The Stalled-Out Pop Stars Who Hit It Big Behind The Scenes
The #1 song in America this week is “Sorry” by Justin Bieber. Much has been written about Skrillex and BloodPop’s role in crafting the track’s fizzy, dancehall-inflected beat. But before the producers got their hands on “Sorry,” its basic parts were manifested by Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter, the subjects of a recent New York Times feature called “How An Unlikely Duo Became The Hottest Songwriters In Pop Music.”
The story explains how Tranter, a 35-year-old glam-rocker whose band Semi Precious Weapons once toured arenas opening for Lady Gaga, met Michaels, a 22-year-old who’s been a pro songwriter since her teens, at a sort of creative blind date arranged by their management company. Since 2013 they’ve co-written a vast number of hits, with Interscope’s A&R president noting, “They became my go-to writers so quickly because their batting average was so, so high.” Among their other collaborations are Hailee Steinfeld’s coy masturbation anthem “Love Myself,” Gwen Stefani’s divorce ballad “Used To Love You,” Fall Out Boy’s nü jock jam “Centuries,” and a pair of Selena Gomez singles, the darkly simmering “Good For You” and the brisk, minimal “Hands To Myself.”
The songwriting partnership might prove to be a launchpad for Michaels just as similar behind-the-scenes gigs were for Kesha and Bruno Mars. Tranter is moving in the opposite direction: For him, this arrangement is a career lifeline, a chance to get his music in front of a larger audience than ever now that his own band has stalled out. Despite a fervent fan base and support from figures like Gaga, Semi Precious Weapons never really clicked in a sustainable way. “My artist career failed pretty miserably multiple times,” he told Spin last year. “I’m OK with that… For me, it’s sort of beautiful to have my sensibility — especially lyrically — and be able to offer that when it’s appropriate.”
Tranter may well turn out to be the next Max Martin, the indestructible Swedish songwriter/producer whose own band It’s Alive fizzled out in a fashion not unlike Semi Precious Weapons. Or perhaps he’ll follow in the footsteps of Semisonic’s Dan Wilson, who recognized his own group had reached its closing time and went on to win Grammys penning songs for the Dixie Chicks and Adele. And if he’s really lucky, maybe he’ll be able to relaunch his band someday like the Madden brothers, who recently reactivated Good Charlotte after establishing a heavyweight songwriting career for the likes of 5 Seconds Of Summer.
Might Charli XCX find herself in a similar position soon? The singer born Charlotte Aitchison has reached higher heights than Semi Precious Weapons ever did, landing a slow-burn top-10 hit with “I Love It” and an inescapable #1 smash with “Fancy.” But she’s relegated to guest status on those tracks, both of which she co-wrote — they have become iconic songs for other people. Only one of her own singles, the #8-peaking “Boom Clap,” has ever approached that level of success. Although she’s long been a sensation among critics and pop geeks, she has seen so many fire singles fail to connect at radio. And when I attended her co-headlining tour with Bleachers last summer, I watched much of the crowd thin out after Jack Antonoff’s band finished up, before Charli took the stage. Her ascent to superstardom keeps getting postponed.
Her songwriting career is looking up, though. Besides gifting “I Love It” to Icona Pop and crafting the hook that took “Fancy” to the top, she had a hand in yet another recent Selena Gomez single, “Same Old Love,” which sits at #6 on the Hot 100 and went to #1 on Billboard’s Pop Songs airplay chart. And although she doesn’t look to be giving up on her own solo recordings — she’s prepping a heavily electronic album including the SOPHIE collab “Vroom Vroom” — it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where she takes some time out of the spotlight to collect paychecks writing for other artists.
That tactic worked out incredibly well for Sia. The Australian singer-songwriter spent the late ’90s and early 2000s trying her damnedest to break in the US, but nothing stuck, not even her UK hit “Taken For Granted.” Even landing her song “Breathe Me” in a memorable Six Feet Under scene didn’t gain her any traction on the charts. So five years ago she retreated to the shadows and opted to write songs for a living, a decision that resulted in a string of smashes including Rihanna’s smash “Diamonds” and Ne-Yo’s “Let Me Love You (Until You Learn to Love Yourself).” Despite her plan to remain on the sidelines, not long after landing “Pretty Hurts” on Beyoncé’s self-titled “visual album,” Sia scored her first bona fide hit with the undeniable “Chandelier.”
Sia, Jay-z y Beyoncé pic.twitter.com/2heVT9YtVo
— sia españa (@aboutsia) November 27, 2015
Sia has been all over TV and radio since then, and she’s stayed busy in the studio, both writing songs for other artists and recording some of the ones she couldn’t sell. Thus, later this month we get This Is Acting, an album comprising rejected songs she wrote for other people, each track built around one of those humongous choruses that are her specialty. To my ears her own material has rarely soared like “Chandelier” did, but it seems to scratch the itch for her ever-expanding fan base. By harnessing her knack for hooks and turning her spotlight aversion into an art project far stranger than her music, she has parlayed an anonymous songwriting career into a vital recording career of her own.
Give or take a wigged-out costume, Sia’s maneuver is one of the oldest tricks in the book. One timely reminder of all the historical precedent: A Broadway musical based on the life of Carole King is currently touring the US. Like Sia, King retreated to songwriting when her performance career didn’t work out. Like Sia, she ended up catching fire behind the scenes, churning out hit after hit for other artists. And like Sia, she channeled that momentum into another crack at stardom, becoming one of the most successful musicians of all time. So no, Sia was not the first songwriter to boomerang back to the spotlight, and she likely won’t be the last. Justin Tranter, there is hope for your solo career yet.
“Hello” has been dethroned! After 10 weeks of wall-to-wall Adele, we have a new #1 single on the Billboard Hot 100, albeit from a not-so-new face. Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” has been bubbling just beneath “Hello” throughout its entire chart run, mostly at #2 and sometimes at #3, but as mentioned above, the apology anthem finally overtakes Adele’s brokenhearted lament this week. It’s Bieber’s second career #1 following previous single “What Do You Mean?” And Billboard notes that it ties Outkast and Sleepy Brown’s “The Way You Move” for the most weeks at #2 before eventually reaching #1. (Although in that case it was another Outkast song — “Hey Ya!” — keeping “The Way You Move” out of the #1 spot for eight weeks.)
Bieber also holds on to #3 with “Love Yourself” and sees “What Do You Mean?” drop to #8. And there is one bit of significant top-10 movement not related to Bieber: Twenty One Pilots’ “Stressed Out,” which became their first top-10 single at #9 last week, becomes their first top-5 single at #5 this week.
“Hello” may have lost its stranglehold on the Hot 100, but Adele’s 25 remains atop the albums chart for the seventh straight week with 194,000 equivalent units (164,000 in pure sales). Billboard reports that 25 is the first album by a woman to debut at #1 and remain there for seven weeks since Whitney Houston’s Whitney in 1987 and the first since the introduction of SoundScan in 1991. And it’s the first album of any start on top and remain for seven weeks since Creed’s Weathered did it for eight weeks in 2002.
Notably, Adele’s album chart reign also looks set to end next week because people have been buying David Bowie’s ? (Blackstar) like crazy. As for this week, the only new arrival in the top 10 is “Fight Song” singer Rachel Platten’s major-label debut Wildfire, which enters at #5 with 45,000 units.
Iggy Azalea – “AZILLION”
This EDM-rap monstrosity is not an official Azalea single, just a SoundCloud loosie — or in her words, a “BUZZ TRACK… 4 MY RATZ.” Really makes you appreciate the subtle craftsmanship of “Fancy.”
OMI – “Drop In The Ocean” (Feat. AronChupa)
I’m not really into island melodies and riddims of this ilk, especially not when they’re smoothed out into OMI-style blandness, but I’ll take this nimble, minimal finger-snapper over “Cheerleader” any day. Now if dude would develop some kind of visual gimmick beyond female objectification he’d really be on the right track.
Pitbull – “Freedom”
Synth party with Mr. Worldwide! I hate that I don’t hate this.
Hailee Steinfeld – “You’re Such A”
This is becoming Steinfeld’s lane: Obnoxiously catchy shout-alongs that allude to sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll without actually plunging into anything edgy. Also, LOL that this sounds like every blog buzz band from five years ago.
Nico & Vinz – “Pull It Together”
Am I wrong, or are these guys better than their one-hit wonder status suggests?
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Now that One Direction is officially over, Liam Payne is pursuing a rap career. [TMZ]
- Speaking of Payne, he and 1D’s Louis Tomlinson will appear on Family Guy. [EW]
- And in other 1D news, Zayn Malik says his former bandmates don’t return his calls or texts. [Vogue]
- A Kentucky woman was arrested for biting her husband during an argument about Hilary Duff. [KMOV]
- Christina Aguilera is in the studio. [Instagram]
- Madonna sang at Sean Penn’s Haiti fundraiser on the night his El Chapo interview was published. [NY Times]
- Nicki Minaj had a huge Twitter fight with reality TV star Farah Abraham. [HipHopDX]
- Meghan Trainor’s new album is almost done. [Forbes]
- Katy Perry met Jennifer Lawrence on the Golden Globes red carpet. [E!]
- Lady Gaga brushed by Leonardo DiCaprio on her way to accept a Golden Globe and the moment went viral. [ET]
- Keith Urban covered an (old) Adele song on SiriusXM. [YouTube]
- Alessia Cara covered Lorde and Disclosure’s “Magnets” in BBC’s Live Lounge. [YouTube]
- The Revenant almost had a Bobby Shmurda reference, says Tom Hardy. [The Source]
- Nickelback are countersuing their insurance company over covering cancelled tour dates for Chad Kroeger’s throat surgery. [TMZ]