The Week In Pop

The Rise Of The Producer As A Lead Artist

A new Justin Bieber song debuted at #2 on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart this week. Except “Cold Water” is not officially a Justin Bieber song — it’s a Major Lazer song. Bieber, whose transition from post-teeny-bopper purgatory into adult pop stardom was bolstered by singing on Diplo and Skrillex’s 2015 hit “Where Are Ü Now,” is once again credited as a featured player on the track. It’s easy to see this appearance with Major Lazer, Diplo’s dancehall-tinged production crew, as a sort of returned favor for Diplo’s role in launching Bieber’s world-conquering Purpose album, which spawned three #1 hits and a lucrative world tour. But the pop star’s relegation to second billing also speaks volumes about the vaunted place of producers in today’s pop music hierarchy.

Joining Bieber on “Cold Water” is MØ, the Danish singer whose voice was at the center of Major Lazer’s last major hit, “Lean On,” a co-production with DJ Snake. MØ had been kicking around the major-label pop launchpad for about three years before “Lean On” became her first real stateside hit. It was a hit all around the world, actually, becoming Spotify’s most-streamed song ever. A year before “Lean On,” when MØ’s RCA debut album No Mythologies To Follow flopped critically and commercially, such success would have been unthinkable. But aligning with Major Lazer put MØ on the map. And although she’s released a handful of singles since then, including the Diplo-produced “Kamikaze,” she didn’t make noise on the American charts again until she showed up on another blockbuster Major Lazer track.

At this point Bieber wields more star power than almost anybody on the planet. His relationship with Diplo and friends is arguably reciprocal. But for a relative unknown like MØ, jumping on a name-brand producer’s track is becoming one of the most effective ways to get your foot in the door at US radio. Consider Daya, a bubbling-under pop singer whose first massive chart success was singing on “Don’t Let Me Down,” a single by electronic production duo the Chainsmokers. The Chainsmokers also helped launch Rozes by featuring her on their track “Roses.” For British artist Bipolar Sunshine, lending vocals to “Middle” by “Lean On” co-producer DJ Snake was a similar career-booster. And before Bebe Rexha cracked the top 10 duetting with rapper G-Eazy on “Me, Myself & I,” she did it as a featured player on David Guetta’s “Hey Mama.”

Even Bieber might not have climbed back to his place of prominence without first getting a boost from a team of superstar producers. The listening public takes this reality for granted now, but a decade ago it wasn’t so. Sure, a similar dynamic has always been at play, with pop singers jockeying to work with high-profile producers who boast hit-making pedigree. But outside industry circles those producers were not usually known quantities. And even the ones who became name brands unto themselves, like hip-hop luminaries the Bomb Squad and DJ Premier, rarely released records under their own names.

One major exception to this rule has always been electronic dance music, a vast network of underground scenes and subgenres where producers enjoyed superstar status and vocalists were often anonymous or absent altogether. At the beginning of this decade, some of those scenes blew up in a big way — dubstep, trap, and electro house among them — and EDM had its big mainstream moment. It was even more pervasive than rave culture’s public ascendance in the late ’90s, not just a crossover but a makeover. From music festivals to TV commercials to top-40 radio to the Grammys, this stuff was everywhere. It was a cultural tidal wave.

That wave has may have crested in the sense that trends have shifted away from dubstep drops and supercharged untz-untz rhythms, but EDM’s cultural runoff is still impacting the mainstream pop ecosystem in profound ways. One of them is that producers have risen to a new level of prominence. Figures like Zedd, Avicii, and Calvin Harris didn’t just change the sound of pop, they permanently changed its power structure, putting their names front and center on records that historically would have banished them to the liner notes. And now that the wizards have emerged from behind the curtain, they may never be going back.

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Calvin Harris
CREDIT: Ollie Millington/Getty Images

“Producer” is one of the most fluid words in music, so let me explain. I don’t mean a DJ — someone who plays mixes of preexisting music at nightclubs or on the radio — although sometimes DJs are producers too. By “producer,” I mean someone who is actively involved in the writing and recording of the music. Calvin Harris, for instance, makes millions building the beats for songs like his #3-peaking Rihanna collaboration “This Is What You Came For” (as a producer), and then he makes millions upon millions pressing play on that song at nightclubs and festivals (as a DJ).

Sometimes a producer functions like a creative consultant — someone who helps a band achieve a certain aesthetic, or who comes up with the perfect violin part to complement the vocal melody, or who insists that a chorus should actually be a bridge. Other times a producer will build a complete piece of music from the ground up and present the finished product to a vocalist, like Metro Boomin supplying Future with readymade beats or Jack Antonoff letting Taylor Swift add lyrics and melody to an otherwise-finished “Out Of The Woods.” There are many permutations in between, but it always involves some kind of creative input; as Steve Albini will tell you, merely setting up microphones and pressing record makes him an engineer, not a producer. One useful if imperfect comparison is that music producers are like movie directors, the people behind the scenes who oversee the operation, whereas singers are like actors out front delivering the performances.

With all that in mind, producers have been wildly important to pop music since the 1960s, when the likes of Phil Spector, George Martin, and Brian Wilson elevated audio recording from a science to an art form. Behind every pop icon stands a talented producer, or more likely an army of them. Pop music as we know it would not exist without producers. Yet for the most part, producers have been anonymous among all but the most zealous pop fans. Even though many producers have a signature sound, most casual listeners wouldn’t know the difference between the work of, say, Max Martin and Greg Kurstin.

The small minority of producers who did become household names usually did it by putting those names out there front and center. The American charts have long been dotted with background characters who became prominent enough to claim lead artist credit on a hit song. But those acts have always been exceptions to the rule, and rarely have they accumulated top-flight hits like the biggest producers do today. For instance, despite their late-’90s ubiquity, superstar electronic beat-makers Fatboy Slim, Moby, and the Chemical Brothers never cracked the US top 10. Timbaland leveraged his market saturation into a string of gigantic mid-aughts pop hits, but he was singing and rapping and wickedy-wickedy-ing on those songs, not just producing.

Ditto Pharrell: When he started releasing music under his own name, he stepped to the mic. It’s telling that he and Chad Hugo didn’t really release songs as the Neptunes, instead forming N.E.R.D. and making their own records under the guise of a rock band — and even then Pharrell was acting as a vocalist, not merely providing the music. In the pop context, producers just didn’t release their own records that often, and even less often did those records ascend to the upper reaches of the charts. To extend the movie analogy, the belief was that you needed a superstar performer to anchor your record, the same way a tentpole movie needs a famous actor. Quincy Jones was a well-known quantity in the music world, but in terms of brand loyalty, the number of people looking out for his next production in the ’70s and ’80s was a small fraction of the crowd waiting with bated breath for a new Steven Spielberg movie.

EDM’s effect on the pop landscape was to elevate the producer out of the director’s chair and into the spotlight. When Rihanna released “We Found Love” in 2010, many in the music world flinched at producer Calvin Harris’ featured artist credit. He’s a producer, not a performer! He didn’t utter a single word! Six years later, it’s taken for granted that a big-name producer will be credited as an artist on big-budget singles. As we’ve noted, often the producer is the lead artist these days. Pop music is now overflowing with its own Steven Spielbergs and John Carpenters and Quentin Tarantinos. (As with movie directing, big-budget music production is overwhelmingly, frustratingly male, but that’s a subject for another column.) Rap producers have been riding this wave, too: DJ Mustard released a studio album in 2014, Mike Will Made It has one on the way, and Metro Boomin can’t be far behind.

It makes perfect sense that the person who crafted the music would claim some kind of public ownership over a track, but the industry had never functioned that way — possibly because crediting the producer as an artist entitles them to artist royalties, not just the publishing rights that come along with songwriting credit. Suddenly these producers are double-dipping, doing the same work for greater financial return plus all the intangible benefits of name recognition. Come to think of it, this may be why more pop singers are claiming songwriting credits even when they make microscopic creative contributions: You eat into my royalties, I’ll eat into yours.

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DJ Snake
CREDIT: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

One of the biggest beneficiaries of this new economy has been DJ Snake, the 30-year-old French producer born William Sami Etienne Grigahcine. Snake spent his teenage years DJing and drawing graffiti in the slums near Paris before getting into producing at age 19. He contributed some production work to “Government Hooker” on Lady Gaga’s Born This Way in 2011 and caught Diplo’s attention with his single “Bird Machine” in 2013. But his true big break was “Turn Down For What,” the comically aggressive Lil Jon collaboration that became one of the last big hits of the EDM explosion.

The Eastern-tinged trap-rave detonations of “Turn Down For What” were in line with Snake’s work on “Bird Machine” as well as “Get Low,” his 2014 single with Dillon Francis. But he’s since moved on from that milieu. His other two big radio hits, “Lean On” and “Middle,” are more sentimental bangers, tending toward a warm, easygoing bounce and squealing manipulated vocal hooks. Those tweaked vocals showed up on his AlunaGeorge team-up “You Know You Like It,” but that song was a sleek and chilly in a way none of Snake’s other hits have been. Actually, Snake is an appropriate name for this guy because he’s pretty slippery stylistically, as demonstrated on Encore, the album he’s dropping tomorrow.

Thus far this producer-as-a-lead-artist renaissance hasn’t given us many memorable complete album statements, and Encore isn’t going to change that. Not that Snake doesn’t try: His LP is loaded with potential hits in multiple genres, and what he lacks in a signature sound he makes up for with a diverse skill set. The thing doesn’t hang together at all and barely qualifies as enjoyable when you consume it as a whole, but it’s easy to imagine a lot of these songs becoming inescapable the way “Turn Down For What” and “Lean On” and “Middle” did. Some of them are even good.

“Middle” is the only one of those prior successes on the album. It’s joined by “Talk,” a similarly minded collaboration with UK-based Aussie singer George Maple. Snake rides the dancehall-pop wave with the Bieber-assisted “Let Me Love You” and “Sober” featuring JRY. He’s got aggro electronic instrumentals, like “Sahara” with Skrillex and “Ocho Cinco” with Yellow Claw. He’s got back to back rap/R&B posse cuts “The Half” (starring Jeremih, Young Thug, and Swizz Beats) and “Oh Me Oh My” (starring Travis Scott, Migos, and G4shi). Even Kanye West’s favorite accessory Mr. Hudson shows up at the end because what says quasi-tasteful outsized opulence like Mr. Hudson?

By slithering his way across genres like that, Snake is following a path cut by his buddy Diplo. There’s a dude whose signature sound has morphed more times than I can count, yet his ability to foresee trends and adapt accordingly has allowed him to keep scoring hits and accumulating clout. Whereas pop stardom is a young person’s game, Diplo is 37 years old and only gaining more pop potency as he goes. From his place behind the boards, society doesn’t expect him to project the image of youth. He has plenty of avatars to do that for him.

We’ll always have a handful of transcendent pop stars, singers whose talent and/or personality allows them to be the center of attention without regard to who made the beat. But maybe that’s the destiny of B-level singers and industry plants from here on out: gunning for spots on the hottest producer’s new track the way actors vie for a place in some famous director’s latest film. Behold the era of the pop music auteur — or at least the pop music Michael Bay.

CHART WATCH

If you’ve been following the charts lately, you will not be surprised to learn that Drake’s Views is the #1 album in America for a 12th nonconsecutive week. The album’s 85,000 equivalent units helped it surpass Taylor Swift’s 1989 as the longest tenured #1 album since the Frozen soundtrack went 13 weeks on top in 2014. Per Billboard, Views is one of only nine albums in the past 25 years to spend 12 weeks at #1:

Adele, 21 — 24 (2011-2012)
Whitney Houston/Soundtrack, The Bodyguard — 20 (1992-1993)
Garth Brooks, Ropin’ The Wind — 18 (1991-1992)
Billy Ray Cyrus, Some Gave All — 17 (1992)
Soundtrack, Titanic — 16 (1998)
Soundtrack, Frozen — 13 (2014)
Drake, Views — 12 (2016)
Alanis Morissette, Jagged Little Pill — 12 (1995-1996)
Santana, Supernatural — 12 (1999-2000)

The latest casualty of Drake’s streaming-bolstered streak is Gucci Mane, whose post-prison comeback album Everybody Looking debuts at #2 with 68,000 units/43,000 sales. It’s the seventh album to debut at #2 behind Views. The rest of the top 10 is mostly familiar titles, though Sia’s This Is Acting is back up to #6 with 30,000 units thanks to her #1 single “Cheap Thrills” and a $6.99 sale at iTunes.

Speaking of “Cheap Thrills,” the Sean Paul duet stays at #1 for a second straight week, followed by Major Lazer’s Justin Bieber/MØ collab “Cold Water” at #2 as noted above. Billboard notes that Bieber now holds the record for most #2-debuting singles with three. (“Boyfriend” and “Sorry” also entered at #2.) And in the top 10’s only upward movement, Adele’s “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” rises to a new peak of #9.

POP FIVE

Britney Spears – “Private Show”
You may not be able to hear it because apparently all Stereogum commenters are morally opposed to Apple Music, but this is a pretty good Britney Spears song.

The Chainsmokers – “Closer” (Feat. Halsey)
On first listen, this one didn’t bowl me over like “Roses” or “Don’t Let Me Down.” But I heard it in the wild at max volume over the weekend, and it sounded as humongous and sparkly as state-of-the-art pop songs are supposed to sound.

Jason Derulo – “Kiss The Sky”
Imagine how famous Robin Thicke would still be if he followed up “Blurred Lines” with this instead of Paula.

Martin Garrix & Bebe Rexha – “In The Name Of Love”
This post-EDM power ballad is the first Bebe Rexha song that I haven’t found completely obnoxious. Actually, it’s better than not-completely-obnoxious.” It’s total fucking fire. Enjoy!

Kenny Chesney – “Setting The World On Fire” (Feat. P!nk)
Every other aging white pop singer is crossing over to country, so why not P!nk? “Setting The World On Fire” suggests her voice is built for it.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Kanye West has cancelled on Carpool Karaoke twice, but the second time he sent James Corden three dozen white roses arranged in a cube. [GQ]
  • Hozier is the star of John Varvatos’ Fall/Winter 2016 campaign. [WWD]
  • Jidenna will perform “Long Live The Chief” on Netflix’s upcoming superhero show Marvel’s Luke Cage. [Slashfilm]
  • Katy Perry has some new commercials for her Cover Girl Katy Kat Collection mascara and lipstick. [Twitter]
  • Some are speculating that Skrillex has reunited with his old screamo band From First To Last and this is their new song. [Alternative Press]
  • 30 Seconds To Mars have threatened to release a new album next year. [YouTube]
  • Lady Gaga, Billy Joel, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, and Aretha Franklin are among the artists performing on NBC’s Tony Bennett Celebrates 90: The Best Is Yet To Come airing 12/20. [Deadline]
  • Britney Spears’ new album is called Glory and it’s out 8/26 on Apple Music. [Twitter]
  • Regarding U2’s Songs Of Experience, Bono says: “It’s not finished yet but you will like it. In terms of lyrics it is stronger than War; it has more clarity.” It’s expected next year, along with more tour dates. [RTE]
  • Nicki Minaj released a trailer for her new mobile game Nicki Minaj: The Empire. [YouTube]
  • Hailee Steinfeld opens up about squad leader Taylor Swift: “I think people think we spend a lot more time together than we actually do!” Oh. [Seventeen]
  • Mariah Carey earned some buzz for her upcoming E! docu-series by bring a gold throne, six shirtless hunks, and chilled Veuve Cliquot to this week’s Television Critics Association panels. She said fans who watch Mariah’s World will be surprised to learn she’s a bit of a “jokestress.” [Vulture]
  • Fifth Harmony’s “That’s My Girl” will soundtrack a pump-up video for the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics Team in the Olympics. [Twitter]
  • 5H also performed a Destiny’s Child tribute on Greatest Hits. [YouTube]

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