Concert Review: Kelly Clarkson & Maroon 5 at Jones Beach, 8/11/13

Sunday night, my wife & I went to see a double-billed concert, Kelly Clarkson and Maroon 5 at the Nikon Theater at Jones Beach (in a fit of corporate sponsorship, this is billed as the “Honda Civic Tour”). As far as current pop music goes, this is about as good as it gets: Clarkson is, in my oft-stated view, the best thing in pop today, and Maroon 5 has for some years now been the best pop band that’s still played regularly on mainstream pop radio, notwithstanding my disappointment with the direction of their recent releases. On the whole, it was a good show – but not as good as it could have been.

The Setting

Jones Beach is easily the most beautiful concert venue I’ve seen, and is a convenient place to see a show, with good acoustics for an outdoor venue. It’s a good size, as well, providing seating for a sizeable crowd without any bad seats or the impersonal feel of a stadium show. (The picture above is spliced together from two shots I took during the show, giving a sense of how each side of the stage looks before sunset).

The crowd was…really pretty terrible, one of the worst crowds in which I’ve seen a show. Maybe worse because it was a Sunday night. There was clearly a mixture of longtime Maroon 5 fans, a smaller but vocal contingent of Clarkson fans, and a chunk of people who seemed only familiar with Maroon 5’s most recent radio hits. Demographically, I wasn’t nose-counting that much but it was a varied crowd by age, almost all white, and I was able to waltz past acres of empty urinals in the men’s room while the lines for the ladies’ room looked like the last helicopter out of Saigon.

What bothered me, mainly during Clarkson’s set, was that nobody but a small coterie on one side of the stage seemed to be standing up. Sitting down is no way to enjoy a concert unless you’re 90 years old or in a wheelchair, but at my age (41) I’m not bold enough to stand up alone if everybody in my section is resolutely sitting, which they were (you need the front row up or nobody else budges). It was seriously lifeless and embarrassing to be a part of. The crowd got up sporadically during Maroon 5’s set, mainly during the more recent radio hits, but there were still people sitting down or bolting for the exits during the encores. To say nothing of people walking to the bathrooms in the middle of songs.

We arrived too late to see the opening act, Rozzie Crane, although she did come back onstage to sing with Maroon 5 on “Wake Up Call” (a really odd choice of song to add a female voice to, plus like most female singers her voice is deeper than Adam Levine’s falsetto), and thus while I can’t judge her material, she does have a good voice and a lively stage presence.

Kelly Clarkson

This is the third time I’ve seen Clarkson in concert – she joins Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel and the Saw Doctors as the only acts I’ve seen three times – and I wrote up previous reviews after seeing her at the Hammerstein Ballroom in October 2009 and at Radio City Music Hall in January 2012.

When I saw Clarkson at Radio City, she was touring in support of her fifth and arguably best studio album, Stronger (the album won a Grammy and the title track was a ubiquitous hit single), and coming off yet another of her periodic controversies for saying she liked Ron Paul. She has kept busy since then, singing at the 2012 Super Bowl and President Obama’s second inaugural, starring as a judge in Duets, ABC’s ill-fated Summer 2012 entry into the singing-show sweepstakes, doing a joint tour with The Fray, releasing a Greatest Hits album, a pair of country singles (one a duet with Vince Gill), and a Dallas Cowboys ‘theme song’, recording a big-band/country/blues/rock Christmas album due out late this fall, and getting engaged. Her upcoming wedding will marry her into country music royalty: her fiancee is the son of her manager, the stepson of Reba McEntire, and is himself the manager for Blake Shelton.

Clarkson, now a veteran touring act at 31, particularly made a name on her last few tours by doing “fan requests” – songs requested by fans on Twitter. She’s not the only artist to do something like this; Bruce Springsteen, for example, plays songs from his back catalogue requested by sign-holding fans at his shows, sometimes even songs he hasn’t played in decades or has never played live. But in Clarkson’s case, only a handful of the fan requests have been her own songs; it’s been the covers of other people’s songs, generally only rehearsed the day of the show, that have cemented her reputation as a one-woman walking iTunes. She’s covered everyone from the classic rock gods (the Beatles, the Stones, Springsteen, Dylan) to modern rock (the Foo Fighters, Radiohead, Kings of Leon, Florence and the Machine) to 90s-to-present pop-rock (the Goo Goo Dolls, No Doubt, Gavin DeGraw, .fun) to country (Tammy Wynette, Trisha Yearwood, Lee Ann Womack) to the big-voiced pop/R&B divas (Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston) to the little-voiced pop tarts (Madonna, Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Rihanna) to the blues (Etta James) and the pop standards and show tunes (songs from Funny Girl and Grease) to even a respectable hoodie-and-all stab at rap (Eminem; the cover met with the approval of Eminem’s brother who was in the audience). Entertainment Weekly collected fan-shot YouTubes of the whole tour’s worth of covers here and here. The fan request covers offer something unique about each show and showcase the versatility as an interpreter of songs across genres that made Clarkson a star on American Idol in the first place.

The setup for this tour, with Maroon 5 as the de facto headliner, called for Clarkson to go on first, with just an hourlong set compared to her usual 90 minutes. Given her breadth of material (Clarkson didn’t even have room for all her top-10 singles on her Greatest Hits album) and need to promote her current singles while making room for at least one cover, that left a lot on the cutting room floor, including – unfortunately – the fan requests. She played a series of her biggest signature hits, from the opening “(What Doesn’t Kill You) Stronger” to the closing “Since U Been Gone” to her first really big pop hit, “Miss Independent,” but also worked in her most recent pop single, the Lady Gaga-ish “People Like Us,” a solo version of her hit country duet “Don’t You Wanna Stay,” her wedding-themed current country single “Tie It Up,” and a cover of Aretha’s “Never Loved A Man.”

The planning of her set was well-designed: she brought a 3-man horn section, a highlight of her 2009 tour, and presented a number of her songs (particularly live favorite “Walk Away”) with new instrumental arrangements heavy on the horns. “People Like Us,” the next to last song, featured some of the visual effects and costume changes Clarkson has eschewed with past tours, including fluorescent outfits for her and her band. But the execution had one flaw.

Clarkson’s voice in concert is ordinarily such a marvel, and coming from such a tiny person, I’ve compared it to watching Pedro Martinez pitch. But the analogy holds up further, because Sunday night her voice was in such rough shape it was like watching an ace pitcher take the mound when he doesn’t have his A+ fastball: she was straining and falling short of a lot of the big notes and booming volume she customarily produces with ease. Like an ace pitcher, though, she knows how to compensate: she dialed up the soul on the Aretha cover, relied more heavily on her backup singers, was even punchier than usual in her goofy in-between songs banter, and constantly urged on the crowd to sing along with her, trying to get audience participation to step in where she couldn’t go. You can see this from the closing number, “Since U Been Gone”:

The reason why Clarkson sounded so ragged was obvious: when she tours on her own, she insists on not scheduling back-to-back shows to reduce the strain on her voice. But the Jones Beach show was the joint tour’s third straight night in three different cities, and she was audibly out of gas. Still, she gamely soldiered on, and even at partial strength is still an entertaining and energetic performer and a master interpreter of songs (if you’d never heard what she sounds like live you might not have realized this was not her best). Clarkson’s a trouper; last summer she badly sprained her ankle but refused to cancel a July 4 show at Fort Hood, at which she performed some of her more uptempo hits while bouncing on one foot with the other in a cast.

But she was engaging as always. Clarkson commented on how well Jones Beach had been rebuilt after Hurricane Sandy (it was not as hard-hit as Coney Island or the Jersey Shore). She also waved around her engagement ring and gushed about being engaged and the importance of finding someone who lets you be yourself; for someone whose public persona and musical personality was built over the past 9 years around breakup songs and loneliness, it’s a sharp turnabout that she clearly relishes.

Maroon 5

This was the second time I’ve seen Maroon 5 live, the first being a Jones Beach show on the same day in August 2010. Like Clarkson, Maroon 5 has seen its share of ups and downs in a decade-long career in pop music. There’s been personnel turnover – they replaced their drummer in 2006, and one of the keyboard players has been on leave from the band this year. Their first two albums, 2002’s Songs About Jane (which hit it big in 2003-04) and 2007’s It Won’t Be Soon Before Long, were both great successes, selling millions of albums and launching #1 singles, but they waited three more years to release their third album, Hands All Over, and it launched poorly after the modest success of the lead single, “Misery.” It sold badly out of the gate, and the other singles disappeared without a trace. Hands All Over was a good album, mostly in the vein of their first two albums but with some Def Leppard-ish touches added by veteran producer “Mutt” Lange (best known for producing the best-selling albums by AC/DC, Def Leppard and his then-wife Shania Twain). Unfortunately for Maroon 5, their old sound was out of step with what radio stations were playing by 2010, and a pop band can’t really get away with releasing an album every three years. They looked like they might be yesterday’s news – but then lead singer Adam Levine joined The Voice, the hugely successful NBC singing show, and teamed up with equally flagging co-star Christina Aguilera to record “Moves Like Jagger,” an insipid piece of fluff that replaced Maroon 5’s signature “pop/rock with a touch of disco” sound with “disco/disco with a glob of more disco.” “Moves Like Jagger” was a colossal worldwide hit, the band’s career was saved (Hands All Over was re-released with it added and went platinum) and a monster was created. Later in 2011, Levine had another #1 hit appearing on the Gym Class Heroes’ “Stereo Hearts,” lending a melodic chorus to an otherwise fairly dreary hip-hop song.

That brings us to 2012’s Overexposed, which sent its first three singles to #1 on the Top 40 chart, starting with “Payphone,” another catchy, frothy melody weighed down by the appearance of rapper Wiz Khalifa. Overexposed featured a lot less rock, even the light rock of the band’s earlier albums – you can barely hear a guitar until well into the second half of the album, not coincidentally the point where guitarist James Valentine gets his first writing credit in place of hitmaking producers like Max Martin and Ryan Tedder (both of whom have also worked with Clarkson in the past). A few of the songs are good but several are terrible, and most are more like “Moves Like Jagger” than like the band’s first three albums: overproduced machine-made goo with few real instruments. The best track is the last one on the deluxe version of the album, a 7-minute long cover of Prince’s “Kiss” done in the style of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Few of the new fans flocking to Maroon 5 these days would recognize the musical reference.
Valentine is a legitimately outstanding guitarist, and he’s also Levine’s musical anchor, what keeps the band from floating away into a sea of mechanized pop fluff; just as Clarkson often presents her songs live as more ‘rock’ than the studio versions, Valentine’s guitar was a distinct improvement on the Overexposed tracks, which if performed in their studio arrangements would have entailed Levine singing while the rest of the band just twiddled their thumbs. (This Billboard puff piece on the show runs through the various covers and part-covers that dotted the show, most of them just quick musical interludes).

The band came out bouncing; Levine sweated clear through most of his shirt within 20 minutes of taking the stage (it’s an accomplishment to outdo Clarkson, a famously sweaty live performer, in this regard), leading to screaming demands from women in the crowd to strip off his shirt (he eventually got down to a tank top). He nodded as well to the difficulty of getting a Sunday night crowd to participate when he raised a sing-along to “She Will Be Loved.” In a clever touch, they released glowing beachballs into the crowd for “Lucky Strike,” at least one of which ended up in the drink:

Levine is aslo recently engaged (Clarkson cracked on Twitter that they should call it the “Off the Market tour”) and is typically a little funny and a lot full of himself; I used to follow him on Twitter until I tired of his politics. Between songs at this show, he was much less of a wiseass than at the previous show; he went on about how grateful he was to the fans, how much the tradition of Jones Beach shows has meant to him over the years, and how the band’s first appearance there was playing in the parking lot before a Sheryl Crow show in 2002. Perhaps at 34, settling down and having bounced back from the commercial low point of Hands All Over, Levine was in more of a mood to contemplate the limits to how long his band would remain near the pinnacle of the pop music scene.

In a way, that meshed well with Maroon 5’s set. Stripped of some of the studio production, the emotional core of songs like “Daylight” and “Payphone” as well as older Maroon 5 songs like “Won’t Go Home Without You” – the lyrics, the music and even the technology references in “Payphone” and “Stereo Hearts” – is a nostalgic wistfulness for relationships slipping away. That’s where Levine is at his best. I actually got a little bit of chills from the opening of “Daylight,” which naturally closed the show (it’s one of the few songs off Overexposed I really like, and its theme of holding on until the morning and then slipping away makes it a perfect show closer):

If you enjoy quality pop music, or what remains of it circa 2013, I heartily recommend seeing this tour or either of these acts while you can – but ideally, not on a night when they’ve been going a few days straight without a day of rest.

Continue reading Concert Review: Kelly Clarkson & Maroon 5 at Jones Beach, 8/11/13

Music To My Ears: A 50,000 Foot Review Of The Current Rock and Pop Scenes (Part III of IV – Pop and Other Current Radio Formats)

Part I – OverviewPart II: The State of Rock and Alternative (the Artists)

The State of Pop and Other Current Radio Formats

Kelly Clarkson – The best thing going in current pop, and an interesting personality to boot, for reasons I explained at exhaustive length in this essay and this concert review, is the original American Idol, Kelly Clarkson, now in her creative prime at age 28.

Among Clarkson’s virtues is that she’s the best balladeer in current music. As should be clear from some of my comments in Part II of this essay and below, I’m fairly picky about ballads (defining ballads broadly to include any sort of slow or quiet song); I love a good one, but not everybody’s cut out for them, and the presence of a whole bunch of them on an album is as often as not a sign of creative failure. Instead, too many artists seem to think that doing slower, quieter or acoustic songs is some sort of statement of artistic credibility rather than a failure to properly practice their craft. (There’s a reason why I prefer the live versions of virtually every song on Springsteen albums like Nebraska and Ghost of Tom Joad). As a rule of thumb, if you have more than two ballads on an album, you better have a very good reason, and few do. Even the greatest balladeer of all, Frank Sinatra, really needed to have about half the songs on any given album be more uptempo or risk inducing the snooze. Clarkson’s last album had, depending how you count them, four or five ballads, and even for her that’s getting close to the limit.

Clarkson doesn’t seem to be done with her famously acrimonious relationship with her record label; it appears that she’s back in record-company limbo, unable to release her followup to 2009’s excellent All I Ever Wanted, possibly due to a management shakeup at her label. Since I last wrote about her in 2009, however, she has managed to keep doing the things she does best. She’s produced more impressive live covers; I was particularly taken with her cover of When in Rome’s ‘The Promise,’ which took a classic 80s pop song and replaced its mournful tone with a decidedly Springsteenish edge of desperate commitment (it reminded me of ‘My Love Will Not Let You Down.’) She lent her voice to ‘Don’t You Wanna Stay,’ a power-ballad duet with country star Jason Aldean. She performed the National Anthem at Game 3 of the World Series in Texas, raving afterwards about meeting Nolan Ryan (aside from current and former owners like Ryan and George W. Bush, Clarkson is about all the Rangers have in terms of celebrity fans). She’s continued to find herself in controversies sought and unsought, from a broadside against the head of Taylor Swift’s record label for dissing American Idol to finding herself caught in the crosshairs of a coalition of left-wing anti-smoking zealots and fatwah-waving mullahs after the promoters of her Asian tour lined up a cigarette company as a sponsor for her show in Jakarta (Clarkson complained about being “used as some kind of political pawn,” but the sponsorship was ultimately pulled). Clarkson also got a bunch of her unreleased demos stolen by German hackers who apparently had a fairly sophisticated scam to hack the computers of a bunch of pop stars; while others, like Ke$ha and possibly Lady Gaga, seem to have paid the Dane-geld when threatened by the hackers with blackmail, Clarkson went to the FBI after receiving a tip from her German fan club, leading to the hackers’ arrest by the German authorities.

Clarkson joined Twitter about a year ago, and characteristically alternated between touting other artists, indulging her goofy sense of humor, sharing pictures of her farm animals, sniping back at random nutjobs bashing her on the internet, and indulging her music-industry-curmudgeon streak with tweets bemoaning lip-syncing, pantsless pop stars, and the poor quality of current radio hits. Typical of her relationship with her fans, on one occasion she announced on Twitter that she was headed to a bar in Nashville to do karaoke with whoever showed up off the street (you can see her in the middle doing her best Axl Rose impression here).

Best Tracks – ‘Addicted,’ ‘How I Feel,’ ‘All I Ever Wanted,’ ‘Walk Away,’ ‘Never Again,’ ‘Since U Been Gone,’ ‘Close Your Eyes.’

Maroon 5 – I covered Maroon 5, the best pop band that still gets played on the radio today (which says maybe more about the state of pop bands today) and a 21st century answer to The Cars, in this summer concert review. Since then, the band has released its third studio album, Hands All Over, continuing their run of deep-in-quality records.

Best Tracks – ‘Won’t Go Home Without You,’ ‘Little of Your Time,’ ‘Wake Up Call,’ ‘The Sun,’ ‘Stutter.’

HansonI’ve written previously about the Tulsa, Oklahoma-based 1990s boy band’s single ‘Thinkin’ Bout Something’ (and its Blues Brothers homage video), which for my money is the best pop song of 2010. Hanson is all grown up now, ranging in age from 25-30 (oldest brother Isaac on the brothers all being married with kids: “I actually don’t think that we’re off the majority of this country’s standards. I think it’s mostly a coastal thing”). Despite clever viral promotion, the band’s residual name recognition and high-profile TV appearances on shows like Letterman and the Today Show, as well as the simple fact that it’s a better song than their worldwide hits of 13 years ago, ‘Thinkin’ Bout Something’ got essentially ignored by Top 40 radio, a tribute to the difficulty of getting played on the radio without the support of a major record label.

Going beyond one song, let me now sing the praises of the entire album, Shout it Out – it’s basically a Southside Johnny album (note: this is a high compliment), like Sheryl Crow’s latest a deliberate homage to the Motown/Stax sound with vintage Motown horn arrangements and Ray Charles style keyboards. The band takes its influences seriously, saying the album “harkens back to the type of music they listened to as kids – ’50s and ’60s rock ‘n’ roll, Motown and R&B, like Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin.” (And more contemporary throwbacks as well – on one recent tour, they regularly did a passable cover of Gov’t Mule’s ‘Soulshine’). Granted, Taylor Hanson (the middle brother and primary vocalist) doesn’t have Southside Johnny’s thick, soulful voice, but he and his brothers do fine with the album’s numerous upbeat tracks; the only downside is that they all lack the voice to pull off ballads, of which the album has two (‘Use Me Up,’ sung by drummer Zac, is especially excruciating, and ‘Make It Through Today,’ sung by guitarist Isaac, is also a dud), but that’s a small price to pay for a talented band that’s making good, fun, lively new music in a genre that’s lain fallow for far too long, and doing it their way after going the indie route following a bitter and draining war with their record label.

Best Tracks (since 2000): ‘Thinkin Bout Something,’ ‘And I Waited,’ ‘Make it Out Alive,’ ‘This Time Around’.

She & Him – She & Him is, as you may know, the indie-pop band that grew from Zooey Deschanel deciding to branch out into music as a recording artist rather than just an occasional on-film singer, culminating in the release of the band’s first album, Volume One, in 2008. Surprisingly, not only does Deschanel have a gorgeous voice, she’s also the band’s principal songwriter and keyboard player, with guitarist M. Ward handling most of the rest of the musical arranging.

Basically, Zooey Deschanel is Katy Perry if Katy Perry had talent and class instead of big breasts. I’m not sure if Perry would take that trade. Yet despite the fact that Deschanel was a winsome, famous movie star for years before Perry arrived on the music scene in the same year (2008) and has more musical talent and makes incredibly catchy pop, She & Him remains a niche music act unknown to pop radio audiences. Granted, pop songs don’t market themselves and the rollout for She & Him was deliberately low-key, but it’s still an indictment of the current pop scene that the Top 40 radio stations that once gave Eddie Murphy a hit record wouldn’t try their hand at She & Him’s songs.

2010’s Volume Two is in the same style as Volume One, but not quite as good; continuing my complaint about ballads there are a few many slow/quiet tunes. Still, enough good stuff to be worth buying if you enjoyed the first go-round.
Oddly for a successful actress, Deschanel’s stage presence has tended to be rather wooden and disconnected from the audience (her voice is still great in clips of her live performances); or maybe not so oddly, since her stock in trade as an actress has been her deadpan, monotone expressionlessness. Either way, more recent appearances promoting Volume Two have seen her get a lot livelier and more comfortable as a live performer.

Best Tracks: ‘Sweet Darlin,’ ‘Black Hole,’ ‘Why Do You Let Me Stay Here,’ ‘I Was Made For You,’ ‘In the Sun,’ ‘Don’t Look Back.’

Gin Blossoms – One of the very best pop bands of the 1990s reunited after breaking up in 1997, and put out a new album, Major Lodge Victory, in 2006, and a second, No Chocolate Cake, in the fall of 2010. Both had the old Gin Blossoms sound – the new stuff isn’t on par with their earlier albums, but it’s listenable and each had a few good songs. Odds on them recording another ‘Hey Jealousy’ are slim. The Arizona-based band has been on the road visiting the troops overseas and performed a free concert after the memorial in Tuscon following the recent shootings.

Best Tracks (since 2000): ‘Come on Hard,’ ‘Wave Bye Bye’.

David Cook – The winner of the seventh season of American Idol in 2008, Cook has the vocal chops to be the next Bob Seger (I admit I’m sort of arbitrarily listing him with the pop artists and Daughtry with the rock artists, but Cook is still establishing himself). The question mark is his material, which on his first album leaned far too heavily on ballads. Don’t get me wrong: I liked the album and Cook can deliver a good ballad, but it dragged in spots and could have used some crisper uptempo numbers. Judging from early clips of his next album, there seem to be some tracks with a Police influence. I’d love to see Cook have some pop hits, if only to prove that a non-rapper who sounds like a grown man can still get played on the Top 40.

Cook has suffered family tragedy – the death of his older brother to a brain tumor – and on a lighter note, the 28-year-old Missouri native is also a dedicated Kansas City Royals fan, which should give him plenty of blues to sing for the foreseeable future.

Best Track: ‘Light On’

Harry Connick; Brian Setzer Orchestra – I covered these two veteran crooners here. I’m still hoping for something livelier from Connick.

Best Tracks (since 2000): Connick: ‘Your Song,’ ‘Jambalaya (On the Bayou).’ Setzer: ‘Americano,’ ‘Mack the Knife,’ and a couple of tracks off his Christmas albums.

Michael Buble – A fantastic Big Band singer like Connick and Setzer, albeit with fewer original songs or arrangements; the 35-year-old Canadian crooner mostly sticks to singing the standards, which he does quite well. Unlike Connick, he shows no signs of departing from the formula that serves his talents best. Buble can sometimes overdose on the bombast, as with his version of ‘Cry Me A River’.
Best Tracks: ‘Haven’t Met You Yet,’ ‘At This Moment.’

Melody Gardot – Traditional if quirky torch singer with a compelling, unique voice.

Best Track: ‘Baby, I’m A Fool’

(I could add a writeup here on Norah Jones, who has one or two songs worth a spin, but Ravi Shankar’s daughter is way more well known than there is anything interesting to say about her).

Pink – Pink (or, if you must, P!nk) is one of those artists with a decidedly schizophrenic body of work. On the one hand, the 31-year-old from Doylestown, Pennsylvania made her name singing what amounts to club music, which I can’t stand, and her public image always seemed deliberately obnoxious. On the other hand, she’s got a fantastic voice, with that Joan Jett/Joplin style throaty rasp, and since she started recording more pop-rock type tracks with hitmaker Max Martin, she’s won me over on a few songs, especially ‘Who Knew,’ one of the best pop songs written on the subject of grief. The Funhouse album also has some good bluesy-rock-ish album tracks behind the singles. And from what I’ve seen of her in interviews, she’s blunt (eg, her assessment of Kanye West) but otherwise fairly laid-back. She’s also made a name for herself with her acrobatic live performances, like singing while suspended upside-down from a trapeze. Strangely for someone with her vocal talents, however, Pink’s ballads are just awful, dull and lifeless; she needs somebody to get her a ballad worthy of her voice. Pink is presently on something of a hiatus while expecting her first child, but still spinning pop hits off her recently-released Greatest Hits album.

Best Tracks: ‘Who Knew,’ ‘Please Don’t Leave Me,’ ‘One Foot Wrong.’

Rob Thomas – The former Matchbox 20 frontman grew up as an Army brat; now 38 and with solo albums released in 2005 and 2009, he’s one of the most reliable producers of mid-tempo pop-rock in the business, the most successful artist in modern ‘adult contemporary’ radio, occupying roughly the musical space inhabited by Phil Collins in the 80s.

Best Tracks: ‘Smooth,’ ‘Her Diamonds.’

Colbie Caillat – An understated singer; as a vocalist, Caillat is a female James Taylor, though she’s obviously not his match as a songwriter. The 25-year-old Californian actually auditioned for American Idol and failed to get out of the auditions, which is maybe unsurprising given her anemic reputation as a live performer, but her records are pleasant and mellow, good filler for a large iTunes playlist.

Best Tracks – ‘Midnight Bottle,’ ‘Don’t Hold Me Down,’ ‘Never Let You Go.’

The Black Eyed Peas – I hate the Black Eyed Peas, and all their works, and all their empty promises. The band’s brand of mechanized hip-hop combines so many different forms of awfulness, from its repetitiousness to its artificiality to the near-complete absence of any human emotion, that it’s almost impossible to list them all. It’s easier to note what’s missing: melodies, good vocals, instruments, and lyrics that connect with either head or heart. Their only redeeming feature was when their manager punched out Perez Hilton, who may be the most awful person on the entire internet (a crowded field). I am halfway tempted to boycott Sunday’s Super Bowl rather than have to see even a promo for their halftime show.

It gets worse: listening to Fergie’s song ‘Beautiful Dangerous’ on Slash’s album and a few of her other live performances of rock songs (see here and here) only made me hate the Peas all the more for the fact that she’s wasting real talent as a rock singer on this band’s crimes against music (as well as her own heinous solo work). If the Peas traded Fergie to Nickelback for Chad Kroeger, both bands would be improved immeasurably (tell me you could picture Chad Kroeger singing ‘My Humps’ and not crack a smile).

Fun fact: Fergie got her start doing the voice of Sally on some Peanuts specials in the 80s.

Taylor Swift – I’m not a teenage girl, never was one and frankly never understood one, so Taylor Swift is not on my playlist, but through my wife and older daughter I’ve been bombarded with her three albums. The gangly, elfin 21-year-old pop/country singer’s talent as a crafter of pop music is undeniable – you can’t teach the ability to write a melody like ‘You Belong With Me’ (which Swift wrote with a writing partner who’s collaborated on a number of her hits), to say nothing of her ability to write lyrics that capture the fairytale princess world that girls cling to as their last defense against the frighteningly cynical and responsible world of adulthood. Unusually for a country artist, Swift is from Eastern Pennsylvania, but then her monster hit record Fearless is more a pop than a country album, and its successor, 2010’s Speak Now, is really not that much more country. As a vocalist, she’s basically Avril Lavigne without the permanent sneer.

Swift is a pleasant, appealing personality who seems like a good role model and has good sense of herself. Parents of preteen and teen daughters agree: the world could use more like her. One hopes she’ll remain relatively unspoiled by her early and enormous success, although a long string of Hollywood boyfriends is probably not the way I’d recommend for her to do that. It remains to be seen if she can seamlessly navigate the tricky transition to adulthood, musically, commercially and emotionally.

Maybe it’s just me, but the tune and pacing of ‘The Story of Us,’ from Speak Now, sounds a lot like the Killers’ ‘Mr. Brightside.’

Best Tracks – ‘You Belong With Me,’ ‘Love Story,’ ‘I’m Only Me When I’m With You’

Lady Gaga – Comedy, tragedy, or all just an act? Nothing about the 24-year-old Manhattanite is certain; performance art is the name of the game, so it’s always an iffy proposition to take her statements, or much of anything in her biography or carefully crafted public image, at face value. The onetime Stefani Germanotta has a good voice – when she’s not burying it with mechanical effects – and is a talented pianist, and she apparently started off as more of a rock artist (her stage name comes from the Queen song Radio GaGa, and she’s a professed Springsteen fan), although the extent to which she moved into electronic dance music as a natural musical development, an effort to get noticed, or a marketing strategy handed her by others is subject to some debate. (She does, however, write her own stuff; the talent is genuine, just as her impact on the rest of the pop music scene is undeniable). Judging by her appearance on this MTV show from 2005 (she’s the one in black), she was also once a fairly normal-looking Italian girl, not the walking freakshow in a suit of meat or Kermit the Frog heads she is today.
Gaga’s mechanical music pretends to be ambitious, but that’s not the same as saying there’s any real content to it, as hilariously illustrated by Christopher Walken’s dramatic reading of the lyrics to ‘Poker Face.’ She has a knack for writing memorable choruses – I even confess to liking the anthemic, ABBA-style chorus to ‘Bad Romance’ – but they’re just brief respites from the throbbing monotony of the rest of her songs.

If Katy Perry is – as discussed below – all about the joy of lust, Gaga is her opposite. As Camille Paglia has noted, Gaga may present herself as drenched in sex, but her image and music are full of sex without fun, sex without passion, sex without genuine emotion, and of course her image is that of a sickly drag queen, devoid of even an attempt to appeal to heterosexual men. (Her marketing to, and bond with, gay men is another subject in its entirety, and certainly central to her career). Taken seriously, ‘Poker Face’ is nothing if not a renunciation of intimacy. In that context, her declaration of celibacy – again, if taken at face value – seems less the useful caution it might appear, and more a symptom of emotional dysfunction. “I have this weird thing that if I sleep with someone, they’re going to take my creativity from me through my vagina,” she contends.

What makes Gaga a potentially tragic figure is the possibility that some of this isn’t an act, that like Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, she has demons that are inseparable from her talents and driving her to an inevitable doom. She’s confessed to using cocaine, and of course no cocaine user can ever really be trusted to accurately describe the extent to which they have it under control. Her weight has fluctuated and at times plunged dangerously, and she’s collapsed a few times on stage, possibly for real (there are recurrent rumors of her record label worrying about her health). Her video and stage imagery is full of what might be cries for help, as she’s frequently shown injured or bathed in blood. As dissimilar as they are, artists like Clarkson, Perry and Beyonce give off a certain zest for living; Gaga seems as if she might well prefer to be a martyr, to be hung on dorm room walls with John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix.

Or maybe she just wants you to buy the poster.

Katy Perry – Practically the dictionary definition of an “It Girl,” the shapely, bug-eyed 26-year-old Californian has mastered the art of being ogled; listening to Katy Perry on the radio makes about as much sense as watching Joe Cocker with the sound off. She’s the worst live vocalist I have ever seen, completely lacking in singing talent of any kind; even her studio recordings can only do so much to mask this. She can’t dance or play an instrument, either, and while she’s playful and occasionally witty, it’s never not about her sex appeal. Even her controversial appearance on Sesame Street ended up being nixed because she insisted on wearing a low-cut dress completely inappropriate to the occasion. Her husband, chronically disreputable British actor Russell Brand (his bio reads like his life has been scripted by Ricky Gervais), won the UK Sun’s “Shagger of the Year” award so many times they renamed the thing after him.

Like Lady Gaga, Perry isn’t entirely what her public persona makes her out to be; her real name is Katy Hudson (discarded for obvious reasons), and she was raised by Christian preacher parents and started her career as a gospel singer, the residue of which was briefly on display when she griped in the aftermath of one of Lady Gaga’s Madonna-esque videos that “Using blasphemy as entertainment is as cheap as a comedian telling a fart joke”. (Anyone familiar with Perry’s Twitter feed will notice that she has nothing against fart jokes, lots and lots and lots of them). But Perry is all about selling records these days, so she swiftly issued an unclarification. God forbid the girl should have any principles.
Perry’s verbal wit makes her an occasionally clever songwriter – the two songs she wrote for Clarkson’s last album were good pop songs, and at least ‘Hot n Cold’ had a memorable chorus – but as long as she’s limited by her own voice and hemmed in by the need to sell sex with every syllable, she’ll remain a blight on radio.

Beyonce – Diana Ross 2.0, upgraded and fully armed and operational, the New York Yankees of pop. The 29-year-old from Houston is an unstoppable commercial and entertainment juggernaut, probably the most commercially successful musician since Michael Jackson and Madonna. Even if – like me – you don’t like her style of music, you can’t help but respect her beauty, her tremendous voice, her dancing skills and her all-around work ethic; her success is comforting if you want to think of pop music as a meritocracy that rewards talent, effort and discipline. On the other hand, she also comes off as cold, imperious and ruthless (she’s been sued multiple times for copyright infringement), and that can’t help but be projected in her music; she’s no more capable than Madonna of conveying real emotional vulnerability, no more a likeable underdog than Derek Jeter.

John Mayer – Mayer, a 33-year-old from Fairfield, Connecticut, is living proof that being an interesting and talented guy is not the same as making interesting music. Mayer is certainly good copy – he’s smart, good-looking, independent-minded, a near-legendary Lothario with a long string of celebrity conquests, and can be wickedly funny, as illustrated by his once-frenetic Twitter feed (since discontinued; the highlight was his savage and thoroughly deserved mocking of Perez Hilton after the Black Eyed Peas incident, but some reports blamed his excessive tweeting for his breakup with Jennifer Aniston), his broadside against the Huffington Post, and his self-satirical FunnyorDie video. None of that is the same as saying he’s an admirable guy, as he’s courted controversy for interviews where he used racial slurs and talked wayyyy too much out of school about the famous women in his sex life. And that’s before we get to his oddball politics, such as his mouthy support for Ron Paul for President.

Mayer is reputedly a very talented guitarist in concert, but his languid singing style seems to lack even the energy and ambition to finish a sentence without trailing off, and his musical ambitions seem limited to whatever can get him into the next bed. Which seems unnecessary; the man’s a rock star. It’s not as if, say, the members of Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones ever had trouble with the ladies. But Mayer simply won’t try to be anything more.

Jack Johnson – If you found John Mayer asleep and nursing a wicked hangover and shot him full of elephant tranquilizers, he’d be Jack Johnson, a singer so mellow he makes Fred Rogers sound like Motorhead. You might not hear John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ and think, “this song is way too hard core and needs to be slowed down significantly,” but that’s why you’re not Jack Johnson. Suitable only for lullabies.

Jason Mraz – 33-year-old former tobacco-store operator from Mechanicsville, Virginia, Mraz is a light-pop singer but jauntier and more energetic than Mayer’s ilk, and enjoyed colossal success with the 2007 hit ‘I’m Yours,’ which is kind of overrated but still a fun song. Mraz is living proof that if you take a goofy-looking guy and have him wear a porkpie hat everywhere, all anyone will remember is the porkpie hat.

Best Tracks: ‘I’m Yours,’ ‘Butterfly,’ ‘Make It Mine.’

The Fray and The Script – Honestly, it took me a while to be convinced that these were two different bands (The Script are the ones from Ireland). I may eventually be won over to a couple of The Fray’s songs, but it will take some persuading.

Mariah Carey – Has anybody ever wasted as much talent on as much terrible music as Mariah Carey? The 40-something from Huntington, Long Island is a beautiful woman with a gorgeous, almost unbelievable voice, but nearly all of her music is awful, and on top of that she’s gotten progressively loopier over time. The only good stuff she’s ever produced is the Motown-style tunes on her 1994 Christmas album. Presently expecting twins. It seems too late in her long and inarguably lucrative career for her to come to her musical senses.

Christina Aguilera – Same story as Mariah Carey, and despite her obvious gifts the 30-year-old ex-Mouseketeer from Staten Island seems to be sputtering commercially due to her persistently awful material and charmless public persona. Then again, her performance with the Rolling Stones suggests that maybe despite her natural vocal talents, Aguilera’s not really that skilled a vocalist; given the chance to sing a rock classic, she didn’t do much more than growl. (I love the sax solo in that video, by the way). You can confirm the same impression by going here to hear her do to ‘Imagine’ what Mark David Chapman did to its composer. She has her sights next on the National Anthem at the Super Bowl.

Whitney Houston – Drugs are bad, hmmkay? Hard living and age seem to have destroyed her once-beautiful voice.

Britney Spears – Lament all you will Britney Spears’ dolorous impact on our culture and on the pop music world over the past 13 years and I will join you in every note. The Louisianan ex-Mouseketeer long symbolized the oversexualization of underage girls, needed all sorts of studio help with her voice to produce acres of terrible music, and has a rap sheet of stupid or provocative behavior a mile wide. (Clarkson, yet again, had the definitive reaction when Britney shaved her head).

But I’ll give her this: Britney Spears is a survivor. Nobody thought she’d still be a major music star at age 29 (around 1999 I’d have made book on the big-voiced Aguilera outlasting her), and earlier in this past decade you’d have had even odds she’d be dead, in jail or in a mental ward by now. Instead, even with her meager vocal gifts, she’s still cranking out top-10 singles, is still a first-name-basis household name, seems to have passed over the worst of her acting-out-and-possibly-mentally-ill stage, and is virtually the only under-40 artist on the annual lists of best-selling tours even though she lip-syncs her live act. Maybe the self-destructive three-ring circus of her personal life is only on a temporary lull – there are still signs of that – but for now, given the limitations of her talents and personality, she’s had the last laugh.

Justin Timberlake – I knew Justin Timberlake for his comedy (he’s the funniest man in music and could legitimately make a living as a sketch comic), his tabloid romances, his stylish image (three piece suits are always classy) and his involvement in the infamous Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction,” but I’d never actually listened to any of his music. Turns out I’d missed nothing. Comparing his whiny hit ‘Cry Me a River’ to the Joe Cocker version of the classic of the same name is enough to make you weep not only for the state of music but of manhood itself. Stick to the funnies, Boo Boo.

Ke$ha – Just when you thought pop starlets could not possibly get any worse, along comes Ke$ha, the 23-year-old icon of poor hygiene and faux rap. Other pop starlets have some redeeming quality – they have a good singing voice, or are good writers, or are good dancers, or are pleasant to look at, or play an instrument, or if all else fails seem like reasonably wholesome characters or compelling personalities. Ke$ha (I believe the dollar sign is supposed to be stupidly ironic instead of just stupid) strikes out on all counts – she’s basically just postured ‘attitude’ and marketing. Maybe this explains how she got that way.
The chorus to her hit ‘Your Love is My Drug’ owes a major debt to Hall & Oates’ ‘Your Kiss Is On My List.’

Orianthi – Picture Joe Satriani or Stevie Vai as a slim, exotic-looking twentysomething blonde woman, and you have Orianthi, a guitar hero badly miscast as a pop starlet on account of her gender, age and looks. She can axe but she sure can’t sing, and hopefully will move on to a role better suited to her gifts. Like Sheryl Crow, she got her big break working for Michael Jackson, as a guitarist in his final tour (she was hired after playing the Eddie Van Halen solo for the Gloved One, once).

Avril Lavigne – I admit a few guilty pleasures among the earlier works by the diminutive, sneering black-eyed Canadian pop-rocker, who amazingly enough is still only 26.

Best Tracks: ‘Complicated,’ ‘My Happy Ending,’ ‘Sk8ter Boi.’

Sara Bareilles – A similar kind of female singer-songwriter to Caillat who’d been talked up by a number of people, but while I gave her a listen, none of Bareilles’ songs really had a catchy melody (too many stops and starts), and in combination with her too-precious-by-a-half lyrics, I gave up after about three or four songs.

Train – I admit it: I liked Train’s earlier hits, stuff like ‘Drops of Jupiter’ and ‘Calling All Angels’ and even ‘Meet Virginia.’ They seem like they aspire to be Huey Lewis & the News for the 21st century. But their comeback has been utterly insipid, fueled by the trying-too-hard ‘Hey Soul Sister’. A band with this little soul to start with shouldn’t sell what was left. (This assault on that song is over the top but good for a few laughs.)

Owl City – I had the misfortune of seeing Owl City live this past summer, opening for Maroon 5; I wrote up the experience here, and hope not to relive it.

Carrie Underwood – If you were to set out to create the perfect female country star in a laboratory, you’d end up with something very closely resembling the winner of American Idol‘s fourth season in 2005: a pretty, blonde Oklahoma farm girl with a relatively demure personality with no rough edges and a powerhouse voice. My country collection is pretty slender, so I can’t say I’ve heard anything from her I’d listen to voluntarily, but Underwood is precisely what Idol needs to find more of if the show wants to survive.

Jordin Sparks – Besides Clarkson, the only American Idol winner to make her home on Top 40 radio, and do so with some measure of success. Sparks seems like a sweet, wholesome kid with a good voice, but her music is bland and unmemorable. Physically, she’s enormous, almost certainly the only female pop star I can recall who’s built more like a WNBA center. She’s also co-chairing a project with Nick Jonas to raise youth awareness of Ronald Reagan in time for the Gipper’s 100th birthday this weekend.

Leona Lewis – In the category of Most Boring Ballad Ever Recorded, nobody’s scored more entries than Leona Lewis, the best-known winner of the X Factor, the UK’s version of American Idol. Last seen doing underwear commercials; she’s probably the only female pop star who could make underwear boring. Her more upbeat pop track ‘Bleeding Love’ is listenable.

Best Track: ‘Bleeding Love’

The Jonas Brothers and Justin Bieber – Yesterday’s and today’s pop stars du jour for teenyboppers. The Jonas Brothers are, in the classic Disney tradition, inoffensive and seemingly squeaky-clean, and their watered-down pop-rock, while without any real appeal, at least doesn’t make me immediately feel the need to flee to another station. They are what they are.

As for Bieber, the 16-year-old Canadian (he was a month old when Kurt Cobain shot himself, if you want to feel old) makes the Jonas Brothers sound like Otis Redding by comparison; even his hairdo, which Tom Brady appropriated in an effort to determine what it takes for a supermodel-dating, Super Bowl winning NFL quarterback to overdraw his Man Card, is more annoying than the Jo Bros’ malt-shop pompadours. That said, I do admire the kid’s pluck for making his own career path; he basically marketed himself over the internet to get famous.

Best Tracks: No, really, you didn’t ask me that.

Miley Cyrus – If you enjoyed the Lindsay Lohan Experience the first time, fear not, you’ll get to watch it again! A completely predictable train wreck, still in the relatively early stages.

Unfortunately, what Cyrus didn’t inherit from her father Billy Ray is a good singing voice.

Bruno Mars – No, I couldn’t pick his music out of a police lineup from that of Jason DeRulo, Taio Cruz, Jay Sean, Enrique Iglesias, or about fifteen other of these guys that seem to come out of a factory somewhere, singing prefabricated machine-driven corporate hip-hop that sounds as if it was designed by a committee and produced by a focus group. (I at least know who Jamie Foxx is from his movies, but his music is in the same vein). The whole lot of them should be locked in a room somewhere for a month with a turntable and a stack of Wilson Pickett, Four Tops and Temptations records and told not to come out until they know what soul sounds like.

Amy Winehouse – Musicians are famous for their dissolute lifestyles, but only occasionally are they so comprehensively messed-up that it becomes impossible to enjoy their music; I like the style Winehouse works in, but she’s so repellent – and her singing style so idiosyncratic – that I just can’t get into any of it. A shame.

Jewel – The best, or at least most tolerable to my ears, of her generation of Lillith Fair female folk singers (Sarah McLachlan has a lovely voice but bores me to tears; Alanis Morrissette’s sneering is unlistenable), the 36-year-old yodeling Alaskan is still trucking along, now married to a prominent rodeo cowboy and expecting her first child. Jewel hit it big in 1995, but she’s put out five studio albums since 2000, two since moving to a small label. Her preening pretentiousness can be tiresome at times, but at others she pulls off some decent songs, especially on the pop-oriented 0304, released in 2003. She’s also got a sense of humor, as seen in this FunnyorDie video of her doing karaoke undercover, and was a rare dissenting voice of sanity in the 2009 flap over Roman Polanski.

Best Tracks (since 2000): ‘Standing Still,’ ‘Run 2 U,’ ‘Sweet Temptation,’ ‘Yes U Can.’

KT Tunstall, Duffy, and Natasha Bedingfield – Three female singers from the UK who seem to have had trouble following up their hits. Tunstall, a 35-year-old Scottish folk/pop singer who hit it big with 2004’s Eye to the Telescope, has effectively disappeared from popular consciousness without a trace despite releasing two subsequent albums, in 2007 and 2010. Duffy, an odd-looking 26-year-old Welsh pop singer, had huge success with 2008’s Rockferry, but from my early listen to her followup, I don’t hear anything worth a second look. The same goes for Bedingfield, a 29-year-old English R&B singer, who had a couple decent enough tracks off 2008’s Pocketful of Sunshine.

Best Tracks: Tunstall – ‘Black Horse and the Cherry Tree,’ ‘Suddenly I See,’; Duffy – ‘Mercy,’ ‘Rain on Your Parade’; Bedingfield, ‘Pocketful of Sunshine,’ ‘Put Your Arms Around Me.’

Kris Allen & Lee DeWyze – While I’ve never watched American Idol, as you can see from this list, I do give the show credit for doing a decent job as a gatekeeper in identifying talented singers. But nothing emblemizes the decline of Idol as a talent pipeline more than the show’s last two winners, both of whom are basically in the John Mayer mold of low-wattage male singer, too light and mellow either for rock or for Top 40 radio. I can’t see either of these guys having any significant upside as recording artists, which is what a show like Idol is supposed to promise. Maybe the judge the show really needs is Bluto.

Jay-Z – I’m no rap guy and never will be – I own just a few rap songs, mostly pop-rap from my college days. But there are a few things about Jay-Z that I can at least respect. First, the man legitimately cares about music; unlike a number of his rap colleagues, he seems to make an effort to incorporate actual instruments and women with singing talent into his songs, and even went so far as to record an anti-Auto-Tune song, ‘DOA (Death of Auto-Tune).’ And second, he’s a fantastically successful businessman, arguably far more successful as a mogul than a musician. The 41-year-old from Bed-Stuy is also pushing the limits of age in a field where the leading rappers have tended to be dead by his age. His marriage to Beyonce made them music’s ultimate power couple, all the way to the White House Situation Room.

Part IV: The Rest, and the Best Albums of 2009 and 2010

Democracy’s Pop Star: Kelly Clarkson

When American Idol debuted in the summer of 2002, it was not a complete novelty. Star-making talent competitions have existed throughout TV history (remember Star Search?), and in fact Idol was itself spun off from Simon Cowell’s short-lived Pop Idol in the UK. But Idol‘s colossal media footprint and massive voting base give its winners a huge and unprecedented head start in built-in popular endorsement before they’ve ever released a single song. Reliable vote totals are hard to come by, and viewers can vote multiple times, but compare estimates ranging from 20 million to 100 million votes for final episodes to the 100-120 million votes cast in recent presidential elections; the fact that the comparison can even be contemplated is proof of a popular phenomenon in an age when TV shows and the music business alike are feeling the splintering of the mass shared audiences of the second half of the 20th century.

But even after Idol established itself as a TV phenomenon, the question remained: would artists popularly elected by a television audience match the success of those chosen and cultivated by record company executives, radio programming directors, critics, clubs, concert promoters and other traditional gatekeepers? Would musical democracy provide a continuing pipeline of new talent, or would it just be a TV gimmick, its products treated as a sideshow by the music world?

The answer, seven years into the show’s run, is that it can be done. The overall record has been mixed; Idol has produced plenty of flops, and often the winners have gone on to less success than the runners-up, but the show has turned out enough real stars to lend the process some credibility. More than anyone else, the burden of earning that credibility for the show from scratch was carried on the diminutive shoulders of Idol‘s own would-be George Washington, its first winner, Kelly Clarkson. A look at her success provides some important lessons about turning an initial wave of goodwill into a durable popular fan base.

Continue reading Democracy’s Pop Star: Kelly Clarkson