The Week In Pop

Ellie Goulding Doesn’t Understand What Makes “A Big Pop Album”

When Ellie Goulding announced her new album, Delirium, over the summer, the press release included this quote from the British singer: “A part of me views this album as an experiment — to make a big pop album. I made a conscious decision that I wanted it to be on another level.” This is a ridiculous statement, but not entirely ridiculous considering the source.

Goulding emerged out of England in 2010 with “Lights,” an EDM-infused synth track that earned rave reviews upon its release and made a surprise dash up the American charts two years later. Yet despite the song’s success, Goulding seemed less like a budding superstar than one of many internet-era singers making “pop” with scare quotes. She dated and collaborated with Skrillex at the height of dubstep, befriended elusive production mastermind Burial, and brought Arcade Fire rock bombast to her live show. She was sorta cool and kinda famous, but not enough of a cause célèbre to dominate online discourse nor popular enough at radio to be a household name.

Even as she kept landing EDM-era hits like “Burn” and “I Need Your Love,” and slaying festival sets throughout 2013 and 2014 — I count at least three rave reviews in our archives — Goulding seemed stuck in some netherworld between blog stardom and actual stardom, not fully reaping the benefits of critical acclaim nor commercial conquest.

Not until “Love Me Like You Do,” the humongous MOR ballad from this year’s blockbuster Fifty Shades Of Grey soundtrack, did Goulding gain a firm foothold in the public consciousness. Although the song technically charted lower than “Lights,” thanks to Fifty Shades it felt far more inescapable — the kind of song she could belt out as Taylor Swift’s special guest with the confidence that everyone in the audience would know every word. Now, like her fellow Fifty Shades beneficiary the Weeknd, Goulding is attempting to seize her moment with an album designed to cement her status on the pop A-list.

The way she chose to describe that move — both “a big pop album” and “an experiment” — is telling. It’s no secret that in 2015, many of the old biases and ethics of the underground have fallen out of fashion. At this point going pop is well established as a path to critical acclaim, and being popular is generally viewed as a positive, not a cause for suspicion. In a smart piece that summed up the spirit of the times, Slate’s Carl Wilson recently noted the connection between that “bigger is better” impulse and music’s endless ’80s revival, examining the many ways in which Reagan-era largesse shapes the current generation’s view of pop. As Wilson sees it, the anything-goes spirit of post-integration MTV and Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” mantra echo into now in the form of mix-and-match Spotify playlists, the death of the musical middle class, and social media’s imperative to constantly expand your following.

In other words, coolness and bigness have become inextricable. Thus, when former underground art star the Weeknd released the brazenly commercial Beauty Behind The Madness this summer, our own Tom Breihan concluded that the album is “a total and unabashed sellout move, and that’s one of the best things about it.” Similarly, Wilson notes the message inherent in Swift naming her “very first documented, official pop album” 1989: “Like ’80s music, it declared, the new Taylor was going to be unabashedly fun, quirky, inventively plastic, and big, big, big.” Nevermind that Swift’s previous album, 2012’s crossover smash Red, was already a pop album in almost every sense. There’s a certain grandiosity to which today’s stars aspire — to be not just popular but shiny, synthetic, and larger than life.

That sparkling grandeur seems to be what Goulding had in mind for Delirium. It’s a very popular endeavor right now, but even for a performer with underground ties, the act of making a huge pop album doesn’t constitute an experiment. Delirium could not sound any less experimental if it tried; in fact, the sound it’s aiming for is the opposite of an experiment. “Love Me Like You Do” is the template — its massive scale, yes, but also its strict refusal to deviate into anything resembling personality. She’s even more of a cipher here than she was in her EDM days.

Which is not to say that its songs are outright bad, particularly the opening run. Proper opener “Aftertaste” soars on a jetstream of gated drums and wordless vocals; “Something In The Way You Move” is yet another solid Drive-inspired synthpop jam; “Keep On Dancing” is a darker, sleeker cousin to Major Lazer’s “Lean On”; and lead single “On My Mind” is this year’s entry into the canon of great Police-inspired pop tracks (recent inductees: Nico & Vinz’s “Am I Wrong,” Bruno Mars’ “Locked Out Of Heaven,” Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know”). Delirium is full of songs that tap into the pleasure receptors while they’re on but leave very little impression afterwards. Really, anything on the tracklist could be a single, though none of them screams “RELEASE ME!” Compared to the likes of Tove Lo’s Queen Of The Clouds or Carly Rae Jepsen’s E•MO•TION, the whole thing comes off like a B-quality rom-com that you watch when nothing else is on.

That’s probably not what Goulding had in mind when she talked about leveling up. Still, her devotion to leveling up cannot be denied. Every track is titanically huge — on par with 1989 and Beauty Behind The Madness, even. Thing is, hugeness only accounts for part of what makes those other albums work. They have an unmistakable point of view. In their own loose way, each one tells a story. And although Swift and Abel Tesfaye overhauled their respective sounds in a pointed bid for top-40 radio airplay, they did so without compromising their personas. Instead, we got richly established personalities blown out to glamorous, gargantuan proportions. Similarly, even if Adele’s album is as conservative as I expect it to be, we the listening public have a significant investment in her. We feel like we know her, so the heartache that courses through “Hello” feels real, at least as real as your favorite film or TV character’s heartache.

Goulding’s character is less defined and less compelling, in part because she hails from the EDM world, where anonymity among vocalists is often perceived as a virtue. So even as Delirium plays to the cheap seats, the stakes feel lower. Her breathy soprano is exceptional and modern, like a beam of light from an LCD screen. She repeatedly mentions how great her own voice is in this New York Times feature about her cordial breakup with EDM. Yet even on the string of perfectly functional singles that comprises the tracklist, Goulding’s voice feels like a leading lady’s instrument in service of a supporting player. Bigness can be a powerful tool, but without substance, is only accentuates hollowness.

And even in the context of 2015, is bigger really always better? Goulding’s former beau Skrillex is having a big year supplying squiggly melodies and nimble rhythmic framework for Justin Bieber. The Weeknd’s benefactor Drake continues to make minimalism one of his guiding principles, including on “Hotline Bling,” his biggest hit ever. Those artists are in the world-building business too, but sonically, they’re making pop smaller. What they have in common with their fellow A-listers is what Goulding lacks now more than ever: a strong sense of self.

CHART WATCH

An extremely rare occurrence has transpired on the Hot 100 this week: Both the #1 and #2 singles are debuts. Adele’s “Hello” is #1 of course, benefitting from a record sales week that saw the 25 single become the first song to sell a million downloads in a week. Arriving at #2 is Justin Bieber’s “Sorry,” a song that inspired many thoughts and ~feelings~ from our own Gabriela Tully Claymore. Billboard tells us that a 1-2 debut on the singles chart has only happened once before: In 2003, when American Idol season 2 finalists Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard entered with “This Is The Night” and “Flying Without Wings” respectively. Also, Bieber has now debuted two songs from Purpose in the top 2, a feat only three other albums have attained: Mariah Carey’s Daydream (1995-96) and Butterfly and Eminem’s Recovery.

Adele and Bieber’s big debuts mean Drake’s “Hotline Bling” falls from #2 to #3 and will probably never climb to the top of the chart. Also, the Weeknd’s six-week #1 “The Hills” has finally been dethroned and now sits at #4; with his other former #1 “Can’t Feel My Face” holding on at #10, Abel Tesfaye still has two top hits in the top 10. And Bieber’s “What Do You Mean?” slides to #5, giving him two top-5 tracks. If things go well for Bieber’s new “I’ll Show You” this week, he could join 50 Cent and the Beatles as the only artists to score three concurrent top-5 hits.

Over on the Billboard 200, Aussie pop-punk boy band 5 Seconds Of Summer secure their second #1 album with some very impressive numbers for Sounds Good Feels Good: 192,000 equivalent units, 179,000 in pure sales. Those stats were even enough to beat the mammoth figures for Carrie Underwood’s #2-debuting Storyteller; most weeks, 177,000 units/164,000 in sales would be more than sufficient to start on top. Sorry, Ms. Underwood — the 5SOSFam rolls deep. Elsewhere in the top 10, Blake Shelton’s Reloaded: 20 #1 Hits enters at #5 with 40,000 units, and Andrea Bocelli’s Cinema begins at #10 with 30,000.

POP FIVE

Ariana Grande – “Focus”
On one hand, the brassy/sassy “Focus” sounds a lot like “Problem,” which could be considered a detriment if you don’t think of it as Grande’s “Oops! …I Did It Again.” On the other hand, no Iggy! I’ll call it a wash and consider myself very excited for Moonlight. That’s Jamie Foxx wilding out on the hook, by the way.

Justin Bieber – “I’ll Show You”
From “Where Are Ü Now” to “What Do You Mean?” to “Sorry” to this, Bieber has been experiencing serious diminishing returns with this high-pitched tweaked vocals gimmick. But all four of those songs are better than what we expected from him before this dalliance with Skrillex, and I remain cautiously optimistic about Purpose. Remember back in April when I accurately predicted that he was on the right track?

Becky G – “You Love It”
Dr. Luke’s protege might never be an A-list pop star, but Luke keeps feeding her all these low-key jams, and yeah, I do kind of love it.

David Guetta – “Bang My Head” (Feat. Sia & Fetty Wap)
Guetta x Sia x Fetty, and it’s listenable? What a time.

The Knocks – “I Wish (My Taylor Swift)” (Feat. Matthew Koma)
Nevermind, 2015 sucks.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Netflix greenlighted a Selena Gomez series. [Deadline]
  • The thrift shop from Macklemore’s video is closing. [XXL]
  • Becky G has been cast as the yellow Power Ranger. [THR]
  • Bleachers has a song in this new movie trailer. [People]
  • Mariah Carey will perform at Macy’s Parade. [USA Today]
  • Psy will be releasing new music soon. [Twitter]
  • Rihanna dropped out of the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show; they got Ellie Goulding instead. [Vogue]
  • Sir David Attenborough narrated Adele’s “Hello” video. [YouTube]
  • Uh oh, 5SOS’ Ashton said Taylor Swift is “destructive.” [MTV]
  • Kelly Clarkson and Josh Groban did a Phantom Of The Opera cover. [Vulture]
  • Ed Sheeran’s never heard a Radiohead album. [Billboard]
  • Katy Perry is Forbes’ highest-earning woman in music this year. [Forbes]
  • Perry also has a new song “Everyday Is A Holiday” coming according to Glamour. [Tumblr]
  • Gwen Stefani and Blake Shelton are dating. [Us]
  • Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood hosted the CMAs and did a Star Wars sketch with various cameos. [YouTube]
  • Tidal owner Jason Aldean is back on Spotify. [Las Vegas Sun]
  • Britney Spears appears in a new trailer for Jane The Virgin. [YouTube]
  • Call Atlantic to demand your Waka Flocka. [Twitter]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME