Some of pop’s biggest stars have returned in fall force for the final quarter of this year, which is rapidly and bewilderingly winding down in just a few short months. I’ve got some (mostly positive) thoughts on new tracks by Katy Perry, Justin Timberlake, Lorde, Britney Spears and Eminem.
Katy Perry feat. Juicy J, “Dark Horse”
This song takes a hard left turn from the inspirational power-pop of her first new single “Roar,” but it’s not an unwelcome transition. One of the most interesting, though often problematic, stories of this year’s pop music has been the appropriation of hip-hop music and black culture into mainstream white artists’ music, and this song continues that trend, albeit less aggressively than Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop.” The striking beat and sultry lyrics on this song are pretty appealing, even if they feel a bit like Perry straining to go “darker.” The Juicy J rap isn’t particularly memorable, and I could have done without the gross reference to a notorious serial killer, but it complements the song fine. I’m ambivalent about this song so far, and I doubt it will be a hit on the scale of “Roar,” but it’s an interesting departure.
Justin Timberlake, “TKO”
I’m a little puzzled by the relatively underwhelming sales of the first two singles from the second part of Justin’s yearlong pop music takeover. Despite the accidental and awkward reference to a sexual assault awareness campaign, “Take Back the Night” is a hard-charging, Michael Jackson-cribbing winner. And, to mix my sports metaphors, “TKO” is a slam dunk. Timberlake called his new albums “music you can see,” and this song fits that description well, with Timbaland’s heavy beat driving Timberlake’s stricken lyrics. I’m not sure that any woman has ever unironically said the phrase “coochie-coochie-coo” to her boyfriend (sorry, Timbaland), but this song is…well, I’ll just say it. It’s a knockout. The 20/20 Experience – 2 of 2 drops next Monday. I still don’t like the misleading and awkward title, but I’m looking forward to the album.
Britney Spears, “Work Bitch”
Whatever your feelings about profanity, this song actually sends an admirable message to the young girls who allegedly make up a large portion of Spears’ fanbase. It’s all about working hard for the biggest rewards in life. You want to be me? Britney asks. You want to make vapid yet oddly mesmerizing pop hits? You better work, kids. (I’m paraphrasing.)
Once, at a high school dance, I decided it would be the perfect time to announce that I had had it with pop artists urging listeners to put their hands up if they want to party. Logistically speaking, I don’t think putting my hands up is enough to singlehandedly (doublehandedly, I guess) get the party started, and what if I just don’t want to party? Ariana Grande’s excellent debut album “Yours Truly” practically employs the Call to (Raise) Arms as a motif, even in love songs without a hint of party in them. It’s all part of the increasing dance club-ification of pop music, and I’m over it.
Well, maybe I should have voiced my then-controversial opinions in song. I don’t have the ability to deliver melodies with as much honest angst and bruised heart as sixteen year-old Lorde, though, so I wouldn’t have been able to come up with a song nearly as good as this one. I was on the right track. Lorde’s indictment of lazy pop music clichés in “Royals” and now “Team” is as impressive and delightful as the fact that music this mature could be coming from a teenager who’s still years away from the drinking age.
This song, produced by 2013 rap stalwart Rick Rubin and featuring several Beastie Boys samples, harkens back to early Eminem’s rough, rowdy, fire-spitting days. He hasn’t lost a step, though one wonders if this song isn’t a little too nostalgic, too backward-looking. In November, we’ll find out if this is Eminem’s current modus operandi or merely a familiar introduction before a sharp left turn. For now, this aggressive foot-stomper will suffice.