The Week In Pop

Can Ava Max’s Global Hit “Sweet But Psycho” Take Over America Too?

A non-exhaustive list of American musicians who’ve hit it big in Europe and the UK before breaking through back home: Jimi Hendrix, Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, the Strokes, the White Stripes, Andrew W.K. To that list you can now add Ava Max — aka Wisconsin-born, Virginia-raised Amanda Ava Koci — whose “Sweet But Psycho” might be the biggest song in the world right now. The track, which Max calls a tongue-in-cheek look at the way women are often perceived in romantic relationships, and which a casual listener might hear as a reinforcement of the stigmas Max says she’s critiquing, has gone #1 in 15 countries. In the UK, it reached the summit at the end of 2018 and has remained there since.

It’s easy to see why “Sweet But Psycho” has been such a hit overseas. Its particular brand of dance-pop cheese reminds me a bit of Eurodance hits like La Bouche’s “Be My Lover,” Eiffel 65’s “Blue (Da Be Dee),” or Cascada’s “Everytime We Touch,” albeit with that genre’s relentless 4/4 thump subbed out for a measured synth surge native to modern Top 40 radio. Even more so it reminds me of early Lady Gaga electro-pop jams like “Just Dance,” “Poker Face,” “Telephone,” and “Bad Romance.” Max gets that comparison a lot, and rightfully so. Besides the sound of her music, her age (24) and ostentatious presentation (her platinum blonde locks are cut to shoulder length on one side but billow halfway down her back on the other) suggest she probably went through a heavy Gaga phase at some point.

Also likely contributing to that sense of nostalgia for a decade ago is the involvement of producer and co-writer Cirkut. Although he never worked with Gaga, he had a hand in early ’10s hits for Katy Perry (“Part Of Me,” “Wide Awake,” “Roar,” “Dark Horse”), Rihanna (“Where Have You Been,” “You Da One”), Kesha (“Die Young”), and Miley Cyrus (“Wrecking Ball”). More recently he’s helmed tracks for Kim Petras, another artist making blown-out dance-pop that unapologetically sets its compass by icons like Britney Spears. Max wrote “Sweet But Psycho” with Cirkut, Norwegian social media star Tix, and rising industry songwriters Madison Love and Cook Classics. Together they’ve taken over large swaths of planet Earth with one of those pirouetting hooks so effective it will infect you whether you like it or not: “Oh, she’s sweet but a psycho/ A little bit psycho/ At night she’s screamin’ ‘I’m-ma-ma-ma out my mind.'”

Back home in the US of A, “Sweet But Psycho” hasn’t had the same impact — yet. It’s up to a respectable #36 on the Hot 100 this week. It’s rising at Top 40 radio (#24), streaming (#47), and digital track sales (#13). Last night Max had her first stateside TV appearance on The Late Late Show With James Corden (appropriately, an Englishman will be among the first to sell this massive UK hit back to Americans). The promo offensive is on; it seems like only a matter of time before Max becomes as inescapable in her home country as she already is in Germany, Latvia, and New Zealand.

Before her big break with “Sweet But Psycho,” Max had been kicking around the lower rungs of the mainstream music industry for a couple years. As such, she’s tried her hand at a few different flavors of Top 40 pop, practicing the kind of mercenary elasticity her fellow Albanian-American pop singer Bebe Rexha is known for. Max did a pretty good diva-house vocal on Le Youth’s 2017 single “Clap Your Hands.” She teamed with Vice and Jason Derulo on “Make Up,” the kind of sparkling-clean corporate lite-funk track you’d expect Derulo to record. She sang the hook on “Out Of My Head,” rapper Witt Lowry’s attempt to replicate Eminem’s crossover hits. On David Guetta’s pop-rock-EDM composite “Let Me Be Me,” she became the umpteenth person to interpolate the melody from “Tom’s Diner.”

It seems like she’s now settling into, if not a signature sound, at least a personal brand. Around the same time she put out “Sweet But Psycho” last summer, she also released “Not Your Barbie Girl,” a quasi-cover of Aqua’s ’90s mega-hit “Barbie Girl.”

Max’s version updates the original’s satirical lyrics about an ultra-submissive, plasticine woman into a feminist manifesto, somehow making an already blunt message song even blunter: “Not your Barbie girl, I’m livin’ in my own world/ I ain’t plastic, call me classic.” There is another Cirkut collab called “My Way” that better articulates some of the supposed themes from “Sweet But Psycho” via lines like “But how come when I tell you/ What’s on my mind like men do/ I’m called crazy?” “Salt,” the best of the rest of Max’s songs and perhaps not coincidentally her most Gaga-esque, is a string-laden club track about looking too fine to cry over an ex.

All of those songs contribute to Max’s bid to become the most extra of the yas queens, but they rarely rise above the level of cliche. She doesn’t have another single that pops like “Sweet But Psycho,” nor does she have anything yet that will get her out of Gaga’s shadow. Just go back and listen to a string of those Gaga classics and you’ll realize Max’s output follows suit yet falls short in terms of lyrics, production, melody, dynamics, personality, and every other conceivable metric. If Gaga came back with an album of classic Gaga club bangers — and let’s all pray that comes to pass this year — Max might be vaporized on the spot.

To be fair, Max, who studiously goes out of her way to name just about every other female pop legend as an influence, has not stated outright that she’s trying to take over Gaga’s old turf in this post-Joanne, post-A Star Is Born era. On the other hand, her songs state her intentions plainly enough — and I do mean plainly. Given that Gaga herself has often been accused of ripping off Madonna, a low-budget Gaga facsimile can’t help but feel like what Win Butler once dismissed as “just a reflection of a reflection of a reflection.” Max is going to have to step up her game to have a shot at extending these 15 minutes.

The international success of “Sweet But Psycho” has given her that opportunity. Max is in a similar spot to where nouveau English A-lister Dua Lipa — yet another ethnic Albanian; prepare your trend pieces accordingly — found herself this time last year, turning her attention stateside following UK domination. The difference is Lipa had a few years’ worth of hits before she finally hit #1 with “New Rules,” whereas Max is nearly as much of a fresh face over there as she is here. She doesn’t have the same foundation, but she does have the ear of a few dozen countries and, presumably, a widening cast of talented collaborators. If she has a compelling vision beyond mimicry and on-trend truisms, now’s her chance to bring it to life.

CREDIT: Sarah Kelleren

CHART WATCH

After being unseated last week, Halsey’s “Without Me” has regained the top spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 this week, claiming a second nonconsecutive week at #1. That bumps last week’s leader, Post Malone and Swae Lee’s “Sunflower,” back down to #2. Another former #1, Travis Scott (and Drake)’s “Sicko Mode,” is at #3, while Panic! At The Disco’s “High Hopes” rises to a new #4 peak. Then comes another former #1, Ariana Grande’s “thank u, next,” at #5, followed by Marshmello and Bastille’s “Happier” at #6.

Yet another former chart-topper, Maroon 5 and Cardi B’s “Girls Like You,” is at #7, spending its 30th week in the top 10. Billboard says it’s one of only six songs to last that long in the top tier, joining Santana and Rob Thomas’ “Smooth” (30 weeks), Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk!” (31), LeAnn Rimes’ “How Do I Live” (32), the Chainsmokers and Halsey’s “Closer” (32), and Ed Sheeran’s “Shape Of You” (33).

Lil Baby and Gunna’s “Drip Too Hard” is at #8. Post Malone has a second song in the top 10 this week with “Wow.” climbing to a new #9 peak. It’s his sixth career top 10 single and surely not his last. And rounding out the top 10 is Kodak Black, Travis Scott, and Offset’s “Zeze.”

For a second straight week, A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie’s Hoodie SZN claims the #1 spot on the Billboard 200 albums chart with less than 1,000 copies sold. According to Billboard, the album accrued 56,000 equivalent album units last week, nearly 55,000 of them via streaming. The rest are split between track sales and album sales.

At #2, the Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse soundtrack hits a new #2 peak, partially thanks to the success of Post Malone and Swae Lee’s “Sunflower.” The rest of the top 10 comprises eight former #1 albums: 21 Savage, Post Malone, Meek Mill, A Star Is Born, Travis Scott, Drake, The Greatest Showman, and Kodak Black.

POP FIVE

Ariana Grande – “7 Rings”
Thank u, next.

Maren Morris – “Girl”
After her electronic pop dalliance “The Middle” went supernova, no one was sure whether Maren Morris would try to properly pull a Taylor Swift on LP2. Instead, this empowerment anthem is a retrenchment in 2016 debut Hero’s poppy country-rock comfort zone. I like it. It’s not the firecracker I was hoping for, but I’m also not its target audience.

Sigrid – “Don’t Feel Like Crying”
This right here is one of the best straight-ahead pop songs of the young year. Just hooks on hooks.

Why Don’t We – “Big Plans”
This is exactly the sort of hip-hop-adjacent guitar ballad a boy band should be releasing in 2019.

Mabel – “Don’t Call Me Up”
Mabel, the daughter of Neneh Cherry, had one of my favorite UK hits about this time last year with “Fine Line.” This new one might be better. I love the gigantic hook in the bridge, I love the way the beat drops out partway through the bridge, and I love the low-creeping chorus melody all that drama leads into. It’s always nice to hear real hip-swinger that makes room for emotive pop theatrics too.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Ariana Grande was accused of ripping off Soulja Boy, Princess Nokia, and 2 Chainz on “7 Rings.” [Twitter]
  • Grande also announced that her new album will be out within six months of Sweetener — i.e., before Valentine’s Day. [Twitter]
  • Onstage in Vegas, Lady Gaga called out Mike and Karen Pence for discriminating against LGBTQ students: “You are the worst representation of what it means to be a Christian.” [Vanity Fair]
  • Zedd cancelled a show at the Atlanta nightclub Opera after a report that someone was recently raped at the club and videos of the incident were livestreamed on Facebook. [Billboard]
  • The Chainsmokers wrote a song with Blink-182. [Twitter]
  • Cardi B will star in a Pepsi Super Bowl commercial. [TMZ]
  • Cardi will also do a Las Vegas residency this spring. [USA Today]
  • Bebe Rexha said designers won’t dress her for the Grammys “because I’m too big.” [USA Today]
  • Drake announced The Assassination Vacation European tour with Tory Lanez. [Hypebeast]
  • Rihanna has partnered with LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton for a new luxury fashion house. [WWD]
  • Lauren Jauregui did “More Than That” on The Late, Late Show. [YouTube]
  • Twenty One Pilots released a video for “Chlorine.” [YouTube]
  • Bad Bunny released a video for “Caro.” [YouTube]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME