The Week In Pop

Maroon 5 And The Rock Band As A Pop Hit-Making Machine

For well over a decade, Rivers Cuomo has been trying to turn Weezer into a pop band. Weezer have always played a kind of pop music, of course; their 1994 debut (“The Blue Album“) overflowed with weapons-grade catchy rock songs you can dance to, and even its aggressively blown-out follow-up Pinkerton followed suit. I’m talking pop in a more acute sense. Specifically, Cuomo’s perennial quest has been to convert Weezer into a group that gets airplay on top-40 radio stations.

He achieved it once, with 2005’s oft-maligned “Beverly Hills” — which soared to #10 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and #2 on the Mainstream Top 40 — and has been chasing it on and off ever since. This pursuit has led to numerous abominations; awkwardness is part of Cuomo’s personal brand, but he usually sounds extra cringeworthy when contorting himself into whatever sized peg he thinks will fit into the pop zeitgeist. His many faceplants have conditioned us to facepalm upon encountering bids for pop ubiquity such as the new Pacific Daydream, but he’s still eminently capable of stringing together an impeccable melody over some well-placed chords. Thus, when liberated from the legacy of ’90s Weezer and any expectation of lyrical profundity, craven crossover attempts like “Beach Boys,” “Happy Hour,” and “Weekend Woman” are… not that bad? Actually mildly enjoyable?

I don’t expect any of them to actually cross over — though in a year when Portugal. The Man released a top-5 smash, don’t rule anything out. I’m just saying that, should they become the beneficiary of some chinstroke-worthy Spotify playlist placement or end up in the background of some kid’s viral YouTube meme, a lot of these Pacific Daydream tracks are pleasantly hooky enough to work as passable pop radio filler. And if that seems like a low bar, just remember that Maroon 5 are the reigning standard-bearers in this arena.

Ironically, the band that has most successfully lived out Cuomo’s dream of pop radio domination began as a Weezer ripoff. Before they became Maroon 5, core members Adam Levine, Jesse Carmichael, and Mickey Madden founded Kara’s Flowers as teenagers in 1994 at the height of “Blue Album” visibility, delving into a similar revved-up retro pop-rock sound minus the authentic Cuomo geekiness on tracks like “Soap Disco.” That style never really took off for them, and after ending their arrangement with Reprise Records they experienced an alleged hip-hop awakening while gigging around New York. So in 2001 they changed their name, adjusted their approach, and took over the world.

Their means of domination: using the rock band format as a skin for top-40 pop songwriting. Replace the prominent lead guitar with some futuristic Virginian hip-hop accents and 2002 breakthrough single “Harder To Breathe” could just as easily have been a Justin Timberlake track on that year’s Justified — and in its existing form it would be very believable as a current-day Timberlake single given his present grown-and-classy Fallon-friend incarnation. Ditto debut album Songs About Jane’s subsequent mega-hits “This Love,” “She Will Be Loved,” and “Sunday Morning,” tunes they just as easily could have outsourced to someone like future collaborator Christina Aguilera had some record exec decided they weren’t pretty enough for a record sleeve.

From the outset Maroon 5 were the funky, jazzy, heavily sanitized late-night-TV-style live band that tours with every pop star, except they presented the entire unit as the star. It was merely a different prism through which to approach the same destination. (Flavortown, I guess?) Although Levine has always been the band’s most recognizable member, no matter how many times he seemed primed to launch a solo career, he’s returned to the context of the band instead, even as he began teaming with big-name pop producers like Max Martin, Shellback, and Benny Blanco and adopting the songwriting-by-committee approach that typifies the high-stakes pop songwriting machine. Look at the credits; at this point he really could call them Adam Levine records. Yet as recently as three months ago Levine cracked a joke about Maroon 5 breaking up before assuring the Teen Choice Awards audience, “We are never gonna go away.” And barring a clash of egos, why should he abandon a format that has been so absurdly successful?

Maroon 5’s 15 years in the public eye have yielded one inescapable monster hit after the next, including three US #1s (“Makes Me Wonder,” “Moves Like Jagger,” and “One More Night”), three more that came close (#2 “Payphone,” #3 “Animals,” #2 “Sugar”), and a handful of others in the top 10 (“Daylight,” “Maps,” “Don’t Wanna Know”). Along the way they’ve slyly evolved their sound and stayed in step with current production trends without abandoning their essential wedding-band essence. “Payphone” and “Moves Like Jagger” added programmed beats just in time for the EDM explosion (the latter weaved in dubstep bass for good measure). “One More Night” dabbled in whitewashed reggae; “Sugar” traded in effervescent disco-funk. “This Summer’s Gonna Hurt Like A Motherfucker” imitates one of those “indie” synthpop bands on major labels who love gang vocals and exist mainly to be licensed for commercials and fill up the bottom of festival posters.

No matter which aesthetic filter they apply to their rock-band version of pop, it’s always extremely lite, the sort of ephemeral music that’s hard to get excited about but just as difficult to hate with any severe conviction. They make musical wallpaper, annoying at worst and pleasingly inconsequential at best. Compared to other ostensibly rock projects operating in the top-40 landscape — OneRepublic’s saccharine dreck, Imagine Dragons’ worship-music jock jams, those Frankenstein-horrific Fall Out Boy laboratory concoctions that sound like a cyborg squeezing out a turd with all its might — what they do is emphatically tolerable. I hesitate to call them the finest in their field, but I don’t mind calling them fine.

Which brings us to Red Pill Blues, their new album with the accidentally problematic and/or accidentally woke Matrix-referencing title that they maybe regret. It feels like a culmination of a longstanding trajectory; Maroon 5 have never sounded less like a rock band than on these fluid, vaporous productions, and not just because the album features a genuinely impressive slew of rap, pop, and R&B collaborators. Adult-contemporary elevator jams such as “Best 4 U, “Wait,” and “Lips On You” are so smoothly synthetic and almost entirely devoid of rock-band signifiers that they could just as easily be sonic environments for Selena Gomez or Charlie Puth. Only on 11-minute(!) “Closure,” which ends the tracklist proper, do the guitars cease sounding like samples.

Everything feels soft and muted, a palette designed for low impact and maximum saturation. That includes the performances they wrangled from the aforementioned parade of guest stars, about which: No less than Kendrick Lamar, Future, SZA, A$AP Rocky, and Julia Michaels deigned to appear here (also, um, Lunchmoney Lewis), which probably says something about how well a Maroon 5 collab pays but also demonstrates how inextricable their sound has become from mainstream pop’s lingua franca. Still, aside from a typically game Michaels on the wiry and punchy “Help Me Out,” the guests mostly sleepwalk through their contributions. Kendrick and Future respectively appear on the obligatory nods to tropical house (“Don’t Wanna Know”) and Afrobeats (“Cold”), now relegated to bonus track status due to being released more than a year before the LP. SZA is barely perceptible amidst the neon curlicues of “What Lovers Do,” while A$AP is a non-factor on glassy piano meditation “Whiskey.”

If not many of these A-listers leave an impression in their own right, their combined presence renders Red Pill Blues somewhat of an event album, a big-budget monogenre exercise affirming that Maroon 5’s peers are the likes of Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande and not anyone that would register as a rock band outright. Such chameleon-like assimilation is probably the ultimate destiny of any band that desires to survive longterm in the pop ecosystem — which may be why Walk The Moon, the Cincinnati-based pop-rock unit that broke through with 2014’s ’80s-inspired “Shut Up And Dance,” seem tentative about playing that game on their new What If Nothing, out tomorrow.

Walk The Moon’s new music kicks with a force that suggests they’re perfectly content to be the poppiest band on alt-rock radio than the hardest-rocking band on top-40 stations. That’s not to say there are zero concessions to the sound of the moment; Nick Petricca is still out here slinging hooks with an ear for both the Reagan era and the modern radio landscape. Requisite ’80s throwback “One Foot” boasts some of those iridescent melodic squeals that have become a pop staple post-Purpose; the similarly retro “Surrender,” “All Night,” and “Tiger Teeth” rely on the same Brat-Pack toolkit Jack Antonoff uses with Bleachers; “Kamikaze” unfortunately toys with EDM low end á la Imagine Dragons or Fall Out Boy.

But What If Nothing does not just glom onto whichever sound is currently ruling Spotify. A lot of this century’s basic indie archetypes make their way into the mix. “Press Restart” and “Sound Of Awakening” bear traces of Bon Iver. “Lost In The Wild” is our reminder that Walk The Moon were formed during the ascent of MGMT, Phoenix, and Passion Pit. Some of the music even takes me back to the careerist wings of mid-aughts indie rock, when dance-punk and the garage rock revival were still looming large and bands like Arctic Monkeys and Bloc Party were blowing up: Consider “Headphones,” a humongous riff-rocker that makes Walk The Moon sound like they’re opening for Radio 4, or “All I Want,” perhaps the cheeriest song to ever be influenced by Joy Division, or “In My Mind,” which exists on a continuum that also includes the Killers and the Police.

Lightning doesn’t usually strike twice for bands of this ilk. Typically you’re lucky to even get one huge breakout hit, and then you return to the familiar environs of mid-level success, always knowing which song to encore with for the rest of your career. So it’s probably wise for Walk The Moon not to strain too hard to hang with the Maroon 5s of the world, bands engineered for the express purpose of thriving in a pop environment. Although I’m not hearing another “Shut Up And Dance” on Walk The Moon’s new album, there are songs that could feasibly repeat its success with the right push and some serendipity. The band does not seem desperate to make that happen, which lends them a dignity lacking in certain bespectacled alt-rock heroes of yore. Ultimately, though, both Weezer and Walk The Moon exude far too much personality to compete with Adam Levine’s team. It takes a lot of work to make music that encompasses everything yet sounds like nothing at all.

CHART WATCH

Kenny Chesney tops the Billboard 200 albums chart this week for the eighth time. Per Billboard, the country star moved 219,000 units of his live album Live In No Shoes Nation, 217,000 of them via traditional sales. It puts Chesney only one behind Garth Brooks for the most #1 albums by a country act.

Kelly Clarkson debuts at #2 with 79,000 units/68,000 sales for Meaning Of Life. Then comes Chris Brown’s vaguely Halloween-themed 45-track behemoth Heartbreak On A Full Moon, debuting at #3 with 68,000 units/25,000 sales, which could have been a lot higher if the album had been released on a Friday. Humorously, Brown did not appear to understand that by releasing his album on a Tuesday, he was limiting his first-week figures to three days.

Offset, 21 Savage, and Metro Boomin’s Halloween surprise Without Warning also only logged three days of sales and streams, but that was enough for a #4 debut with 53,000 units and 11,000 sales. after Post Malone’s ever-reliable Stoney at #5 comes the #6 debut of Yo Gotti’s I Still Am (38,000/19,000) and the #7 debut of Big K.R.I.T.’s 4eva Is A Mighty Long Time (33,000/21,000). Ed Sheeran, Future & Young Thug, and Lil Uzi Vert round out the top 10.

On the Hot 100 singles chart, Post Malone and 21 Savage’s “Rockstar” remains at #1 for a fourth straight week; Billboard notes that it’s the longest run at #1 by a rap song this year. The bigger news, though, is at #2, where Camila Cabello and Young Thug’s “Havana” rises to become the biggest hit ever by both artists. (It’s also two spots higher than any Fifth Harmony single has charted, incidentally.) That bumps Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow (Money Moves)” down to #3 and Logic, Alessia Cara, and Khalid’s “1-800-273-8255″ down to #4.

Imagine Dragons’ “Thunder” remains at #5, while Portugal. The Man’s “Feel It Still” slides from its #4 peak down to #6. Then comes the first top-10 single for SoundCloud rapper Lil Pump, “Gucci Gang,” which rises to #7 to become the shortest top-10 hit in 42 years. The rest of the top 10 comprises Demi Lovato’s “Sorry Not Sorry” at #8; J Balvin, Willy William, and Beyoncé’s “Mi Gente” at #9; and Sam Smith’s “Too Good At Goodbyes” at #10.

POP FIVE

Taylor Swift – “Call It What You Want”
We’re only a few hours away from Reputation’s release now, and the buzz feels muted — probably because none of these four advance tracks have been a surefire winner. “Call It What You Will” is the least in-your-face of the four and the closest to the classic Taylor sound, even ensconced in vaporous synth sounds and skittering percussion that sound more like a hipster band trying to go pop circa 2013 than a pop star trying to sound hip in 2017. These lyrics, however, are her pure distilled essence: “I want to wear his initial on a chain round my neck/ Not because he owns me, but ’cause he really knows me/ Which is more than they can say.” I have a feeling this one’s a grower.

Keith Urban – “Female”

Andy Grammer – “Smoke Clears”
Remember when this guy played, like, country? At least “Honey, I’m Good” had some discernible traits separating it from the rest of the radio dial.

Ashanti – “Say Less” (Feat. Ty Dolla $ign)
Excited for an Ashanti comeback, but this just sounds like your average Ty Dolla $ign/DJ Mustard production. In related news it’s hilarious that Ja Rule is out here openly campaigning to rejoin the Fast And Furious franchise he departed years ago.

Nico & Vinz – “Intrigued”
The Norwegian-African duo behind 2014 “Am I Wrong” haven’t had success finding their way back to the top 10, even though they hired Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter for a fun acoustic goof called “That’s How You Know.” On this, the first song from their new EP, they go darker in a way that has my interest piqued.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • The American Idol reboot launches 3/11. [Twitter]
  • Sia leaked a long-distance nude photo of herself upon learning a paparazzo was trying to sell it. [Billboard]
  • Eminem seemingly has a new single called “Walk On Water” out soon. [Idolator]
  • Kelly Clarkson recorded a cover of Prince’s “Kiss” for Spotify. [Spotify]
  • Ed Sheeran shared a video for “Perfect.” [YouTube]
  • Harry Styles released a video for “Kiwi.” [YouTube]
  • Taylor Swift shared a recap video of the Reputation Secret Sessions in which she played her new album for fans over the past month. [YouTube]
  • Diddy said he was changing his name to Brother Love but then later said he was only joking. [People]
  • Iggy Azalea dropped four new songs and said her album has been renamed from Digital Distortion to Surviving The Summer. [Miss Info]
  • Josh Groban will star as Tony Danza’s son in a new Netflix cop dramedy. [Billboard]

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