Friday, July 19, 2013

album review: 'stars dance' by selena gomez

So for those of you who aren't aware, Chris Brown did the world a much-deserved favour and delayed his album indefinitely. And while I can't say I'm disappointed with that choice, it does mean I have to set aside my monologue surrounding that 'artist' for another day. Also, purely by chance, it means that this review is the fourth in a row I have done featuring a solo female pop artist, which is interesting in its own way, particularly in a comparative sense.

But let's put that topic aside for a moment, and instead talk about cultural appropriation.

Given the cataclysmic flop of The Lone Ranger and Johnny Depp's justly-criticized performance as Tonto (when he is not, in fact, anywhere close to a full-blooded Native American), the discussion surrounding white cultural appropriation has resurfaced again in the media. Many have rightfully said that the role of Tonto should have been played by a Native American, particularly when many Native actors and actresses are not often given the chance to play such a major role and Johnny Depp's eccentric choices were to the severe detriment of the film. Instead of subverting unfortunate or libelous racial stereotypes, Depp may have done the exact opposite.

And speaking as a white, Caucasian heterosexual male entering this conversational minefield, let me lay my cards on the table. Yes, I believe the artwork should be judged on its own merits outside of the identity of its creator (while, of course, keeping in mind authorial intent). I believe there's a standard of quality that should hold up regardless of the race, gender, and sexuality of the author. However, when it comes to enabling opportunities for minority players, I strongly believe that the role should be filled by actors that best fit the story, setting, and tone. In other words, if you're looking to cast a Native American part or tell a Native American story, the person who is oft best served in playing that part or telling that story is a Native American. It adds a certain degree of authenticity and nuance in the details, and in film, is often required to maintain the cinematic immersion. So in the case of The Lone Ranger, it should be obvious that a Native American should play Tonto (as one did in the serials) and thus maintain the verisimilitude of the production. Johnny Depp is a great actor, but it breaks immersion when you see a white guy obviously playing a Native role.

And yeah, I get that some nincompoop is probably going to say this is a double standard, that I'm promoting opportunities for minorities instead of just letting 'quality win out'. And yeah, it's a double standard, but in the era where we have a massive predominance of white, male, heterosexual stories written and told by white, heterosexual men, there is absolutely nothing wrong with introducing variety into the cultural narrative, and it often feels most authentic when delivered by those closest to it. I'm going to go ahead and say this outright: white privilege and the weird defensiveness that surrounds it right now is poisonous, and I'm strongly looking forward to the day when there are no more barriers to entry other than requirements of intellect and hard work. And if this means that Idris Elba continues to play Heimdall in the next Thor movie and we see continue to see a rise of popular cinema highlighting strong performances from other genders, races, and sexualities that might usually be cast by white actors, so be it.

Unfortunately, this cultural paradigm shift is still a work in progress, and there are still plenty of Caucasian artists who want to tell stories appropriate elements, themes, or stylistic quirks from other genres, and here's where we reach the tricky topic of cultural appropriation, in this case discussing music. Now it's true that white acts co-opted rock 'n roll from African-American acts and made it into the commercially successful genre it is today - and really, the sad history of how much black R&B musicians lost in the dawning days of the record industry is absolutely heart-breaking, and it's a goddamn shame more of them aren't remembered today. But even today, we see plenty of musical acts co-opt rhythms or styles that are rooted in a different cultural tradition and incorporate them into their music, and it's an interesting discussion whether or not this is cultural appropriation.

For example, let's take The Talking Heads, one of the most acclaimed acts of the 70s and 80s. If you've listened to their material, you've inevitably heard rhythmic sections that have a distinctly African sound. For those of you who don't know, The Talking Heads were originally composed of three Caucasian students (plus Jerry Harrison from the Modern Lovers). Now, is the usage of African-influenced rhythms in their music cultural appropriation? Well, to be completely honest, I don't really think so, because The Talking Heads grasped and captured the spirit behind those rhythms. They knew what they were doing, and the rhythms fit the tone of their material, particularly on Remain In Light (plus, as I mentioned, they were The Talking Heads and they easily met the standard of quality). But let's fast-forward to today with Vampire Weekend, a band that also uses African-inspired rhythms and claims to draw influence from The Talking Heads. A lot of people would argue their material isn't cultural appropriation because of Vampire Weekend's high quality, but given the weirdly defensive stance the band has taken towards white privilege, it's a little harder for me to defend them.

Look, as long as we have distinct cultures, this conversation will continue. And really, while I could wish that all artists treat their influences with quality and thought, I also know that The Lone Ranger movie exists. 

And finally, we come to Selena Gomez. You may have heard of her from her show Wizards of Waverly Place, or from one of her hit singles, or from her star-making performance in Spring Breakers (which you should all see NOW), but most likely you know her from her on-again-off-again relationship with Justin Bieber. And like with Demi Lovato and Miley Cyrus, you probably have dismissed her as a Disney starlet that produces pre-fabricated pop garbage.

Well, you might want to rethink that assumption, because of the three Disney starlets I mentioned, Selena Gomez would probably be my favourite. It's a little hard to quantify why, particularly when it's tricky to tell how much Gomez writes of her music, but I will say that's a passable singer with a lot of energy and personality. It helps that she seems significantly smarter than her peers and has a much tighter control on her image and personal life. And from a little bit of research, it also seems that she has some interest in world cultures outside that of the United States, which occasionally comes out in her music videos. As for her actual songs, her backing band The Scene has a remarkably tight groove that used to balance well against Gomez's delivery. Yeah, she has made some terrible songs, but she has also made some really good ones.

So when I heard that her new album Stars Dance not only ditches The Scene, but also might contain cultural influences (her opening single 'Come And Get It' certainly seems to have something of a Bollywood vibe, and that's not even touching that awful album cover), I had justifiable reservations. Sure, Selena Gomez might be a smart girl (although given that she's giving Bieber another chance, I seriously question her tastes), but without the tightness of The Scene or a strong guiding producer, is she in way over her head?

Youtube review after the jump

Well, perhaps. One can definitely say that her attempted usage of Indian rhythms and dancehall vibes could be considered culturally insensitive at best. But to be completely fair, I honestly wish she would have used more global influences on this album, because where they do come in, they provide a certain degree of variety and spice you don't tend to see on pop radio. In comparison to the homogeneity of the music of her peers, Selena Gomez could have really used that spark of originality.

But it's also because this album is goddamn terrible.

To say I was unprepared for this sort of disaster is understating it. In comparison to acts like 3OH!3 and, acts I was expecting to be terrible (and they didn't disappoint), I actually had some degree of expectations for Selena Gomez, and the fact that Stars Dance is of shockingly low quality is both disappointing and infuriating. I wanted to like this album a lot, but I'd be hard-pressed to find a single song here I'd call 'good'. Yeah, it's that bad.

Let's begin with the first mistake right out of the gate, the one that hits you like a runaway cement truck: the instrumentation and production. I spoke earlier of Gomez's backing band The Scene, and while I wouldn't consider all of their compositions stellar, I'd argue that at their best, they provided a certain tightness and class that elevated their music above the low bar for pop music. But you begin to miss them in a big way once Stars Dance begins with a blast of terrible synths and utterly formulaic house beats. I don't know who likes this manufactured junk that seems to resonate on precisely the right frequencies to get on my nerves, but it becomes grating very fast, and the attempts at dubstep just seem weak and desperate. 

My bigger problem with this sort of instrumentation is that it sounds cheap and utterly disposable, only highlighting just how phony and manufactured it really is. I have defended good pop music before by stating that the best of the genre manages to convince you that it's 'better' than its genre. Say what you want about Justin Timberlake (Lord knows I did), but one of his greatest strengths is the ability to make his songs sound rich and opulent and expansive, almost transcending pop music into something else entirely. Hell, even the most plastic of acts like S Club 7 and The Backstreet Boys managed to elevate their material with harmonies and interesting instrumentation or even the sense that they were having a good time - which, in some cases, can be enough!

But with Stars Dance, every element of the production sounds like it could have been done using a badly tuned synthesizer and a production board bought from Wal-Mart. It sounds cheap and immediately highlights just how worthless the whole endeavour is. The fact that she occasionally calls out the name of the producer behind the track makes things even worse - your music already sounds terrible, why are you highlighting the source? Worse still is the bizarre choices to immediately undercut any organic instruments on the verses with an out-of-place and unneeded dance beat that completely ruins the flow of the song. I wouldn't quite say it's as atonal and insufferable as, but it's close. 

But hey, Selena Gomez did say she was looking to make a 'dance' album (which is clearly the excuse for why the lyrics are empty banal wastelands filled with nothing, but I'll come back to that), so perhaps I should judge the album more by the lower standards of dance or house music. I'll put aside, for the moment, that that particular conceit is absolute garbage, but let's consider the underlying 'point' behind dance music: namely, that it should make you want to dance. It should fill you with enthusiasm and energy and make you want to get off the wall and join the crowd. But somehow - I have no idea how, but I'm expecting it can be linked to experimental cranial intrusion - Stars Dance is a dance album that makes me want to find a seat and start drinking heavily. Most of this I'll blame on the terrible instrumentation, but it isn't helped by the fact that Gomez almost completely phones it in on her vocal delivery. There's no energy, no spark, and while Gomez gamely tries the dead-eyed sex-hungry persona here (popularized by Rihanna, and not really something I find attractive in the slightest), she doesn't have nearly the sensuality to pull it off (granted, the overuse of autotune here really doesn't help). So not only does the album not make me want to dance, it also becomes tooth-grindingly tedious.

And do I even have to talk about the lyrics here? It's clear from the opening track of the album that they're absolute bunk, with forced rhymes, non-punchlines, and not a single line that can't be cribbed from a pop song writing automaton. And yet somehow, they actively seem to get worse on songs like 'B.E.A.T.' with lines that could very quickly be interpreted as endorsing abuse. And while I'd like to think 'Write Your Name' is about getting a tattoo of your boyfriend's name, my roommate (who suffered through the album with me) pointed out it could very well imply something a lot darker. And incidentally, Miss Gomez, I understand it's not your fault your life has a certain nightmarish, paparazzi-filled hellscape quality to it or that the general public seems to care about your relationships more than your music, but your album would be a lot more interesting if it wasn't centered around said relationships! And really, when you sing material that is fairly explicitly about your carnal activities with Justin Bieber (a relationship for the life of me I can't understand), the album gets a whole lot more unpleasant. It's not quite as bad as Rihanna singing about Chris Brown, but it's up there (and at least Rihanna finally got some sense and dumped his abusive ass).

But in the end, I came back to a question I don't like asking: why was this album made? Given the horrendously bad production and instrumentation (to say nothing of the painfully underwritten lyrics) and the fact that Selena Gomez sounds like she has zero investment in the material, I'm fairly confident in stating that this is no great artistic endeavour. Hell, Gomez has already made statements saying that she's going on musical hiatus after this album and going back to acting, so she's clearly not all that invested in the thing. So I'm forced to come to the natural conclusion: it was made to fill contractual obligations and a balance sheet. It is a transparently cheap and commercial album with the barest minimum of quality and investment to sell, and that's it, good taste be damned. And if you love good music made by artists who actually care, you should avoid Stars Dance like the goddamn plague. Even Ke$ha at her most shallow would recoil from this trash.

Miss Gomez, Selena, I saw you in Spring Breakers, and you've made songs that are actually pretty decent. You're better than this.

1 comment:

  1. You're right, you should NOT judge dance music by lower standards. Lazy songwriting and pisspoor production are unforgivable in any genre, and people like, 3OH!3 or Gomez can't make the excuse that "it's just dance music" when what it is really is BAD dance music. Incidentally Random Access Memories is a genuine delight on both fronts to me as well.

    I wonder what your opinion is on white artists doing music such as drum and bass, techno and house? All of those have black roots but a huge number of influential white artists that have greatly shaped their sound, especially in the UK, where I'm from.