The Week In Pop

The Greatest Showman Soundtrack(?) Is 2018’s Biggest Album So Far

We’ve reached the point where hit movie musicals sound like Imagine Dragons. “The Greatest Show,” the opening number on The Greatest Showman’s soundtrack album, initiates with an onslaught of harshly wailed “whoa-oh”s from an army of intense voices. If not those earnest Vegas boys behind “Thunder” and “Believer,” maybe you’ll hear echoes of radio’s other accessibly abrasive maximalists. Fall Out Boy? Thirty Seconds To Mars? (Gulp) AWOLNATION? You know the sound — Arcade Fire with a titanium exoskeleton, gladiatorial post-EDM pop-rock hellbent on securing syncs on ESPN. Here are the opening lyrics as transcribed by Genius:

Woah
Woah
Woah
Woah
Woah
Woah
Woah
Woah
Woah

The choral-orchestral electro-rock clamor carries on for a spell until Hugh Jackman’s voice enters the frame, uttering showbiz hypeman shtick P.T. Barnum built a career out of. The noise returns in recurring bursts, creating the sort of bombastic introductory gestures you’d expect from a modern-rock showtune about the inventor of the circus. Even after things level off, tension keeps building and building, until sunshine breaks through and the music spills over into a chorus so ebullient you might mistake it for contemporary Christian worship music. “This is the greatest show!” sings the choir, their collective power now channeled into unbound gospel joy rather than ominous battle cries.

When “The Greatest Show” concludes, with all the requisite Broadway bravado and arena-rock oomph, you can almost hear a theater erupting into applause. But you don’t have to envision an ovation to comprehend The Greatest Showman’s widespread appeal; just look at the album chart. America cannot get enough of this stuff. (Neither, apparently, can the UK.)

The Greatest Showman soundtrack has been putting up wildly impressive numbers for well over a month. After debuting in December and spending its first two chart weeks at #71 and #63, the album shot to #5 in its third frame on the Billboard 200, once the movie hit theaters and people had the chance to familiarize themselves with the music. It then rose to #1 in its fourth week, becoming the 10th soundtrack to top the albums chart in the past five years. After a second week at #1 — becoming only the fifth soundtrack in the past 10 years to spend multiple weeks on top — it has been planted for three straight weeks at #2, where it now remains. And these have not been fluke chart triumphs during a slow season. The weekly equivalent album units have been strong enough to vie for #1 almost any week of the year:

  • Week ending 1/4: 106,000
  • Week ending 1/11: 104,000
  • Week ending 1/18: 104,000
  • Week ending 1/25: 109,000
  • Week ending 2/1: 95,000

Statistically speaking, The Greatest Showman is by far the most popular album of the year so far and will continue to be 2018’s cumulative bestseller even if Justin Timberlake moves 300,000 units of Man Of The Woods this week as projected, even if Migos’ Culture II puts up another 200,000 in its second frame, even if Showman itself finally falls off. The soundtrack’s run is beginning to remind me of the pervasive, enduring success enjoyed by such phenomena as Guardians Of The Galaxy in 2015 and Frozen in 2014, but the former was a “mixtape” of decades-old hits tied to a Marvel project, and the latter catered to an incredibly broad family audience while enjoying all the marketing dollars and brand loyalty inherent to a Disney cartoon. Showman doesn’t have any of that.

So what does it have? It has Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the songwriting duo who recently won a Tony and a Grammy for their Dear Evan Hansen score plus an Oscar for penning the lyrics to La La Land’s “City Of Stars.” As with Dear Evan Hansen, the EGOTs-in-waiting have applied a grandiose Broadway sensibility to the most conservative sounds on the modern radio dial. But whereas Hansen mostly stuck to acoustic guitar-pop, Showman serves up earnest buoyancy in many high-fructose flavors.

There are a couple starry-eyed piano ballads, “A Million Dreams” and “Never Enough.” There is a flickering electro-pop slow dance called “Tightrope” (it is a circus-related metaphor for romance, you see) sung by Michelle Williams. There is “Rewrite The Stars,” an EDM-infused rock duet between Zac Efron and Zendaya that could pass for world-renowned vanilla merchants OneRepublic. There is “The Other Side,” a Jackman/Efron collab one might mistake for country cornball Luke Bryan’s latest schlocky dirt-road anthem. There is “Come Alive,” an always-ascending gospel-funk showtune that will have you envisioning soaring aerial camera work and a whole movie screen full of jazz hands. (For what it’s worth, I haven’t seen The Greatest Showman — these are just the visual tropes these aural tropes bring to mind.)

The brightest spotlight has been shone on “This Is Me,” one of those inspirational basic bangers designed for a triumphant coming-of-age montage, like Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” but with more “whoa-oh”s. “This Is Me,” which is sung by Keala Settle as bearded lady Lettie Lutz in the movie, has enjoyed several signal boosts including an alternate recording by Kesha and a Golden Globe win for Best Original Song. It’s nominated for the Oscar, too, and will very likely send Sufjan Stevens and the rest of the competition home empty-handed. Considering the lucky streak The Greatest Showman has been riding, at this point I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s somehow retrofitted into the Best Picture envelope despite not being nominated in that category. This movie cannot be stopped.

Its success, coupled with the contemporaneous success of all the bands its soundtrack is aping, probably means we’ll be getting a steady diet of its insufferable brand of “rock” “music” for another three years, if not eternity. This sort of empty-calorie lowest-common-denominator fluff is just obscenely popular and always has been, as the Greatest Showman squad so profitably figured out. But as we burrow still deeper into the dark heart of the music industry and humanity itself, we must again ask, why? To answer that one we turn to an apocryphal quote from the greatest showman himself. (He probably didn’t say it, but surely The Greatest Showman takes greater liberties with Barnum’s legacy than that.) The line: “There’s a sucker born every minute.” And for every sucker, there’s a sucky playlist filled with bands that suck.

CHART WATCH

There was never any doubt that Migos would debut at #1 with Culture II this week, especially not after they crammed the tracklist with 24 songs and did everything within their power to juice streaming figures. So yes, the world’s biggest rap group has topped the Billboard 200 for the second time in just over a year, tallying 199,000 equivalent album units despite only 38,000 in traditional sales. According to Billboard, it’s the biggest debut week for an album since Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. last April, and it marks Migos (who scored their first #1 with the original Culture early last year) as one of only five rap groups with at least two #1 albums; the others are Beastie Boys, A Tribe Called Quest, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, and D12. As we saw earlier this week, Migos also tie the Beatles’ record with 14 simultaneous songs on the Hot 100 this week, but we’ll get to the singles chart momentarily.

As for the rest of the top 10 albums: The Greatest Showman soundtrack enjoys another big week with 95,000 units for a #2 finish. UK electronic group Above And Beyond score their first top-10 album in an almost 20-year career with a #3 debut for Common Ground on the strength of 64,000 units, powered partially by album/ticket bundles. Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic shoots back up to #4 with 49,000 units following his huge night at the Grammys. It’s followed by a bunch of other Grammy winners and performers: Ed Sheeran’s ÷ at #5, Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. at #6, Camila Cabello’s Camila at #7, and Khalid’s American Teen at #9. Post Malone’s Stoney is at #8, while Imagine Dragons’ Evolve is at #10.

OK, on to the Hot 100: Drake leads for a second straight week with “God’s Plan,” while Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect” holds strong at #2. Bruno Mars and Cardi B’s “Finesse” is back up to #3 post-Grammys, while Camila Cabello and Young Thug’s “Havana” and Post Malone and 21 Savage’s “Rockstar” fall to #4 and #5 respectively. Halsey’s “Bad At Love” holds onto its #6 peak, while Dua Lipa’s “New Rules” reaches a new high at #7 and the Migos/Cardi/Nicki Minaj summit “MotorSport” — the biggest of the aforementioned 14 Migos tracks on this chart — hops back to #8. (Their “Stir Fry” rockets from #52 to #12 this week, by the way.)

Leaping from #25 to #9 in its first full week of tracking is the Justin Timberlake/Chris Stapleton duet “Say Something,” matching “Filthy” as the best-charting single from next week’s inevitable #1 album, Man Of The Woods. Per Billboard, it’s Stapleton’s first top-10 single and Timberlake’s 19th as a solo artist (25th if you include six by *NSYNC). And just like on the albums chart, Imagine Dragons close out the singles chart top 10 with “Thunder.”

POP FIVE

Justin Timberlake – “Man Of The Woods”
Look, I am not saying my colleague Tom Breihan is wrong about the vacuous, aimless Man Of The Woods… but I also haven’t gotten its admittedly stupid title track out of my head since last Friday, except when I’ve found myself humming the also-idiotic “Supplies.” Just because Justin Timberlake is our least profound living pop star doesn’t mean he’s entirely inept at the business of pop music.

Iggy Azalea – “Savior” (Feat. Quavo)
There has been some controversy about how much disgraced super-producer Dr. Luke had to do with this track, but judging by the sound of it, I’m tempted to believe he was very involved — mostly because, alleged creep though he may be, dude is very good at making pop music, and this? This is very good pop music. Good enough to overcome Quavo overload, even. Good enough to get Iggy Azalea back on the radio, even.

Ne-Yo – “Good Man”
Get ready to feel decrepit because D’Angelo’s “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” is now old enough to function as the retro soul sample in a modern R&B song. But also, get ready to feel alive again because this song is great and includes the lyric, “I wanna be chilling with Obama, talking business/ See you calling, tell him ‘Hold up, I gotta take this.’” Ever the gentleman, this guy!

Jennifer Lopez – “Us” (Prod. Skrillex)
J-Lo’s much-hyped Skrillex collaboration is firmly ensconced in the EDM-lite sound Skrillex helped to craft, marked by a nimbly thumping tropical house beat, squiggly neon chipmunk vocals, and the sonic equivalent of effervescent ocean spray. Nothing about “Us” is particularly unique, but this sound, executed this well, with a hook this effective, surely equals a hit, yes?

Julia Michaels – “Heaven”
Another bop from one of the most talented pop singer-songwriters in the game — albeit a noir-ish and understated bop befitting the Fifty Shades soundtrack from whence it came.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Carly Rae Jepsen updated her Instagram bio with what fans are speculating are lyrics to a new song: “When you move it’s like a disco darling — all my dreams come true.” [Instagram]
  • Avril Lavigne is mixing her first album in five years. [Instagram]
  • Was there ever really a plan to have a Prince hologram in Justin Timberlake’s Super Bowl halftime show? “He was 100 percent ready to use the hologram but nixed it due to backlash,” a source told Page Six. [Page Six]
  • Yet Timberlake’s visual team tells Billboard they “never contemplated” a hologram. Huh. [Billboard]
  • Travis Scott and Kylie Jenner named their baby daughter Stormi, hopefully(?) because they are ignorant of recent political news. [Instagram]
  • In other celebrity childbirth news, Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott gave birth to twin babies antebellum. [Instagram]
  • People think Fifth Harmony are splitting up because now Normani Kordei has reportedly signed a solo deal. [NME]
  • Big Sean announced the North American “Unfriendly Reminder” tour. [Hot New Hip-Hop]
  • Philadelphia native Lil Uzi Vert is hosting a Super Bowl victory party thrown by several Eagles players. [TMZ]
  • Alessia Cara, Shawn Mendes, the Weekend, and Justin Bieber were nominated for Juno awards. [CBC]
  • Mendes also played a swanky Bat Mitzvah. [TMZ]
  • Portugal. The Man released a NSFW video for “Keep On.” [YouTube]
  • Beyoncé released new Valentine’s Day merch. [Twitter]
  • Not to be outdone, Rihanna released some new Valentine’s Day socks. [Twitter]
  • Maroon 5 released a high-budget video for “Wait” following the Snapchat-filter one that dropped last month. [YouTube]
  • TMZ says Karlie Kloss’ friendship with Taylor Swift has ended and Katy Perry is her new best friend. [TMZ]
  • Cardi B told fans she is not pregnant: “No bitch I’m just getting fat. Let me fat in peace.” [E!]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME: QUINCY JONES EDITION