Welcome to the first edition of the Prefix Pop Report: rundowns of tracks that are beloved by the Billboard charts, the radio DJs, the teenage girls, the hook addicts and those who will defend Auto-Tune to the death.
Bruno Mars, “Locked Out of Heaven.” This song isn’t a Police homage or even a Police ripoff—I think Bruno, the many-voiced pop maestro who emulated everyone from Billy Joe Armstrong to Michael Jackson in his Pandora SNL skit, realized he could also sound as Sting-y as a hive full of bees, so he went for it.
“Locked Out” is sexy and a whole lot less processed and overblown than his previous hits. Spunky guitar, syncopated live drums and, in the chorus, just a hint of a synth that sounds like a time machine. Going back in time...to 1979, when the Police sang “Message in a Bottle” with the same kind of sex-crazed intensity.
(If you want more Sting in your life, Scott Melker retrofitted “Message in a Bottle” into his mega-mashup mix The Melker Project 2 and it sounds amazing.)
Bruno’s still gunning for maximum rhetorical bluster. In past singles he’s told paramours that he would catch a (presumably live) grenade for them, and that if they reject his advances, it will rain literally every single day. That is some serious meteorological excess. Here he says that “your love makes me feel like/I’ve been locked outta heaven/For too long.” Oh, and he extends the “long” so it sounds like lo-ooh-ah-ooh-oong. No middle ground for Bruno: it’s live free or die, heaven or hell, blinding sunshine or eternal drizzles. At least with “Locked Out,” his ardour is attractive and not annoying.
Will.i.am and Britney Spears, “Scream & Shout.” There is a serious problem with this song. Infantile monosyllabic lyrics and dead fleshbot synths aside, a glaring falsity threatens to destroy what little potential this collaboration ever had.
Here’s the deal: the droll British accent section that goes “When you hear this in the club/You’re gonna turn this shit up” is by far the best part of the song. The female vocalist is so blasé, she’s practically postmortem. It’s the perfect sardonic intro to a track that no sane DJ would ever play in the club, let alone deign to turn up.
In the video, Britney is the one lip-syncing over that section. But she couldn’t have been the one to record it. No fucking way. No matter how much producer Lazy Jay twiddled the knobs, it isn’t possible for him to have turned Britney Spears into a deep-voiced Svedka voiceover. When she sings on the chorus in a thin warble? That’s Britney. But Britney ain’t the chilly Judi Dench type who’s insisting that all eyes are “on us.” And thus the only glimmer of hope in the synth shitstorm that is “Scream & Shout” has been extinguished. I’m not surprised—this is coming from a producer with the word “lazy” in his moniker, not to mention from Will.i.am, the Guy Fieri of hip-hop, a guy whose upcoming album title is a hashtag. A hashtag! I'm crying.
Bridgit Mendler, “Ready Or Not.” This girl looks like Taylor Swift and sounds a bit like Natasha Bedingfield (she of the theme song for The Hills). “Ready Or Not” has Mendler pursuing a crush in a crowded club, spouting off platitudes like “You’ll be my William, I’ll be your Kate,” because the romantic ideal is marrying a milquetoast royal and experiencing severe morning sickness.
Her cadence is fascinating to listen to; she’s got this staccato, ‘funky’ way of pronouncing words that reminds me of Nelly Furtado in 2001. It doesn’t matter if Mendler’s white girl flow is phony or put-on, because even if it sounds artificial, it doesn’t sound unnatural. A weird way of singing individual syllables still differentiates her from similar pop acts like Carly Rae Jepsen and Cher Lloyd. “Ready Or Not” might peter out in popularity—it peaked at 78 on the Billboard 100—but Mendler’s second single could turn out to be her “I’m Like A Bird” yet.
Ed Sheeran, “The A Team.” Ed Sheeran, the British singer-songwriter who harmonized with Taylor Swift on her album cut “Everything Has Changed,” is on the up and up with “The A Team.” An acoustic portrait of a crack addict seems like an unorthodox choice for a first major single, until you remember that addiction makes a great subject for for a song. Grandmaster Flash’s jaunty “White Lines,” Amy Winehouse’s drunken self-parody in “Rehab,” Neil Young’s spooky “The Needle And The Damage Done”: musicians hang out with drug fiends (or are themselves drug fiends) and channel that druggy fiendishness into music that is enraged, or preachy, or mournful.
Sheeran’s single falls into the latter category. He describes his addict lady’s ugliness with eloquence (“But lately her face seems/Slowly sinking, wasting/Crumbling like pastries”) without shying away from imagery that could disturb his wee fans (“White lips, pale face/Breathing in snowflakes/Burnt lungs, sour taste”). For Sheeran’s fans are quite young and mostly female—he’s a redheaded heartthrob in the same category as Prince Harry, even if he looks more like a gingery fraternity pledge—and they probably don’t know too much about the art of smoking crack, which is, you know, a good thing. In this way, the addiction message may float gently over the heads of Sheeran’s adoring teenage fanbase in the same way the HIV awareness message of TLC’s “Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls” floated over mine back in the day. Ignorance is bliss, and so is Sheeran’s buttery open mic voice.