The Week In Pop

The Week In Pop: Kelly Clarkson’s Edgeless Excellence Continues

Kelly Clarkson started out with negative cred. In 2002, Clarkson became the first winner of American Idol, which made her wildly famous and deathly uncool. This was before poptimism, and although Idol was an massive ratings success, the average critical line was something like THIS POP STAR FACTORY IS AN AFFRONT TO GOOD TASTE THEY DON’T EVEN PLAY THEIR OWN INSTRUMENTS WHAT A DISGRACE. From Justin To Kelly didn’t help matters. Even though her debut single “Miss Independent” was a total jam, Clarkson was Part Of The Problem as far as the music critic/record store clerk/internet music geek axis was concerned. At best she was a guilty pleasure; self-appointed “serious music fans” loved to talk about guilty pleasures back then.

“Since U Been Gone” changed all that — and I do mean all of it. Pop svengalis Max Martin and Dr. Luke wrote the song in an attempt to crossbreed their favorite O.C.-era alternative rock bands with a supercharged pop chorus. They they pretty much nailed it; “Since U Been Gone” plays like a mix between Interpol and the Strokes topped off by a guitar riff that famously nicks from Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps.” As any worthwhile Idol champion would, Clarkson came with the requisite vocal firepower — “They didn’t know I was going to go an octave above on the chorus,” she told Rolling Stone this week — and the results were foolproof. “Since U Been Gone” not only soared to #2 on the Hot 100, it initiated a massive foundational change in the way our culture thinks about music.

That song wasn’t the only factor — Kelefa Sanneh’s published his much-circulated New York Times essay “The Rap Against Rockism” less than a month before “Since U Been Gone” dropped, and in that piece Sanneh mentioned that critical biases had been under fire since at least the 1980s — but Clarkson’s signature hit is arguably the best, earliest example of the underground’s fervent embrace of pop. Ted Leo, who famously blended “Since U Been Gone” with “Maps,” summed up the feeling in the air:

It’s just one great hook after another. I also really appreciate the more advanced pop pastiche aspects of it. It’s written in a way that is so transparent in terms of drawing from a lot of what’s vaguely edgy and popular right now, but put together in such a perfect little package. It’s undeniable.

Clarkson became poptimism’s poster girl. Nothing else on her 2004 album Breakaway was quite so cataclysmic, but the album sold 15 million copies, earned rave reviews, and won multiple Grammys. It was her undisputed career peak. And even though she never faltered much commercially after that, it was remarkable how quickly her reputation as America’s hippest pop star went down the toilet.

Thanks to everything going right with Breakaway, RCA’s Clive Davis begrudgingly allowed Clarkson to write her own songs on 2007 follow-up My December. Clarkson described the album as her own personal Nebraska, though Davis thought far less kindly of it, protesting so much that at one point he asked Clarkson to delete the whole thing. The album still debuted at #2, and the aggro “Never Again” made it to #8 on the singles chart, but the rampant negativity hurt Clarkson’s pop profile, and all the critical acclaim evaporated as quickly as it had accumulated.

She bounced back with 2009’s All I Ever Wanted by the power of Martin and Dr. Luke’s “Since U Been Gone” rewrite/recantation “My Life Would Suck Without You,” which actually outshined “Since U Been Gone” on the charts by going to #1. Then Clarkson found a new creative catalyst in producer Greg Kurstin for 2011’s Stronger, which yielded yet another #1 hit in “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You).” She followed that with a Christmas album in 2013, and now she’s got two albums ready to go, one pop and one country.

The pop release, Piece By Piece, arrives this week. It kicks off with “Heartbeat Song,” a typical Clarkson pop-rock single that lifts more egregiously from Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle” than “Since U Been Gone” lifted from “Maps.” From there, despite a few dalliances with EDM (the pulsating “Dance With Me” and the tremendously twitchy “Take You High” in particular), it continues to be your basic Clarkson album, an MOR collection of rock-infused pop songs. Her voice continues to do things most voices can’t do, pumping energy into songs that would probably come off as mediocre with a less capable vocalist on the track. Kurstin contributes the state-of-the-art sonics he’s delivered to everyone from Pink! to Tegan And Sara to the Shins. The songs usually do what you expect them to do, but flourishes such as the background-vocal flutters on the synth-gospel monolith “I Had A Dream” show he’s slyer than some people realize. It’s so expertly executed that it transcends its lack of edge.

That’s my best guess as to why poptimism left Clarkson behind: She has never been about pushing sonic boundaries or embodying some fleeting metropolitan ideal. She’s not a fashionista, a diva, a rebel, a club queen, or even America’s Sweetheart, wide-eyed in the big city. She’s almost antithetical to the big city. Clarkson is a small-town girl with a powerhouse voice, and her music is distinctly conservative, so Red State in its approach that it would fly on Christian radio with a few lyrical tweaks. She’s a lot like Sam Smith in that way, but she’s even more of a blank slate — soccer mom as pop star. Clarkson is so Middle American that it’s no surprise she’s about to make a bid for the country market. She basically makes musical casserole. And as a lifelong Midwesterner, I can assure you that casserole is delicious when it’s done right.

WHO IS LUNCHMONEY LEWIS?

LunchMoney Lewis entered most rap fans’ radar with a guest verse on Nicki Minaj’s The Pinkprint track “Trini Dem Girls.” Now he looks likely to score a big, Cee-Lo level hit with “Bills,” a goofy new hip-pop single that debuted last month. Which raises the question: Who is LunchMoney Lewis?

I refer you to a great Wondering Sound piece from three months back. Among the revelations:

  • Before guesting on The Pinkprint, he logged a verse on Jessie J’s “Bang Bang” follow-up “Burnin’ Up,” and before that he scored songwriting credits on Juicy J’s Stay Trippy track “Scholarship” and rapper Chris Webby’s “Set It Off.”
  • Lewis’ dad and uncle, Ian Lewis and Roger Lewis, respectively, were in Inner Circle, the reggae band who wrote “Bad Boys (Watcha Gonna Do),” aka the COPS theme. Those guys started a suburban Miami recording studio called Circle House, now run by LunchMoney’s brother Abebe, where cornball rap stars like Flo Rida and Pitbull launched their careers. And maybe soon you can add LunchMoney Lewis to that list?
  • As for how Lewis ended up rapping on a Minaj track, Wondering Sound noted that pop songwriter Jacob Kasher co-wrote some songs with Lewis, and Dr. Luke produced Juicy J’s “Scholarship,” so either one of those guys could have put him on to Minaj. Tweets like these seem to support that assertion.

Some further Googling reveals that Gamal “Lunchmoney” Lewis was a writer on Fifth Harmony’s world-crushing Destiny’s Child throwback “BO$$.” And a search for the name “Gamal Lewis” yielded a video for the reggae-inflected rap single “Lunchy Culture,” the Clipse/Pharrell-inspired “Lunchmoney Loser” and the struggle-rap castoff “Lasagna.” So like most artists, he spent some time finding his voice and honing his craft. It’s probably not fair to judge him on those pre-fame YouTube clips, but watcha gonna do?

Big Sean & Ariana Grande

CHART WATCH

We recently marveled at Big Sean’s spike in quality, and now he’s enjoying a spike in quantity to go along with it. Dark Sky Paradise becomes the Detroit rapper’s first #1 album, debuting with 173,000 units (81 percent based on pure sales). That’s more than double his previous first-week sales record of 87,000 for 2011 debut Finally Famous, and it easily beats the 146,000 figure Kid Rock’s First Kiss accrued to debut at #2. The Fifty Shades Of Grey soundtrack logged 108,000 to hold firm at #3, while Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late falls to #4 with 99,000. Taylor Swift’s 1989 is down to #5 with 78,000, followed by her buddy Ed Sheeran’s x at #6 with 73,000. Chris Brown and Tyga’s collaborative LP Fan Of A Fan enters at #7 with 67,000 units. Sam Smith’s In The Lonely Hour falls to #8 with 60,000, while Imagine Dragons’ Smoke + Mirrors takes a much steeper decline from #1 to #9 with 55,000. Maroon 5’s V rounds out the top 10 with 49,000.

Uptown funks up the Hot 100 once again, with Mark Ronson & Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk!” topping the chart for a ninth straight week. Billboard notes that it’s one of only four songs ever to top the US and UK singles chart for seven weeks each. Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” stays at #2 for a seventh straight week, followed by Maroon 5’s “Sugar” at a new #3 peak. That bumps Ellie Goulding’s “Love Me Like You Do” down to #4. Rihanna, Kanye West, and Paul McCartney’s “FourFiveSeconds” follows at #5, then it’s Hozier’s “Take Me To Church” at #6. Two Taylor Swift songs switch places, with “Style” up to #7 and “Blank Space” down to #8. The Weeknd’s “Earned It” stays at #9, while Pitbull & Ne-Yo’s “Time Of Our Lives” climbs to #10.

TRACK CITY

Carly Rae Jepsen – “I Really Like You”
Previously I have avoided writing about songs that have already appeared on Stereogum outside this column, but damn, there’s no way to sum up the week in pop without including this sweet revelation. Officially Stoked for Jepsen’s album.

Cashmere Cat – “Adore” (Feat. Ariana Grande)
Cashmere Cat has been an omnipresent name in cutting-edge pop for a while now, with credits on songs such as Charli XCX’s “Break The Rules,” Ryn Weaver’s “OctaHate,” and Tinashe’s “All Hands On Deck,” but 2015 seems to be his breakout year. He was the lead producer on Kanye West’s “Wolves,” and he’s releasing Ariana Grande collabs under his own name now.

Kacey Musgraves – “Biscuits”
“Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy.” This woman is a genius, and she’s good at music too. “Biscuits” is the most charming song I’ve heard all week.

Hozier – “Someone New”
Maybe it’s just the “Take Me To Church” Stockholm Syndrome talking, but I find the new Hozier single even less pleasing than the last. The hook is undeniable, there’s just something about his aesthetic that I cannot abide. If this was, like, a Vampire Weekend song, I would probably be all about that melody.

AWOLNATION – “Windows”
I can’t tell if this is indie rock’s prog-rock phase or its nu-metal phase.

Cody Simpson – “New Problems”
This guy is the demon spawn of Justin Bieber and John Mayer, and as Billboard points out, we probably have Ed Sheeran to thank for him.

The Chainsmokers – “Let You Go” (Feat. Great Good OK Fine)
Perhaps not coincidentally, the best Chainsmokers single so far is the one that is more song than meme.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Carrie Underwood gave birth to a baby boy. [Billboard]
  • Chris Brown is a parent, too, and has been for a while… surprise! [TMZ]
  • Shania Twain has announced her final North American tour. [Rolling Stone]
  • T.I. will star in a sequel to his 2006 coming-of-age movie ATL. [Complex]
  • A low-quality recording of a new Avicii/Chris Martin collaboration has hit the web. [SPIN]
  • Joe Jonas, Ciara, and Nicole Scherzinger are among the stars set to appear on NBC’s new celebrity variety show I Can Do That. [Variety]
  • Charmayne Maxwell, a member of ’90s R&B group Brownstone, has died. [TMZ]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME