Friday, June 21, 2013

album review: 'omens' by 3OH!3

Let's talk about the concept of liking something.

I know, it sounds incredibly basic and simple, but the more I dive into the critical analysis of works - particularly of satirical material - the more I find that the rote concept of liking something has become stupidly convoluted. Let's attempt to make this conversation a little simpler and disregard the mouthbreathing assholes who make comments like, 'If you like something / are a fan of something, you can't be objective!'. This line of argumentation is really goddamn stupid, mostly because it has its roots in a weird place: a desire for 'objectivity' that seems to be linked to the belief that 'human connection = bad' and that 'critical opinions = bad', mostly on the principle that nobody can be truly objective about anything, so thus everything is subjective and thereby illegitimate, with the illegitimacy easier to spot if you show any vestige of emotion towards something you might like.

Okay, this is horseshit, and for some very basic reasons. It's a nastier version of 'everyone's a critic', except that the purpose of a critic is never just a simple yay or nay, but to elaborate why a work of art works or doesn't work. If something can induce an emotion, subconscious reaction - either positive or negative - it is the critic's job to interpret that reaction, and use his human experiences to describe that context. As I've said before, I tend to use personal pronouns more than most when writing about my opinions on various albums - and the reason for that is because ultimately my reviews come from my point-of-view and I'd like you all to understand the context in which I deliver my opinion (you can debate all damn day whether it's 'informed' or not). To me, this sort of 'you're a fan, your opinion is illegitimate' might have some weight if the critic cannot articulate why he likes/dislikes something in a clear manner, but too often it's used as a defensive mechanism by people who want to be heard, but are too lazy or stupid to put anything thought into their argumentation. 

And thus, as a critic, I feel a certain degree of responsibility to not only convey my honest, unfiltered opinion about why I might like or not like something, but the rationale behind my liking of that material. I want to understand why I like something, to perhaps uncover something about myself I never realized, or about how that artist managed to affect me. That's also why you'll never seem me appreciate something 'ironically' or just to be contrary. For example, let's talk about my favourite musical of all time, Chess. Are there problems in this musical? Oh, absolutely - most of the various rewrites have serious structural problems, it tends to be a little broader than it should be, and one could argue that given the end of the Cold War, it has lost some of its relevance to the modern age. But despite all of that, I still love it because all of the things that work about the musical outweigh the flaws and it has the balls to embrace intellectual sincerity and end on a downbeat note. I could definitely go at greater length why I love this musical, but the point is that I'm definitely still a fan even though I can point out the flaws.

But too often in modern society, we're told that if we want to be a fan, we should shut off that critical voice. Indeed, we must show unequivocal support to an artist or be roundly castigated by the fans the art touched on a visceral level. Most of these fans aren't going to put the thought into contextualizing why they felt the way they did - and to some extent, that's okay. Film Critic Hulk actually wrote a superb essay on the subject on the levels in which we experience art, and I highly advise you all check it out, but he made two points I'd like to emphasize. Firstly, it's okay to view art in on a purely visceral level - it's not inherently worse than the critic who's looking for deeper themes and meanings. But the second point - and the one I feel is paramount - is that there should be a degree of awareness why we feel the way we do. To quote, 'GOOD MEDIA CONSUMPTION IS ABOUT AWARENESS... BUT GOOD MEDIA DIALOGUE IS ABOUT CONTEXTUALIZATION.'

Now, I'm sure some of you are wondering why on earth I'm talking about this at all. Well, the frustrating aspect of this whole conversation is that the accessibility of certain art can be limited by the choices of the artist, and the intentions of said artist can be misinterpreted - often completely in the wrong direction. This is a particular issue when it comes to satirical material, which is often designed to make a point regarding the genre or subject matter, and does so by apeing some of the conventions, aesthetic, or tropes of said genre or subject matter. I wrote extensively regarding Pain & Gain and how the audience probably will not get Michael Bay's point in that film: that he's not looking to glorify the lifestyle on screen, but to viciously satirize and condemn it - and yet, because of the way he presents the material, most of the audience won't get that message.

Now this leads to a very interesting conversation, as you can say the best art is meant to be enjoyed and experienced in a variety of ways. But if the artist set forth with a determined message in mind and the audience takes in the exact opposite of that message because they're experiencing it on a different level, is that a failure on the part of the artist? Keep in mind I'm not exactly a fan of the 'Death of the Artist' theory, but one has to acknowledge that sometimes the artist isn't intimately linked or aware of all of his/her influences in the artwork - even the best artists can fall prey to this. 

So ultimately, who is right? Well, as a critic, I'm not sure I can give you a direct answer to that question, because it's extremely difficult to see other perspectives outside of your own. I totally understand why people look at songs like 'Fight For Your Right To Party' and see them as glorifying the frat-boy douchebags who embraced the motto, instead of the Beastie Boys' true intention of satirizing that movement. Similarly, I get why some people think Ke$ha is a vapid bar slut, when in reality her music is satirizing the vapidity and emptiness of that lifestyle. But in both of these cases, I can definitely see the argument that one can experience the same visceral pleasure on either levels - and in the end, I can definitely see The Beastie Boys and Ke$ha being okay with either interpretation.

So with all of that in mind, let's finally talk about 3OH!3, the electro-pop 'crunkcore' act that is trying to do what The Beastie Boys and Ke$ha are doing, but can't quite make it work.

I should explain. Having their major label debut in 2008, the duo 3OH!3 struck up controversy with their hit song 'Don't Trust Me'. When accused of misogyny by critics on that album, 3OH!3 immediately made a defense that they were intending this material to be read ironically. Yeah, that song is misogynist and sketchy and goes way darker than it can believably pull off, but if I squint and turn my head sideways, I can sort of see what they meant. But here's my big problem with that defense: they may have intended to have that song be viewed ironically or on a different level, but viewed in that context, there's nothing that can be gained from the song other than the transgression, and that makes their justification seem hollow. I'll immediately confess I have something of a weakness for loud, obnoxious party music and crunk, but the fact 3OH!3 never could even resonate at that superficial level suggests that the duo can't back up their irony defense.

So why don't I like them? Well, besides the cowardice of hiding behind the irony shield - something Ke$ha, I should add, has never bothered to do, instead letting her fans interpret her material in multiple ways - they really don't distinguish themselves from the rest of the electro-pop slurry that clogged up the radio in 2008-11. Sure, they're obnoxious, but the problem is that they aren't looking to say anything with that obnoxiousness, and their songwriting lacks the sophistication or chops to rise above shallow party jams. And even on that standard alone, viewed from purely an alpha-male douchebag viewpoint, the beats are glitchy and haphazard, neither of the duo have great voices, the production is a mixed bag, and the lyrics are asinine. I'll admit they aren't quite at the level of gutchurningly stupid, worthless sound like brokenCYDE, but I don't really see anything unique that 3OH!3 provide to the modern pop landscape, particularly considering the club boom is over. 

And I really quite surprised that somehow they managed to pull another album together, ominously titled Omens. What do I think?

I was right to be concerned, because not only is this album pretty damn awful, it's awful for all of the reasons I predicted it would be - and yet somehow, 3OH!3 managed to tack on elements that just made things worse.

I think the best way to examine Omens is to place in direct comparison with their peer group, most directly Ke$ha and LMFAO (the latter of which have gone on hiatus - thank God). Now, I think 3OH!3 is worse than both acts by a longshot, but let's ask the question why, because, on the surface, many would lump these three together as the shallow, crass, obnoxious electropop that should have died in the club boom. But as I've said before, there's a way to make good pop music, so let's see where 3OH!3 goes off the rails.

Let's start with production, and here's where I'll give 3OH!3 my solitary compliment: the production on Omens is surprisingly good. They go for a big, pounding sound that owes a lot to EDM, and for the most part, they get the basics. In fact, I'd argue the album is at its best when it simply goes for broke on the large, sweeping EDM-inspired material, mostly because the production shoves the obnoxious vocals to the back of the mix. And while they don't reach the levels of Swedish House Mafia or the better trance DJs, they tend to have more personality than David Guetta and more tolerable hooks than Calvin Harris. The best example of this is 'Back To Life', which combined that big production (complete with some actual guitars) with a delivery that sounds more heartfelt that I ever expected.

Unfortunately, the EDM material is definitely in the minority on this album, which means for the most part we get middle-of-the-road electropop completely devoid of an edge, with the duo taking center stage to deliver their lyrics. And here, the hooks tend to alternate between being serviceable to borderline unlistenable (any attempt to introduce dubstep-inspired electronica on this album falls flat in the worst possible way). Granted, it isn't quite at levels of miscalculation in introducing electronic elements, but too many of the hooks are glitchy and screeching, seemingly designed to give me splitting headaches. The increased use of vocoder and autotune don't help matters (it's been a while since I've seen autotune so blatant, and I could swear 3OH!3 are using the same vocoder settings as Kanye on a couple tracks), and my old nemesis the 'chipmunk' vocal effect turns up one too many times. Now that's not saying 3OH!3 don't experiment - no, the problem becomes their attempts at experimentation tend to be disastrous (the biggest example is 'Two Girlfriends', which tries to have a hard distorted guitar backbeat and yet fails for a variety of other reasons).

But as I expected, the big problem came with the lyrics - and yet even calling them lyrics would be giving them more dignity than they're worth. This is mostly because of a serious lack of lyrical flow, terrible punchlines (seriously, who the hell makes Charlie Sheen references anymore?), and the seriously unfortunate problem of taking themselves way too seriously. Let's compare to Ke$ha, who has had her fair share of bad punchlines, but at least she tends to have an interesting lyrical flow and she can actually sing when she needs to. Furthermore, you get the impression that when Ke$ha makes a bad joke, she's actually in on the punchline or at least having enough fun not to care. To a lesser extent, LMFAO use a similar tactic (albeit with much less success, considering the serious weaknesses in their lyrics and instrumentation) - they might be stupid as hell, but at least they're trying to have fun. That, if anything, is one of the few factors that excuses 'Party Rock Anthem' - they're gunning for inclusivity and fun.

But with Omens (and 'Sexy And I Know It', come to think of it), 3OH!3 and LMFAO are trying to make the statement that they're better than you, and they have nowhere near the charisma or talent to back it up. On Omens it's particularly gratuitous, because so many songs are directly geared to the macho bro-douchebags who infest clubs like a bad fungus looking to fuck you (once again, keep in mind at one point I was one of these creeps). The majority of the tracks are about getting wasted, picking up hot women, and then discarding them in the morning, with the only hints of pathos coming when 3OH!3 sees the end of the party and are fighting to prolong their oh so brief time in the spotlight.

But even if I could worm my way back into their mindset, I still wouldn't find this music remotely tolerable for a few reasons. The first, as I mentioned above, are the lyrics: besides being staggeringly poorly written (with the unwelcome reoccurance of the hashtag rap I thought died with the club boom), too many of the punchlines feel stolen from the headlines of 2011 and just sound tired or out-of-context now. It immediately makes the songs come across as dated, and for an act that clearly think they're hot shit, this is a death knell. What's even worse, though, is the complete lack of humour. Now granted, some of this is a byproduct of the complete witlessness that matches the spirit of the lyrics, but it really comes across as bizarre that 3OH!3 don't even attempt to add levity or some good-natured self-parody. And yet the songs are still delivered with the obnoxious arrogance of the pick-up artist who is so assured he's going to get laid on personality alone - which can work, mind you, if you have an artist with charisma or energy or something worthwhile to say. And to be blunt, 3OH!3 aren't Usher or even Chris Brown - at least Brown tries to be smooth (and fails), while 3OH!3 are obnoxious enough to think if they puke on you, you're still expected to give them a handjob afterwards!

And here's where the really ugly part of this album comes in - mostly because 3OH!3 no longer have any excuses to why their material isn't misogynist. 'Don't Trust Me' may have been questionable material, but Omens is damn near inexcusable, as 3OH!3 presents song after song regaling us about the girls they've fucked or are going to fuck. Between songs like 'Black Hole' (a song directed at a jealous fan that treats the girl in the equation like a blowjob dispenser), 'You're Gonna Love This' (which really comes across like a creation of a shitty alibi in the aftermath of date rape, particularly in the second verse), 'Hungover' (where 3OH!3's girlfriend blows them off and is thus blamed for the shitty hangover afterwards) and 'Two Girlfriends' (which is exactly what it sounds like, a guy getting caught by both of the girls he's fucking with, and then spending the entire song bitching at them - real classy), Omens really comes across as an album written by two shallow douchebags just expecting to get laid when they walk in the club. But there's so much ugly, stupid meanness on display that I just can't buy into the fact that women actually find these dipshits attractive.

But I can already see the excuse: that the album isn't glorifying such awful behaviour, but is instead a parody or a satire castigating that hard-partying lifestyle. But I don't buy this for a few reasons. Firstly, the majority of the songs aren't nearly intelligent enough to work on a higher level, but more importantly, there's not a hint at any point 3OH!3 are looking to comment on the genre rather than just being the stupid assholes at the bottom of it. There's no humour like with The Lonely Island, and unlike Ke$ha, there's not any good music either! Frankly, as I already mentioned, I would have a hard time buying into them even if I was part of the demographic that could tolerate the misogyny and message behind this trash, and I sure as hell am not buying into the appeal of these two twits. Sure, they might believe the message they're selling, but they sure as hell aren't making said message less repugnant.

In short, Omens by 3OH!3 feels a bit like an album that might have been marginally more tolerable in 2011 (when the things they were referencing were at least relevant - seriously, they refence Casey Anthony, Rick Santorum, and Michael Bay's Transformers), but it's still long, long stretches away from being remotely close to good. While the production might be the best thing about this album, it's let down by the repulsive personalities of the lead performers and their calamitous lack of lyrical skills. Coupled with the misogyny and the complete lack of humour, Omens is a ugly slog of an album to listen through, with the sole bright spots being 'Youngblood' (an attempt at EDM that sort of works) and 'Back to Life' (a song tries to make us care about losing the party, but can't hope to be as emotionally evocative as 'C'mon' or 'All That Matters' courtesy of Ke$ha). 

And while it's not quite as ear-rapingly awful as's #willpower, I still recommend you avoid this album like the plague. Instead, let's hope for some catharsis, that 3OH!3's party dies along with the rest of the club boom and is rightfully forgotten.

No comments:

Post a Comment