The Week In Pop

With gnash, SoundCloud’s Underground Eclecticism Has Found Its Mainstream Poster Boy

The sensitive music bro from your college dorm has not given up his trusty acoustic guitar, but he’s also a producer these days and is just as inclined toward indie rock and hip-hop as singer-songwriter folk. His songs are as genre-fluid as his browser history. Rather than distributing them on clumsily packaged CD-Rs, he uploads them to SoundCloud, the streaming service that has long been the underground’s foremost musical breeding ground and promotional hub. His method of distribution may change soon because SoundCloud’s attempts to get in bed with the major labels have crushed much of the open-frontier spirit that made it such an exciting community. Fortunately for Garrett Nash, transitioning to mainstream channels has been a much smoother process.

The 23-year-old USC grad, who records under the name gnash, is enjoying a breakout year thanks to the success of his single “i hate u, i love u.” The track has already topped the charts in Australia, and it completed its long journey to the US top 10 this week, 25 weeks after entering Billboard’s Hot 100 and more than 14 months after gnash first uploaded it to SoundCloud. Meanwhile he’s been working the summer festival circuit, launching his own fall headlining tour, and promoting follow-up single “something.” But his success thus far hinges on the intensifying clamor around a song that’s actually quite chill.

“i hate u, i love u” is a moody lament about the messy aftermath of a breakup. Like many gnash tracks, it’s a duet — in this case, with fellow fledgling pop star Olivia O’Brien. His thin vocals toe the line between singing and rapping, while hers are richer and more traditionally melodic. Over plaintive piano chords and spare yet booming digital drums, the pair trades ruminations: He notes the “caution tape around my heart.” She wonders, “How is it you never notice that you are slowly killing me?” They both juggle lingering attachment with growing resentment. In mood and content it resembles the Chainsmokers and Halsey’s eight-week #1 hit “Closer,” just far more low-key and skewed toward hip-hop rather than EDM.

The song is an effective summation of gnash’s discography so far, particularly his use of a guest singer as a personal foil. His tendency toward male/female vocal interplay is one of the main ways he channels his influences, foremost among them the Postal Service. He never misses a chance to big-up Give Up, the digital twee sacred text that closely informs his approach to 21st century sad-boy songwriting. Nearly as prominent in the mix is the xx’s wistful, whispery metropolitan indie-pop, another totem of modern boy/girl melancholia. That sound is much more evident in gnash’s music than the emo and pop-punk bands he rattled off to Billboard, though he certainly shares emo and pop-punk’s penchant for ~feels~.

Speaking of ~feels~, it’s especially hard to miss the specter of Drake, the reigning king of drowsy ballads about flawed romance, haunting gnash’s recent EP us. Drake’s melodic intuition is embedded deeply into gnash’s musical DNA, and the Liphemra collab “get well soon” in particular is a dead ringer for Take Care kiss-off “Shot For Me.” On “i hate u, i love u,” he adopts the self-righteous wounded lover posture that has become Drake’s posture, spouting, “If I pulled a you on you, you wouldn’t like that shit” and “Everyone I do right does me wrong/ So every lonely night I sing this song.” gnash has been more inclined to name-check Kanye West, but it’s no coincidence that on the me EP’s “that one song” he instructs his love interest to “put on your favorite Drake song.” If Drake hadn’t already infiltrated pop radio, gnash could be his Pat Boone.

In their own way, all of these artists have contributed to the pan-genre environment from which gnash sprang. They each broke down musical boundary lines by simply existing and nudged listeners into a more omnivorous musical palate. And if they constituted the whole of gnash’s stylistic scope, he’d already be a pretty fascinating study in musical anthropology. But there’s a whole other side of his music that I haven’t addressed yet, one that further explains how he’s been able to appeal to such a wide audience — and one that makes me like him a lot less.

Underneath all of his sleek, trendy influences, gnash remains the aforementioned acoustic guitar bro at heart. Dude swore allegiance to Kanye and Jack Johnson in the same breath, and indeed, mixed in among his lightweight keyboard dirges are the sorts of strummy sing-alongs we’ve come to expect from a guy perched on his dorm-room bed experimenting with alternate tunings. The us EP kicks off with a straightforward cover of Bright Eyes’ “First Day Of My Life,” and the Drake-referencing “that one song” reeks of LFO and Jason Mraz. (“I’d rather watch Netflix” is rhymed with “I think you’re the bestest.”) His new single “something” is the kind of smoothed-out reggae-folk that’s been soundtracking spring break for decades. And even when he’s not indulging in frat-folk stylings, gnash is taking pages from that playbook, such as converting rap hits into gentle whiteboy ballads. Before he started uploading originals, his first SoundCloud tracks were covers of Baby Bash’s “Suga Suga” and O.T. Genasis’ “CoCo” in the style of his hero Ben Gibbard. Pinch your nose and proceed:

SoundCloud is crawling with artists like gnash. So is Bandcamp, but whereas that site is great for selling your music and networking with other artists, SoundCloud has always struck me as a place where creativity is happening in real time. As one of the world’s most popular networks of upstart musicians — and one that began as a space for DJs and producers — the site has been a fascinating creative petri dish. If Napster and the iPod came to represent listeners doing away with genre lines, SoundCloud symbolizes something similar among creators. Musicians engage in a free-for-all of ideas that occasionally happens upon genius and intermittently flattens out into trendy new genres. My colleague Collin Robinson describes the network as “a hodgepodge pool of artists and genres borrowing/stealing from each other,” one where “the artists that do that best keep their head above water or even rise out of it like gnash did.”

That’s not to say gnash owes his success to SoundCloud or that the service pioneered the cross-pollination of genres. After all, Beck was basically a SoundCloud musician years before SoundCloud was invented, and like plenty other iconoclasts before him, he found his way to stardom just fine. But in a market where the musical middle class is so crowded that it’s hard to get anyone’s attention and the mainstream feels more celebrity-exclusive than ever, one dominated by Apple Music exclusives and streaming services built to help sell Amazon Echos more than sell music, a launchpad like SoundCloud is useful.

So it’s a bummer that, in an effort to become profitable and fend off lawsuits, the site is moving away from the very characteristics that made it stand out by harshly policing its users, adopting ads and subscription fees, and basically becoming a clone of all the other streaming services. Here’s hoping that the musical success stories it wrought can stay truer to their unique ethos, even if in gnash’s case that ethos is equal parts compelling and obnoxious.

CHART WATCH

The chart battle we heard all about earlier this week involved Solange’s A Seat At The Table narrowly defeating Bon Iver’s 22, A Million in the race for America’s #1 album. Once again it was a case of streaming lifting one artist above another who technically sold more albums: A Seat At The Table accumulated 72,000 equivalent units compared to 71,000 for 22, A Million, but Bon Iver sold 58,000 while Solange only moved 46,000 copies. Looking forward to Justin Vernon’s next disavowal of streaming services!

Other notable top 10 action: Billboard reports that thanks to a sales package that bundled copies of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ recent The Getaway with tickets for their upcoming tour, the album racked up 33,000 units to climb back from #24 to #5 this week. The week’s third top-10 debut is Van Morrison’s Keep Me Singing, which enters at #9 on the strength of 25,000 units, almost all of them traditional sales.

To me, this week’s most intriguing chart battle was the race for #1 on the Hot 100 singles chart. I figured the Weeknd and Daft Punk’s surging “Starboy” might topple the Chainsmokers and Halsey’s long-running “Closer,” or maybe Twenty One Pilots would ride post-SNL momentum to their first career #1 with “Heathens.” In actuality, “Heathens” dropped from #2 to #3 — maybe they’ll enjoy some SNL runoff on next week’s chart? — while “Starboy” ascends to a new peak of #2. Which means, yes, “Closer” is #1 for an eighth straight week. At this point they’re chainsmoking the competition.

Justin Bieber continues his three-week streak of having two songs in the top 5 with Major Lazer’s “Cold Water” at #4 and DJ Snake’s “Let Me Love You” at #5. Next up, D.R.A.M. and Lil Yachty’s “Broccoli” hits a new high at #6. And the aforementioned gnash/Olivia O’Brien hit “I Hate U I Love You” charges into the top 10, reaching a new #10 peak.

POP FIVE

Bruno Mars – “24K Magic”
OK, so rather than try and fail to reproduce the glorious ’80s homage of “Uptown Funk,” Bruno Mars is digging deeper into the past and landing on ’70s funk? I am very into that, especially since Mars says “24K Magic” is not a lead single so much as “an invitation to the party.”

Maroon 5 – “Don’t Wanna Know” (Feat. Kendrick Lamar)
Judging by my Twitter timeline this week, people have apparently reached their limit with Kendrick Lamar guest spots on corny pop songs, but honestly this song is way less annoying than the Imagine Dragons and Taylor Swift tracks he deigned to spit on. The words “Maroon 5 featuring Kendrick Lamar” are way more painful than the actual listening experience.

John Legend – “Love Me Now”
I wouldn’t go so far as to call a song this generic “risky” for Legend, but it’s nice to see him not just settling into his “All Of Me” groove. I’m sure I’ll hate this song 100 listens later; for now I don’t mind it at all.

Macklemore – “Drug Dealer” (Feat. Ariana DeBoo)
I could’ve sworn Macklemore already released his heartfelt anti-drug ballad, but I guess not. Thanks, Obama!

James Arthur – “Say You Won’t Let Go”
Meanwhile, in the UK, this is the #1 song on Spotify. From now on British people can’t pretend to have refined taste!

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Jack Antonoff: “fuck celebrities who are not speaking up about trump, racism, reproductive rights and the other issues that are ruining lives” 👀 [Twitter]
  • Nicki Minaj tweeted that she was releasing a new album Pick My Fruit Out on Saturday night, and shared its tracklist, but later revealed she was joking. [XXL]
  • French Montana has shelved his album MC4 due to sample clearance issues and leaks. But fear not Montanaheads: the music will still come out, “just packaged differently.” [Complex]
  • Amazon’s voice assistant Alexa was the one who leaked those clips of Lady Gaga’s Joanne last week. [BBC]
  • In other Gaga news, she’s coming to James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke soon. [Twitter]
  • Kesha covered Nick Jonas’ “Jealous” in Shanghai last week. [YouTube]
  • Adele tweeted: “Bon Iver’s music is one of the true loves of my life. Every. Single. Time” [Twitter]
  • Here’s Becky G in the new Power Rangers movie trailer. [YouTube]
  • Little Mix announced their new single “Shout Out To My Ex.” [Twitter]
  • T.I. has joined the cast of VH1’s upcoming hip-hop drama The Breaks. [Billboard]
  • Justin Bieber got a wet and shirtless wax figure at Madame Tussauds in London. [YouTube]
  • Bruno Mars, Justin Bieber, Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, Fifth Harmony, and Shawn Mendes are among the artists playing the iHeartRadio Jingle Ball 2016 Tour Presented by Capital One. [iHeartMedia]
  • Fifth Harmony’s Camila Cabello and Machine Gun Kelly have a new song called “Bad Things” out tomorrow. [Billboard]
  • Miley Cyrus says she once had to choose between weed and keeping her Walmart clothing line: “And you see what I did — I chose weed.” In the same interview she defends Woody Allen and discusses growing up pansexual. [Variety]
  • In his AMA, DNCE’s Joe Jonas told Redditors about losing his virginity to Ashley Greene: “I lost my virginity to this girl named Ashley. You can probably just Google it. It’s pretty easy to figure out. I dated a girl named Ashley, so just Google it to figure out which Ashley that is…” [Reddit]
  • ZAYN is designing a capsule collection of men’s and women’s clothing for Versus Versace and will star in some of their ad campaigns next year. [NYT]
  • He also shared an excerpt from his autobiography. [NME]
  • Bastille brought out Weird Science actress Kelly Le Brock for their performance of “Good Grief” on Ellen. [Ellen]
  • Backstreet Boys don’t approve of Donald Trump’s use of “I Want It That Way” at a campaign event yesterday. [The Daily Beast]
  • Kesha made a PSA about how fighting for LGBT rights motivates her to vote. [Out]
  • Halsey will perform at this year’s Nobel Peace Prize concert hosted by Conan O’Brien in Oslo on 12/11. [Nobel Peace Prize]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING BONE