We Need to Talk About Kesha and Girl Power

She's back and better than ever. After a long hiatus from solo recording due to legal battles with her former producer, Kesha has returned in a big way, releasing some of the best music of her career in celebration of her forthcoming third album, Rainbow (released August 11th). Rainbow's two promotional singles, "Praying" and "Woman," mark not only a creative rebirth for the singer/songwriter, but they also represent a larger trend of female empowerment for this year's pop music.

Kesha released "Praying" as the first song for this new creative era, and it is an impeccable choice. On the surface, the tune is a somber ballad about heartbreak, but the track gets more and more complex as it progresses. It does not cater to a victimization narrative--woe is me, someone hurt me--but rather positions Kesha as the bigger person who has been hurt, but realizes that healing comes from channeling anger into forgiveness. She builds on this idea with themes of independence ("I had to learn to fight for myself / and we both know the truth I could tell") to such expert effect, that the song's crescendo in the last minute (that whistle tone!) is easily one of the best pop music moments this year.


Though Kesha is in a self reflective state of mind, that does not mean she disowns her past as pop's party girl. In recent interviews, she owns each state of her career, and this is an important message for young women, who are often told to reject their hedonistic glory days in fear of being labeled "nasty women." Kesha has no time for this heteronormative misogynist rhetoric on Rainbow's second single, "Woman," which matures her party girl image from the 20-something who brushes her teeth with a bottle of Jack to an independent woman who doesn't need a man to foot the bill for her good time. Just like on "Praying," the Kesha we hear on "Woman" is a powerful creature who can take care of herself.


Of course, Kesha is not releasing music in a vacuum. Perhaps because of our heightened political and social climate, her peers are working with similar ideas. Katy Perry's Witness works as an interesting counterbalance to what we've heard of Kesha's Rainbow. While Kesha's new "woke" period is marked by a more organic sound, Perry has bolstered her messages of strength with a wall of icy electropop. Take her latest single, "Swish Swish." Like much of Witness, it's aggressive and muscular. It's also easy to dismiss the song as a dis of another pop star, but the song's growing audience belies something deeper and more interesting. When you listen to the tune alongside the political awareness of "Chained to the Rhythm," you can also hear "Swish Swish" as a glitter-drenched display of female power. Just like on Kesha's "Woman," the Perry on "Swish Swish" does not need a man to pick up the tab; she can fight her own battles.


We could go on and on about the empowered pop of this era. For example, we haven't discussed Leann Rhimes' pro LGBTQIA messages in "Love is Love is Love" from her under-appreciated new album Remnants, Lorde's ode to lesbian love with Melodrama, Miley Cyrus' hippie politics on "Malibu" and "Inspired," or Betty Who's sexually empowered The Valley. All of these strong, interesting, and creative women are showing listeners how to stand up and be themselves. Kesha has joined this growing narrative, and we are blesssed.


Honoring 90s House: Katy Perry's Witness and Madonna's Erotica

On Friday, Katy Perry released what is likely one of the biggest records of 2017: her fourth effort, Witness. After two high fructose pop albums (Teenage Dream and Prism), the diva has retooled her sound and released an album that celebrates early 90s house music. Witness's closest reference is Madonna's Erotica (1992), another brooding house album about self exploration and female power. Like Madonna's album, Witness  has an icy surface and may challenge listeners, but it works as a lyrical and sonic unit--textured, aggressive, and revealing.

Three teaser singles hinted to Witness's preoccupations: the social concern tune "Chained to Rhythm," the stiletto stomp ballroom track "Swish Swish," and the salacious "Bon Appetit." However interesting these tracks may be, they only anticipate the stronger material here. For example, "Roulette" borrows the girl-power hater take down of "Swish Swish" and escalates the formula with a larger, hookier chorus. Similarly, "Pendulum" builds on the social consciousness of "Chained to Rhythm"  but trades subdued satire for an anthem on karma, responsibility, and empowerment; it is one of the best tracks on the album.




Perry is not in a cheerful state of mind for most of the record, reflecting on self doubt ("Witness"), needing attention ("Deja Vu"), finding purpose ("Bigger Than Me"), and heartbreak ('Miss You More," "Save as Draft"). In some ways, it's disheartening to hear everyone's favorite California Girl sound so down, but nine years into one of the biggest music careers of the 21st century, listeners and critics have to expect some variation in Perry's sound.




That brings me back to Madonna's Erotica. Released nine years after her debut, the Queen of Pop's house record challenged perceptions of her pop brilliance. Erotica is a cold, harsh, and masterful exploration of sexuality and gender in the wake of the AIDS epidemic. Madonna is not cheerful on Erotica and none of the singles from the album have the hook of a "Like a Virgin" or "Express Yourself," but the album succeeds because she is questioning, political, and often brutally honest. Critics and listeners took time to unpack Erotica's themes; two of its singles reached the Top 10 (the title track and "Deeper and Deeper"), but they were not runaway hits. (Not to mention, Madonna's best ballad, "Rain," peaked at 14--a crime, as far as I'm concerned.) However, time revealed the thoughtfulness embedded in the dance beats and dark themes.




It's hard to tell if Perry's Witness will face a similar reception. While Perry is not as controversial as a Madonna was in 1992, Witness also arrives nine years after her pop debut, has a chilly house sound, and focuses on downbeat subject matter; these parallels are too strong to ignore. What I can say is that Witness works as an unusual creation, and it is all the more interesting for its unexpected tone and restless lyrics.

2017 and the Big Pop Music Chill Out

As we head into the heat of summer, you've probably noticed how chilled out pop music sounds these days. The Billboard Hot 100 is less about four-to-the-floor bombast and more about light disco and singer-songwriter fair. Perhaps this year's charts owe as much to the 1970s as they do to the evolving trends put forth in 2016 by Justin Beiber, Zayne. Britney Spears, Selena Gomez, and the Chainsmokers, among others.

Here are three songs that represent this growing trend for laid-back pop.

"Bon Apetit" by Katy Perry

Katy Perry is a key player in pop's evolution. The first single from her Witness era, the excellent "Chained to the Rhythm," launched "woke pop" with gentle dance beats and satirical lyrics. Her latest tune, "Bon Apetit," builds on that trend to include sexual politics, especially when paired with its official video. The video's revenge cannibal feminism is both a campy and ballsy move. Perry makes pop music a more interesting art form, and her new album will be a game-changer.





"Malibu" by Miley Cyrus

After all of her hip-hop posturing on Bangerz and the nonsensical drug ramblings of Dead Petz, Miley channels Carole King on "Malibu." The most direct homage to 70s singer-songwriters on this list, the song could easily play along side anything on King's Tapestry (not to mention both are heavily influenced by the California landscape). There may be some balking at Cyrus's sonic 180, including valid claims that she used black culture for her own gain on Bangerz and then ditched it when it was no longer useful to her. That said, "Malibu" sets a new artistic benchmark for the star, stripped of her previous obsessions in favor of strong craft.



"The Cure" by Lady Gaga

I stopped listening to Lady Gaga a long time ago. With the pandering and artistic cribbing of "Born This Way," she lost me, and Art Pop followed by Joanne did nothing to regain my attention. However, her latest tune, "The Cure," is an exception. Working with a light disco sound similar to Perry's latest, "The Cure" is back to basics for Gaga, and her music hasn't been this pleasing since "Bad Romance."Again, what I like here is the lack of posturing in favor of clarity--a positive change for Gaga's music.



Pop music always changes to meet the public's needs. Singer-songwriter music and disco took hold after the political turmoil of the late 60s and a slew of rock star tragedies. Carole King, Joni, Mitchell, James Taylor, Donna Summer, Cher, and their peers eased those ills with soft rock and fun dance music, as well as explored the evolving social mores of their generation. 

