The Week In Pop: The Mis-MGMT Of Foster The People
Every few years, a musician achieves that rare combination of commercial dominance and critical acclaim — and therefore inspires lots of copycats — only to willfully retreat from the spotlight. This usually involves making an album designed to alienate mainstream audiences and/or distance the originator from the imitators. It also tends to create a vacuum into which those imitators can leap, allowing them to bask in commercial success for a while until everyone stops searching for “the new _____.” Nirvana and Pearl Jam attempted this maneuver in 1993 with the abrasive In Utero and the video-free Vs. respectively, clearing the way for Stone Temple Pilots, Live, and Bush to satiate the public’s bubblegrunge hunger. When Radiohead famously muffled Thom Yorke’s heavenly falsetto and handcuffed Jonny Greenwood’s spastic six-string theatrics on 2000’s Kid A, the world had no shortage of potential “new Radioheads” to choose from. And when constant hitmaker Kanye West flipped the digital middle finger that was Yeezus last year, urban radio programmers found workable substitutes in Yeezy facsimiles such as Big Sean and J. Cole.
MGMT’s Oracular Spectacular was the sort of world-conquering unanimous favorite you rarely see anymore, an album that crossed over from alt-rock channels to produce three inescapable pop hits, each of which also cracked the Pazz & Jop critics’ poll’s top 50. (The album itself finished in the critics’ top 20.) MGMT’s psych-tinged dance-pop was everywhere — on the radio, at dance parties, in seemingly every ad on TV. But when the duo decided to muffle its formidable pop powers on 2010 follow-up Congratulations in favor of an insular psych and post-punk odyssey, there was an opportunity for MGMT clones to run rampant on the pop charts. Some of them (Empire Of The Sun) were more palatable than others (Capital Cities). Some (STRFKR) took over for MGMT in the TV sync department but couldn’t replicate their chart success; others (Portugal. The Man) broke at alternative radio but couldn’t crack the top 40. You could make a good case that Oracular Spectacular paved the way for the embrace of Passion Pit and Vampire Weekend beyond their original niche audience. But no one seized the post-MGMT moment quite like Foster The People.
Mark Foster was literally writing commercial jingles for a living when he concocted “Pumped Up Kicks,” an incandescent morsel of programming department catnip that became for 2011 what “Time To Pretend,” “Electric Feel,” and “Kids” were for 2008. It was expertly engineered to dominate that marginally psychedelic, synth-driven pop-rock niche that MGMT had vacated, all the way down to its nonsensical lyrics about children. Peaking at #3 on the Hot 100 singles chart, “Pumped Up Kicks” was a pop cultural money train that even Foster’s historically awkward SNL stage presence couldn’t derail. (To be genealogically fair, “Pumped Up Kicks” also leaned heavily on the breezy lightness of Peter Bjorn And John’s whistlin’ wonder “Young Folks,” another song you could run from but couldn’t hide from at the height of indie gentrification.) Alas, the song also marked Foster The People as a surefire one-hit wonder. Torches, the eminently acceptable album anchored by “Pumped Up Kicks,” yielded four other singles, but only one of them cracked the Hot 100 singles chart. That song, “Don’t Stop (Color On The Walls),” only made it to #86.
If you can remember Foster The People’s second performance on SNL at all, you’re more likely to remember that Kenny G joined them than you are to recall which song they played. (That’d be “Houdini,” a song that lived up to its name by quickly disappearing from radio playlists without a trace.) Still, on the strength of “Pumped Up Kicks” alone, Foster The People became a name brand bankable enough to pack 5,000-capacity venues and appear near the top of the Coachella poster on the same line as commercial powerhouses such as Pharrell, Lorde, Skrillex, and Queens Of The Stone Age (and above MGMT, incidentally). Thus, now comes Supermodel, a sophomore album carrying a weight of expectations it can’t possibly begin to shoulder.
Like Torches before it, Supermodel is sleek, shiny, and professional in every way. That state-of-the-art veneer is no doubt partially due to the continued involvement of British producer Paul Epworth, who got his start producing mid-aughts dance-punk blokes like Bloc Party and the Futureheads then ascended the ranks until Adele’s 21 made him one of pop’s most in-demand guiding lights. Epworth is now the guy you bring in if, like U2, you’re a rock band vying to be a commercial powerhouse in a climate when almost no rock bands pull that kind of weight. “I promised I would rid the world of feral animals,” Foster sings on the surprisingly shoegazey “Pseudologia Fantastica,” but Epworth is just as likely the one shaving down the teeth here.
And you can be sure that Supermodel is an album without bite, one built to placate the lowest common denominator and keep Foster swimming in licensing money. That’s not to say it lacks ideas. When Foster isn’t directly milking the old MGMT sound on tracks like “Nevermind” and “Best Friend,” he does experiment here and there. “A Beginner’s Guide To Destroying The Moon” borrows Clams Casino’s beat from A$AP Rocky’s “LVL,” but the song Foster builds on top of it is even more of a slog than Rocky’s. “Goats In Trees” is a uniquely bleary ballad haunted by stirring ghostly samples, but also by Foster’s less than stellar vocal performance. The Beatlesesque choral arrangement on the interlude “The Angelic Welcome Of Mr. Jones” is beautiful but fleeting, and a stab at replicating Vampire Weekend’s pan-global pop-rock on opener “Are You What You Want To Be?” turns out better than it has any right to. Only the aforementioned shoegaze turn on “Pseudologia Fantastica” suggests a fascinating way forward, but even that could pass for a hazy rewrite of “Weekend Wars.”
But Foster is far better at setting a mood than he is at writing timeless pop songs. He can keep deploying his trusty “Electric Feel” gang vocals to shroud his own vocal weaknesses (and on the grating “Ask Yourself,” he really should have), but all those voices can’t hide the absence of a melody as indelible as “Pumped Up Kicks.” Thus, he ends up with singles like “Coming Of Age,” a ditty with all the ingratiating propulsion of “Kicks” but no substance to latch onto. It stalled out short of the Hot 100 and feels more like arrested development than a coming of age. The main difference between timeless pop music and soulless product is a genuine spark of inspiration, and that tends to run out when you’re riding someone else’s coattails. The artists that manage to get out of somebody else’s shadow are the ones who find their own identities — say what you want about Muse, but don’t say they sound like Radiohead anymore. Foster The People make some half-hearted attempts at such reinvention on Supermodel, but mostly they sound like they’re trying their hardest to be the band MGMT is doing their damnedest not to be.
Today is the vernal equinox, and I’d say it’s time for some spring cleaning on the charts. Pharrell’s “Happy” remains our nation’s #1 single for a fourth straight week with no fresh competition anywhere near the top of the Hot 100. As Billboard notes, Pharrell’s most serious challenger is Soko’s two-year-old “We Might Be Dead Tomorrow,” which enters the chart at #9 on the strength of that corny and controversial “First Kiss” video that was all over Facebook recently. There’s last year’s streaming rules change rearing its head again. Also entering the top 10 is Aloe Blacc’s execrable “The Man,” up from #12 to #10. Familiar tunes by Katy Perry, John Legend, Jason DeRulo, Bastille, Lorde, OneRepublic, and Beyoncé continue to populate the rest of the singles chart’s top 10.
The albums chart isn’t quite as static, but it’s still rather depressing given that not a single album could muster up six figures this week. The Frozen soundtrack returns to #1 this week, moving 99,000 copies and becoming the first album to sell a million in 2014. (Including 2013 sales figures, the soundtrack’s overall tally stands at 1.4 million.) Billboard reports that this is Frozen’s sixth nonconsecutive week at #1. New entires in the top 5 include noted truck enthusiast Luke Bryan, whose Spring Break 6 … Like We Ain’t Ever EP sold 74,000 copies for a #2 debut, and Aloe Blacc, whose Lift Your Spirit logged 45,000 in sales for a #4 debut. Also debuting in the top 10: reggae-rockers 311’s Stereolithic at #6, top-heavy rap crew Young Money’s Rise Of An Empire compilation at #7, and country singer Sara Evans’s Slow Me Down at #9. The top 10 also includes Rick Ross, Pharrell, Lorde, and Eric Church.
Here’s a fascinating note from the alternative chart: Kongos, the band of South African brothers, tried pushing their single “Come With Me Now” for three years with no success, but the accordion-laden rock shout-along scored the fastest-rising top 10 alternative hit since Lorde’s “Royals” thanks to some late-breaking radio love. Billboard has the full story, but I’d just like to take this moment to lament that a bro-friendly banger like “Come With Me Now” qualifies as alternative. What is “Come With Me Now” if not a blatant grab for the pop charts? I’m sure Kongos will be there soon enough.
Calvin Harris – “Summer”
Oldest trick in the book: Release a song about summer just when the winter is starting to melt away. You can be assured that “Summer” will be unavoidable for the next 6-8 months. Is that a bad thing? Not if you’ve accepted that we’re still going to have to put up with boilerplate EDM breakdowns in the middle of our factory-issue seasonal pop hits this year. Harris is crafty enough to make the less bombastic verse portions of his songs undeniably vibrant, so while this is no “Summertime Sadness” where summer EDM singles are concerned — and no “We Found Love” where Calvin Harris summer jams are concerned — it’ll do if nothing better comes along.
Neon Jungle – “Welcome To The Jungle”
This one has jock jam written all over it, partially because it seems to have borrowed liberally from stadium staple “Zombie Nation.” That’s not so bad because it puts a pleasingly ominous new spin on the boilerplate arena-pop sound. If Neon Jungle is the new Spice Girls, as Idolator implies, I’m excited to hear what their answer to “Say You’ll Be There” will sound like.
Kylie Minogue – “Sexercise”
IMO Kylie shouldn’t be making songs that sound like low-budget Britney Spears, but she’s getting way more attention for this song’s racy video and gimmicky website than she did for the vastly superior “Into The Blue,” so what do I know?
Allie X – “Prime”
Allie X’s previous single, “Catch,” won rave reviews from the pop blogosphere and Katy Perry. Her latest, “Prime,” doesn’t pull off the Chvrches impression as convincingly as “Catch,” but it’s further evidence that Allie is a new pop act worth paying attention to.
Sia – “Chandelier”
Chorus of the year contender right here. I’d be up there swinging with Sia right now if I only had a chandelier.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- iTunes is reportedly gearing up for another Beyoncé-style surprise album release — for whom? [Popjustice]
- Eminem and Rihanna are going “on tour” i.e. playing three shows together. [Rolling Stone]
- There are some seriously striking photos of Solange in the new Harper’s interview this week. [Harper's Bazaar]
- John Mayer is suing his celebrity watch dealer for selling him fakes. [Billboard]
- Madonna dressed up as Game Of Thrones character Daenerys Targaryen for Purim. [Vulture]
- Kelly Rowland quietly parted ways with her label last December, allegedly by her own request. [Always A-List]
- Curious to see what kind of music the rekindled Drake/Rihanna romance produces seeing as the flirty “What’s My Name?” and the wistful “Take Care” are both motherfucking unimpeachable. [Vibe]
- Drizzy has been showing off some new music behind the scenes lately. [E!]
- Katy Perry seems to be back in the studio too. [Popdust]
- The lines between mainstream and underground have blurred so much that even One Direction is releasing a limited-edition 7-inch for Record Store Day, and the cover art is pretty funny. [Idolator]
- Here’s what Lady Gaga’s stage show will look like on her upcoming tour. [Twitter]
- Miley Cyrus got the crying kitten emoji tattooed on her inner lip. [Complex]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
Speaking of emojis…
[Foster The People photo by Darren Ankenman.]