In this Slate Extra podcast—which is exclusive to Slate Plus members—Chau Tu talks with Slate’s music critic Carl Wilson about what appears to be a critical juncture for chart pop, not to mention its stars. The recent albums by Katy Perry and Lorde, Wilson says, reflect major career transitions for both artists—in a time when pop music itself is struggling to define its identity.
Wilson also shares his predictions for 2017’s song of the summer (including what makes for a good one) and talks about why music streaming might be tipping the scales back toward male artists.
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This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Chau Tu: Tell me a little bit more about your process for reviewing albums for Slate.
Carl Wilson: My editor Forrest Wickman and I, over the course of the beginnings of seasons, but also just generally from week to week, try to rough out a plan of what we know is coming out. These days, the complication is that very rarely, especially with big pop albums, do labels release advance copies to critics because of the amount of paranoia about piracy, and also because there’s kind of the surprise album factor going on. So a lot of these things happen at the last minute, and luckily, because Slate prefers going in-depth to making quick hits on things mostly, now that albums are being released on Fridays, I can usually take the weekend to spend some time with them. That usually involves a process of listening to an album, say, usually five or six times in different contexts. I’ll put them on my phone and walk around, and experience them that way; then put them on the stereo, and listen to them as music around the house; then sit down with a notebook at some point, maybe go to Rap Genius and look up the lyrics to follow along as I go. [I’ll] start making notes and start to assemble a general sense of not only how I feel about the album, but what the album seems to be about, or what it seems to signify in that artist’s career or in music in general, and that gradually forms into a nucleus of a story. In some cases, with artists who aren’t quite at the same level of demand, you might have a few weeks to do that, if the label is able to give you a stream or a download in advance, but the main routine these days is: I throw away my weekend and spend it hanging out with Katy Perry or Lorde.
Those two were actually your most recent reviews, and you had some pretty differing opinions on the albums. Can you talk more about what you thought?
I mean, they really sort of don’t belong in the same category together so much, except that by default of being chart pop albums by young women, they end up being compared to each other. Both albums, in some ways, kind of deal with a career transition problem; but Katy Perry’s is a more severe one, where she’s moving from being pretty much the biggest hit-maker of the past decade to trying to find a way to mature out of that pop queen persona. The general sense that one gets from the album is that she hasn’t figured out how to do that yet, and so there’s plenty of interesting production and good beats and that kind of thing on the album, but the songs don’t really jell for the most part. There are three or four tracks that get by, but a lot of the album feels very mushy, and particularly lyrically, just completely all over the place.
[This is] after this period where she made a big deal about how through the election campaigns she had been politicized, and she talked about this idea of purposeful pop, but that really amounts mostly to one song on the album, so that was a bit misleading. It doesn’t really reset her direction in any clear way. Partly, I felt like it was a result of pursuing that kind of self-reinvention through very Hollywood, self-help, and self-actualization mantras, which is really not that conducive to making great art. And then the rollout of the album, with this weekendlong livestream that she did and all these kinds of things, also conveys the sense of someone in a bit of a crisis. And from somebody who’s sort of so joyfully conquered the pop charts seven years ago, it’s a little bit of an unfortunate phase to see somebody struggling through.
But you had kind of an opposite sort of review for the Lorde album.
Yeah. With Lorde, she’s also got a dilemma to deal with, which is that she emerged out of nowhere with “Royals,” this out-of-left-field pop hit for somebody who through her early teenage years had been just kind of workshopping as a songwriter and laboring away in New Zealand trying to come up with things, and came out with this album of very minimal and thoughtful teenage art songs in a lot of ways, and then freakily became a global superstar out of that. And so the question of how you follow that up is a big one. In some ways, what Lorde’s done is also a bit of a mixed bag, because she’s really going with the chart pop sound, but always with enough of a twist of her own sensibility that you don’t feel her personality getting lost in it. And this album, for the first time, she’s writing love songs. Which, as somebody who was 18 and 19 when she was writing the album, it’s like, OK, that makes sense. You need to mature into that. But she’s also writing about being 18 and 19.
She’s always got a kind of bird’s-eye view on herself, and so, observing this question of late high school, early college age partying; the desperate kind of peer group bonding that happens during that time; the way that that can fracture; and that question of trying to define yourself at that age—it’s really a portrait of that. And so even though perhaps it’s not as songwriterly as her first album—and I suspect not as songwriterly as where she’ll eventually end up—it’s still a beautiful album, and it really has continuity from beginning to end in a way that’s unusual on albums these days. Maybe not since something like Lemonade have we heard a pop album that really tries to sort of conceptually hold together as well as this one does. I think [she’s] still in development as an artist, but a really great achievement nonetheless.
Do you think that either one says anything about where pop music is going in the future?
I think that they both speak to the fact that chart pop has reached a kind of transitional phase of some kind. In some ways, Lorde helped usher that in. The appearance of this kind of anti-pop figure, almost, signaled that perhaps there was a restlessness in the audience [and] in the public to hear something a little different than the kind of anthemic diva kind of pop that dominated the first half of the decade. Now there’s a much more sort of down-tempo thing happening, which leaves somebody like Katy Perry in a difficult position and may leave others of that kind of generation of pop stars in a difficult position. It feels like we’re in a time when chart pop’s direction is a lot harder to track than it was a few years ago.
And you did mention that you thought Lorde’s album might likely end up being like an outlier in her career. What kind of direction do you think she’s going to go in?
She did an interview last week in advance of the album’s release with the Guardian, where she was saying that her goals were to reach the same kind of songwriting heights as people like Leonard Cohen or Joni Mitchell. Which, working with Jack Antonoff on this album and making this chart album that really owes a fair amount to the sound of Taylor Swift’s 1989—it’s not really the quickest route to being Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, if that’s what you’re aiming at. So I don’t think that she’s likely to have a big string of big hits out of this album, or, really, in the future. I do think that was a fluky thing in her career, and I suspect that retreating to more of an art for art’s sake kind of career is where she may be headed.
I mentioned Kate Bush in the review, and you might think of somebody like Tori Amos as well. These more singular, more artsy figures, seem closer to the heart of her talent and her ambitions. And so as she goes through her 20s, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see her start turning harder in that direction.
You still mentioned that Lorde’s album is probably one of the best that we’re going to get this year. So what is your sort of outlook on pop music, then? Is it optimistic?
I’m never either optimistic or pessimistic. Especially when you’ve been writing criticism for a long time, there starts to be a sort of more anthropological approach that takes over you and it just becomes curiosity about where things are going. But when I say that Lorde’s album might be the best pop [album], I really mean the best chart pop album that we’re likely to get this year. There’ll be all kinds of other things that will happen, but I suspect in that field that it sets a mark that’s going to be hard to beat.
Have there been any other big summer albums that have come out recently or are about to come out that you’re looking forward to?
It’s been a good spring, there’s been a lot of action. There’s stuff I still have to catch up on, like the SZA album, [that] I haven’t really spent that much time with, but I know a lot of people are excited about, for example. Normally, summer’s a fairly slow release cycle, but that’s actually changing a little bit, it seems like. We have the new Jay Z album coming out. Jay Z’s last album was now four years ago—Magna Carta Holy Grail—and was kind of a mixed bag. Perhaps we don’t look for innovation from Jay Z anymore, but I think the fact that this is his first album since Lemonade came out gives it naturally at least a curious place in the question of what kind of response, if any, he’s going to make to their private life last year. So that’ll be something, at least, to be an object of curiosity.
Then into July, the new Haim album, by the L.A. sister group, is coming out, which I’m excited about. The Lana Del Rey album is finally coming out. Those are a couple of fairly big alt-pop kind of moments: The Arcade Fire’s first album in four years is coming out; and there’s an album coming out in early August by the band from Providence, Rhode Island—Downtown Boys—who are one of the more exciting sort of queer rock, the best noise bands in the country. They’ve been really catching people’s attention for the past couple of years, and this should be a great moment for them. There’s the possibility that the LCD Soundsystem album might appear sometime over this next year.
And then on a kind of personal note, the first Randy Newman album in many years coming out at the beginning of August called Dark Matter. A lot of people know Randy Newman from his film soundtrack and Pixar song side, but he’s also one of the great American musical satirists. And in the year of Trump’s first year of presidency, I think it’s a great thing to have a Randy Newman album coming along to excavate the hypocrisies of our time.
It’s also officially summertime now, so that means the annual contest for “song of the summer” is on. Do you have any favorite picks right now?
Yes and no. It’s obviously in motion. I find this year a little unexciting so far among the candidates. Billboard has just started up its song of the summer chart, and for the past couple of weeks, the things [at top] are the two Justin Bieber features: “I’m the One” from DJ Khaled, and “Despacito” from Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee. Of the two, I prefer “Despacito,” I think. But I don’t feel like either one fully convinces me as something that has the staying power to sort of be something I’m going to be happy to hear on the beach and coming out of cars all the way through September.
Of the other contenders, there’s kind of a mushy middle at the moment. Drake’s “Passionfruit” has been lingering around. I like Alessia Cara and Zedd’s “Stay,” which is still sort of moving up the charts a bit. The Selena Gomez “Bad Liar” track, which is not a traditional song of summer; it’s set to the bass line from Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer.” It has this very sort of slow creep kind of effect, but every once in a while, you get a summer song that isn’t all sunshine.
Right—do you have criteria for what you think makes a good song of the summer?
Ideally, classic examples from the past couple of decades—if you think of “Umbrella” from Rihanna, or if you think of “Call Me Maybe” [by] Carly Rae Jepsen. Very social music, in a lot of ways, and anthemic, and this sense of, again, that it does belong kind of at your beach party, that it does belong on your road trip. Not every year does something really click into that place. In some ways, I think the game that the press has played more and more over the past decade or so of nominating the song of summer in advance rather than letting it be discovered is—it’s a fun parlor game. But in some ways, it’s a little beside the point to the way that you just end up going like, Ah, yes, this summer has been all about that. So we’ll have to wait and see.
You mentioned the Downtown Boys, but are there any other artists that you’re loving right now and you kind of hope to have a lasting influence?
There’s no singular artist that I see that way right now. I’ve been thinking a lot about Lorde the past week or so, the question of where her career goes and what effect that has is interesting to me. There’s a few different axes of things. One, I would say, in connection with the Downtown Boys: I think for the past several years, one of the most exciting stories in music has just been the reinvention of rock ’n’ roll by bands of young women. Look at a recent album by a band called Girlpool, who are a great duo. There’s a band called Chastity Belt that recently put something out. There’s an album coming out by Katie Crutchfield, known as Waxahatchee, later in the summer. She beautifully walks that line between, sort of singer-songwriter and reborn punk rock kind of sounds, and I think that’s kind of happening all over the place and there’s a lot of excitement there.
What hasn’t happened yet is for any of those artists, who are all sort of the heirs of Sleater-Kinney, to break out and have a real effect on radio or on the mainstream in that way. Maybe it’ll never happen, but maybe it will, but that’s something I’m always watching.
And then, in hip-hop, obviously, Kendrick Lamar, and along with him, I think people like Chance the Rapper and Anderson Paak. The more sort of thoughtful beats, bars-oriented branch of hip-hop right now, on the other side from the meme-oriented side represented by somebody like Future, Lil Yachty, or Young Thug. I’m kind of maybe old-fashionedly cleaved to the Kendrick side of that spectrum, and so that’s an ongoing story.
