated hook and a much, much weaker chorus. This is supposed to be the band’s big political statement album (love the Minutes to Midnight title) but where’s the thunder? Where’s the passion? Even the video’s politics are boring. Linkin Park, like so many others before them, mistake political imagery for political statement and just show us image after image of how the world sucks. Thanks for the memo, guys, I had no idea…

Kelly Clarkson – Never Again

If I’m slightly disappointed that Linkin Park didn’t step up to the table and impress me, this one’s a heartbreaker. With “Since U Been Gone” and “Behind These Hazel Eyes,” Clarkson earned more hipster cred than most pop stars get in a lifetime. “Never Again” drinks from the same post-breakup righteous angst well as those hits, but the water doesn’t taste nearly as good this time around.

There’s been a lot of bad buzz around Clarkson’s new album, including reports that Sony BMG chief Clive Davis turned it down and demanded that songs be re-recorded. “Never Again” adds fuel to that gossip, since it feels like a pale shadow of Clarkson’s previous work. It WANTS to be the next “Since U Been Gone” but nothing clicks – the verses lack melody, the chorus lacks punch and worst of all, there’s no kickass bridge (the highlight of her best singles). Kelly can still sing like it’s nobody’s business but even her massive pipes can’t save this one. The video comes close though – claustrophobic cinematography, great visuals and spectacular editing. It’s intense in a way that the song just wishes it could be.

Carrie Underwood – Before He Cheats

Forget Kelly for a second; I’d make the case that Carrie Underwood is American Idol’s biggest success story. Mainstream country music is a perfect avenue for achieving the show’s musical goal of creating a pre-packaged pop star that’s agreeably malleable to fit inside an easy-to-sell package. Mainstream country doesn’t care who writes the songs or who plays on the track; it’s even more personality and image driven than pop music. No wonder that Underwood went from reality show contestant to Best New Artist Grammy winner in one album.

Like Underwood herself, “Before He Cheats” is perfectly target-marketed. The twangiest, catchiest phrases in the chorus are “four wheel drive,” and “Louisville slugger”; not exactly the kind of subject matter that would sell outside of Middle America. The song sounds like it could have been written for Faith Hill, or Grethen Wilson or any other country female singer, but Underwood adds JUST enough of her own personality to the vocal to make it her own. The song may not be my cup of tea in the slightest, but it’s so brilliantly assured that I find myself marveling at it nonetheless.

Akon – Don’t Matter

Akon is like the male version of Ashanti circa 2002 – he’s somehow managed to become the hip hop singer de jour, his pipes in high demand for rappers who need to add some smoothness to their choruses. Me, I still find his voice incredibly bizarre. It’s like someone invented a computer to sing reggae music – it’s close to the real thing, but really, really unnatural and mechanical at the same time.

So “Don’t Matter” is a fitting song for Akon, almost as lifeless and pre-packaged as his voice sounds. It’s faux-reggae at its blandest, lacking in soul and originality; hell, it blatantly steals the hook from R. Kelly’s “Ignition” for its best moment. But given that Akon is the flavour of the month, and that “Don’t Matter” is just the kind of disposable fluff that hits big in the summertime, I expect that I’ll have to put up with this one at countless patio parties over the next few months. Joy.

Rihanna featuring Jay-Z – Umbrella

Is Rihanna the future of the record industry? Has Jay-Z stumbled upon a business strategy for the twenty first century pop star? With three albums in three years, Rihanna has reversed the old model of using the single to drive album sales; her albums seem almost entirely unnecessarily, a token gesture to an old business model that Def Jam can still wrangle a few bucks out of. No, Rihanna’s albums exist only to justify her existence as a hit singles superstar. Each year she puts out a chart-topper that dominates the airwaves: “Pon de Replay,” “S.O.S.,” and now “Umbrella.” The best songwriters and producers on Def Jam’s roster must spend each winter combining their efforts, trying to make sure that this year’s Rihanna single tears up the charts. It’s the only game that matters.

They succeed wonderfully with “Umbrella.” The beat is hot, the performance sassy (the way she pronounces “rain-in’” gets me every time) and the chorus is made of sharp little barbs strategically designed to stick in your skull. The video is even better – like with “S.O.S.” there’s really no theme or point to the video other than throwing Rihanna into a series of strikingly beautiful designs, but director Chris Applebaum adds some genuine artistry to the aesthetics as well. Def Jam does it again; bring on “Rihanna Hit Single 2008”!

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