The Week In Pop

Movie Musical Soundtracks Have The Charts Feeling Like La La Land

This is one of my more controversial views, a position so conservative some might call it retrograde, but in light of this past week’s events I’m feeling emboldened to revel in it: I thought La La Land was great. (What, did you think I was going to go full Tom Araya on you?) The music is only pretty good, the story hinges on some convoluted plot contrivances (“Does Emma Stone’s character not understand how touring works?“), and there are all kinds of social critiques you could validly express about the film — and yet I went home feeling almost paralyzingly wistful, tantalized by its vivid depiction of wild romance and depressed by what it says about this generation’s priority of personal achievement above committed loving partnership. If we’re judging movies by their lingering impact on your thought life, this one was infinitely better than the sum of its parts.

Does it deserve 14 Oscar nominations? Hell no, but La La Land has every right to its place at the center of Hollywood’s movie musical renaissance. The New York Times recently reported that more than 20 such projects are in the works in the wake of Damien Chazelle’s awards magnet, and not just remakes of Disney classics like the Mary Poppins reboot and the live- action Beauty And The Beast:

Moreover, several studios — for the first time since the 1990s — are devoting meaningful resources to break-into-song films with original music. This year, Fox will release The Greatest Showman, which stars Hugh Jackman as the circus impresario P. T. Barnum; it has a dozen original songs. Disney has Bob The Musical, about a man whose life becomes filled with song after a head injury. Universal Pictures won a bidding war for an untitled musical comedy starring Josh Gad, with original songs by the composer-lyricists Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz.

It’s not exactly a sudden resurgence. Possible factors for this boom include a handful of successful Broadway adaptations in recent years (Les Misérables, Into The Woods), the budding trend of live TV musicals (Grease, The Wiz!), the popularity of quasi-musicals built on pop music á la Glee and Pitch Perfect, the cult success of pioneering TV musical Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and a bumper crop of animated musicals headlined by Frozen. Or maybe the more dystopian the real world becomes, the more America desires to delve into a fantasy world where people routinely break into song and dance and everything turns out OK in the end. Whatever the reason, shamelessly showy Broadway-style productions are all the rage again, and they’re not just making an impact at the box office.

Two weeks ago, four of Billboard’s top 10 albums were movie soundtracks, and three of them were musicals: Moana, Sing, and Trolls. Although all cartoons, these represent different flavors of the musical format. Moana, like La La Land, is built from all original compositions, smartly penned by Hamilton mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda. Its corollary in the non-musical soundtrack world would be something like Fifty Shades Of Grey, with its smattering of original hits by the likes of Ellie Goudling and the Weeknd. Sing and Trolls are more focused on quirky new renditions of old hits — sometimes horrifyingly so, as in the case of Reese Witherspoon and Nick Kroll’s remake of “Shake It Off” — so somewhere between Guardians Of The Galaxy’s mixtape-as-soundtrack formula and one of those Glee comps that used to dominate the charts.

The other official soundtrack album charting that week was Suicide Squad, part of a parallel and sometimes overlapping trend of hit-making compilation soundtracks soaring back to prominence. It all added up to a historically cinematic week for the Billboard 200. This was the first time since 1998 that four soundtracks cracked the top 10 (back then it was Armageddon, Dr. Dolittle, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, and City Of Angels). On top of the four movie soundtracks, the original cast recording from nuclear Broadway hit Hamilton made sure a full half of the top 10 albums comprised soundtracks. And that was before the La La Land soundtrack rocketed into the top 10 on the strength of its Golden Globes wins and Oscar buzz.

Some of the current soundtrack chart success can probably be attributed to January being a down time for music sales and and up time for movies. Awards season brings films to the forefront of the pop cultural conversation, stoking the desire to see as many Oscar contenders as possible. A slew of films from the holiday season remain in theaters, and crappy winter weather lends itself to seeing the ones you missed. Meanwhile few major album releases are scheduled for the first month of the year, so the path is cleared for soundtracks to clog the upper reaches of the chart. On top of all that, album sales continue to decline as streaming figures rise, and movie soundtracks are one of the few relics of the monoculture still capable of generating enough equivalent units to break through in some capacity.

We’ll probably continue to see soundtracks make a big splash this year with the upcoming sequels to Guardians Of The Galaxy and Fifty Shades Of Grey, two of the films that helped cement the blockbuster soundtrack revival. More intriguing will be learning whether musicals can keep racing to the top of the charts. My guess is that the Beauty And The Beast soundtrack is a lock for ubiquity, between volcanic millennial nostalgia and near-universal Emma Watson appeal and an Ariana Grande/John Legend “Beauty And The Beast” duet on tap. Ditto Mary Poppins, which should enjoy similarly fierce brand loyalty plus the talents of Hamilton and Moana’s irrepressible Miranda. But will we see similar public euphoria for, say, “an original song-and-dance film that will star Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig”? Or will 2017 represent the peak of the modern musical craze, with lots of flops coming soon on par with Across The Universe, Jersey Boys, and Rock Of Ages?

There will certainly be plenty of opportunities for musicals to fail. Among the 20-some projects in development, some high-profile titles aren’t scheduled to arrive until 2019 (Wicked) or 2020 (a godforsaken Sing sequel). Considering how these trends tend to suddenly flame out after burning brightly, production could easily outstrip demand. Even if that happens, though, I’m pretty confident that album sales will continue to plummet and movies will continue to provide some semblance of cultural common ground, so take it from me that we’ll be seeing musicals atop the album charts for the foreseeable future — assuming you’re willing to listen to somebody who was professing his love for La La Land eight paragraphs ago.

CHART WATCH

The xx would have had the #1 album in America this week if we were basing that honor purely on sales figures. I See You sold 36,000 copies and accumulated 46,000 equivalent units to debut at #2. The Weeknd’s Starboy meanwhile remains on top for a third straight week and fourth overall due to 61,000 units, 38,000 of them from streaming (equivalent to 57.2 million track streams, says Billboard). There are no more top-10 debuts to report, but the rest of the upper echelon includes the soundtracks from La La Land (#3), Moana (#4), Hamilton (#6), and Trolls (#10) plus the latest releases from Bruno Mars (#5), J. Cole (#7), Drake (#8), and Post Malone (#9).

Over on the Hot 100, I’m happy to report that Migos and Lil Uzi Vert’s “Bad And Boujee” is back on top. Ed Sheeran’s “Shape Of You” knocked Migos out of the #1 spot after only one week, but a week later they’ve returned to #1, while Sheeran slides to #2. Billboard points out that “Bad And Boujee” topped its Streaming Gainer chart for a record fifth straight week, so the track’s momentum is still building. Sheeran’s other new single, “Castle On The Hill,” drops from #6 all the way down to #28 this week, though it should shoot back up due to the release of its official video this week.

After “Black Beatles” at #3, “Closer” at #4, and “Starboy” at #5, Machine Gun Kelly and Camila Cabello’s “Bad Things” climbs to a new peak at #6. Then comes the biggest debut of the week: The Chainsmokers’ new “Paris” enters at #7, becoming their fourth top-10 hit. Closing out the top 10 are Zayn and Taylor Swift’s “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever (Fifty Shades Darker),” Maroon 5 and Kendrick Lamar’s “Don’t Wanna Know,” and Bruno Mars’ “24K Magic.”

POP FIVE

Major Lazer – “Run Up” (Feat. PARTYNEXTDOOR & Nicki Minaj)
As a commenter wisely pointed out today, it’s nice to hear some people of Caribbean ancestry on one of these lite dancehall-EDM tracks, something I’ve rarely seen outside of Rihanna’s “Work.” Notably, PARTYNEXTDOOR co-wrote that one, he basically functions as the lead artist here, and he has another hit on his hands with “Not Nice.” I’d say that’s how he gets out of Drake’s shadow, except (1) Drake was on “Work” too, (2) a Nicki Minaj duet doesn’t really help somebody get out of Drake’s shadow, and (3) “Not Nice” sounds exactly like “One Dance.” Still, it’s a nice lane for Party.

John Mayer – “Moving On And Getting Over”
Mayer’s last single sounded like the War On Drugs, while this one sounds like What’s Going On-era Marvin Gaye. Is his album actually going to be good?

Troye Sivan – “Heaven” (Feat. Betty Who)
This is the best song yet from the young queer pop heartthrob, one with an affecting video to match its powerful, persuasive sweep.

Little Mix – “Touch”
The inevitable post-schism decline of Fifth Harmony seems like a big opportunity for Little Mix to make headway in the US; tracks this contagious ought to help, too.

Lady Antebellum – “You Look Good”
Now just does not feel like the right time for sassy, brassy country songs.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • TMZ asked Justin Bieber about his ex Selena Gomez’a new boyfriend: “Hell no, I can’t listen to a Weeknd song. That shit’s wack.” [TMZ]
  • Drake, a noted supporter of Kentucky Wildcats basketball, was the guest on coach John Calipari’s Cal Cast podcast. [Miss Info]
  • Robin Thicke will honor his late father Alan at the 2017 Honda NHL All-Star Weekend, and John Legend will make a special appearance. Fifth Harmony, Nick Jonas, and Carly Rae Jepsen will also perform at the NHL All-Star Game. [People]
  • Adele and Bruno Mars will perform at the Grammys next month. [Twitter]
  • Alessia Cara will be the musical guest on the 2/4 SNL hosted by Kristen Stewart. Ed Sheeran’s on the following week with host Alec Baldwin. [Instagram]
  • Luke Bryan will sing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl. [Twitter]
  • Reuters reported that Madonna has applied to adopt two more children from Malawi, but the pop star released a statement saying it wasn’t true. [People]
  • Get stoked: Nickelback are working on their ninth album and say a “major” announcement is coming on Wednesday. [Billboard]

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