The Week In Pop

The Week In Pop: Please Welcome To The Stage Taylor Swift And Father John Misty

A brief timeline of the past week inside the bizarre media Bermuda Triangle that is Taylor Swift, Ryan Adams, and Father John Misty:

Thursday 9/17: Adams releases “Bad Blood,” the public’s first taste of his album-length cover of Swift’s blockbuster pop album 1989.
Friday 9/18: Misty, aka Josh Tillman, has a one-night stand with himself in the video for “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment.”
Sunday 9/20: Adams releases 1989 with much social media fanfare from Swift.
Monday 9/21: Zane Lowe interviews Adams on Beats 1, and Swift calls in “by surprise,” a cloying lovefest ensues.
Monday 9/21: The Venn diagram between these two worlds intersects when Tillman tweets (and later deletes) “In the studio working on a song for song reinterpretation of Ryan Adams’ “1989”, gonna be great! Ryan’s amazing! #sopsyched.” By late afternoon, he shares mocking lo-fi interpretations of “Blank Space” and “Welcome To New York” in the style of the Velvet Underground. Later that night, they disappear from SoundCloud.
Tuesday 9/22: Swift’s publicist assures the press that she did not force Tillman to remove the music. Tillman issues a statement describing an elaborate, almost certainly made-up dream that ended with Lou Reed’s ghost asking him to take the Swift/Adams/VU covers down.
Wednesday 9/23: Tillman wars with writer Sarah Sahim on Twitter after she criticizes him.

The whole ordeal was fascinating in terms of ideas. For those of us who like thinking and talking about music almost as much as we like listening to it, there was plenty to dissect. Quoth Powerman 5000, this is what it’s like when worlds collide. But regardless of their value as cultural commentary, the various stunts produced very little in terms of actual enjoyable music, and they played up some of the worst aspects of everyone involved — the oppressive “Everything Is AWESOME!!!“-style enthusiasm of the Swift/Adams/Lowe camp (particularly Lowe, who has never heard a song that didn’t strike him as “straight fire”), and the verging-on-toxic cynicism Tillman exhibits when he steps out from behind his Father John Misty character. It would be enough to sour me on the whole lot of them if they weren’t the kind of talented and charismatic figures that keep pop culture consumers coming back and, more importantly, some of the most consistently rewarding musicians in their respective fields.

As it happens, I bookended this sequence of events by seeing Swift and Father John Misty in concert. Swift played Nationwide Arena in Columbus last Thursday; six days and countless preposterous developments later, Tillman performed across the street at LC Pavilion. Their respective live shows and media exploits cast their competing philosophies into sharp relief. In practice if not in essence, Swift shies away from contradiction; she is a Hollywood endings kind of artist, a believer in giving the people the resolution they crave. Tillman is all about tension; he juxtaposes canned laughter with maudlin despair, sometimes literally, living out a deconstructed version of lounge-lizard rock stardom that rips open humanity’s deep psychological wounds without offering much of a salve. Whereas Swift is trying to juggle the roles of “pop star” and “normal person,” Tillman’s whole deal is to parody not just pop stardom but the fundamentals of human existence. When this kind of ideological battle plays out among actual people like it did this week, it tends to render our whole species wildly unappealing. Father John Misty’s sonic spitballs rubbed me the wrong way, his social media antagonism even more so, but if the alternative is the ultra-polite, saccharine posi vibes that turned the Adams-covers-Swift operation into a sticky, gooey mess, what are we left with?

As a human being, you have to choose one of these paths or figure out a third way. As a music fan, you don’t have to choose at all; you can sit back and appreciate how skillfully an artist builds their worldview into a world, whether or not you find that worldview to be full of shit. Which is to say that both Swift and Misty put on killer shows — two total pros with immensely talented teams behind them ganging up to present compelling songs in a context that accentuates their strengths.

For Swift, as on her album, that meant fully embracing her concept of pop: glittery outfits, sunglasses at night, shirtless male dancers, and (mostly) moving out from behind a guitar to stalk the runway like her supermodel friends. Surprisingly, it also meant a fresh influx of rock ‘n’ roll trappings, including microphone swings, dueling guitar solos, and aggro revisions of two old Red hits. “We Are Never Getting Back Together” got a leather-clad rock remix replete with a video montage that aped the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” video, while “I Knew You Were Trouble” was transformed from infectious dubstep-pop into a hellish dirge worthy of Nine Inch Nails. She’s been doing massive arena shows for years now, and the 1989 Tour boasted flourishes both standard (a levitating stage, a big-budget light show) and customized (oversized paper planes for “Out Of The Woods,” a light-up dress for “How You Get The Girl,” a custom piano for “Wildest Dreams” that resembled a glass-blower’s best attempt at Ursula from The Little Mermaid). Her band added the requisite muscle to the album’s gleaming pop tracks. It was stimulating in all the ways arena shows tend to be, but the best moment was when Swift grabbed an acoustic guitar and played “Red” by herself, using one of her most masterful songs to forge a real sense of intimacy with 15,000 people.

Swift’s appeal is obvious enough. Besides the motherfucking craft that has helped her sculpt dozens of memorable songs across several styles without ever losing her sense of self, she’s a magnetic performer. She has managed to skillfully navigate the road from teenage country star to grownup pop titan and to outlast her former tabloid image as a manic vengeful bitch who scares boyfriends away and writes songs about them. She’s a strong woman in complete control, and the messages she’s communicating to young women are positive for the most part, especially her banter about the power of female friendship and learning to approach romance on your own terms rather than let the ghost of some ex-boyfriend haunt your world. That kind of advice is impossible to criticize, but I wanted to throw up watching the interstitial montages of Swift’s gal pals gushing about how wonderful it is to be friends with her. (Danielle Haim, with a deadpan expression: “Taylor’s like the sister I never had.” Alana Haim, with a straight face: “We’re an epic squad.”) These costume-change moments, designed to flesh out Swift’s girl-power message, only served to puncture the fantasy world she conjured with her stage production.

One of the most enduring critiques of Swift is that the deeply sincere public image she projects feels so carefully constructed that it comes off as insincere, whether it’s power moves like the “Bad Blood” video or Hey-Look-How-Awkward-And-Normal-I-Am gestures like the “Shake It Off” video. She can’t just send Christmas gifts to her fans, she has to parade it before the world on YouTube. Like Drake, her constant big-ups to lesser-known musicians on Twitter raise their profile while marking them as part of her empire. I don’t doubt the genuineness of her affection for her friends and fans or the generosity of her frequent Please Welcome To The Stage guest spots, but even her acts of kindness seem engineered to further cement her position at the center of the universe — hooray for the squad, sure, but don’t you dare forget who’s the squad leader.

Incidentally, in that video where he fucks himself, Tillman sings about having no patience for a young woman who believes herself to be the center of the cosmos. His dismissive posture in “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment” understandably rubs some people the wrong way, including fans of his, and yet Tillman would tell you there are deeper layers of irony and self-loathing at work that trump any misogynistic readings. If that seems like bullshit, well, a big part of being a Father John Misty fan is trying to sort out when he’s putting us on. He takes the guessing game that lingers in the background of Swift’s public persona and moves it to the forefront. When that tension transfers from Tillman the internet crank to Tillman the ’70s singer-songwriter, it becomes infinitely more appealing. On stage, as on I Love You, Honeybear, the man was electric.

Looking like an especially lusty Cat Stevens, Tillman stalked and shimmied with a grace you can’t teach. He threw his whole body into the performance, careening effortlessly from power (falling to his knees like a rock ‘n’ roller) to finesse (the expert fingerpicking of a former Fleet Fox) to standup comedy. (He told one cat-caller, “If you really love me, you will do the selfless thing and record plenty of iPhone footage of me, which you can hang out with instead of me while I work some shit out.”) I remember his hands the most — casually draped on the mic stand, dramatically touching his face, finger snaps, jackoff motions, reaching out to just barely graze the fingers in the front row.

So much of the bitterness that colored his public interactions this week was substituted with something closer to whimsy. He still mocked his audience from time to time, but it felt like good fun, a joke we were in on. Immediately after asking us to let our cool facade melt away so we can “start to feel something resembling humanity,” he remarked, “It smells like pizza in here. I like it.” His banter couldn’t have been much farther from Swift’s chipper daily affirmations. But there was a similar sense of camaraderie, of a leader among his people. Like Swift, he employed a cast of ace sidemen who made his songs feel like masterpieces, shifting gears from juke-joint country to exquisite chamber-pop to take-no-prisoners rock ‘n’ roll. And like Swift, his stage show felt like an extension of his songs: A neon sign behind the band, a cursive “No Photography” ensconced in a heart, made sure any images people snapped on their phones would be infected with Tillman’s absurd sense of humor.

The shows had a lot in common, of course, because no matter how much you adjust the particulars, there are certain aspects of human experience you can’t shake off. With all due respect to the ghost of Lou Reed, I think that’s why Tillman ultimately decided to delete his “Ryan Adams covers” — he realized that in an effort to rage against a culture of ephemeral clickbait bullshit, he had created some ephemeral clickbait bullshit of his own. In his own songs, his struggle to fight through that kind of authenticity trap in search of something real makes for such heartrending beauty, but without the careful attention and hard work that goes into those songs, his burst of inspiration hit like a crotchety Facebook comment. That’s not to say there’s no value in calling bullshit when you see mediocrity being treated like a stroke of genius. But what’s far more valuable is something Tillman was already doing: creating an alternative to mediocrity by spinning something genius of your own.

CHART WATCH

Another week of Abel Tesfaye domination: Beauty Behind The Madness spends a third week atop the albums chart, and one Weeknd single replaces another atop the singles chart. As Billboard notes, Tesfaye is the first artist since Taylor Swift to hold down the #1 album and #1 single in consecutive weeks.

Let’s examine the singles chart first. “The Hills” knocks “Can’t Feel My Face” out of the #1 spot, becoming the Weeknd’s second #1 hit. Justin Bieber’s former #1 “What Do You Mean?” actually climbs back to #2 ahead of the now-#3 “Can’t Feel My Face.” Other notable top 10 movers: Selena Gomez and A$AP Rocky’s “Good For You” climbs to #5, becoming her highest-charting single to date. (It was already Rocky’s highest charter at #6; his own collab-heavy “Fucking Problems” peaked at #8.) Lastly, Drake scores his first Hot 100 top-10 single in almost two years as the viral “Cha-Cha” flip “Hotline Bling” ascends to #10.

Thanks to Billboard’s digital-age tabulation process, this is the second straight week the Weeknd rules the albums chart without selling the most albums. By that metric, Beauty Behind The Madness finished third behind new releases from Bring Me The Horizon and Slayer. But thanks to track sales and streaming data, the Weeknd’s 99,000 equivalent units best Bring Me The Horizon’s 62,000 for #2-debuting That’s The Spirit. Country singer Brett Eldredge’s Illinois (not an album-length Sufjan cover a la Ryan Adams/Taylor Swift, unfortunately) is at #3 with 51,000 units. It’s not until #4 that Slayer’s Repentless enters with 50,000. Other top-10 debuts include Gary Clark Jr.’s The Story Of Sonny Boy Slim (#8, 27,000) and Duran Duran’s Paper Gods (#10, 25,000).

TRACK CITY

One Direction – “Infinity”
Between this and “Drag Me Down,” we’ve now heard two songs from 1D’s newly announced Made In The A.M., and both of them feature rock musicians approximating the effect of an EDM breakdown. “Infinity” is a step up from the previous single’s ultimate corn, a ballad with a chorus that keeps expanding until it can no longer be contained by stadiums. But I still have to convince myself to like it, which hasn’t been a problem with these guys for a long time. It’s probably good that they’re going on hiatus.

Tove Lo – “Moments”
“Moments” is one of many songs on Tove Lo’s Queen Of The Clouds — still 2014’s best pop album, and yes that includes the filler-laden 1989 — to cap off its synthetic musical wonders with an extremely memorable lyric. In this case it’s the kicker, “On my good days I am charming as fuck.” (The chorus-opening “I’m not the prettiest you’ve ever seen, but I have my moments” is another one of the song’s many other excellent lyrics.)

Kiesza – “Give It To The Moment” (Feat. Djemba Djemba)
This is an intriguingly aggro take on Kiesza’s house-diva sound, and that unexpected influx of melody on the bridge was a pleasant surprise. Still, it’s too digitally stiff to match the good vibes of “Hideaway” or “Giant In My Heart.”

Bastille – “Hangin'”
“Hangin'” reminds me that Bastille’s shtick is basically Alt-J with all the weirdness filtered out. It’s not as annoying as last year’s world-conquering “Pompeii,” but it’s also not as memorable.

Flo Rida – “My House”
Say what you want about Flo Rida, but this man is a master of mediocrity.

Rozes – “In & Out”
Rozes sang on the Chainsmokers’ “Roses,” easily one of this year’s 10 best pop songs. “In & Out” is her first solo single since then, and unfortunately, it’s way less compelling than “Roses.” She’s still a gifted singer with a strong command of her voice, but the songwriting and production just isn’t there, so the euphoria is missing too.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Rihanna won’t be joining Taylor Swift’s squad, but no bad blood. [Us]
  • T.I. is still working with Iggy Azalea after all. [AP]
  • Here is an important update on the future of Foster The People. [Twitter]
  • Waka Flocka Flame said some very insensitive things about Caitlyn Jenner. [TMZ]
  • Zendaya is getting her own Barbie. [Twitter]
  • Ariana Grande already died on Scream Queens. [Gawker]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME