The Week In Pop

In His Big Post-Vegas Moment, Jason Aldean Punts

Last October, six days after a gunman killed 58 people during his performance at the Route 91 Harvest festival on the Las Vegas strip, Jason Aldean made a surprise appearance on Saturday Night Live. For the show’s cold open, the country star and his band covered “I Won’t Back Down,” which functioned as a dual tribute to Tom Petty (who’d died the same week) and the victims of the Vegas shooting. Aldean’s vocal range doesn’t compare to Petty in his prime, but the sentiment was admirable nonetheless. So was his decision to release “I Won’t Back Down” as a charity single and donate profits to the victims’ families, many of whom he visited in the aftermath of the attack.

Resilience in the face of tragedy, comfort for the grieving: Minus sociopathic stains on humanity like Alex Jones, everyone agrees these are good things. That was the point. In the immediate aftermath of the attack that thrust him unwillingly into a contentious national debate, Aldean was exceedingly careful to unite rather than divide. He said it himself from the SNL stage, offering vagueries about the American spirit and sticking together in tough times. You could fault him for opting not to take a strong public stance on gun control, but the steps he did take were commendable. If not exactly seizing his moment, he was doing something with his platform.

Not anymore. Six months after Route 91 Harvest, Aldean is back with Rearview Town, America’s current #1 album, which sidesteps the mass shooting entirely. Again, this makes some kind of sense. This guy is one of the most massive country stars of his generation — big enough to send four straight albums to #1 and score nine country #1 singles, with enough crossover appeal to crack the Billboard Hot 100 top 10 once (with 2011’s “Dirt Road Anthem”) and come close twice more (with “Take A Little Ride” and “Burnin’ It Down”). It’s not for nothing that Jay-Z saw fit to include him in his ostentatious Tidal launch.

Aldean didn’t get to the top of his industry by commenting on the most controversial issues in America; he got there by stridently avoiding them while mastering the escapist red-state lifestyle music that dominates modern country radio. Again, he literally released a song called “Dirt Road Anthem” — not to mention “Big Green Tractor,” “My Kinda Party,” and “Any Ol’ Barstool.” He never asked to be part of this narrative. If he wants to let what happened in Vegas stay in Vegas, that’s his prerogative. Lord knows not all musicians can speak authoritatively about national affairs.

Still, man does Rearview Town and the press tour around it feel like a punt. Mostly recorded before the events of last fall, the album itself goes 15 tracks and 46 minutes without even glancing at the Vegas tragedy or the issues surrounding it. It begins with “Dirt To Dust,” a boilerplate country party song about drinking and flirting “where the weekend lives.” It ends with “High Noon Neon,” a power ballad about drowning your sorrows at maybe the same run-down bar in the harsh light of day. In between we get a bunch of standard-issue countrypolitan story songs, a batch of expertly designed Mad Libs fresh off the assembly line and ready for mass consumption.

In other words, it’s another Jason Aldean album — not awesome, not awful, just completely unremarkable. Lead single “You Make It Easy,” cowritten by Florida Georgia Line, is a passable lovestruck slow dance. Current hit “Drowns The Whiskey,” a duet with Miranda Lambert, spins the usual Nashville dive-bar romance over guitars that remind me of mid-period Built To Spill of all things but still sounds entirely like country music circa 2018. “Set It Off,” yet another twilight party-starter, will almost certainly be a big hit, but people might mistake it for Luke Bryan or any number of the interchangeable down-home bros who run country radio. It just keeps going and going and going like this. He genuinely has this down to a science — or rather, his team of professional songwriters has it down to a science. (Aldean doesn’t write much anymore.) The most impressive aspect of his music at this point is that he can keep all the nearly identical lyrics straight.

Shaking up that profitable equilibrium would be dangerous business, and make no mistake, throwing a Vegas song into the mix would entail shaking it up. Even a sentimental tearjerker that communicated nothing of substance would have diverged from the Jason Aldean formula. In an Aldean song, the protagonist can feel sad, but not because an evil man rained bullets on his concert from a hotel balcony — only because his baby left him to live this small-town liquor-poundin’, dirt-road truck-drivin’, down-South good-time-havin’ lifestyle all by his lonesome. Anything else would puncture the fantasy evoked by Aldean and the Nashville country machine writ large — never mind that the noble working-class archetype that populates most of his songs is itself politically loaded these days.

If Aldean’s music sounds generic, how about his every word promoting it? Here is a sample from his recent Billboard interview:

  • “My live shows are such an important selling tool for the record for me — I’m constantly listening for things that are going to translate live. Sometimes, I get lost in thinking, ‘Man, that song sounds really cool. It would be fun to play live.'”
  • “I’ve always been a big fan of [Miranda Lambert’s] voice and style. I had this song in mind, and I sent it to her, and she was kind of iffy on the song that I sent. I said, ‘If you don’t like it, that’s cool. I want you to love whatever we do. We’ll find something else. I’ve got this other song that I’ll send you, see if you like it better.’ I sent it to her, she loved it, and I said, ‘Cool, let’s cut it.’ It was one of the highlights of this record.”
  • “I would say that if I never won another award, I wouldn’t feel as if my career has been a failure. I don’t think I need the awards to validate my career, but it is a nice thing to have. It does make you feel good to have that pat on the back. It definitely makes it more exciting when you go to an awards show, I will say that!”

Illuminating! And when Aldean’s been forced to publicly reckon with the events of the Route 91 Harvest festival, he’s been no more enlightening. From the SNL stage: “You can be sure that we’re going to walk through these tough times together, every step of the way. Because when America is at its best, our bond and our spirit is unbreakable.” On the Today show: “Our country spends too much time arguing with each other, but doesn’t spend enough time working on the issue that’s really the problem.” In Entertainment Weekly: “I think everybody needs to sit down, stop pushing their own agendas, and figure out what will make it safer. When people can’t go to a damn movie or a concert and not worry about somebody shooting the place up, there’s a flaw in the system.”

What does any of that mean? It means nothing. It’s gobbledygook. This parade of zero-calorie platitudes is projected as salt-of-the-earth common sense, but it makes no sense at all. Aldean is correct that gun violence is a problem and so is the discourse around it, but his profound homespun wisdom boils down to: somebody should solve these problems. His every word is so meticulously inoffensive that I’m sitting here screaming, offended as hell.

People rightly bash politicians for offering up the tired “thoughts and prayers” mantra without taking corresponding action, but Aldean’s words are somehow even more hollow. In attempting to provide an apolitical answer, he sounds exactly like the worst kind of politician, one whose only conviction is protecting himself from critique. He summed up his approach quite clearly in his EW interview: “I’m not trying to push my own agenda. If I say that I believe this, I’m gonna piss off half of the people, and if I say I believe that, I’m gonna piss off the other half. I have my opinions, but what the hell do I know?”

I have to credit him for at least articulating some kind of position to the AP — he told them “it’s too easy to get guns” while calling for more rigorous background checks — but that view, espoused by everyone from Everytown For Gun Safety to Donald Trump and the NRA, is so popular it barely counts as a position at all. Even when theoretically sticking his neck out, Aldean makes sure to ruffle as few feathers as possible. Furthermore, the rest of his public life suggests he wouldn’t even be going this far if not for reporters grilling him about it during promo ops for his new album.

Compare his response to that of Ariana Grande, whose concert in Manchester last year was the site of a terrorist bombing that killed 22 people. The pop star responded by organizing an all-star benefit concert for the victims back in Manchester just two weeks later. She went on to perform at the March For Our Lives in Washington this year, becoming a vocal gun-control advocate along the way. Grande is redeeming the tragedy by leveraging it to achieve the change she wants to see. Rather than just acknowledging problems, she is pursuing solutions. Meanwhile “No Tears Left To Cry,” her fantastic new single, alludes to the pain wrought by the Manchester bombing but zeroes in on the moment the healing kicked in. It is the sound of both grieving and triumphantly overcoming. It rules.

Sadly, much of this disparity probably comes down to branding and community expectations. Grande was already a vocal advocate for the Black Lives Matter movement and the fights against HIV, bullying, and LGBT discrimination. The modern pop-star paradigm practically demands this sort of activism. Grande’s fans expect her to stand up for what she believes in, provided it fits within a progressive worldview. Whereas Jason Aldean literally stands for nothing. He’s made a fortune standing for nothing. His fans may well be demanding that he stand for nothing. The only boats he wants to rock are rented out for spring break frat parties.

Perhaps Aldean shares Grande’s views but fears alienating the large portion of his fan base that likely sides with the National Rifle Association. Perhaps, like many other country stars, he’s an ally of the NRA but is afraid of coming off like Jesse Hughes, the Eagles Of Death Metal frontman who has squandered all the goodwill derived from his own band’s encounter with gun violence in Paris three years ago. Perhaps the events of Vegas changed Aldean’s perspective; perhaps they caused him to dig deeper into previously held positions. We don’t know because he’ll hardly say a word about it.

There is a song on Rearview Town called “Better At Being Who I Am.” In it, Aldean sings from the perspective of a man who’s been trying to change in order to impress a woman. He’s fed up with pretending to be someone he’s not and is headed to the bar to catch up with an old friend and get back in touch with his true “rebel” self. “I tried to be what you were looking for,” goes the verse, “but I can’t do that anymore.”

The irony is that by singing this song, Aldean himself is playing a character. It’s a role he plays all the time, one he’s comfortable with, one that has proven to be extremely lucrative. He’s not about to take any principled stands on contentious issues; it would counteract his entire public persona and undermine his business model. That’s a shame because history has fated Aldean a unique opportunity to be an influence for good, however he may define it. He’s chosen to forfeit that opportunity. I guess he did back down after all.

CHART WATCH

It’s a big week for country music on the Billboard charts. That begins on the Billboard 200, where Jason Aldean’s aforementioned Rearview Town becomes his fourth #1 album and the first this year by a country artist. It continues on the Hot 100, where hits featuring Florida Georgia Line and Maren Morris have two country acts in the top five for the first time in 18 years.

First let’s peruse the top 10 albums. Aldean’s Rearview Town opens with 183,000 equivalent album units and 162,000 in sales — the best totals for a country album this year, per Billboard, and good for his fourth straight #1 album. He’s only the second country artist to pull off four straight #1s following Rascal Flatt​s, who did it between 2004 and 2009. As with just about every major release by a veteran artist these days, Rearview Town benefitted from a promotion bundling Aldean concert tickets with a free copy of the album.

After Cardi B at #2 comes Breaking Benjamin’s Ember, entering at #3 with 88,000 units/80,000 sales. The hard rockers, too, benefitted from an album/ticket bundle. The Greatest Showman’s soundtrack is in at #4, and then legendary songwriter John Prine enjoys a #5 debut for The Tree Of Forgiveness via 54,000 units/53,000 sales. (Ditto on the album/ticket bundle here.) The Weeknd, XXXTentacion, Migos, and the Black Panther soundtrack are at 6-9. And in at #10 is the debut of Pentatonix’s latest, PTX Presents: Top Pop, Vol. 1, with 34,000 units/29,000 sales. (Again, they deployed an album/ticket bundle.)

Drake holds down both #1 and #2 on the Hot 100 for a second straight week thanks to “Nice For What” and “God’s Plan” respectively. He’s now occupied the #1 spot for 13 consecutive weeks and, per Billboard, he’s up to 33 weeks all-time. Only Rihanna has spent more weeks at #1 this decade, and 11 of those were shared with Drake thanks to “What’s My Name” and “Work.”

Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line’s “Meant To Be” holds at #3, as does Post Malone and Ty Dolla $ign’s “Psycho” at #4. Up to a new #5 peak is Zedd, Maren Morris, and Grey’s “The Middle,” marking new chart highs for Morris and Grey and putting two country acts (Morris and Florida Georgia Line) in the top five for the first time since 2000, when Faith Hill’s “Breathe” was at #3 and Lonestar’s “Amazed” was at #5. (If you haven’t read the backstory on “The Middle” yet, you really should.)

At 6-9 are BlocBoy JB and Drake’s “Look Alive,” Ed Sheeran’s obscenely resilient “Perfect,” Lil Dicky and Chris Brown’s “Freaky Friday,” and Cardi B, Bad Bunny and J Balvin’s “I Like It.” And closing us out at #10 is Nicki Minaj’s “Chun-Li,” rising from #92 in its first full week of chart action to become her 16th top 10 hit. It’s the largest one-week leap since Katy Perry’s “Roar” jumped from #85 to #2 back in 2013. (Minaj’s other new song, “Barbie Tingz,” is up to #25.)

POP FIVE

Ariana Grande – “No Tears Left To Cry”
Who had this one pegged as anything but a ballad? Instead, with an invigorating UK garage skip, pleasingly spacious production, and a gargantuan hook worthy of all her diva powers, Grande flips our expectations sideways just like her Inception-inspired video. First listen: “This is pretty good.” Second listen: “This might be really good.” Third listen: “Wow!” Fourth listen: “Give me 100 more listens.”

Sugarland – “Babe” (Feat. Taylor Swift)
Taylor Swift and Train’s Pat Monahan wrote this during the Red sessions, and now the reactivated country hit machine Sugarland have recorded it with Swift contributing some vocals. It sounds a lot more like a country song than anything Swift was releasing at the time, and it works pretty well in that context, so good on everyone.

Liam Payne – “Familiar” (Feat. J Balvin)
Look at dude from One Direction holding his own alongside an actual top-tier Latin pop star! Qualitatively, “Familiar” is not exactly “Mi Gente” — consider it pleasingly mindless head-bob music built for summer radio — but don’t be surprised when it becomes another hit for Payne, proving himself to be the 1D member whose star power I most severely underestimated.

The Chainsmokers – “Somebody” (Feat. Drew Love)
Man, for the last two years these guys couldn’t miss, and now they can’t buy a hit. What happened? I guess their bid to become a vanilla alt-rock band isn’t working out.

Anne-Marie – “2002”
Anne-Marie is one of the biggest homegrown pop stars in the UK right now, and this nuclear-grade nostalgia-fest might be what breaks her good and proper in North America. As you’d expect from a tune both Ed Sheeran and Julia Michaels had a hand in, it’s built for pop radio infiltration. Plus it’s unabashed in its appeal to millennial sentimentality, with a chorus built from references to Y2K-era pop hits by the likes of *NSYNC, Britney Spears, and Nelly. Is this a craven approach? Maybe, but as someone who graduated high school in 2002, it definitely scratches a certain itch.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Ariana Grande will be the only guest on Fallon on Tuesday, where she’ll be interviewed and do some skits along with performing her new single “No Tears Left To Cry.” [Instagram]
  • Grande also shared some behind-the-scenes footage of her “No Tears Left To Cry” video. [YouTube]
  • *NSYNC is having some sort of pop-up in LA this weekend. [Twitter]
  • Iggy Azalea seems very sad in a new GQ profile addressing the current state of her career. [Spin]
  • Shawn Mendes: The Album is out 5/25. [Twitter]
  • Also, Mendes got pranked during his appearance on UK’s Capital FM. [YouTube]
  • Aaaaaaand Mendes released a video for “In My Blood.” [YouTube]
  • Years & Years’ new album Palo Santo is out 7/6. [Instagram]
  • Post Malone partnered with Postmates to preview tracks from his new album out tomorrow. [Twitter]
  • Nick Jonas paid tribute to Avicii with a cover of “Wake Me Up.” [Twitter]
  • In her first red carpet appearance in years Avril Lavigne said her “powerful” new album will be out this year. [E!]
  • Charlie Puth released a video for his Kehlani collab “Done For Me.” [YouTube]
  • Macklemore and wife Tricia Davis welcomed a new baby girl over St. Patrick’s Day weekend. [Billboard]
  • Christina Aguilera did a Carpool Karaoke with help from Melissa McCarthy. [YouTube]
  • The Chainsmokers’ Drew Taggart was honored by ASCAP as Songwriter Of The Year. [Instagram]
  • Sigrid did “Strangers” on The Tonight Show. [YouTube]
  • Pitbull is planning a tour with life coach Tony Robbins. [Billboard]

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