The Week In Pop

The Benevolent Celebrity Livestream Parade Is So Bleak

Livestreams suck. Livestreams have always sucked. There are exceptions — when your favorite artist logs on, when something incredibly charming and unexpected happens — but in general, watching musicians perform onscreen from home is underwhelming and sometimes depressing. By necessity, the format has become a mainstay of the music industry during the coronavirus pandemic, which has only underlined how much the format sucks. There’s a reason the streamed concert platform StageIt was in dire financial peril before COVID-19 struck and why the world’s best and most popular musical artists didn’t typically lower themselves to the level of YouTube struggle-folkies until they had to. Under normal circumstances, when the live concert experience is available and people can safely leave their homes, livestreams are clearly an inferior alternative. They suck.

Look, I get it. Musicians are doing the best they can right now. They’re finding ways to connect with an audience and maybe bring people some comfort and joy during this difficult situation. There’s no financial barrier to entry with most of these livestreams, and they’re pleasingly intimate, like a personal video call from your friend Ben Gibbard. And webcasts like the daily online residency the Death Cab For Cutie frontman was performing in the earliest days of widespread quarantine are at least something to look forward to. We in the music-blogging trenches certainly appreciated having something to post about. I do not begrudge Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires their right to folk-rock out online. Stream on, Waxahatchee and Kevin Morby. Do your thing, James Blake. You all make livestreams suck a little less.

What has been really, truly dispiriting is the ceaseless sequence of sanitized at-home performances thrust upon us by the world’s celebrities and major media outlets. These have largely been charitable efforts featuring strikingly similar performance lineups, the likes of Billie Eilish and Elton John working their way across the networks. Some of these productions are TV specials that hopscotch from home to multi-million-dollar home, with names like James Corden’s #HomeFest and the iHeart Living Room Concert For America. Others are long-distance all-star collaborations sewn together Postal Service-style into musical Zoom meetings. (Ben Gibbard: even farther ahead of the COVID curve than we realized.) Consistently, these have delivered all the emotional resonance of an obviously scripted climax in a reality TV episode.

Part of me feels gross about condemning a ritual that has repeatedly raised money for COVID-19 relief. These things are raking in the donations even when they’re allegedly not supposed to. Global Citizen’s Lady Gaga-curated One World: Together At Home concert was expressly promoted as “not a telethon,” yet it supposedly raised almost $128 million for the World Health Organization anyway. More money to fight coronavirus is a good thing. An outpouring of generosity is a good thing. There’s nothing wrong with earnestly trying to lift people’s spirits. Yet I felt seen by the New York Post review titled “Lousy ‘One World Together At Home’ concert made us feel worse.”

“Nearly every musician opted for the saddest, most obvious tune they could muster, while — lucky us! — giving a shaky tour of their fabulous homes that would make Robin Leach scowl,” critic Johnny Oleksinski wrote. He later smirked, “The luxurious Trulia listings would have been forgiven were it not for the dull sanctimony paired with them,” noting the lack of humor and abundance of narcissism on display. The ordeal suggested that the celebrity class had learned very little from the Gal Gadot “Imagine” debacle. Here again was a parade of celebrities — John Legend and Sam Smith, Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello, multiple iterations of Keith Urban — attempting to supply inspiration from their luxurious outposts, as if the mere sight of famous people was supposed to make us feel all warm and fuzzy inside. In place of entertainment value, they had substituted somber, faux-profound schlock. It turns out livestreams suck even worse with high production values and the cheery artificiality of TV talk shows.

A similar ethos permeated the pair of all-star charity singles that emerged out of England and Canada in the past week. Today it was an all-Canadian rendition of “Lean On Me” to raise money for COVID-19 relief and celebrate the legacy of non-Canadian Bill Withers. In the video, Justin Bieber can be seen clutching a pillow in splitscreen alongside Geddy Lee clutching his dog. Also on board was a battalion of fellow Canucks including Avril Lavigne, Bryan Adams, Michael Bublé, and Sarah MacLachlan. My colleague Tom Breihan astutely summed up the experience: “Presumably, this was meant to fill us all with a feeling of mutual love and determination. Speaking personally, it mostly filled me with a feeling of damn, look at all those Canadians.”

Even worse was the BBC’s convergence of umpteen mostly British pop stars to record a reverent, blurred-edges cover of Foo Fighters’ “Times Like These” with Dave Grohl himself on board to toggle between impassioned “I’m a serious rock star” facial contortions and zany wide-eyed “I’m a cool fun guy” expressions. We no longer have to wonder what a coronavirus-era “We Are The World” would be like because here it is, an insufferably smarmy Zoom meeting reeking of expensive vanilla. I like some of these people’s music quite a bit, but none of them came out of this looking anything but thirsty. In particular, poor Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia promo campaign has been reduced to a desperate quest to FaceTime into as many of these online famous-people powwows as possible.

I should have seen this coming when Bono whipped up a pitchy but heartfelt tribute to quarantined Italians on St. Patrick’s Day and posted it to his Instagram account, and then it rapidly transformed into a mushy inspirational anthem called “Sing For Life” (or, naturally, #SING4LIFE) featuring will.i.am, Jennifer Hudson, and Yoshiki. “This song was created to bring JOY,” will.i.am wrote upon its release. “In times like these, creative people must continue to collaborate.” True, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Entertainers can present a united front and raise money for worthwhile causes without resorting to treacle like this.

Just look at “House Party,” a quarantine posse cut that brought together the unlikely team of New Kids On The Block, Boyz II Men, Big Freedia, Jordin Sparks, and Naughty By Nature. This was pure goofy fun — an insubstantial lark, maybe, but one far too cute to clown. No one was trying to dredge up some humanitarian statement beyond their depth. It was just a bunch of creative people goofing off, having a blast. Such contagious giddiness feels especially like a blessing right now. On the benevolence front, consider Angel Olsen, who embarked on a smaller-scale, more personal fundraising effort by performing a ticketed online concert to support her road crew. There was nothing ostentatious about it, with none of the icky implications of wealthy people soliciting common people’s money from within their comfortable bubble. Fans paid to watch a performance, and the performer passed on the proceeds to people she cares about: simple, beautiful, unpretentious.

And then there’s Post Malone, proof that even the most famous people in the world are capable of turning large-scale fundraisers into something fun. Last Friday afternoon, Posty livestreamed a Nirvana tribute concert benefitting the WHO’s COVID relief efforts. As anyone who remembers Lil Wayne’s “Where the fuck is my guitar?” phase can attest, this could have been a trainwreck — a global pop-rap superstar presenting a painful online open mic night — and even then it would have at least been a charming and personal way to help the needy. Instead, not only did the performance raise millions of dollars for charity, it was also legitimately enjoyable to watch. Brandishing an electric guitar and rocking with a band that included Travis Barker on drums, Posty proved he really is a rock star, someone who can thrash and howl almost as well as he yodel-emotes through Auto-Tune. Although watching it in person would have been better, this was the rare livestream that did not suck.

CREDIT: Daniel Ramos

CHART WATCH

DaBaby scores his second #1 album on the Billboard 200 this week with Blame It On Baby, his third full-length in just over a year. Per Billboard, the album tallied 124,000 equivalent album units — less than the 146,000 his prior effort Kirk debuted with, but enough to bump the Weeknd’s After Hours to #2 after a rare four-week run atop the chart. Of DaBaby’s 124,000 units, 12,000 represent pure sales, whereas the bulk derive from 158.84 million on-demand track streams, which translate to 110,000 units.

After the Weeknd and Lil Uzi Vert comes a #4 debut for Fiona Apple’s universally hailed Fetch The Bolt Cutters. The album earned 44,000 units and 30,000 in sales. Apple’s previous album The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do debuted at #3 way back in 2012. The rest of the top 10 comprises Lil Baby, Post Malone, Bad Bunny, Roddy Ricch, Rod Wave, and Tory Lanez.

The Weeknd does, however, hold on to #1 on the Hot 100 singles chart. “Blinding Lights” spends its fourth nonconsecutive week on top, followed by Drake’s “Toosie Slide,” the song that briefly interrupted its reign. Holding steady at #3, #4, and #5 are Roddy Ricch’s “The Box,” Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now,” and Doja Cat’s “Say So.” Post Malone’s “Circles” hops back up to #6, in the process setting the record for most weeks in the top 10. His 34-week run in the chart’s upper tier pushes “Circles” out of a four-way tie with Ed Sheeran’s “Shape Of You,” Maroon 5 and Cardi B’s “Girls Like You,” and another Post Malone song, the Swae Lee duet “Sunflower.”

After Harry Styles’ “Adore You” at #7 and Justin Bieber and Quavo’s “Intentions” at #8 comes DaBaby and Roddy Ricch’s “Rockstar” at a new #9 peak — per Billboard, it’s the second top 10 hit for each artist. And rounding out the top 10 is Future and Drake’s “Life Is Good.”

POP FIVE

Breland – “My Truck (Remix)” (Feat. Sam Hunt)
On a surface level, this may scan as a wannabe “Old Town Road,” but such a characterization would be selling “My Truck” extremely short. The banjo-laced, 808-powered beat is nearly as contagious as Breland’s hook, and Sam Hunt proves he can hang with any sing-rapper on the radio. I mean: “Toolbox full of dirty dove shot empties/ Muddy old clodhoppers and a Mossberg pump/ Pull up on you at the red light, homie/ Throw some Bone Thugs on and make your loose change jump.”

Charli XCX – “Claws”
I like, I like, I like, I like, I like everything about this: the unbound joy in Charli’s delivery, Dylan Brady’s charred-candy clatter, the way post-PC Music futurism now sounds completely normal, and especially the Jeremih reference.

Davido – “D & G” (Feat. Summer Walker)
Turns out the Afrobeats sound mixes extremely well with trap-R&B under the car of experts like Davido, Summer Walker, and London On Tha Track.

Yungblud – “Weird!”
I was prepared to scoff at an uptempo electronic pop-punk power ballad such as this, but instead I have to apply my own standards here and admit how much I’d love “Weird!” if it were a new 1975 song.

Desiigner – “Survivor”
This is much better than Desiigner’s COVID-era Hail Mary for renewed relevance five years after “Panda” has any right to be.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Lizzo’s “Juice” was pulled from Rock Band 4 after people noticed it required users to sing the N-word. [Twitter]
  • Katy Perry dressed as a bottle of sanitizer to promote at-home episodes of American Idol. [Billboard]
  • Avril Lavigne released a COVID-19 benefit single called “We Are Warriors.” [YouTube]
  • Alicia Keys has a new song out too, “Good Job.” [YouTube]
  • The five-track first part of Half Written Story, a new two-part project by Hailee Steinfeld, is out 5/8. [The Music Universe]
  • Fall Out Boy released a new animated series Mondo Trasho 3042. [YouTube]
  • Lil Pump and Anuel AA teamed up on a highly entertaining track called “Illuminati.” [YouTube]
  • And if you’re seeking the softer side of urbano, Maluma’s new song “ADMV” is also out now. [YouTube]
  • Beyoncé’s BeyGOOD has partnered with Jack Dorsey’s Start Small fund to aid essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. [MSN]
  • Tones and I did “Bad Child” on The Tonight Show. [YouTube]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME