The Week In Pop: Porter Robinson Welcomes Us Into His Worlds
I haven’t played video games regularly since 16-bit was the industry standard. I would never choose to watch anime. Most of the time, I don’t listen to festival EDM. Based on the universes Porter Robinson has spent his 22 years exploring — both the physical and the virtual — I shouldn’t really care about the music he makes in response to those passions. Yet with Worlds, he has captured my imagination and blasted it skyward it in 360-degree IMAX.
The album, out next week on Astralwerks, began as the former dubstep wunderkind’s attempt to make something pretty. He wasn’t trying to snub the scene that made him a teenage superstar, but he soon realized that he couldn’t create the music he wanted to within his established template. Rather than completely abandoning his signature sound, he evolved it. “Honestly, I had started to develop some problems with EDM, but my goal wasn’t to write this big subversion or the opposite of EDM — because I really don’t think it is,” Robinson said by phone last month. “In fact, there’s a lot of common ground. I really like loudness, and I really like energy. And when I’m trying to write something emotional, I often think that big, loud, climatic sections — something that you might call a drop — often are really good at inducing the goosebumps. Sometimes I think that’s what a song needs to kind of carry the emotion home. So on one hand I feel like I’m explaining myself to my fans, like, ‘Don’t try to look at this as a DJ thing because it will fail if you look at it that way.’ But to outsiders of EDM, saying that this is a big subversion of the genre can be kind of weird because it often is really loud and emphatic. I think it’s kind of one foot in and one foot out.”
He’s right. The music of Worlds definitely surges and throttles like his bangers of old, but the album blends those impulses with much of the spectral pop music that tends to dominate festival stages outside the DJ tent. There are pounding bass and programmed drums, but also pop chord progressions stretched for maximum emotional impact and vocals steeped in childlike wonder. The resulting songs immediately call to mind the marvels of M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming and Passion Pit’s chipper synth-pop, though Robinson himself cites Graduation-era Kanye West (“He’s just fearless; that’s a quality that I envy”), Discovery-era Daft Punk, and the Postal Service as inspirations — all of which make sense on an album on which a boy duets with a female robot against a backdrop of spaceship-sized synthesizers. It’s big music, and big-hearted.
Robinson’s interests may be niche-y, but he was inspired by something everyone who’s ever felt nostalgia can understand: longing for a world that no longer exists. We’ve all wished we could go back to a certain time and place; the main difference was that in a certain sense many of the times and places Robinson was longing for never existed. He grew up playing MMORPGs (massive multiplayer online role-playing games), the kind of programs where you and thousands of other users interact in a sprawling digital environment — World Of Warcraft, Star Wars: The Old Republic, that sort of thing. Some of his most beloved games have gone offline because the companies that created them went under. As a result, Robinson feels like a part of his childhood has been razed. With Worlds, he aimed to build a place like the ones he’s always loved to explore.
He used some very particular building blocks. Specifically, in an effort to tap into some of his own most potent nostalgia, Robinson gravitated toward General MIDI sounds — rudimentary keyboard samples that were used on game systems like Sony’s first Playstation or Nintendo 64. (That said, please don’t classify it as Vaporwave or his heart will hurt.) The era he’s channeling feels relatively recent compared to, say, the 8-bit sounds used in so-called chiptune music, so Robinson was worried his attempts to evoke those sounds would register as dated rather than an intentional aesthetic choice. “This was dangerously close to just sounding like bad production or not careful sample selection,” he said. “I was surprised that a lot of people seemed to get what I was doing.” The splay of synthesizer blasts that detonate across the surface of album opener “Divinity” could certainly pass for Super Mario sounds, but in context they crystallize into sleek, expansive, towering soundscapes. It sounds both familiar and singular; Worlds isn’t the first record to scrape these skies, but Robinson pulls off his own spin on postmillennial synthpop with uniquely dramatic flair.
What’s been exciting for Robinson — and, as someone who doesn’t share many of his specific reference points, for me — is that the music works whether you’ve ever played The Ocarina Of Time or watched Ghost In The Shell. “I think that everyone has some form of escapist media in their own life. For some people it’s comic books. For some people it’s literature. For some people it’s film. I think everyone is kind of familiar with fantasy themes in one way or another,” Robinson said. “I can’t believe how well it’s translated to fictional worlds that other people are familiar with. People have a way of connecting it to something that’s personal for them. And it could just be confirmation bias since I was actively trying to connect it to fiction and fantasy and escapism and all that. But it just makes me so happy to see that it’s happening for other people.”
Robinson originally intended to release a illustrated companion for Worlds, but that project was scrapped because it wasn’t living up to his hopes. (Due to crippling self-consciousness, “I really do my best not to let embarrassing art or wack stuff come out.”) The live show, on the other hand, is coming together better than he ever dreamed. “I think that for people who are familiar with what I would call my aesthetic, people who follow my Tumblr and see the images I like, they’ll see that this is the most Porter thing that has ever existed,” he said.
When Robinson takes Worlds on tour later this month — his first gigs as a live performer instead of a DJ — the album’s immersive sonic experience will be given an intense visual component. “I think it will be beautiful, to be honest,” he said. His new show will incorporate lots of technical wizardry: 32-foot screens, 96 lighting fixtures, 480 streamer tubes, 1,600 pounds of confetti, and 15 50-pound tanks of CO2, designed in collaboration with music technologist and artist Laura Escudé aka Alluxe (Kanye, Jay Z, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Drake) and controlled by Robinson with Ableton Live and interactive MIDI controllers. It’s essentially a new video game for him to toy around with, only this time he’s no longer an inhabitant of some fantastical universe, he’s god.
The show also represents the culmination of dozens of ideas Robinson has been storing away for years. He maintains what he calls a “mood board” or a “style bible,” meticulously collecting images that strike him and writing down why. “If I was ever just walking around and an idea popped into my head, I would never ever allow myself to just be like, ‘Eh, I’ll remember it,'” he said. For instance, he recalls being taken by the narrow color scheme of a landscape illustration he came across on Facebook. “If I would have just clicked ‘Like’ on it, I never would have remembered that.” By now his vision is highly refined; it’s just a matter of communicating those ideas to the people who can pull them off. He wishes he could handle more of the visual element himself, but the role of curator will have to do. And anyhow, learning to sing live for the first time seems daunting enough at the moment. “I feel,” he said, “like I don’t have enough lifetime to dedicate to all the shit that I want to do.”
Older musicians rule the Billboard 200 this week. As previously noted here at Stereogum, Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers scored their first #1 album in 12 tries with Hypnotic Eye, although that certainly doesn’t make it Petty’s best. The record sold 131,000 copies, putting the Heartbreakers well ahead of five other top-10 debuts this week. Eric Clapton’s The Breeze: An Appreciation Of JJ Cale enters at #2 with a comparatively modest 61,000, followed closely by Guardians Of The Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol. 1 — a faux mixtape from the movie, culled from ’70s charts — at #3 with 60,000.
The first sign of youth on the chart is last week’s leader, 5 Seconds Of Summer’s self-titled debut, which falls to #4 with 54,000. Teenage Vine star Shawn Mendes follows at #5 with 48,000 for his self-titled EP. That means the Frozen soundtrack — at #6 with 33,000 — is out of the top 5 for the first time in 32 weeks but stays in the top 10 for a 34th straight week. (Interestingly, per Billboard, Frozen‘s only weeks outside the top 10 were its first two.) Sam Smith’s In The Lonely Hour is at #7 with 30,000. Two more debuts up next: Theory Of A Deadman’s Savages (#8, 28,000) and Jenny Lewis’ The Voyager (#9, 24,000). That’s Lewis’ best sales week ever, and deservedly so — what a great record. Alas, Kidz Bop 26 rounds out the top 10 with 20,000.
MAGIC!’s “Rude” remains atop the Hot 100 singles chart, but there’s a new #2: Sam Smith’s merely-OK “Stay With Me.” Also barging into the top 10 are Jessie J/Ariana Grande/Nicki Minaj’s guaranteed hit “Bang Bang” — to these ears, essentially a lesser tribute to that all-star “Lady Marmalade” remake — which debuts at #6, and Meghan Trainor’s body-positive anthem “All About That Bass,” up from #28 to #8, about which more later. That’s actually a lot of movement by 2014 standards. The rest of the list is highly familiar, though: there’s “Fancy” at #3, “Am I Wrong” at #4, and “Problem” at #5. Maroon 5’s forgettable “Maps” is at #7, Sia’s memorable “Chandelier” is at #9, and Disclosure’s remarkable “Latch” drops to #10. Doesn’t seem like Charli XCX’s “Boom Clap” is going to make it into the top 10, much to my dismay.
Meghan Trainor – “All About That Bass”
I missed “All About That Bass” when it dropped back in June, but it would be hard to miss Meghan Trainor now — and why would you would want to? Everything about this one works, from the effortless post-Motown groove to the cheeky conceptual pun to the giddy pastel costumes to, of course, a message like “Don’t worry about your size.” Love the “Sexyback” lyrical tweak too. Trainor’s got genuine star power, so let’s hope it doesn’t burn out after one hit. (Incidentally, they must have very carefully selected dancers of various races to avoid a sticky Miley-at-the-VMAs situation.)
Mary Lambert – “Secrets”
Lambert sung the chorus on Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “Same Love” — i.e. the best part of the song — and now she’s getting a big-budget push for her debut album on Capitol. “Secrets” is a playful take on identity politics and living unashamed. “So-o-o-o-o-o what?” is probably not going down in history like “I can’t change, even if I tried, even if I wanted to,” but it will definitely get stuck in your head. She’s got charisma for days, and she manages to be a pleasantly unique presence despite performing an overwhelmingly normal sort of cheery pop-rock. And along with Trainor, maybe she’s spearheading a trend of non-twiggy ladies getting a crack at pop stardom.
The Chainsmokers – “Kanye” (Feat. Siren)
Say this for the Chainsmokers: They are masters of the blatantly opportunistic song title. Honestly, though, where braindead EDM meme-songs are concerned, this is far more palatable than “#SELFIE.” I found myself still singing it 10 minutes later and didn’t even hate myself.
Dillon Francis & Sultan + Ned Shepard – “When We Were Young” (Feat. The Chain Gang of 1974)
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you like to get down) this isn’t an EDM reworking of the best Killers song ever. Francis made his name on Moombahton, but this is a standard EDM-pop banger, perhaps due to the number of cooks crowding the kitchen. Also, did you realize he collaborated with “Turn Down For What” auteur DJ Snake on a song called “Get Low” this year? Yes, the guy followed up a massive Lil Jon collaboration with a song called “Get Low.”
Neon Hitch – “Yard Sale”
I’ll give this a B for concept and a B+ for execution. I never cease to appreciate how music video allows what’s essentially a serviceable assembly line pop song to evolve into something with real character.
Lil Kim – “Identity Theft”
She didn’t. She did not. She really did? She shouldn’t have. (For those keeping track of Kim’s ill-advised war on Nicki Minaj, there’s also this.)
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Beyoncé will perform and receive the Video Vanguard Award — ahem, the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award — at the VMAs. [MTV]
- Hayley Williams has been canceling some Paramore shows due to exhaustion. [Paramore]
- Adam Levine says Maroon 5 strayed away from focusing on hits to make their upcoming LP more of an album’s album, which, LOL. [BBC]
- Mariah Carey is no longer employing Jermaine Dupri as her manager. [Rap-Up]
- Smokey Robinson is teaming with all kinds of modern pop and R&B stars (Miguel, John Mayer, Aloe Blacc) on his new album. [Idolator]
- Lady Gaga was struck with a case of altitude sickness in Denver. [Instagram]
- Take That, the British boy band that gave us Robbie Williams, which reunited recently without Williams, have recorded a new song. So I guess they’re… back for good? [Popjustice]
- Speaking of British boy bands: Apparently this is what passes for fat in the music industry? [MTV]