The Week In Pop

So, How Are Fifth Harmony Holding Up Without Camila Cabello?

This year’s MTV Video Music Awards did not generate a Miley Cyrus foam finger moment. Considering the historically low ratings, I’m not sure anyone even noticed the ceremony was happening besides those of us who had to watch it for work. The VMAs were such a non-event that host Katy Perry openly acknowledged more people were watching the concurrent Game Of Thrones season finale; the Weeknd, one of the few genuine A-listers scheduled to perform, decided not to show up. But if any part of the show survives beyond the morning-after news cycle to be recycled into retrospective montages and/or listicles, with all due apologies to King Kendrick Lamar, it will probably be the segment when Fifth Harmony appeared to violently eject their former bandmate from the stage.

For an instant, when five silhouettes appeared atop a platform to begin the performance, Fifth Harmony’s fans (who undoubtedly comprised a large portion of this year’s VMAs audience; the Harmonizers roll deep) likely wondered if they were witnessing a reunion of the group’s original lineup. Seconds later, when the faceless figure at the center of the formation was jerked backward to her apparent doom, they were more likely screaming the way pro wrestling fans respond to a heel turn. It was just a stunt, of course; no girl-group alumni were harmed in the making of this dance routine. But if the dramatic gesture did not result in any literal wounds, it likely contributed to some longstanding emotional bruising.

Some context: For the past eight months Fifth Harmony have been semi-publicly feuding with Camila Cabello, who had been their best-known member before going solo last December, as the best-known members of pop groups are wont to do. Like their counterparts in One Direction, Fifth Harmony were a quintet of former X Factor contestants who’d been assembled into a unit by Simon Cowell and ended up carving out a lucrative career together. They’d built a voracious fan base (seriously, cross the Harmonizers at your own peril), scored some hits (most famously last year’s gloriously campy “Work From Home” with Ty Dolla $ign), and rendered themselves the definitive girl group of their generation, one that synthesized pop, hip-hop, and R&B into consistently entertaining easy-listening fare.

By the time they released their second album, last year’s 7/27, several members were dabbling in solo work, but Cabello was the only one who’d scored a legitimate hit with the 2015 Shawn Mendes duet “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” And when her Machine Gun Kelly collaboration “Bad Things” soared to #4 last fall, matching her group’s best chart position, it was beginning to seem like Fifth Harmony would go down as the act that launched Camila Cabello’s career — just as *NSYNC and Destiny’s Child, although each historically significant and beloved in their own right, are now overshadowed by Justin Timberlake and Beyoncé. Not that Cabello’s public profile is anywhere near where JT and Bey were when they went solo or that she’s close to assembling a resume on that level, but her star power certainly was outshining the rest of Fifth Harmony’s by several degrees. Thus, with no shortage of acrimony, she left the group a week before Christmas.

We’ve seen this before. When it comes to girl groups and boy bands, we almost always see it. And historically, with some notable exceptions, the departure of a key member usually means the end of the group. That’s not what happened with 5H’s commercial/spiritual peers One Direction, though. After Zayn Malik left, they released one more album before splintering, and it generated one of their biggest hits, “Drag Me Down.” Similarly, Fifth Harmony are soldiering on without Cabello, and they’re doing pretty well for themselves so far. Their pointedly self-titled new album, released last week, is as enjoyable as anything they released when Cabello was in the group. They’re also leveraging their own internal drama as best they can; I can’t remember a Fifth Harmony performance attracting attention comparable to the buzz around last weekend’s VMAs stunt. (I can’t remember any other Fifth Harmony performances, and I’m someone who likes Fifth Harmony.) It’s aggravating that they are continuing to use the name Fifth Harmony as a four-person group, but otherwise, things seem good?

Fifth Harmony works so well partially because this group has never been particularly dependent on its individual personalities. I’m not saying Ally Brooke, Normani Kordei, Dinah Jane, and Lauren Jauregui are ciphers — consult your favorite Harmonizer for a breakdown of skill sets and temperaments — but with or without Cabello, the group dynamic has always overshadowed each member’s specific identity. Outside the confines of the collective, Cabello and Jauregui in particular have revealed more distinctive creative impulses, just as we’ve seen from the various One Direction alumni as they’ve launched their respective solo careers. Seemingly by design Fifth Harmony stifles that sort of individuality. The appeal of their records has traditionally been a coordinated unit of strong, talented performers teaming up to execute some of the pro songwriting industry’s most immaculate confections. You don’t go into a Fifth Harmony album expecting an auteurist’s touch; you enter with the understanding that you’re getting a sparkling and anonymous product straight off the assembly line. It’s more about the forest than the trees — or rather, it’s more about the songs than the singers.

The songs are as good as ever this time around. Although “Down,” the Gucci Mane collaboration they performed at the VMAs, is a lesser “Work From Home” retread, the album gets it out of the way up front and moves on to more rewarding returns. The bouncing, swaying sex jam “He Like That” benefits from some tasteful guitar work and an incessant rhythm, while “Sauced Up” successfully merges trap and synthpop elements on its verses before veering into a bright, gargantuan chorus. Although “Make You Mad” relies too heavily on the neon-streaked tropical electronic sound that must be on its last legs by now, but it’s followed by “Deliver,” piano-powered, gospel-tinged exercise in monumental swagger that reminds me of R. Kelly’s “I’m A Flirt” (one of this millennium’s finest R&B songs, albeit one I’m not eager to revisit any time soon).

The album’s back half is even better. Bypassing the eminently skippable “Lonely Night” brings you to “Don’t Say You Love Me,” a melancholy slow jam that communicates real warmth and tenderness. The not-that-innocent treatise “Angel” deftly approximates Mike Will Made-It’s slow-creeping shimmer without actually employing Mike Will Made-It. And, bizarrely, the album’s best moment might be a heartfelt ballad that interpolates Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me” with a straight face. “Messy” may lean a little heavily on its familiar vocal melody — and its promise to “tell you straight how I feel with no filter” is indicative of the group’s weakness for lyrical clichés — but the tune so effectively hearkens back to the best R&B ballads of Shaggy’s Y2K-era heyday that you won’t even care the album ends with a generic inspirational anthem like “Bridges.”

None of these songs are true-blue hits yet, mind you, but Fifth Harmony had to work their debut album Reflection for many months before “Worth It” hit the top 10, too. And even if none of these tracks catch on with a general audience, at minimum, this latest album contains more than enough bops to keep the Harmonizers on board until the next one rolls around. It has proven that the Fifth Harmony machine is too efficient and well-oiled to be derailed by one rogue member. Whether their partnership is durable enough to endure for the long-haul is another question entirely. 1D only held it together for one album without Malik before the allure of new frontiers did them in; whether the remaining members of 5H follow suit remains to be seen. Even if you don’t have a taste for this kind of music, watching a depleted Fifth Harmony attempt to outlast the traditional girl-group life cycle will be a fascinating music business case study. Frankly, they may even outlive the godforsaken VMAs; at this point Fifth Harmony’s low-stakes musical cheap thrills and delightfully petty internal drama presents way more entertainment value than that husk of a formerly relevant awards show.

CHART WATCH

It’s a momentous week in chart history: Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, and sometimes Justin Bieber’s “Despacito” has become only the second song ever to spend 16 weeks at #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart, tying the mark Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men set with “One Sweet Day” in 1996. Only two songs have ever lasted that long at #1 in the chart’s 59 years. And although “Despacito” on track to finally be displaced by Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” next week, it still has a fighting chance to bounce back and claim that record-setting 17th week on top two weeks from now, depending on whether Swift’s song has legs.

DJ Khaled, Rihanna, and Bryson Tiller’s “Wild Thoughts” stays at #2, and Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow (Money Moves)” holds at #3. Imagine Dragons’ “Believer” and Charlie Puth’s “Attention” return to their respective #4 and #5 peaks — though expect “Attention” to get a boost thanks to its new Kyle-featuring remix — while French Montana and Swae Lee’s “Unforgettable” slides to #6. Shawn Mendes is at #7 with “There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back,” followed by Bruno MArs’ “That’s What I Like” at #8. Then comes Ed Sheeran’s “Shape Of You” at #9, spending a record 33rd week in the top 10. And finally, making a big jump from #24 to #10, is Yo Gotti and Nicki Minaj’s strip-club anthem “Rack It Up.” Per Billboard it’s Gotti’s first top-10 hit (his previous Minaj collab “Down In The DM” peaked at #13) and Minaj’s 14th.

The action on the Billboard 200 albums chart is significantly more muted, which is appropriate because so is the new #1 album. Brand New’s surprise-released Science Fiction tallied 58,000 equivalent album units and 55,000 in pure sales to earn their first #1 album. Billboard reports that it’s the first independently distributed album to go #1 this year and the third rock album following Linkin Park’s One More Light and Arcade Fire’s Everything Now. Brand New’s previous peak on the chart was #6 with 2009’s Daisy.

Kodak Black is next up with a #2 debut for Project Baby Two based on 50,000 units but only 8,000 in sales. The #2 ranking is also a new career high after Kodak’s Painting Pictures debuted and peaked at #3. After Kendrick Lamar’s #3 DAMN. comes Welsh pop-punk band Neck Deep, whose The Peace And The Panic starts at #4 with 32,000 units/29,000 sales. Then comes a slew of top-10 mainstays at 5-6-7-8: Kesha’s Rainbow, Khalid’s American Teen, DJ Khaled’s Grateful, and Ed Sheeran’s ÷ (Divide). Rapper Dave East debuts at #9 with 26,000 units/12,000 sales for Paranoia: A True Story, and Imagine Dragons round out the top 10 with Evolve.

POP FIVE

Taylor Swift – “Look What You Made Me Do”
Feels a bit late for a take here, so I’ll just say I’ve already been through a whole range of emotions on this one and I agree with where my esteemed colleague Michael Nelson landed on it. (Also I was apparently very wrong about Swift making a singer-songwriter album.)

Maroon 5 – “What Lovers Do” (Feat. SZA)
I used to hate Maroon 5 so much, but they’ve become tolerable and pleasantly inoffensive in middle age. I suspect that by the time my children grow up this band will have undergone a full-scale Yacht Rock-style reclamation. At the very least, we can credit them for their good taste in collaborators.

Lil Uzi Vert – “Neon Guts” (Feat. Pharrell)
IF you’re wondering why an ostensible rap song is in the pop column, Uzi’s Luv Is Rage 2 is projected to debut at #1 next week, he rapped on a #1 single with “Bad And Boujee,” his great genre-flouting “XO Tour Llif3″ also hit the top 10, and at this late date any song with Pharrell on it automatically qualifies as pop. And it’s not like self-professed “rock star” Uzi is a hip-hop purist anyway; he’s among the many artists evolving the sound of rap as the entire genre enjoys its latest pop spotlight moment. Anyway, “Neon Guts” is a very enjoyable song.

Fergie – “You Already Know” (Feat. Nicki Minaj)
Speaking of tracks that blur the line between rap and pop: I was not prepared to enjoy a Fergie song in 2017, but damn, what an extremely fun and effective single this is. Also, Nicki sure seems to be gearing up for an album drop with all these features lately.

Martin Garrix – “Pizza”
I generally have no time for self-consciously epic EDM instrumentals, but I like this one because Garrix called it “Pizza.” (It’s also better than your average self-consciously epic EDM instrumental.)

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” broke both Spotify and YouTube records for most streams in a day. [Variety]
  • Relatedly, someone mashed up “Look What You Made Me Do” with Britney Spears’ “Toxic” and it’s not bad. [YouTube]
  • Selena Gomez’s Instagram was hacked with nude photos of Justin Bieber. [ET]
  • Max Martin, the Chainsmokers, Hans Zimmer, and Jack Antonoff will be honored at the 13th annual Songs Of Hope charity event benefiting City Of Hope in LA 9/28. [Variety]
  • Here is Céline Dion being lovably loopy at a promo event for her new handbag line. [Twitter]
  • Madonna appears to have shot a skin care product commercial with the Fat Jewish. [Twitter]
  • A photo of Meghan Trainor was being used in an anti-same-sex marriage campaign in Australia without her permission. [ABC]
  • On 9/23 Alessia Cara will perform at the opening ceremony of Canada’s Invictus Games along with, Sarah McLachlan and the Tenors. [Invictus Games]
  • A Luke Bryan equipment truck got wedged underneath an overpass in NY. [Newsday]
  • No one told Young Thug he won a VMA. (It was the Best Editing award for his “Wyclef Jean” video.) [Twitter]
  • Lady Gaga is the new face of the Swiss watch brand Tudor. [THR]
  • Halsey released a new video for “Bad At Love.” [YouTube]
  • N.E.R.D. will play their first show in three years as headliners at this year’s ComplexCon. [Twitter]

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