The Week In Pop

Like The Stay Puft Man Before Him, Marshmello Just Keeps Getting Bigger

Who knows how many centuries the fortune under the eastern slope of Mount Davidson went untapped before the Grosh brothers happened upon it. The Pennsylvanian preacher’s sons had become seasoned prospectors during the gold rush years of the mid-19th century, and that experience served them well in Nevada’s Virginia Range southeast of Reno, where in 1857 they realized the blackish material their peers were discarding was part of a gigantic deposit of silver ore. Unfortunately, they never cashed in on their “monster ledge”; both brothers were dead before the end of the year. First, a pick through the foot resulted in Hosea Grosh’s demise due to infection. Then, on the way to California to raise funds for excavating his claim, Ethan Grosh died due to complications from severe frostbite.

When Ethan departed for California, he left his bonanza under the care of an illiterate loudmouth from Ontario who’d earned the nickname “Old Pancake” because he was too lazy to bake bread. Upon Ethan’s death, Pancake –
whose Christian name was Henry T. Comstock — claimed their land as his own and began staking claims to other property in the region. He had to work fast to keep pace with other miners who were learning just how much gold and silver was in them there hills.

Although a handful of prospectors staked claims in the area, the deposit became known as the Comstock Lode, allegedly because Comstock was “an assertive braggart.” In 1859 Comstock sold off his various properties in the region for less than $20,000 — a significant sum, but far less than the millions they were worth. Comstock was uneducated and possibly suffered from mental illness, and the businesses he started with his profits failed miserably. He also bought himself a Mormon wife(!), but she ran away. After a few more years of unsuccessful prospecting, Comstock shot himself dead in Montana in 1870.

***

I don’t know if Chris Comstock is related to Henry Comstock, but I do know he didn’t repeat Old Pancake’s mistakes. This guy found himself sitting on a mother lode, too, but rather than squandering it, he parlayed it into untold riches.

If you know Chris Comstock at all, you know him as Marshmello, a DJ/producer who performs wearing a gigantic white mask that looks something like the Stay Puft man as re-imagined by a mischievous cartoonist. It would be an understatement to say things are going well for him. When Forbes released its annual list of the world’s highest-paid DJs last summer, he finished eighth with a whopping $21 million grossed during a 12-month span from June 2016 to June 2017, edging out more established names like Zedd and Martin Garrix and far outpacing Deadmau5, his forebear in the art of donning cartoonish headwear while pressing play on cartoonish music. Not bad for an artist who launched his career less than three years ago.

To clarify, Marshmello first released music in 2015, but Comstock was posting songs on SoundCloud for at least a year prior. Under the name Dotcom, he secured representation from Moe Shalizi, manager for successful EDM artists including Jauz, Slushii, and Ookay, and collaborated with big names like Borgore and Yultron. Despite these industry cosigns, Dotcom’s career wasn’t exactly popping, so he started wearing a giant marshmallow mask and pulled off the most successful metamorphosis since Tity Boi became 2 Chainz. Except in this case he was not just rebranding, he was adopting a secret identity.

Marshmello seemed like a genius satire at first. At a time when EDM had become a parody of itself, here was a dude willfully pushing its most obnoxious aspects to their extremes: the goofy misspelled DJ name, the ridiculous helmet, the mindlessly simplistic high-fructose production. His remix of Jack Ü’s “Where Are U Now” robbed Diplo and Skrillex’s lithe production of its nuance, replacing it with boilerplate sugar-rush trap-rave. His 2016 debut album Joytime ostensibly consists of 10 separate tracks, but experiencing it in real time is like unspooling a Fruit Roll-Up that keeps going for miles.

To quote one critic, “The music was aggressively dumb — corn-syrup synth lines atop same mid-tempo, almost-trap-music lurch the Chainsmokers took to the top of the charts, minus even a perfunctory stab at songwriting.” Adding to the unpleasantness were his vocals, a pinched, snotty whine of emo and pop-punk vintage. So not only was he embodying the worst of Electric Daisy Carnival, he was crossbreeding it with the worst of Warped Tour. If this mixture sounds as grotesquely unappealing as a Donald Trump presidential campaign, well, you remember how that turned out.

Alas, shamelessly hammering on the public’s basest impulses works pretty well when you’ve got an attention-grabbing shtick. In Marshmello’s case, that meant becoming a living cartoon character. Forget Donald Trump; think Waldo from Black Mirror. “The brand is so recognizable that you just need to see Marshmello one time,” manager Shalizi told Forbes last year while touting Marshmello’s popularity among kids aged 6 to 11.

Anonymity was a big part of the allure, too, thin though the pretense of mystery may have been. Maybe it’s because I’m exploring this subject retrospectively now that Marshmello is becoming a pop music powerhouse — more on that momentarily — but everyone seemed to know all along Comstock was behind the mask because no one around him kept the secret very well, Comstock included. Still, the secrecy was another element to play around with; in a magnificent troll move, Marshmello removed his mask at 2016’s Electric Daisy Carnival only to reveal global superstar Tiësto (who, to be clear, is not Marshmello).

This might have all started as a prank, but the real joke is how wildly successful Marshmello has become and how seriously the music industry has taken him. Admittedly, he had a lot of help. From the beginning, high-profile DJs shared his tracks on SoundCloud and social media. Most prominent among them was Skrillex, who also took a call from Comstock during an interview with Katie Couric and turned it into a Marshmello promo op. There was also the aforementioned Tiësto stunt. Everyone in EDM seemed to be not just in on it but gleefully perpetuating it — or at least everyone besides Deadmau5, the notorious crank from whom Marshmello lifted the helmet gimmick and who Comstock seemingly loves to provoke.

By Coachella last spring, Marshmello had the EDM-centric Sahara Tent jam-packed — even opposite Kendrick Lamar’s triumphant post-DAMN. coronation, even at a time when EDM had ceded much of its festival dominance to hip-hop. He was flourishing far beyond many of the artists he was ostensibly sending up, having leveraged his industry connections, pandering music, and so-dumb-it’s-brilliant branding ploy into EDM superstardom. Old Pancake surely would’ve approved of such enterprising spirit.

***

Now comes the next phase of Marshmello’s world-domination campaign. With EDM’s mainstream influence further giving way to hip-hop and other strains of global dance music, Comstock has moved on to the realm where savvy survivors from his scene find perpetual life: taming that neon untz-untz sound into lite-EDM pop music.

Yes, like Skrillex, Diplo, Zedd, and those aforementioned Chainsmokers — like any Vegas mainstay wise enough to worm their way into the pop ecosystem — Marshmello has transitioned to making pop hits. At a time when superstar producers are increasingly claiming artist credits, it’s a profitable business to be in, not to mention the expanded brand awareness that comes with having your name all over top-40 radio. In this context, Marshmello’s getup is no less absurd, but his music is far less objectionable. That’s largely because in crossing over Comstock has revealed that the Marshmello sound was as much of a costume as the helmet.

Perhaps it’s just an extension of the craven opportunism that yielded the Marshmello persona in the first place, but dude has proven more than capable of adapting to different sonic environments. On the Migos collab “Danger,” he delivered a convincing facsimile of cinematic Atlanta trap music. On “FRIENDS,” his brand new tune with pop striver Anne-Marie (billed as your *OFFICIAL FRIENDZONE ANTHEM*), he successfully evoked Y2K-era diva-pop strut, infusing it with acoustic guitar and walloping West Coast hip-hop bounce. Streaming hit “Silence” applied EDM flourishes to young Frank Ocean disciple Khalid’s pan-genre soul music with an artfulness nowhere to be found on Marshmello’s solo work, undergirding the singer’s warm, weathered vocals with deftly controlled synthesizer surge. “Spotlight,” the song Marshmello made with the late Lil Peep, is similarly understated and melancholy in a way Comstock never allowed Marshmello to be. (Even when moaning, “I’m so alone/ Nothing feels like home,” he sounded like he was joking.)

Comstock’s biggest look so far is “Wolves,” a song he produced for Selena Gomez late last year and performed with her at the Billboard Music Awards. “Wolves,” which topped out at #20 on the Hot 100, is a masterclass in the genre-composite sound that rules pop radio these days, a lab-engineered merger of many styles you might encounter at a festival. It begins with brooding high-register guitar riff then brings in Gomez’s sweetly smooth pop vocals over an ominous minor-key burble. Eventually it intensifies toward a rock-inspired bridge and crests into a wordless chorus built from muted EDM ripples and ghostly vocal manipulations. As a pop single circa now, it is textbook — not stylish by any metric but most definitely in style.

“Wolves” is a bit of a sledgehammer compared to the hip, minimalist production style Gomez has favored in recent years; normally she whispers and coos her hooks, not shout them from the mountaintops. But that chorus bangs, man, and the whole affair is remarkably subtle by Marshmello’s standards. Does it mean Comstock is developing more refined taste as he goes along? One listen to his recent Slushii collab “There x2″ will dispel any such notions. But it does make me marvel at Marshmello’s brazenly populist Midas touch — his ability to turn everything he touches into, not gold exactly, but something extremely lucrative.

CHART WATCH

Justin Timberlake’s Man Of The Woods may be a critical flop that has failed to generate the kind of zeitgeist-grabbing hits he’s used to, but it still enjoyed a plenty good debut week on the Billboard 200 album chart. With 293,000 equivalent album units and 242,000 in traditional album sales, Timberlake easily enters at #1.

Per Billboard, Man Of The Woods is his fourth #1 album following FutureSex/LoveSounds and both volumes of The 20/20 Experience. (His 2002 solo debut Justified topped out at #2 though notably sold 439,000 copies in its first week.) It’s also the biggest debut week since Reputation, and the biggest vinyl debut week since LCD Soundsystem’s American Dream, with 16,000 vinyl copies sold. It’s the second largest vinyl sales week since Nielsen adopted its SoundScan tracking system in 1991, bested only by Jack White’s Lazaretto.

Migos’ Culture II falls to #2 with 88,000 units, and the soundtrack to The Greatest Showman slides to #3 with 81,000. Next up is a sequence of titles that have lingered in the top 10 forever: Ed Sheeran’s ÷ (#4), Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic (#5), Post Malone’s Stoney (#6), and Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. (#7). Camila Cabello’s Camila falls to #8, while Lil Uzi Vert’s Luv Is Rage 2 rises to #9. And closing out the top 10 is the Now 65 compilation with 25,000 units, all via traditional sales.

Over on the Hot 100, Drake holds onto #1 for a third straight week with “God’s Plan.” Per Billboard, it becomes the first song to record 75 million US streams in three consecutive weeks. Its three weeks represent the fourth, fifth, and sixth best streaming weeks for any track, topped only by two massive weeks by Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” in 2013 and one by Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” last summer. “God’s Plan” is good, but is it really that good? Given what we know about Drake’s outsized streaming numbers at Apple Music, maybe this has something to do with Apple’s growing market share over Spotify?

The rest of the top 5 is also stationary: Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect,” Bruno Mars and Cardi B’s “Finesse,” Camila Cabello and Young Thug’s “Havana,” and Post Malone and 21 Savage’s “Rockstar.” At a new #6 high is Dua Lipa’s “New Rules,” and debuting at #7 is the Weeknd and Kendrick Lamar’s “Pray For Me.” It’s the seventh top-10 hit for Abel Tesfaye and the sixth for Kendrick. It’s also the first Weeknd track to premiere in the top 10.

Another new top-10 entry is Migos’ “Stir Fry,” rising to a new #8 peak. Then comes yet another new top-10 hit, Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line’s “Meant To Be,” newly peaking at #9. It’s Rexha’s third top-10 single following David Guetta’s “Hey Mama” and G-Eazy’s “Me, Myself & I”” and the second for Florida Georgia Line after the Nelly collaboration “Cruise.” Rounding out the top 10 is Halsey’s “Bad At Love.”

POP FIVE

Calvin Harris – “Nuh Ready Nuh Ready” (Feat. PartyNextDoor)
After hearing Calvin’s passable Major Lazer impression, I am nuh ready for the Funk Wave Bounces era to be over.

Khalid & Normani – “Love Lies”
It’s possible that Khalid never turns down an offer to collaborate, but it’s also possible he gets so many offers that make perfect sense. “Love Lies” is working in his favor as well as Normani Kordei’s. The Fifth Harmony member’s first solo track benefits from the same conservative-but-stylish pop-R&B vibes Khalid conjured on his own American Teen album; meanwhile Khalid gets yet another potential hit with the heightened attention that comes with Fifth Harmony’s voracious following. The song itself is merely OK, but it could prove to be the same kind of launchpad for Normani that the Shawn Mendes collab “I Know What You Did Last Summer” was for Camila Cabello.

PRETTYMUCH – “10,000 Hours”
The boy-band wars are heating up! Why Don’t We recently came through with the obnoxious but commercially potent Ed Sheeran-penned “Trust Fund Baby.” Now their rivals PRETTYMUCH are out here building a powerhouse single out of a Boyz II Men sample. Heavy artillery from both sides; hopefully we can survive the coming .

Whethan & Dua Lipa – “High”
This is a decent showcase for Dua Lipa’s vocal prowess, but it doesn’t gleam like her best work.

Noah Kahan & Julia Michaels – “Hurt Somebody”
I am sad to see Julia Michaels tainting her brand like this.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • “The next record that I’m making is not a pop album,” says Ed Sheeran. [Billboard]
  • In a behind-the-scenes clip from her “End Game” video, Taylor Swift shows how her dancers were made to move to a click track, as opposed to the actual song, so the crew wouldn’t hear (or leak) the audio before Reputation was out. [NME]
  • Michelle Branch and the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney are expecting their first child. [NME]
  • Lana Del Rey is apparently working on a Broadway musical. [Broadway World]
  • NBA player and aspiring rapper Lonzo Ball performed “Bad And Boujee” on Lip Sync Battle. [Billboard]
  • And Lonzo’s dad LaVar did “Hate Me Now.” [YouTube]
  • Shawn Mendes says a new album is coming soon. [Idolator]
  • Camila Cabello teased a video for “Never Be The Same.” [Instagram]
  • Cabello also announced her Never Be The Same Tour. [Variety]
  • Here are photos of Pharrell, Chris Martin, Bruno Mars, Pink, Sia, Haim, DJ Khaled, Meghan Trainor, Diddy, St. Vincent, the Weekend, and a million other celebrities going to Ellen DeGeneres’ birthday party. [Daily Mail]
  • In semi-related news, Dua Lipa brought “New Rules” to Ellen. [YouTube]
  • Britney Spears will received this year’s GLAAD Vanguard Award for promoting equality and acceptance of LGBTQ people. [Reuters]
  • Portugal. The Man’s tour bus caught fire before their show at Iowa Memorial Union on Tuesday, but no one was injured. [Press Citizen]
  • Ellie Goulding released a surprise cover of Don McLean’s “Vincent” for Valentine’s Day. [Spotify]
  • Meanwhile Nick Jonas covered the Beatles on Instagram. [Instagram]
  • The New York Times reports that Cardi B won New York Fashion Week. Congrats Cardi! [NYT]
  • Here’s breakout figure skating star Adam Rippon singing Rihanna’s “Diamonds.” [EW]
  • Rita Ora has joined the cast of Detective Pikachu. [THR]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME