The Music Club

Why will.i.am Is Like Irving Berlin
New albums dissected over email.
Dec. 14 2009 5:40 PM

The Music Club

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Black Eyed Peas. Click image to expand.
Black Eyed Peas' Fergie

J. and C. and A.,

I'm a prematurely crotchety 40-year-old who spends as much time obsessing over circa-1909 megastars as circa-2009 ones. So I'm definitely not qualified to answer Jonah's question about pop's post-hip-hop cutting edge. Cool-hunting just isn't my forte. I know that bloggers are all abuzz about Sleigh Bells, whose exhilarating racket I took in at a Manhattan club a few weeks back. Great band—but is its thing a New Thing? To me, it sounded like an old thing, with a few extra distortion pedals hooked up to it. Still, I remain bullish about pop's powers of regeneration and don't doubt that the next big sound will eventually drift within earshot of my current lodgings—the Jewish Home for the Aged in lovely downtown Boca Raton.

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In the meantime, I think we've entered what Simon Reynolds has called an "in-betweeny period" in pop history. Which has its pleasures.Rap's new underdog status is, I believe, a good development. I heard a lot of spirited hip-hop in 2009, from slick and funny Fabolous to the ruggedly classicist DJ Quik & Kurupt to SoCal "jerk" music popularizers New Boyz and—adding a welcome dose of estrogen to the proceedings—the Get Em Mamis, a Baltimore club-hop duo who put out one of the year's most appealing mixtapes. And I really like Pill. If you want to experience some vivid "lean times" rap, check out Pill's radically deglamorized videos for "Trap Goin' Ham" and "Glass," filmed in Atlanta's drug-infested Fourth Ward.

As for hip-hop's purported "death": Musical genres never die. Earlier this year, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences decided that polka is defunct. But there will always be polka. (Just ask Santa.) Hip-hop isn't going anywhere, either—not as long as Lil Wayne is around to remind us: "I'm on some shit ain't even come out the ass yet/ Sit back and watch the green grow like the grass wet."

Plus, as Ann says, hip-hop's sounds, production values, and attitudes long ago became enmeshed with R&B, which in turn became the lingua franca of American popular music. But I want to talk about a countervailing trend as we close in on the end of the Digits/Bytes/Beyoncés: Euroization.

About a decade ago, Tin Pan Alley relocated to Stockholm, home of the wizardly Max Martin—the man-machine behind "… Baby One More Time," "I Want It That Way," "Since U Been Gone," "I Kissed a Girl," and other huge hits. Scandinavian dominion over American teen pop continued in 2009. Miley Cyrus' perky national anthem "Party in the U.S.A." was produced and co-written by Martin's Swedish compatriot and sometime collaborator Lukasz "Dr. Luke" Gottwald; meanwhile, the Norwegian songwriting and production duo Stargate tightened their grip on American R&B. Where there aren't actual Europeans, there is Europhilia, with songwriters like Ne-Yo and Ryan Tedder nudging R&B and pop away from starkly rhythmic hip-hop toward more harmonically rich traditional song forms.

Meanwhile, it seems like the whole American top 40, from divas to rappers, is going Euro-techno, embracing thrumming synths and insistent 4/4 thumps. This was one of Sasha Frere-Jones' key points in his New Yorker piece on hip-hop's "aging out": "hip-hop's blues-based swing … is giving way to a European pulse, simpler and faster and more explicitly designed for clubs." You can hear it all over the year's big songs: in Three 6 Mafia's "Shake My," Pitbull's "Hotel Room Service," and Flo Rida's blockbuster "Right Round"; in Keri Hilson's "Knock You Down," Britney's "3" (another Max Martin smash), and Ke$ha's "Tik Tok" (Dr. Luke); in Rihanna's gothic Rated R and, of course, in Lady Gaga's percolating catwalk anthems. Is this shift away from homegrown sounds a sign of diminished national swagger—American pop's post-Bush, post-crash rapprochement with "Old Europe"?

The most successful practitioners of Yankee Eurodisco are Black Eyed Peas, who occupied the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for 26 consecutive weeks, from April to October. I want to say a word in support of this much-maligned act.

Ever since Fergie joined up in 2003, and BEP abandoned their pursuit of granola rap credibility, the group has had a single-minded, zealous devotion to dumb music. (cf. the 2003 statement of purpose "Let's Get Retarded"). On past albums, their dumbness has been pedestrian dumbness, obnoxious dumbness. But will.i.am continued to develop as an auteur, and with The E.N.D., he's struck upon a sound (outrageous Rococo excess) and a subject matter ("We wanna party!") that elevates his songs into the lofty realm occupied by "Tutti Frutti," "Da Doo Ron Ron," and "MMMBop." I'm talking about beautifully dumb music: lyrical doggerel and musical assaults on the senses and good taste, that stir in the listener a giddiness beyond words and thought—the stupid sublime. Exhibit A is the eruption entitled "Boom Boom Pow," a far more satisfying work of "Pop art" than anything Ms. Gaga, doctoral candidate in Warhol Studies, has yet concocted. (For those who haven't heard "Boom Boom Pow" yet: It's a song about a song called "Boom Boom Pow.")

Then there's Black Eyed Peas' other No. 1, "I Gotta Feeling," a deliciously catchy rave-up. Or is it a rave-up? Listen to the lines Fergie sings: "I feel stressed out/ I won't let it go/ Let's go way out/ Spaced out/ And losing all control." Listen, also, to the plaintive "woo-hoo" refrain, to the foreboding synthesizer strings, to the minor chords that give a somber downward tug to that second "Tonight's gonna be a good night" in the chorus. If John Rich's "Shuttin' Detroit Down" and Cam'Ron's "My Job" are this Great Recession's equivalent of the Great Depression's dustbowl protest anthems, then "I Gotta Feeling" is our dark, grand "Let's Face the Music and Dance"—a song about partying to forget about the ruins outside the dancehall. I was wrong to compare will.i.am to Micachu. He's more like Irving Berlin.

OK, time to wrap up, and I still haven't gotten to my ambivalence about Lady Gaga; or to New York City's best band, Aventura; or to the mackadocious moves of The-Dream, Trey Songz, Jeremih, and other R&B lotharios. Hopefully in the next post.

Jonah: Go!

—J.R.

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