The Week In Pop

The Week In Pop: Empire, Nashville, & TV’s Music Drama Craze

Rome wasn’t built in a day, but Empire’s empire might have been. Fox’s new drama series about a superstar rapper turned ailing hip-hop mogul debuted to staggering numbers two weeks ago, pulling 9.8 million same-day viewers. The stats have only gone up since, with Empire’s next two episodes nabbing 10.3 million and 10.9 million, respectively. That almost never happens, as Entertainment Weekly explains: “The typical pattern is a show’s highest-rated episode of the season is its premiere, then ratings drop for two weeks and then (hopefully) settle into a groove for the rest of the season, rising somewhat for the season finale. Empire has done the opposite. The midseason drama premiered big. Got bigger. Then got bigger again.” Last night’s show pulled a 4.3 rating among adults 18-49, which Deadline called “an extraordinary live number these days that only football and CBS comedy The Big Bang Theory have been able to deliver.”

In a different sense, Empire’s huge ratings aren’t surprising at all. The series was created by Precious director Lee Daniels and Gilmore Girls/Mad Men/Buffy actor Danny Strong, the screenwriting team behind the hit Lee Daniels’ The Butler, but it takes a page from the Shonda Rhimes school of addictively salacious network drama. (Rhimes, the creator of Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, and How To Get Away With Murder, has declared herself a fan, even if she doesn’t like how often the characters say “bitch.”) Furthermore, some scenes are written and directed in a way that seems less like a script and more like one of those manufactured scenarios on Keeping Up With The Kardashians, which the public seems to enjoy. And there’s one other highly successful precedent: It’s hard to believe Daniels and Strong made it through their pitch meetings without pegging Empire as “a hip-hop Nashville.”

The widespread popularity of ABC’s country music drama undoubtedly played a part in Empire getting on the air, and the two shows have a lot in common. Like Nashville, Empire is deeply melodramatic. Its soapy flights of fancy might surprise you if, like me, you mostly consign your TV viewing to cable/Netflix/Amazon prestige land. The costumes alone are ridiculous, and murder, affairs, and many other kinds of back-stabbing are presented with maximum pulp. Both series are tackling the “issues” — for example, each one has a storyline about a closeted character struggling with whether to come out. Remarkably, both shows are also serving as a factory for new music — originals, not the syrupy cover versions popularized by Glee and American Idol. It’s a fascinating new wrinkle to the long, complicated relationship between TV and the pop charts. While Nashville fields submissions from aspiring songwriters who might otherwise be pitching to Miranda Lambert and Luke Bryan, Timbaland writes and produces the songs performed by Empire’s characters. Nashville has spawned compilation albums, and its actors regularly perform at the Grand Ole Opry, a pattern Empire seems eager to replicate given its weekly reminders to purchase music from the episode on iTunes after the show. Never mind that Empire struggles to come up with quality rap music (it’s decent with R&B), whereas Nashville’s “hits” could actually pass for hits.

Empire differs from Nashville in more ways than songwriting quality. Actually, it has more in common with Shakespeare, whose King Lear is name-checked in the first episode. Terrence Howard plays Lucius Lyon, a former drug dealer who built his massively successful rap career into the also massively successful Empire Entertainment. He’s on a first-name basis with Barack, and his label has three of the top five albums in the country. (Ha ha ha, a rap label making those kinds of chart waves? That’s not the only thing the show gets wrong about the music industry.) Secretly stricken with ALS and given three years to live, Lucius sits down his three sons — the studious businessman, the prodigious R&B singer, and the marginally talented rapper — to let them know he’ll be grooming one of them to take over the company soon. Each has a strike against him: The suit isn’t an artist, the rapper has no business savvy, and Lucius won’t consider the R&B stud because he’s gay. Meanwhile, Lucius’ ex-wife, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), whose $400K in drug money provided the seed for Empire, just got out of prison after 17 years and is swinging back into the family’s life like the most fabulous wrecking ball. Within the first three episodes, there’s been murder, adultery, coercion, scandalous viral video, and lots of substandard Timbaland-penned “hits.” It’s unimaginably corny and altogether irresistible.

The success of these shows suggests that the American people want all the music industry melodrama they can get. And if history is any indicator, they’ll get plenty of it. Hollywood is even more notoriously trend-conscious than the music industry; when a concept succeeds, you’re bound to see countless variations on that concept pop up over the next couple years. There’s already at least one other music series in development, Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese’s HBO project, though I assume that will be an entirely different beast. It’s not hard to imagine some beleaguered network exec greenlighting an EDM soap opera (drug overdose in the pilot guaranteed), a pop star saga (thinly veiled Taylor Swift vs. Katy Perry, anybody?), or even a fumbling attempt at indie-rock scene drama (cue the Diet Cig and kill this idea now). And even if we don’t see an explosion of new music shows, when Nashville returns to the air two weeks from now, Wednesday night looks to be a stronghold for the genre for the foreseeable future. The music industry may be dying, but the TV-shows-about-the-music-industry industry is booming.

CHART WATCH

Last year Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” deposed Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” from the #1 spot on the Hot 100. Now Trainor’s Title has knocked Swift’s 1989 out of the #1 spot on the Billboard 200 (though to be fair, 1989 has been out for months and has fallen out of the top spot before only to rise again). Title moved 238,000 equivalent units (195,000 in pure sales), the best debut sales week for a female since Susan Boyle’s I Dreamed A Dream sold 711,000 in 2009. Swift’s 131,000 units are still good for #2, and frankly those numbers are spectacular for an album’s twelfth week on the chart. Kidz Bop Kids debut at #3 with 80,000 units for Kidz Bop 27, which, incidentally, features covers of “All About That Bass” and “Shake It Off.” Swift’s buddy Ed Sheeran slides to #4 with 77,000 units of x.

Next up is Mark Ronson’s Uptown Special, debuting at #5 on the strength of #1 single “Uptown Funk!” and, presumably, last week’s Album Of The Week honors at Stereogum. The album shifted 77,000 units and is by far Ronson’s biggest album debut ever, besting his #81 start for 2010’s Record Collection. Billboard notes that a whopping 61 percent of Ronson’s total comes from sales and streams of “Uptown Funk!” Nicki Minaj’s The Pinkprint falls to #6 with 54,000 units, followed by Sam Smith’s In The Lonely Hour at #7 with 50,000. Maroon 5’s V is back up to #8 with 48,000 units largely thanks to the viral success of their “Sugar” video. Rounding out the top 10 are Hozier’s self-titled debut (#9, 42,000) and J. Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive (#10, 38,000).

Over on the singles chart, Ronson still reigns. His Bruno Mars collab “Uptown Funk!” holds at #1 for a third straight week. It’s followed by Sheeran’s charming “Thinking Out Loud,” which rises from #4 to #2 and is the only legitimate contender for the throne at the moment. Swift’s “Blank Space” is at #3, followed by Hozier’s “Take Me To Church” at #4. Then at #5 it’s Swift’s “Shake It Off,” which shoots back into the top 5 thanks to 22 million people watching this:

Trainor’s “Lips Are Movin” clocks in at #6 this week, and her “All About That Bass” holds at #10. In between are these three hits: Sam Smith’s “I’m Not The Only One” (#7), Maroon 5’s “Sugar” (debuting at #8 largely thanks to that silly fake wedding-crash video), and Nick Jonas’ “Jealous” (#9), which still bangs.

TRACK CITY

Ellie Goulding – “Love Me Like You Do”
We already posted Goulding’s Fifty Shades Of Grey jam once, but now that the video is out it bears mentioning that my opinion of this song keeps going up and up. It’s an all-consuming monster that deserves to be a hit.

Allie X – “Catch” (NSFW)
Allie X bursted onto the world’s pop blogs last year with “Catch,” a Katy Perry-approved synthpop jam that nudges that Chvrches/Purity Ring sound the rest of the way to the mainstream. Now it’s got a video worthy of Lady Gaga, one that will probably attract some negative attention at your workplace due to the pile of naked bodies.

Fifth Harmony – “Worth It” (Feat. Kid Ink)
Who knew “Thrift Shop” + “Don’t Tell ‘Em” would be such a fine equation?

Fences – “Sunburns”
Macklemore collaborated with this heavily tattooed Seattle singer-songwriter dude last year, so now he’s on the map as a pop commodity. I like “Sunburns” a little better than “Arrows,” the song he did with Macklemore, but mostly I just can’t get over how incongruent dude’s look and sound are. I didn’t expect somebody with that much ink to produce such smooth, commercially viable pop tunes.

Cee-Lo Green – TV On The Radio
This set, uploaded to SoundCloud this week, appears to be Cee-Lo singing over TV theme songs? It’s certainly not an album of TV On The Radio covers, as intriguing as that would be. At the very least, scroll down to the Charlie Brown track.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Maddie Ziegler says Shia LaBeouf’s hygiene “was an issue” during the filming of Sia’s “Elastic Heart” video. [E!]
  • Katy Perry will allegedly debut a Taylor Swift diss track called “She’s So Creepy” at the Super Bowl, Perry’s response to Swift’s “Bad Blood.” [Hollywood Life]
  • The surviving members of TLC are crowdfunding one last album. [Time]
  • Justin Timberlake’s NYC restaurant was forced to close due to a “human waste” leak. [NY Post]
  • Kesha accidentally shoplifted a dinosaur from L.A.’s Natural History Museum gift shop, and when she gave it back it was covered in glitter. [TMZ]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME