You don’t have to be a legit rock star to get an MTV Unplugged these days. In recent years the show has hosted quite a few household names (Paramore, Alicia Keys, Adele, Mumford & Sons, Katy Perry, 30 Seconds To Mars, a very-plugged-in Lil Wayne). Some of the world’s most popular rock bands of the “alt-” persuasion have graced the stage (Vampire Weekend, Florence And The Machine, Phoenix, Silversun Pickups), bands that headline festivals and top the albums chart but still might not ring a bell with your parents unless you can effectively hum one of their songs from a TV ad. There have been some other successful rock bands that aren’t exactly famous in the sense that everyone in America would recognize them if they walked on stage at SNL (Walk The Moon, Young The Giant, All Time Low). The show has hosted rappers and R&B singers on the fringe of the A-list (B.o.B., Trey Songz) and some acclaimed foreign pop singers who haven’t gotten much traction at U.S. radio (Lykke Li, Rita Ora). It’s a mixed bag without a clear barometer, not unlike the music industry at large. But it seems fair to say that none of those Unplugged sessions felt like as big a deal as the Miley Cyrus episode that aired last night. It also seems fair to say none of them delivered a spectacle worthy of such anticipation.
Cyrus is the biggest thing going in pop music right now — partially because she knows how to work the 24-hour news cycle’s post-Twitter economy of attention better than anybody not named Kanye, partially because she understands the no-rules nature of pop music now better than anybody. Last fall I upheld Cyrus as a prime example of what I called the monogenre, pop music’s movement toward the end of genre distinctions as barriers. The most successful musicians today tend to be the ones who move freely across arbitrary cultural boundary lines, nabbing sounds and stylistic tics from whichever genre suits them. It’s not like musicians have never done this before, but it’s becoming ever more prevalent on the pop charts today because all but the top rung of superstars need such broad appeal to survive the music industry’s Darwinian collapse.
That was how Cyrus started her night; she came in like a wrecking ball. “A lot could happen tonight,” she told us, “so I hope you guys are ready for that.” From there, pop’s leading wild child proceeded to show us how much Nashville boils underneath her Mike WiLL Made It bass jams. She borrowed hip-hop’s call-and-response lingo to command her audience, “When I say ‘hoe,’ you say ‘down’!” She rapped “Gettin’ live up in here/ Turn it up up in here” over banjo, then punctuated it with a “Yeehaw!” On “Do My Thang,” she veered between boilerplate dance-pop to country-rap, Frankenstyle. The gleeful stylistic free-for-all extended to her wardrobe: first wearing her most garish Opry attire while backing that azz up into two men dressed as one horse (Grope ‘em Gingham style!), later splitting the difference between TLC and CMT with a ripped, glittery, baggy denim outfit dangling over her bikini top. The show was never more absurd than in those first 20 minutes, when Cyrus had managed to bring the tweaked-out wonderland of her “We Can’t Stop” video to life. That it was so ridiculously over-the-top, replete with a little pursuit in a bodysuit, was of course an exercise in attention-grabbing, but let’s not let that obscure the brash musical experimentation that was going on alongside the twerking. All the insanity was emblematic of the wonderfully tasteless concoctions manifesting before our ears. Taylor Swift has been cautiously nudging her way to the center of pop music; this Bangerz music is the sound of Cyrus shoving her out of the way and making a mad dash herself. At one point she sang, “I’m a female rebel/ Oh, can’t you tell?” We could tell.
It’s no coincidence that the spectacle died down a lot during the middle of the show, when Cyrus trotted out some of the more straight-laced Bangerz ballads. “Adore You,” “Rooting For My Baby,” and “Drive” are all decent-enough songs, but they don’t capture the imagination the way her genre experiments do. She reverently nailed her “Jolene” cover, but the last thing anybody wants from Miley Cyrus is reverence. Even the gold standard of Cyrus ballads, “Wrecking Ball,” was a shadow of her performance from the AMAs — the one with the giant space cat projected behind her. When Cyrus acts like a normal pop singer, her entertainment value rapidly declines. Even when she brought Madonna on stage to mash-up Madge’s own country-tinged pop hit “Don’t Tell Me” with Cyrus’ smash “We Can’t Stop” — an absolutely brilliant idea on paper — it played as far more straightforward than the hijinks from the beginning of the show. Maybe this is part of the monogenre attack; maybe she needs those less frantic moments to reel in the people who get freaked out by her cartoonish exploits, or maybe she just needs a breather now and then. But I hope she remains an agent of chaos — I hope she stays unapologetically tacky — because I’m utterly curious to see what else she can annex into her bizarre pop wonderland.
WEIRD GRAMMY BEEF: SARA BAREILLES VS. HER MANAGER VS. THE OSBOURNES
Here’s the strangest conflict that erupted over Grammy weekend: According to The Hollywood Reporter, Sara Bareilles fired her manager, Jordan Feldstein, after he got into a fight with the Osbourne family on Saturday night that involved throwing plates at a pre-Grammy gala. Feldstein — who is Jonah Hill’s brother, incidentally — also manages Robin Thicke and Maroon 5. Apparently Kelly Osbourne confronted Feldstein near the bathroom regarding some comments he made about Jack Osbourne and Jack’s wife. Sharon Osbourne eventually ended up screaming at Feldstein and tossing a glass of water at him, as you can see in the photo above. I love that THR’s anonymous source reveals: “You don’t fuck with Osbournes.” Feldstein skipped the Grammys ceremony Sunday, so we can neither confirm nor deny that Ozzy bit his head off.
In other Bareilles Grammys news, she didn’t win anything, but her duet with Carole King wasn’t half bad.
We’ve got ourselves a new #1 single this week, but it’s by someone more than a little familiar with the top spot. The trap-infused Juicy J duet “Dark Horse” becomes Katy Perry’s ninth Hot 100 topper and second from Prism after “Roar” (sorry, “Un-CON-di-tion-AL-ly”). Those nine #1s put her in a five-way tie with the Bee Gees, Elton John, Paul McCartney, and Usher for tenth most all-time. (Her next chart-topper will pull her even with Janet Jackson and Stevie Wonder.) Billboard notes that a second #1 from Prism makes Perry the fifth woman to tally multiple #1s from consecutive studio albums; the other four are Paula Abdul, Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, and Mariah Carey. This is also Perry’s eighth #1 of the ’10s, tying her with Rihanna. As for Juicy, this is his first-ever #1, which seems crazy, but we all know how hard it is out here.
Perry told Billboard that this is her most unexpected #1: “‘Dark Horse’ has been a dark horse of a song, since August when the KatyCats voted to release it early on iTunes, before Prism even came out. I’m so thrilled and grateful to have these moments.” Perry’s victory topples Pitbull and Ke$ha’s “Timber” from that #1 spot, but unfortunately she celebrated by releasing a “Dark Horse” remix in which Pitbull replaces Juicy J! That is outright blasphemy, and she should be ashamed of herself, witchcraft notwithstanding.
The only top 10 breakthrough of the week is Jason DeRulo’s brass-infused, 2 Chainz-featuring “Talk Dirty,” up from #15 to #6. That song’s been around since July and even went to #1 in the U.K. in September, but it’s caught fire stateside in recent weeks thanks in part to this trailer in which Robin Thicke, Ariana Grande, and Flo Rida sing the song’s praises.
On the albums chart, the Frozen soundtrack returns to #1 with 93,000 in sales after being deposed last week by Bruce Springsteen’s High Hopes, which falls all the way to #8 with just 26,000. Billboard informs us that no soundtrack has spent so many weeks at #1 since High School Musical in 2007. The week’s top debut is the Grammy Nominees compilation, which moved 59,000 copies. It’s followed by A Great Big World’s Is There Anybody Out There?, which rides the popularity of the Christina Aguilera duet “Say Something” all the way to 44,000 in sales and a #3 debut.
Paramore – “Ain’t It Fun”
Paramore’s No Doubt-like conversion from pop-friendly Warped Tour punks to out-and-out pop stars feels mighty rapid to me — what’d it take, just one B.o.B. duet? — but I don’t mind one bit. This song is crack. The video revolves around the loose meta-conceit of trying to break the most world records ever in a music video, and, yes, it is fun.
Justin Bieber – “Confident” (Feat. Chance The Rapper)
OK, I understand that Chance is getting a lot more out of this alliance than Bieber is. Chance gets his mug and his music in front of millions of impressionable young fans — maybe tens of millions! — and all Bieber gets is some cool points. And like Steven Hyden said about Imagine Dragons in his canny Kendrick Lamar piece yesterday, Bieber doesn’t really need the cool points. In the meantime, I still like this song as much as I did when we first posted it, though having to watch the Biebs act his way through a weak Michael Jackson homage definitely lessens the experience.
Zedd – “Find You” (Feat. Matthew Koma & Miriam Bryant)
Zedd just won a Grammy for “Clarity,” which is reasonable enough. “Clarity” is a spectacular pop song. “Find You,” from the Divergent sountrack, is catchy too, but it seems to have a few too many moving parts for its own good. Or maybe it’s just that in conjunction with its lyric video the whole thing feels like a cheesy TV commercial.
Ludacris – “Party Girls” (Feat. Wiz Khalifa, Jeremih & Cashmere Cat)
“Barbie Girl” flipped into post-Weeknd creeper pop starring Luda and Wiz? No, no, no, no, no. Jeremih does well with the traditional Abel Tesfaye “just a featured artist but feels like the lead artist” spot, but… No.
Babyface & Toni Braxton – “Roller Coaster”
Now here’s some grownass music. In the ’80s and ’90s, Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds and Toni Braxton were responsible for writing and/or performing countless R&B hits, quite a few of which crossed over to pop radio and/or won Grammys. They’re releasing an album together next week with the obscenely negative but very adult title Love, Marriage & Divorce, and from the sounds of lead single “Roller Coaster,” they’re on their “Breathe Again” shit again. Their signature style is coming off very adult contempo these days — OK, even more adult contempo than when they ruled the world. That said, “Roller Coaster” updates the Babyface/Braxton sound with just enough post-Drake flavor to assure us this isn’t some leftover from the Secrets sessions. Speaking of Drake, I am almost certain Braxton sings the words “so far gone” in the first verse. Judge for yourself.
Romeo Santos – “Odio” (Feat. Drake)
And as long as we’re on the subject of Drake, here he is singing in Spanish (and rapping in English) on a single from Romeo Santos, King of Bachata. It’s not something I want to listen to every day, but I’m glad it exists.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Ariana Grande is in the studio with Max Martin, the man who produced countless pop hits for everyone from Ace of Base to Robyn to Britney Spears to Bon Jovi to Katy Perry to Taylor Swift. [MTV]
- Actually, here’s a handy compendium of some of Martin’s hits from the ’90s to 2012. [YouTube]
- Boy George will soon release his first new album in 18 years. [Rolling Stone]
- The Kylie Minogue album tipped last week is called Kiss Me Once. Pharrell produced a song on it, and Sia is an executive producer. [Idolator]
- Usher participated in an intervention for Justin Bieber in Panama… [TMZ]
- …but it must not have worked because the Biebs is going back to jail, this time turning himself in on assault charges in Toronto. [CNN]
- Britney Spears’ Vegas show is already the best-selling show in Sin City. [Digital Spy]
- Adele and Phil Collins are writing together. [Inside South Florida]
- Jessie Ware’s Devotion has gone gold in the U.K. [Twitter]
- Bowls is a sport that old British people must love, and according to this video, those old British people also love Pharrell. [BBC]