You know how to start a really stimulating conversation at parties? Offer up your totally original opinion that pop music today is lame and uninteresting. “Justin Bieber? Never say never?” you’ll say with charming incredulity, “I wish he would say never to singing!” Then all your friends will laugh and laugh and laugh at your incisive, biting analysis. My point is this - pop music today (and I mean music that’s actually popular - Rihanna and Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj, etc) is just like pop music’s been for a long time, plenty of good stuff mixed in with some totally awful dreck. I sometimes think I’d be happier in the seventies, but hindsight is 20/20. The good stuff stands the test of time, but doesn’t represent what actually topped the charts. This week in 1975, the chart-topping song was “Love Will Keep Us Together” by Captain and Tennille. This week in 1976, the chart-topping song was “Shop Around,” performed by … Captain and Tennille. And Captain and Tennille are horrible.
So I suggest we stop whining about the fact that Miley Cyrus is star as if that somehow means we as a society have gradually slipped into lower and lower standards of taste. I offer up this instead: our biggest success stories right now include Adele (an unbelievable voice with respect for classic soul), Lady GaGa (who, whatever you think of her, makes bold choices and fully embraces interesting, bold artistic expression), and Beyonce.
Beyonce. When our society can get behind someone with this much talent and this genuinely awesome, I think we just might be okay. She goes to block parties! Just like you and me! (disclaimer: I do not go to block parties). The run-up to her new album, the iconically - if blandly - titled 4, was a curious, and at times concerning affair, featuring two very different types of marketing that suggested the full spectrum of pop’s ability to inspire or annoy. On the one hand, the lead off single was “Run the World (Girls),” certainly the weakest track on the album and one that suffers from mistaken attempts at crowd-pleasing. It combines the music industry’s current dance-music obsession, and takes a stab at some indie cred, by sampling Major Lazer, all wrapped in a poorly-articulated attempt to create a female-empowerment anthem in the vein of the far superior “Single Ladies” (or the even-more-far-superior Motown-style version of the track that popped up on youtube).
Now that we have our hands on the full album, it’s pretty clear that this track was engineered, with maximum calculation, as an accessible single, a response to the industry rumors that the album would be difficult to market. In the context of 4, it comes off as tacked-on, a closing track with little to do with anything that’s come before. Another, unofficial video clip that showed up recently is far more representative of the album’s content, and its excellence. Shot on Jay-Z’s phone (!) backstage at American Idol, we see Beyonce warming up with a run-through of of 4’s opening track, “1+1.” Unadorned by any production aside from an accompanist and some light background singing, Beyonce belts through some incredible runs and drops so much raw emotion that it’s hard not to be a little moved. And this is the warm-up! When I’m warming up it usually consists of making wildly out-of-tune honks on my saxophone in an effort to impersonate a real musician. This clip embodies Beyonce’s persona throughout the album - passionately singing through a great set of songs dealing with more mature themes than she has before. (I’m having issues embedding the clip, but watch it here. It’s worth it).
The album itself is a strange animal. Structurally, it lingers on one mood for a long time. For example, it starts with a string of four killer ballads in a row. This slightly lessens their impact, and certainly provides little preview of where the album eventually ends up, so it’s not a choice I’d have made. In fact, it’s pretty puzzling that the album is backloaded with more accessible, uptempo numbers, starting in this more subdued mood. But it’s pretty interesting, and the ballads are so solid that it’s hard to argue with the results. The best is “I Care,” combining gospel-tinged backup vocals with a busy, low beat. Like many of the songs on the album, it deals with a theme certainly relevant to her current life: the ups and downs of a relationship after several years. She’s a long way from “Crazy in Love” for sure.
Later in the album, we get an incredible trio of songs, all hot uptempo jams, in a row. If there’s anything worthy to be deemed song of the summer, it’s “Love on Top,” a catchy slice of classic R&B with a bumping beat, cool, jazzy chord changes, and a chorus you can sing along with after hearing it once. Even more fun, the song ends with no less than four key changes, a move that both keeps the song and moving and provides a spotlight for Beyonce’s voice. Every modulation, you keep waiting for it to be too high for her, expecting to hear some strain, but if anything she sounds better and better as the band keeps climbing up. After that is “Countdown,” a weird but infectious song which would be radio-friendly if not for its extreme chromaticism, and “End of Time,” a stomper with some massive horns and snare drums lending a lot of excitement to the proceedings.
There are obviously problems with the album. That single is still just unrelentingly terrible, there’s maybe one ballad too many, and “Party,” her attempt at more of a hip-hop-flavored track, falls flat. But I think my point still stands. We’re lucky that our massive stars, especially Beyonce, are the type that still make interesting, artistic choices and experiment on their records. A star her size could easily sit on her laurels and simply repeat the winning formula of the past, probably selling an absurd amount of albums for the trouble, but instead she’s created an unusual, at times challenging collection of songs that nonetheless carries all the emotional impact and fun people love her for. Stop whining about the state of popular music. We’ve got Beyonce. We’re going to be fine.