The Week In Pop: Why So Serious, Jennifer Nettles?
My first exposure to Sugarland was the video for “Stuck Like Glue,” a 2010 single that injected a shot of unexpected quirk to the heavily codified country radio landscape. I hadn’t paid close attention to mainstream country since I was a kid, but somehow “Stuck Like Glue” made its way into my browser and captured my imagination. The clip starred lead singer Jennifer Nettles as the stalker and eventual kidnapper of a hunk played by Ryan McPartlin, aka Captain Awesome from TV’s Chuck. (As with Sugarland’s music, multi-instrumentalist Kristian Bush was there to back up Nettles in the abduction.)
The video was a winner partially because it flipped a lyrically straightforward love song into an entirely different beast and partially because Nettles milked the wide-eyed, crazy-smiled character for all it was worth: sashaying her way through a police lineup in a miniskirt and hot pink turtleneck sweater, maniacally licking an ice cream cone while her kidnapping victim suffocates under a burlap sack, enacting a leotard-clad seduction dance (with backup dancers!) for the guy while he’s tied to a chair. But the giddy lark wouldn’t have clicked without the pristine song behind it, a record that flouted the tenets of pop-country from the inside almost as blatantly as Sugarland’s characters flouted the law of the land. “Stuck Like Glue” gleefully sowed chaos into country, a benevolent answer to the way Joker wrecked Gotham. “Stuck Like Glue” began with lightweight beatboxing against a gentle acoustic strum. Its bridge descended into reggae riddim and Jamaican patois, a stylistic choice so flagrantly offensive to country radio programmers that some of them opted to edit it out completely. If you listened closely, you could catch a glimpse of what sounded like Auto-Tune on the chorus. Even without those flourishes, the song was built around a ridiculously catchy melody and fleshed out just enough from its minimal foundations with rich accordion and easy tambourine. There weren’t many better singles or videos that year.
There are no hot pink turtleneck sweaters on That Girl, the solo album Nettles dropped this week in the wake of Sugarland’s hiatus. No beatboxing, either. The album does buck 2014 country convention in some ways, though. It boasts very few trucks, parties, or good ol’ boys. There’s nary a dirt road nor a drop of lite American lager. But the absence of those signifiers only hints at the primary way That Girl attempts to stand out: Nettles has recruited authenticity whisperer Rick Rubin to render herself a serious artiste. In keeping with Rubin’s most loudly acclaimed latter-day works — Johnny Cash’s bleak American Recordings series and Kanye West’s brusque Yeezus — That Girl is painted in blacks, browns, and grays. Beck guitarist Smokey Hormel and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith are among the session players, but the album is more Sea Change/I’m With You than Midnite Vultures/Freaky Styley. It’s still a mainstream country album, but starker, chillier, and more traditional. Playtime is over.
That’s a shame. Nettles is at her best when she’s having fun, and not fun as in pop-country’s parade of spring break anthems or “fun” per the sarcastic-internet-commenter pose she strikes on That Girl’s two upbeat tracks, “Moneyball” (aka “Information Technology, You Guys!”) and “Know You Wanna Know” (aka “Internet Gossip, You Guys!”). Even though she just recently gave birth to her first child, Nettles has long functioned something like country music’s cool mom. She responds to life’s trials with an easygoing “It Happens.” She hosts fabulous Christmas parties. She namechecks critically acclaimed musicians but also thinks Bastille is neat-o. It’s easy to picture her successfully goofing off with your friends when they’re over after school or promising you extra dessert if you finish your brussels sprouts. The woman would absolutely light up a PTA meeting. And for the millions of red state parents bumping country radio, she probably scans as a trusted friend.
Trouble is, in paring down Nettles’ sound, Rubin has also whittled away her personality. Sugarland’s appeal is rooted in balancing out the high-stakes melodrama of ballads like “Stay” with playful larks like “Stuck Like Glue.” They were the blockbuster romantic comedy of country bands, or at least the most fun specimen among many such bands. In keeping with Rubin’s trademark minimalism, That Girl mostly foregoes the bright, shiny chick-flick theatrics in favor of dimly lit soap opera doom and gloom. As she proved on “Stay,” Nettles is fully capable of selling the drama, so the album’s many slow jams — “Falling,” “Me Without You,” “This Angel,” “This One’s For You,” “Thank You,” and a puzzling cover of Bob Seger’s “Like A Rock” — all range from passable to stirring. But their accumulated effect leaves me feeling musty, and that’s a death blow for an artist who’s usually such a breath of fresh air.
The one time That Girl’s shadowy roots music truly clicks is on its title track, one of the album’s many adultery-inspired anthems. Nettles sings wistfully as she remembers a romantic encounter with a man she later realized was married, elevating her firecracker of a voice to a passionate lament as she wails about choosing not to be a homewrecker. It’s not her best look, but the song, which she co-wrote with Butch Walker, would be a tearjerking doozy in the hands of any capable vocalist. I’m just hoping next time Nettles gets back to making me laugh.
OneRepublic has had amazing endurance on the charts; I was sure they’d be in the rearview as soon as Timbaland’s 2007 remix of their “Apologize,” a #2 smash, went out of rotation. But the Colorado pop band has been launching hits to various reaches of the Hot 100 ever since, and with “Counting Stars,” they’ve now got a hit to match the heights of their original breakthrough — both in terms of chart performance (it’s lodged at #2 again this week on the Hot 100, stuck behind Pitbull and Ke$ha’s “Timber”) and the upper reaches of the male vocal range. “Counting Stars” is also #2 on Billboard’s Radio Songs chart, where Eminem and Rihanna’s “The Monster” continues to rule, and on the iTunes songs chart, where “Timber” is still tops.
Also on the Hot 100, Katy Perry and Juicy J’s “Dark Horse” galloped all the way up to #4, thanks largely to a #1 showing on the Digital Songs chart. Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” remains on top of the Streaming Songs chart. As Billboard notes, that means “Timber” tops the Hot 100 without topping any of its three component charts: Digital Songs, Radio Songs, and Streaming Songs. The last song to lead the Hot 100 without leading any of those other three charts was “Can’t Hold Us” by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis on June 15.
The top of the albums chart remains more or less frozen, and not just because the Frozen soundtrack is #1 for a second straight week. Beyoncé’s BEYONCÉ holds strong at #2, and familiar faces like Eminem, Lorde, One Direction, Katy Perry, and Miley Cyrus rounding out the top 10. The one notable album shaking up the stasis is rapper Kid Ink’s My Own Lane, which rocketed to a #3 debut. (Let me assure you, he isn’t operating in his own lane.) “Show Me,” Kid’s single with Chris Brown, currently sits at #21 on the Hot 100. Lastly, with 17,000 copies sold, R. Kelly’s Black Panties is the third-lowest sales figure for a #10 album since the beginning of the SoundScan era in 1991.
FIVE FUN FACTS ABOUT THE MILEY CYRUS BANGERZ TOUR GLEANED FROM THIS WEEK’S CONFERENCE CALL
(1) “Our whole tour is literally based on animals!” This includes animals designed by Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi.
(2) Gifts will rain down from the ceiling. Per Miley, “All the kids always want to keep the confetti, but I want to give them real things to collect.”
(3) Look out for guest stars. “I have friends that worked on my album in all of these cities, so anytime I’m in the same city, I’m definitely gonna drag everybody out.” In other words, keep your eyes peeled for Future and Mike WiLL Made It, Miley fans of Atlanta.
(4) Openers Icona Pop and Sky Ferreira were chosen as a gesture of female solidarity. “I think it’s hard for friends that are in their twenties to be friends with other girls. There’s a lot of competition. And what I love about [Ferreira] is we’ve never felt that way.”
(5) “Clothes for me, or lack thereof, say a lot.” So, there’s that.
Zendaya – “My Baby (Remix)” (Feat. Ty Dolla $ign, Bobby Brackins, and Iamsu!)
In which teen pop goes (marginally) ratchet. The 17-year-old R&B/pop singer Zendaya (late of the Disney Channel series Shake It Up) currently has a slow-burning Hot 100 hit with the glitchy-yet-glossy “Replay,” originally released last summer but now up to #23 on the iTunes songs chart. The follow-up single, “My Baby,” now gets a remix featuring Ty Dolla $ign, Bobby Brackins, and IAMSU!, a trio of West Coast rising stars with their own sights set on the pop charts. These pile-on remixes are a mixed bag, but I’m pleased to report that “My Baby” is a fucking monster despite diminishing returns from the guest verses. Zendaya’s high-flying vocals remind me of fellow exciting R&B/pop upstart Jade Alston as well as any number of Zendaya’s fellow kids’ TV graduates — which is to say she can sell the song’s emotional charge. Producer Nic Nac’s beat puts some lean meat on DJ Mustard’s signature skeletal thump — this song doesn’t pop and snap so much as wallop — and the guest stars do nothing to diminish the tune’s Top 40 appeal. It must be noted, though, that hearing R. Kelly fan club president Ty Dolla $ign sing “You remind me of Aaliyah” to a teenage R&B singer is… questionable.
Shakira – “Can’t Remember To Forget You” (Feat. Rihanna)
I tweeted yesterday about mistyping Shakira’s name as “Skakira” and what an atrocity a ska Shakira tribute band would be, but really those syncopated guitar chords at the beginning of “Can’t Remember To Forget You” would only require a few extra BPMs to qualify for 1997 novelty-skank ubiquity. It’s odd to hear such a verse grafted on to such a humongous guitar-rock chorus, but then again Shakira and a barely-present Rihanna are an awkward pairing too. They’re certainly no match for the Gaga/Xtina throwdown we heard last week.
Foster The People – “Coming Of Age”
I thought one-hit wonders were only good for one album cycle, but maybe the Foster The People machine is too big too fail? In any case, no matter how many times I listen to “Coming Of Age,” I can’t remember a damn thing about it. Call it Bastillecore?
Lea Michele – “Louder”
Glee star Lea Michele will soon release her debut album, which seems like a logical move for an actress who spent half her time on TV singing. Its Sia-penned lead single “Cannonball” ably captured the sound of Michele overcoming her grief over boyfriend and Glee costar Cory Monteith’s death by overdose last July. Alas, follow-up single “Louder” is anonymous utilitarian radio filler. You might get it stuck in your head or even have a magic moment to it on the dancefloor, but it lacks the personality of Katy Perry or even Foxes — which is a shame coming from a performer who flashes a lot of personality when working with the right material.
Paloma Faith – “Can’t Rely On You” (Feat. Pharrell)
Everything Pharrell touched in 2013 turned to gold; even non-smashes like the 2 Chainz banger “Feds Watching” showcased Skateboard P working at the top of his game. But this bit of post-“Blurred Lines” bluster from English soul singer Paloma Faith feels like a leftover from those dark years when Pharrell was seeming more like, to borrow a phrase from Carey Mulligan in Inside Llewyn Davis, King Midas’ idiot brother. Hopefully he’s saving his good stuff for Pusha or himself.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Justin Bieber’s alleged egging incident is spiraling out of control, with a police search of his home leading to his friend’s arrest for felony drug possession [TMZ] and seizure of Bieber’s phone. Now Biebs is reportedly worried that the cops will find naked photos and incriminating drug references on the phone, which they ripped right out of his hands. [TMZ]
- Katy Perry announced the dates for her massive Prismatic Tour, with corny “Safe And Sound” one-hit wonders Capital Cities, young country iconoclast Kacey Musgraves(!), and alt-pop icons Tegan Sara(!!) each lined up to open various stints. [USA Today]
- By making $31 million last year, Carrie Underwood was the highest-earning American Idol by far, beating out Kelly Clarkson ($7 million), Phillip Phillips ($5), Adam Lambert ($5 million), and Daughtry ($4 million). Bizarrely, Taylor Hicks is still roping in $2.5 million a year while Jennifer Hudson barely cracked a single milli. Of course, these people are all unimaginably rich, so… [Forbes]
- The Red Hot Chili Peppers will join Bruno Mars on the Super Bowl halftime show. [CNN]
- Madonna has recruited Adele to help her write “grown-up” songs for her next album, which is funny because Madonna is 30 years older than Adele. [The Daily Mail]
- JoJo has extricated herself from her old label, Blackground Music, and signed with Atlantic with a new album in sight for later this year. You might remember that JoJo broke through as a 13-year-old pop star a full decade ago (remember this?) and later went on to some kind of viral ultra-hip sub-stardom partially on the strength of her female’s response to Drake’s drunk-dial ballad “Marvins Room” and her subsequent collabo with Drake’s lead producer. [The Los Angeles Times]
- Take That, the British boy band that launched Robbie Williams, is back in the studio, per a tweet from member Howard Donald. [Twitter]
- Also back in the studio working on new material: Icona Pop. [Twitter]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME