There comes a time in every adult human’s life, should they be lucky enough to live that long, when they must conclude that youth culture is trash — or at least it has become entirely indecipherable to anyone old enough to exist outside its bubble. From my vantage point out here, I’m pretty sure what’s going on in there is trash, but, you know, “Die and be a hero/ Or live long enough to see yourself become the villain,” as my fellow lame dad Jay-Z once rapped.
Here’s a litmus test for you: What in God’s name do you make of this?
The platinum blonde ringleader of this varsity soccer keg party is 20-year-old Cleveland native Jake Paul. An alpha-male class clown whose humor could be charitably described as lowest-common-denominator, Paul was among the many industrious and insufferable personalities who rose to fame on the dearly departed six-second video app Vine. (Behold this compilation of his greatest hits from that platform if you dare.) Having developed a significant and profitable social media following — his now-defunct Vine account accumulated more than 5 million followers and almost 2 billion views — in 2014 Paul dropped out of high school to move to Los Angeles in pursuit of superstardom.
He has achieved it. The year after Paul moved to LA he was cast in the Disney Channel sitcom Bizaardvark, giving him a foothold in traditional media. But far more important to his success has been his YouTube channel, which boasts more than 10 million subscribers and which has put him at the forefront of the vast galaxy of YouTube personalities that have apparently become a new entertainment mainstream for Americans below voting age. (There is neither time nor space in this column to vent about the people who make a living livestreaming themselves playing video games while offering “zany” and “hilarious” commentary, so just imagine a discursive rant in place of this parenthetical.)
Paul’s channel is updated daily — hence the catchphrase “It’s everyday bro” — with multiple new vlogs starring Paul and Team 10, the array of aspiring YouTube stars he has taken under his wing. Many of them live in the Team 10 house, an incubator of sorts that resembles a frat house gone The Lord Of The Flies onscreen but reportedly is more like a Silicon Valley startup when the cameras aren’t rolling. Paul’s videos often involve audacious and destructive capers of the Jackass variety, which have terrorized his neighbors in the wealthy West Hollywood neighborhood of Beverly Grove; this ultimately resulted in Paul getting fired from his Disney show two months ago after he and his goons harassed a KTLA news crew who’d shown up to report on the chaos they’ve been sowing.
A recent New York Times feature on Paul summed up his formula: “Jackass-style stunts, Punk’D-style pranks, and Real World-style domestic drama involving life around the Team 10 house.” But his empire is as much WWE as MTV. In the same Times story, Paul compares his YouTube persona to a pro wrestling character. He uses slang like “bro” and “lit” to appeal to his juvenile fan base of “Jake Paulers” even though “that isn’t my personal vocabulary.” He even filmed a fake wedding ceremony with his on-screen girlfriend Erika Costell — their celebrity couple portmanteau is “Jerika” — which has generated more than 21 million YouTube views. “We’re not even actually dating,” Paul explained to NYT. “It’s like the WWE. People know that’s fake, and it’s one of the biggest things of entertainment.”
Lately this universe has been spilling over into the music world in peculiar and obnoxious fashion. It began on May 30 with the posse cut “It’s Everyday Bro,” the result of Paul’s decision to produce a rap song and video from scratch in one day. The track, which features Paul and pals flexing their rudimentary mic skills and name-checking fellow YouTube stars like the controversial PewDiePie over boilerplate trap production, immediately shot to #2 on the iTunes chart. At press time it’s approaching 120 million YouTube views, with more than a million thumbs-ups and, tellingly, more than 2 million thumbs-downs. Paul and Team 10 performed it live on TV at the Teen Choice Awards. It even cracked Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart at #94.
A second Paul single, “Jerika,” followed a week later and charted even higher, topping out at #84 and racking up more than 27 million views. That one is a romantic hip-hop/R&B duet between Paul and Costell slathered in so much Auto-Tune that it has to be a joke. A couple days later Paul’s ex-girlfriend Alissa Violet, who used to feature prominently in Paul’s videos and who now alleges that he abused her when they were dating, released a Paul diss track called “It’s EveryNight Sis” with fellow YouTuber RiceGum. (Check out the sick fidget-spinner action about one minute in.) YouTube play count: 94 million. Hot 100 chart peak: #80.
And then there was the highly choreographed multi-week rap beef between Paul and his older brother Logan, a famous YouTuber in his own right. After Logan criticized “It’s Everyday Bro” in one of his vlogs, his little brother responded with a song called “Logang Sucks” (18M views) that also took a shot at rising boy band Why Don’t We, with whom Logan has collaborated. The elder Paul and Why Don’t We came back with their own diss track, “The Fall Of Jake Paul” (90M views). Then Jake published an apology song called “I Love You Bro” (64M views), subsequently teaming with his brother on “The Rise Of The Pauls” (46M views).
There are pop stars in the major-label system who would literally murder for those numbers. But if Jake Paul and the figures in his orbit are making pop hits, they’re not really pop stars according to any conventional understanding. This is not like Justin Bieber or Halsey, musicians who first gained attention by posting their performances on YouTube. It’s not like Shawn Mendes, another teenage Vine sensation who has fully transitioned into the established music business ecosystem, or Jacob Sartorius, a 15-year-old (born in 2002!!!) who rose to fame on the wildly popular lip-syncing app Musical.ly and is now attempting to follow in Mendes’ footsteps. This is some impossibly famous internet personalities pushing pop music’s celebrity obsession to uncomfortable extremes.
They’re not the only ones. Gabbie Hanna, yet another online star who parlayed a Vine comedy career into a very profitable webcasting business (she won a season of the web series Dance Showdown and participated in the YouTuber tour Drop The Mic) is also attempting to launch a music career. Like the Jake Paul rap songs, her mournful ballad “Out Loud” plays more like an SNL Digital Short than a legitimate tearjerker, though a lot of that has to do with her Maya Rudolph-worthy performance in the lyric video (and honestly it’s insulting to the Lonely Island to compare their typically impeccable productions to this refuse). It’s unclear whether Hanna is in on the joke like the Paul brothers appear to be, but either way she’s counting on her sizable YouTube following to lap up whatever she shovels their way. And let’s just say what she’s shoveling really makes me long for the halcyon days of Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind.”
For decades pop and rap have been on a collision course with the kind of personality-driven video blogs these people specialize in. For the most famous pop stars in the world, a single is rarely just a song; it’s often a comment on whatever drama they’ve been enduring in the public eye, one more extension of their personal brand. Think about the various tabloid storylines that underline every new Taylor Swift song or the way Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez tracks have often arrived loaded with subtext about their former romantic entanglement. When these narratives play out against the backdrop of the best pop music money can buy — when you can ignore the storylines and just enjoy the state-of-the-art songcraft and production — pop music as a celebrity vehicle doesn’t seem so bad. Viewing this music as the latest chapter in some grand years-long theater can even increase your enjoyment of it — again, assuming the song is any good.
These YouTubers are doing something similar, but they’re replacing that music-biz expertise with a willfully amateurish product that puts the pageantry so far in the foreground that the celebrity narrative essentially eclipses the musical elements altogether. These songs are not even meant to be enjoyed as music; they don’t even really qualify as music at all. They exist only to expand the fame of these vacuous figures, without even pretending to represent anyone’s creative expression. The cynicism being demonstrated by both performer and audience is historically unprecedented, which was fine when it was confined to its own hermetic world but is horrifying to watch creep its way into pop culture at large. If this is the future of pop music, growing old and out of touch doesn’t seem so bad.
LCD Soundsystem have their very first #1 album this week, and man is it good. Billboard reports that LCD’s comeback LP tops the Billboard 200 thanks to 85,000 equivalent album units and 81,000 in pure sales. Previously, James Murphy and company’s best chart showing was a #10 peak for 2010’s This Is Happening. American Dream is the only debut in this week’s top 10, and according to Billboard, it got to the top by virtue of an increasingly common promotional scheme:
American Dream’s debut benefits from a concert ticket/album bundle sale redemption promotion in association with the act’s US upcoming tour. Other #1 albums in 2017 that have profited from such an offer include Arcade Fire’s Everything Now, The Chainsmokers’ Memories… Do Not Open, and Katy Perry’s Witness.
I was on vacation last week, which means this column did not get to officially acknowledge Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” hitting #1, becoming her fifth #1 single and preventing “Despacito” from staying atop the Hot 100 for a record 17th week. “Look What You Made Me Do” is back at #1 for a second week, with Swift’s “…Ready For It?” also debuting at #4. Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow (Money Moves)” meanwhile moves up to a new #2 peak, bumping “Despacito” down to #3, and the anti-suicide Logic/Alessia Cara/Khalid collab “1-800-273-8255″ climbs to a new #5 peak, becoming the top-charting song for all three artists (though Cara’s “Here” also climbed to #5 in 2015). The rest of the top 10: DJ Khaled, Rihanna, and Bryson Tiller’s “Wild Thoughts” at #6, Charlie Puth’s “Attention” at #7, Imagine Dragons’ “Believer” at #8, French Montana and Swae Lee’s “Unforgettable” at #9, and Shawn Mendes’ “There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back” at #10.
NOTE: The Week On Pop was on vacation last week, and the past two weeks were stacked with big-name singles, so this week’s Pop Five features a double dose of noteworthy new pop tracks.
Taylor Swift – “…Ready For It”
There are plenty of critiques you could reasonably lob at this song, but ultimately I enjoy it every time it comes on. Swift more or less rapping(!) over hard-hitting bass bombs on the verses is surprisingly acceptable, but what sold me is the truly sublime chorus, which sounds like a PC Music pop parody edging back from the uncanny valley toward the more lifelike plasticity we’ve come to expect from a hit pop song. And these lyrics are just brilliant in the way they leave room for a wide range of interpretations: “In the middle of the night, in my dreams/ You should see the things we do, baby.”
Sam Smith – “Too Good At Goodbyes”
I miss the old Sam Smith, won’t let you go Sam Smith, wrapped in your touch Sam Smith, within your clutch Sam Smith. I miss the “Latch” Sam Smith, make a big splash Sam Smith, the dance-floor smash Sam Smith, before this trash Sam Smith.
Zayn – “Dusk Till Dawn” (Feat. Sia)
Speaking of talented young British singers who initially seemed so promising! The idea that this or Zayn’s Taylor Swift duet represent a step up from One Direction is extremely specious. This kind of faceless blather makes me appreciate the Harry Styles album so much more.
Kelly Clarkson – “Love So Soft” & “Move You”
“Move You,” a midtempo acoustic soul ballad with a big, go-for-broke orchestral finale, plays more to Clarkson’s strengths, but I think she pulls off the snappier, less on-brand “Love So Soft” too, even if it sounds more like Christina Aguilera or Pink should be singing it.
Tove Lo – “Disco Tits”
Naming your song “Disco Tits” raises expectations to astronomical levels. It’s risky business. But damn, Tove Lo must have known she had a song good enough to live up. “Disco Tits” is sleek and catchy and contagiously propulsive, and “I’m fully charged/ Nipples are hard, ready to go” is a signature Tove Lo lyric if I’ve ever heard one.
Fall Out Boy – “The Last Of The Real Ones”
This is the least objectionable new Fall Out Boy song I’ve heard in a long time!
Jason Derulo – “If I’m Lucky Part 2″
Am I crazy or is Michael Jackson-goes-tropical house actually a decent shtick for Derulo?
Demi Lovato – “You Don’t Do It For Me Anymore”
This retro pop slow dance about falling out of love has me officially kind of excited for the new Demi Lovato album. “I lie to you when I lie with you” is a killer lyric, and the song itself is a total showstopper.
Nick Jonas – “Find You”
Jonas always skirts the borderline between a rich, satisfying vanilla and the complete absence of any taste whatsoever. I’m afraid this one falls into the latter category.
Hailee Steinfeld & Alesso – “Let Me Go” (Feat. Florida Georgia Line & watt)
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Hillary Clinton’s new book What Happened has a Kelly Clarkson joke. [Twitter]
- “To be honest, I never really spoke to Harry even when I was in the band,” Zayn Malik tells US Weekly. “So I didn’t really expect that much of a relationship with him when I left. And I haven’t [had one], to be honest.” [Us]
- Cardi B met Beyoncé backstage at Made In America, where she announced onstage that her debut LP will drop in October via Atlantic. [Miss Info]
- Taylor Swift will headline a halftime performance at the College Football National Championship in Atlanta in January. [SB Nation]
- Meanwhile, Swift was a bridesmaid in her best friend’s wedding in Martha’s Vineyard. [Daily Mail]
- Miranda Lambert leads the Country Music Association nominations with five, followed by Little Big Town and Keith Urban with four each. [LA Times]
- The Chainsmokers’ Memories… Do Not Open is now platinum. [Facebook]
- In other Chainsmokers news, Xbox created a custom console to be given to one lucky Chainsmokers fan. [Xbox]
- Alessia Cara covered SZA’s “Drew Barrymore.” [YouTube]
- Rihanna rode into her motorbike-themed Fenty Puma 2018 spring-summer collection on a motorbike. [Harpers]
- “I feel like I know everybody but have no friends,” Selena Gomez tells Business Of Fashion. [Business Of Fashion]
- Lady Gaga says she’s going to “take a rest” from pop music. [THR]
- Gaga also reveals fibromyalgia as the source of her chronic pain in her upcoming Netflix documentary Five Foot Two. [People]
- Sam Smith debuted new songs at the Troubadour in LA. [Billboard]
- On Japanese radio Carly Rae Jepsen said her new album will be out next year. Queen of Japanese radio. [YouTube]
- Ariana Grande signed a year-long endorsement deal with Reebok. [WWD]
- Madonna is working on a film and new music in Portugal. [Instagram]
- Adam Levine and Behati Prinsloo are expecting their second child. [Hollywood Life]
- Sofi Tukker soundtracks the commercial for the new iPhone X which costs $1,000 but still doesn’t have a headphone jack. [BBC]
- Fergie and Josh Duhamel have separated after eight years of marriage. [Us]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
It (2017) pic.twitter.com/qsxWd63HMK
— josh (@idkitsjosh) September 11, 2017