Similarly, Perry, Cyrus, and Gaga are working in response to the upsets of 2016--a horrific election season, Brexit, anti LGBT violence, and racial tension. These events empowered Perry to get political, while Gaga and Cyrus seem to be turning their attention back to love. It will be the combination of these two complimentary approaches that reshape the music landscape. 

Stellar 2017 Singles: Lorde, Kygo, and the Chainsmokers

While we face political and social stress, 2017 has provided the comfort of great art. This year is a renaissance for the pop single, as musicians like Kygo, Lorde, and the Chainsmokers are invigorating the Hot 100.

Lorde's "Green Light" is 2017's masterpiece thus far, perfectly marrying alternative music and dance pop. I was not a fan of Lorde's first record, but this single has captured my interest. The singer/ songwriter reminds me of the energetic 90s alternative female artists (namely Fiona Apple and Alanis Morissette), and I think 2017 will be her year.


Kygo's collaboration with Selena Gomez, "It Ain't Me," also works as a dance pop wonder, playing with hipster malaise to delicious effect. It's inspiring counter-programming to the soggy ballads that diluted 2016 radio.


Last is another collab: the Chainsmokers' track with Coldplay, "Something Just Like This." While it's another variation on the duo's formula, Coldplay brings their own style to the tune and refreshes the sound. I know some pop fans are suffering "Closer" fatigue, but the Chainsmokers are having their pop moment--a moment that will likely where out over the next year. However, it's worth celebrating their accomplishments as "Something" and their equally sharp tune, "Paris," are defining the Top 10.




Protest Pop: Katy Perry and LeAnn Rhimes

In the wake of a conservative boom in both the US and Britain, pop stars have turned their art into a platform for equality and protest. Of course, this cycle has recurred in popular culture (perhaps most famously in the 60s). In celebration of freedom of speech, let's chat about two divas fighting the good fight with their music: Katy Perry and LeAnn Rhimes.

Perry's chilled out protest dance pop tune, "Chained to Rhythm" is already a hit, debuting on the Hot 100 at no. 4 after a solid premiere performance at the Grammy's and its official video release. Though it has a smooth surface, "Chained" works as a satire of complacency and criticizes a nation that has become a zombie to technology. Perry's message about the false sheen of the American Dream is made clearer in the tune's video, where her character visits a theme park called "Oblivia." If you watch the video a few times, you will see both her wit and the expansive vision of her protest.

Of course, "Chained" works as a pop tune. A few critics have criticized the track's polish, but Perry is not a punk artist; she's a mainstream pop star, and crafting a catchy tune with a message is a logical and socially responsible move for the singer.

In general, audiences and critics alike have embraced the new "woke" Perry and commended the political messages in her new material. Her 2017 Grammy performance is also the best of career. Though Perry has never won a Grammy (despite many nominations), I predict that these tides will change with this new creative era. 2017 has great things in store for Perry, and her forthcoming new record is going to be a game-changer, both for the sound of mainstream radio and for Perry's position with critics.


In contrast to Perry's splashy pop rebirth, LeAnn Rhimes made a quiet return to the charts with the US release of her new record, Remnants. The album made a modest debut on the Billboard 200 at no. 88, which is a shame because it's a solid soul record in the 70s tradition. Mixing stories of personal romance (like an excellent cover of "The Story") and social politics, the album has a lot in common with the work of artists like Marvin Gaye.

I want to zoom in on one song in particular: the catchy "Love is Love is Love." The tune is light and frothy thanks to the soft handclaps that provide percussion and Rhimes warm vocal. While Perry plays with camp and satire to deliver her message. Rhimes directly schools us in equality, singing, "We know the times are changing. Let me shout it to the whole world: love is love is love... Let's start a revolution."  I hope Rhimes decides to release the tune as a single, because it is the kind of music we need right now, and it would be perfect for early Spring radio.

Sadly, there is no video for "Love is Love is Love" on YouTube, but maybe this video for "The Story" will peak your interest enough that you will grab a copy of Remnants to get the tune:



So, dear reader, what are your favorite protest pop tunes? Why do you love them? Let's chat about it.

Rediscovering Jewel: Thinking About Fandom and Returning to Your Roots

Last week, by chance, I caught  the new Hallmark cozy mystery movie, Framed for Murder: A Fixer-Upper Mystery. If you are a reader of this blog, it's no surprise that I love cozy mystery  books and movies; the surprise here is that the film stars Jewel--an artist I had long left to the past.

Even when Jewel was at her peak success, it was not cool to enjoy her music. She possessed a self-seriousness that some listeners found off-putting, but I adored her early albums and have returned to them from time to time. (I am especially a fan of 2001's This Way, which I have long considered her best record.) I followed her for most of my adolescence--through dance pop and soft rock--but as I entered adulthood, Jewel turned to country music and I left her behind.

Yet, as things often do, Jewel came back--albeit in a new medium. Because of her new movie, I bought her most recent record, and here I am again: a Jewel fan. Isn't it interesting that we are always returning to our roots and rediscovering ourselves?



***

Jewel's most recent album, Picking Up the Pieces (2015), finds her returning to folk music. Old fans will notice the album's callback to her debut, Pieces of You, and though this album shares DNA with that record, Picking Up is a folk record by a stronger, smarter artist.

One could argue that Jewel moved between genres to chase chart success, and some critics often make such points with disdain (as if musicians don't have bills to pay). However, it's clear Jewel has gained lots of smarts as an interpreter, songwriter, and producer from those adventures. Picking Up bests her previous records in that it returns the artist to the genre in which she excels most, while showing her maturity.

I should also note that Jewel produced the record herself, and she creates the perfect settings for these tunes. The songs have subtle, low-key arrangements, but none feel spartan or ragged. Some tunes even have unexpected flourishes, like the sitar on "His Pleasure Is My Pain" and the vocal filter on "Plain Jane."

***

I want to take a minute to zero in on "Everything Breaks," my favorite song on the new album. Jewel has performed this tune on tour for a long time, but it has never made its way onto a record. Perhaps this is because Jewel swiftly moved on from the naive folk of Pieces of You with her second record, Spirit  (a glossy pop album).

However, it may be for the best that she waited to record the tune. Like old hits "You Were Meant for Me" and "Foolish Games," "Everything Breaks" explores love and heartbreak, but it's a more delicate tune than those early singles. Jewel's older and bolder voice suits the song. Had she recorded it as a teenager, it would have simply been a cutesy ballad about puppy love. but now it's a tune about life's disappointments. Her vocal has more weight, and "Everything Breaks" succeeds because of that gorgeous voice



***

In A Fixer-Upper Mystery, Jewel performs "Shape of You" (a track from her most recent record) in a funeral scene. She only performs for a minute, but she sings live with just her guitar. Her voice works effortlessly over the lyrics about missing a loved one, and watching the scene I fell for Jewel's music all over again. I remembered being the adolescent boy waiting for her videos to pop on VH1--the boy who walked up to the stage during one of her concerts, and she called him "honey" as she signed his program. It was nice to remember him and, for a few moments at least, to be him again.


Thinking About the 60s: Cher's All I Really Want to Do and 3614 Jackson Highway

I've been thinking about the 1960s a lot lately. This focus is in part because of the upcoming presidency and the poem I have coming out in the anthology, If You Can Hear This: Poems in Protest of an American Inauguration. I am also reading Hearts in Suspension (edited by Jim Bishop), a collection of essays by Stephen King and his classmates about attending the University of Maine in the midst of the youth revolt culture that grew over the late 60s. Martin Luther King, Jr is an important symbol in that book, so today's celebration of MLK and his optimism are on my mind too. Given all of the questions this art and commentary raises for me (How do we influence change? What role does hope play in protest?), I've also been enjoying two Cher albums from the decade: her first solo record, All I Really Want to Do (1965), and her last album of the 60s, 3614 Jackson Highway (1969). These albums are the central reasons for my post today, because they embody what I've been considering about the 1960s.

When Cher released All I Really Want to Do, she was 19 and embarking on what would be a legendary career as an entertainer. She and Sonny Bono had scored their first hit as a duo earlier in the year with "I Got You Babe," and the young singer started a solo career that was meant to run in tandem with her Sonny and Cher records. The girl we hear on All I Really Want to Do balances her inexperience with charm. Working her way through folk-rock standards (including two Dylan covers that book end the record, the title tune and "Blowin' in the Wind") and some Bono-penned originals (like the masterful "Needles and Pins"), her alto reveals both a maturity and inexperience. Her unconventional vocals carry pathos and yet she has less control of her voice than we will hear on later albums. 


Much like youth culture at this time, Cher was just beginning to understand the complexities of her world, as well as her career. In many ways, she was wiser than her years--living with an older man, facing at first vitriol then success because of her unconventional hippie looks, and traveling the US and the UK on that success. Her vivacious youth permeates All I Really Want to Do, which works as a folk-pop record that focuses more on love than politics. The material suits not only the young singer, but also the time--a year when the protest culture we often associate with the decade was still in its infancy. The album is a delight--especially in contrast to some of the polished mainstream pop the diva would later produce, not to mention her first disco album just 14 years later.

***

Fast forward four years and much has changed. Cher released 3614 Jackson Highway to a very different audience, many of whom had more on their minds than romance. Anti-war protests had escalated. Though they enjoyed some big hits just a couple years before, pop culture left Sonny and Cher behind as anti-war music gripped the mainstream. The world had changed, and Cher had grown up as her career waned. It's important to note 3614 is Cher's sixth solo album and her first not produced by Bono. His missing influence may be why it is the first album to feel like an authentic Cher record. Though it was virtually ignored by the public (stalling at 160 on the Billboard 200), 3614 Jackson Highway is a remarkable artistic achievement. Music writer Mark Deming calls it "the finest album of career" up to that point. It certainly ranks in the top 3 of my favorite Cher records.




3614 succeeds because it allows Cher to work with bolder material than her earlier efforts, including masterful renditions of the protest songs "For What It's Worth" and "Sittin On the Dock of the Bay." Producer Jerry Wexler--famous for his work with Aretha Franklin--puts Cher's voice front and center, as well as flavors the record with Southern Soul. Cher is also a stronger vocalist, and these may be the best vocals of her career. You can hear control and phrasing not present on All I Really Want to Do, marking her matured skills as an interpreter. 3614 is a very different record than her debut, but then again it arrived in a different America; it's interest in protest tunes, heartbreak ballads, and Americana mirror the skeptical times. Just looking at the album cover shows how much Cher had changed with the world around her: featured with her band, she's no longer a spirited, hopeful girl but a mature woman working off the beaten path. 


Though she would take forays into different material throughout the rest of career, I would argue that 3614 Jackson Highway and the late 60s have had more influence on her recording career than anything else.  The styles she tried out on the album would reappear later, including the rock vocal she sports on "I Walk on Gilded Splinters" that would manifest in her 80s albums, and the soulful heartbreak tunes that would become her bread and butter throughout her career. In fact, her dance records may show her strongest ties to the music she made in the late 60s and to politics of the time. Many of her club tunes focus on the brotherhood of mankind, a generalized spirituality, and hope in the face of romantic and cultural challenge. (You could write a whole thesis about the parallels between 3614 Jackson Highway and her 2013 album, Closer to the Truth, but that's a project for another day.)

Ultimately, what I am saying is that Cher was forever changed by 60s and the art she made during that time. She forever lives in the wake of that period, and so does our nation. We continue to look back on the 1960s to understand where we have been, as well as see what we can learn from those challenging years--even those of us who would not be born until decades later. In 2017, I hope the artists and pioneers of the 60s--not only leaders like MLK and JFK, but pop figures like Cher and Stephen King--inspire us and give us hope.