And then I think the third axis that I’m always watching the past few years is the tribe of young women in Nashville, like Maren Morris, Margo Price, and Brandy Clark. All kind of circling around Miranda Lambert in a lot of ways, where country’s gone through, and still is going through, in various forms, a kind of male-dominated period for a long time. Shania Twain actually also putting out an album this summer to remind us of the days when that wasn’t true about country radio. But these young women in Nashville are some of the best songwriters and performers around, and it’s frustrating that they continue to put out great work after great work and don’t make the commercial impact that you’d hope that they would.
You were talking a lot about Billboard charts and everything, but I’m wondering about what you think about streaming and how that’s affected the music industry.
Well, it’s interesting. It’s a mixed story in a lot of ways. One of the things going on with chart pop is definitely the impact of streaming being counted in heavily to the charts. That’s part of the reason I think we see this kind of confused response from the highest echelons of the pop diva world, is that streaming has ended up, it seems—maybe because of who are the heaviest users of streaming services and in what way they use them—it’s ended up sort of masculinizing the charts again for the first time in a while. And the people who were making the biggest impact a few years ago don’t do quite as well on streaming comparatively, as compared to when radio counts more. So that’s definitely having a broad effect, and I think it’ll be interesting, over the next couple of years, to see whether the industry tries to correct for that in some way, or what exactly we see.
The other interesting thing, though, is that streaming kind of partly favors what used to be called the long tail, or at least sort of midlevel artists, in the sense that streaming isn’t as dominated by any single figure as a summer chart can be. So, in some ways, it’s great for diversity, in theory—except, of course, that financially it’s very difficult for anybody to make any money out of streaming without having incredibly large numbers of streams. So there’s more listening to more things going on, which has been the trend for a couple of decades. It’s really the internet’s general effect on music, but can those people make a living? Can they build a career that way? Unfortunately, as often in all media these days, technology is such a big part of the story, and in lots of ways, nobody knows what the answer and what the outcome will be.
What do you think is the hardest part of your job?
I think the two most challenging things are the pace at which we work now, which doesn’t encourage a sort of long, reflective period with the work that you’re talking about. And so to try and achieve something that has some substance and lasting value in a very short window is the tough part now. And then over the years, there’s also just the challenge of continuing to keep up and hear new things, and keep yourself open, and not to have kind of knee-jerk responses to new music, because most people, by the time they get into their 40s, as I am, a lot of people don’t listen to new music at all at those ages. It does become that kind of natural omnivorous appetite that you have in your 20s, to just consume and remember everything you consumed as a younger person, it ends up having to be a more deliberate and kind of methodical thing as you go along, and to keep your enthusiasm up and discover new ideas and things is, in itself, a kind of discipline.
Yeah, I wonder why it is, as you get older, it seems like you’re less likely to listen to new music. It does seem that way, right?
Yeah, there are even studies and statistics to back all of that up. I think a lot of it is that the way that we use music in particular, but culture in general, when we’re younger, it has a lot to do with that process of figuring out who we are and identifying ourselves. You kind of grab on to the things that you love as, in part, as symbols of the identity you’re trying to construct, and as that becomes less your obsession to discover an identity, and maybe your focus moves more towards different kinds of relationships in the world, that kind of desperation to discover things in culture loses its edge.
I think also people get nostalgic and their banks get kind of full. A lot of people, by the time they become middle-aged, listen mostly to the things they listened to when they were younger or things related to that, because that calls up that kind of power, that kind of intense emotional reaction that you maybe are less likely to have as you get older. Although I think that one of the great things about the internet is that it does encourage people of all ages to continue to discover, because the energy level that you have to put in to find new things is not as great as it once was. You don’t have to go out crate-digging, and you don’t have to go out to the bookstore. You can discover a lot of those things in the spare moments that you have in your day, and so I think there’s a bigger constituency of curious middle-agers out there in these days than there was. But yeah, your relationship to culture definitely evolves over the years.