The rush that comes with a perfect pop song is elusive but unmistakable. “Pop music” can mean many things, but there’s a certain kind of monster jam that scans as POP MUSIC in neon lights, the kind that sends euphoria coursing through your nervous system and launches your body onto the dance floor. Big, bright hooks beam out over massive synthetic beats. The textures, the dynamics, and the composition are all impeccably designed for maximum satisfaction. To hear such a song executed at its best is to witness art and science colliding at impossibly high levels. It’s breathtaking.
In recent years, one of the most reliable purveyors of that sensation has been Kim Petras. The German singer and model has been building momentum by releasing bop after bop, collaborating with the likes of Charli XCX, SOPHIE, and Cheat Codes, and touring with Troye Sivan. In the process, she’s become the most visible transgender pop star at a time when trans people are stepping into the mainstream spotlight more than ever and the battle over their rights rages intensely. Petras has been publicly trans from the beginning, launching a recording career as a teenager a few years after her gender transition was documented on German TV. Theoretically that should mark her as an LGBTQ icon — and for a significant chunk of her audience, including the GLAAD Awards nominating committee, it has — but the context surrounding her rise has left others feeling ambivalent.
In a thoughtful essay for Pitchfork last year titled “What Does It Mean To Be An Apolitical Trans Pop Star?” trans writer KC Clements reckoned with the complexities of Petras’ situation. Clements struggled with the way Petras has distanced herself from the trans community, opting not to speak out on trans issues and telling the New York Times, “I don’t care about being the first transgender teen idol at all.” As a cisgender person it’s not really my place to debate Petras’ approach to those situations. But we all must make our own calculations about how to process music by people accused of misconduct, which brings us to the other aspect of Petras’ career that has raised concerns: her ongoing partnership with Dr. Luke.
With work on smash after smash — including myriad #1s for artists including Kesha, Katy Perry, Britney Spears, Avril Lavigne, Kelly Clarkson, Pitbull, and Flo Rida — the producer and songwriter born Lukasz Gottwald spent the late ’00s and early ’10s establishing himself as one of the most reliable hit-makers in music. But he’s been unofficially exiled from the pop mainstream ever since 2014, when Kesha, his label signee and longtime collaborator, sued him based on allegations of ongoing sexual, physical, verbal, and emotional abuse spanning a decade. This set off a long and nasty court battle that has yet to be resolved, and it made Dr. Luke persona non grata among the pop A-listers who had long comprised his clientele. Lady Gaga testified against Gottwald in court, Pink said he’s “not a good person,” and Clarkson, whose signature song “Since U Been Gone” was also Dr. Luke’s first big hit, told a court of law she refused to take a songwriting credit on #1 single “My Life Would Suck Without You” because “I don’t want my name near his.”
Despite the damage to his reputation, a handful of artists have continued working with Gottwald, and none more extensively than Petras. “I Don’t Want It At All,” her 2017 breakout single, was also the first song she worked on with Dr. Luke. He went on to co-write and co-produce every song she’s released as a lead artist in the past two years, often alongside his close collaborator Cirkut. “Can’t Do Better,” “All The Time,” both “Hills” and “Hillside Boys,” the Halloween-themed EP Turn Off The Light, Vol. 1 — Gottwald had a hand in all of them. A Vice report early this year suggested these are mostly completed songs Gottwald brought to Petras — Dr. Luke songs in search of an avatar, more or less — though in a since-deleted tweet Petras responded, “Assume the worst about me all you want ! But I write my shit !”
Some of Gottwald’s tracks with Petras were among the finest pure pop offerings in recent memory, especially “Heart To Break,” a neon playground that Petras ran wild in. The song is a platonic ideal for modern pop: a throttling digital rhythm accented by effervescent bursts, a relatable storyline about plunging into a love affair you know you’ll regret, and most importantly, a menagerie of wild melodies topped off by a startlingly satisfying high-wire act in the chorus. Petras performed it with just the right mix of power, finesse, and charisma, combining with the glorious sonic choreography to deliver the aforementioned rush in extreme proportions.
What do you do with a song like that when one of its key architects has been accused of consistently villainous behavior? If you are Petras, you wave off the allegations. “I would like my fans to know that I wouldn’t work with somebody I believe to be an abuser of women, definitely not,” she told NME last year, before sharing a more nuanced statement that acknowledged other people have not shared her positive experience with Dr. Luke. Reintorcing Petras’ perspective, Gottwald has won a number of battles in court, and legitimate concerns have been raised about the actions of Kesha’s lawyer around the time of the accusation. Deserved or not, the criticism Petras has faced has not dissuaded her from working with Gottwald — her debut full-length project Clarity is out tomorrow, and once again every song is a Dr. Luke production.
Actually, Clarity, which Petras says is not an album, is mostly out now. She released nine of the project’s 12 tracks ahead of time, rolling them out one per week leading up to now. They add up to an impressive collection that, in keeping with recent trends, often takes Petras’ sparkling pop sound into a mistier, sadder, more hip-hop-adjacent territory. Much of the subject matter could have been borrowed from a Future album, too: By and large these are songs about looking for release through sex and materialism, sometimes with gusto and other times with a resigned understanding that any pain reduction will be temporary.
The opening title track pairs trap production and conspicuous consumption far more gracefully than Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings.” Petras glides on breezy gusts that sound like mint bubblegum tastes, pulling off slang (“I’m the bitch with the sauce”) that could have just as easily sounded forced. The post-breakup lament “Broken” successfully puts a more melancholy spin on the same sound. “Another One” is like the Carly Rae Jepsen version of a Post Malone song, complete with Post’s vocal trills, while upcoming focus single “Icy” conjures the Weeknd vibes with production that lives up to its title. The gothic synth-funk shimmer “Personal Hell” references “Tainted Love” in both lyrics and sound and would fit well on the next Turn Off The Light installment she’s releasing this fall. The guitar-laced “Blow It All” echoes the work of Charli XCX, who featured Petras on her landmark Pop 2.
There’s a subset of overt sex songs on Clarity that are not for the prude but probably play extremely well in clubs: the pop-R&B come-on “Got My Number,” the Daft Punk-reminiscent romp “Sweet Spot,” the crystalline Top Gun soundtrack slow jam “Do Me.” Even if these songs are not your speed, they certainly make an impression, which is more than I can say for closing track “Shining,” a would-be anthem that comes off like an obligatory grand finale. The song is not outright bad, it’s just an example of mere competence on a project that often achieves excellence.
Clarity unquestionably will hit the spot for pop fans seeking that next rush. Less clear is how to engage with it given the accusations swirling around its central producer. How, when, and why to separate the art from the artist: These are questions that haunt every conscientious music fan, and they will probably dog Petras for as long as she continues to work with Dr. Luke. Their arrangement is a hypermodern devil’s bargain: Petras gets top-notch pop songs out of it, but in doing so, she is likely hurting, offending, and ultimately alienating a sizable chunk of the listeners who’d appreciate them.
Madonna debuts at #1 on the Billboard 200 this week with 95,000 equivalent album units and 90,000 in sales for Madame X. As is often the case these days, the project’s sales figures were bolstered by a variety of ticket and merch bundles. Per Billboard it’s her ninth #1 album and first since 2012’s MDNA. On the all-time #1 albums list Madonna now trails only the Beatles (19), Jay-Z (14), Barbra Streisand (11), Bruce Springsteen (11 — more on him in a second), and Elvis Presley (10) and is now tied with Eminem, Garth Brooks, and the Rolling Stones at nine. Madame X is her 22nd top 10 album; her first was her self-titled debut in 1984. She now has at least four top 10 albums in each of the past four decades.
Madonna’s fellow ’80s pop royalty Bruce Springsteen debuts at #2 with 66,000 units and 62,000 in sales for Western Stars. It’s Springsteen’s 20th top 10 LP. Billboard notes is the first time Springsteen and Madonna have been in the top two together since 1985, when Born In The U.S.A. and Like A Virgin spent six weeks flipped between #1 and #2. After Billie Eilish at #3 and Jonas Brothers at #4 comes a #5 debut for Bastille’s Doom Days with 41,000 units/34,000 sales. Rounding out the top 10 are Khalid, Polo G, DaBaby, Lizzo, and Ariana Grande.
On the Hot 100, Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Old Town Road” holds onto #1 for a 12th straight week. According to Billboard it’s only the 20th song to last that long. If it can make it four more weeks, it’ll tie the all-time record held by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day” and Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, and Justin Bieber’s “Despacito.”
This means, of course, that Taylor Swift’s promo blitz for new single “You Need To Calm Down” has yielded yet another #2 debut. Swift still becomes one of only 12 artists with 24 top 10 hits, and “You Need To Calm Down” comes closest to dethroning “Old Town Road” of any song in the past nine weeks. Swift’s new song bumps Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” and Khalid’s “Talk” to #3 and #4 respectively, while Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber’s “I Don’t Care” remains at #5 and Jonas Brothers’ “Sucker” slides to #6.
Debuting at #7 is Drake’s Rick Ross collaboration “Money In The Grave.” (Drake’s other new song “Omertà” debuts way down at #35 even though it was positioned as the A-side of his The Best In The World Pack — the people have spoken!) “Money In The Grave” is Drake’s whopping 35th top 10 hit, breaking a tie with the Beatles for second most all-time. He trails only Madonna’s 38 and seems likely to someday dethrone her unless his career dries up very quickly. He also owns the record for most top 10 debuts with 20.
As for Ross, “Money In The Grave” is his second top 10 hit and highest-charting single ever; his previous peak was another Drake collab alongside Lil Wayne on DJ Khaled’s “I’m On One,” which topped out at #10 in 2011. The rest of this week’s top 10 comprises Post Malone’s “Wow.,” DaBaby’s “Suge,” and Chris Brown and Drake’s “No Guidance.” It continues to amaze me that even when he’s off-cycle Drake can put two singles in the top 10 without really even trying.
Lil Nas X – “Panini”
I like the Lil Nas X EP! “Old Town Road” was some one-time-only magic, but the guy is great with melodies, and the way he hops across genres does not feel at all forced. “Panini” is a lot more normal than “Old Town Road,” but it slaps, and the Nirvana hook is used wisely. (Also I enjoy that by beginning with the remix and ending with the original “Old Town Road” we get the equivalent of an artist opening and closing a concert with their big hit, which is always delightful.)
Shawn Mendes & Camila Cabello – “Señorita”
A little beige for a song with so many talented names attached, but all things considered this is a pleasant summer bop.
Marshmello & Kane Brown – “One Thing Right”
On a song where Marshmello goes country and Kane Brown goes pop (again), neither one sounds out of his element. The monogenre rides on!
Ellie Goulding – “Hate Me” (Feat. Juice WRLD) & BTS – “All Night” (Feat. Juice WRLD)
Everything’s coming up Juice WRLD! What’s more, “Hate Me” is the first Ellie Goulding song in a long time I feel actively positive about it. As for the other track, I like it better when BTS force Western artists to step into their world. “All Night” is basically just a Juice WRLD song, albeit a less obnoxious Juice WRLD song than usual.
Natasha Bedingfield – “Unwritten (2019 Remix)”
The best thing about The Hills coming back is getting to hear “Unwritten” again. The worst thing about The Hills coming back is that they felt the need to mess with “Unwritten.”
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Dixie Chicks confirmed their first album in 13 years, with production by Jack Antonoff, is on the way. [Instagram]
- Justin Bieber reunites with Chris Brown on “Don’t Check On Me.” [Complex]
- In a significantly more charming collaboration, Bieber’s Drew clothing line has teamed with Drew Barrymore on shirts featuring the actress’s photo. [Billboard]
- Britney Spears’ father has sued a Britney fansite blogger for defamation. [Jezebel]
- Iggy Azalea’s long-delayed sophomore album In My Defense is out 7/19 and here’s the bloody artwork. [Twitter]
- Mustard, seemingly drenched in fake sweat, did a weigh-in with Weight Watchers ambassador DJ Khaled at the BET Awards. [Instagram]
- The new mobile game BTS World “allows players to go back in time, take the role of the band’s manager and make choices that lead BTS to global stardom.” [Reuters]
- Universal Music Group is seeking to block O-Town’s trademark application because the group’s name sounds like Motown. [Variety]
- Sigrid missed her flight to the “Mine Right Now” video shoot so director Max Siedentopf stepped in and did all her choreography and lipsyncing. [YouTube]
- Sebastian Maniscalco will host the 2019 MTV VMAs in Newark. [CNN]
- Taylor Swift shared a “You Need To Calm Down” behind-the-scenes video. [Instagram]
- Swift, Dua Lipa, SZA, and Becky G will play Amazon’s Prime Day Concert on 7/10. [Prime]
- Kacey Musgraves is planning an Oh, What A World Tour live album. [Twitter]
- Avril Lavigne announced her first North American tour in five years. [Alt Press]
- Ariana Grande announced dates for another US leg of her Sweetener tour. [Rolling Stone]
- Sia — and Ricky Gervais, Wanda Sykes, and Chris Paul — appear in the new animated series Scooby-Doo And Guess Who? premiering today on Boomerang. [YouTube]
- Kaskade cancelled his Sun Soaked festival that would’ve had Logic, Quinn XCII, and a DJ set from Grimes: “It’s become obvious to me that we are falling short.” [Instagram]
- Ed Sheeran, Chance The Rapper, and PnB Rock released a video for “Cross Me.” [YouTube]
- Lady Gaga extended her Las Vegas residency into 2020. [iHeart]
- Maren Morris, Ashley Monroe, Lauren Alaina, Miranda Lambert, Lindsay Ell, Angaleena Presley, and Cassadee Pope covered U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” at Country LakeShake Festival in Chicago. [Instagram]
- G-Eazy released a three-track B-Sides EP. [Miss Info]
- The Cher Show will close on Broadway in August. [NYT]
- Carrie Underwood was transformed into a 40 pound cheese block to commemorate her Milwaukee concert. [Instagram]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
SALLY NO pic.twitter.com/87rDME7AmG
— Jeremy Gordon (@jeremypgordon) June 26, 2019