Sophomore Surge

 

Grande (middle) performing “Problem” at the 2014 Radio Disney Music Awards

By Steven Martinez

Trends in most mainstream music reflect cutting-edge developments from the less heard corners of the music industry. This is not news, it’s not even particularly insightful, but it is nonetheless factual. However, it also doesn’t mean that pop music can’t be both pleasurable and objectively good. Case in point: Ariana Grande‘s recent capitulation to popular trends on her latest single “Problem.”

Any listener can immediately identify the saxophone loop, apparently a sample, on “Problem” and recognize eerily similar production in Jason Derulo‘s “Talk Dirty” and perhaps even more readily on Macklemore‘s smash “Thrift Shop.” (One would also be remiss for failing to mention that Kanye West likewise employed horns on his 2006 single “Touch the Sky” — more evidence of his prescience.) So, yes, it’s a derivate but “Problem” succeeds on much the same terms as her previous hits. Namely, stellar, kinetic production and Grande‘s soaring vocals (though the lyrics here are not to be scoffed at either).

In the song, Grande laments her affection for a lover who consistently mistreats her, and criticizes herself for swooning at his repeated and likely disingenuous declarations of contrition and rehabilitation, ultimately concluding she has her “head in the clouds” and “one less problem without [him].” She doubtlessly arrives at this decision with an assist from Iggy Azalea, who’s featured on the song and who dedicates her verse, the song’s last, to generally gelding males of the lothario variety (and referencing Jay-Z in the process). “There’s a million ‘you’s, baby boy,” she spits, “so don’t be dumb/I got 99 problems but you won’t be one.”

Azalea gets the mic-dropping send-off, but Grande does most of the stage setting here. In each of her two verses, she, Grande, fires off her lines in rapid succession, almost piling the sentences on top of one another, as if she’s in a hurry to finish the conversation before her former lover can swindle her again. This rush, however, does nothing to dampen her vocal prowess. She’s fluidly melodic and layered throughout and spectacularly builds her pre-chorus couplets to a climactic crescendo. (Alas, she saves glimpses of her dazzling melismas for the song’s outro.)

It’s invariably refreshing to hear a twist (or a tweak) on the au courant production trends, but combine that with a decent message — Taylor Swift‘s “I Knew You Were Trouble,” which glorifies the triumph of ephemeral emotions over reason, is a main offender here — and genuine talent and you’re hearing something special (and something bound to become tremendously popular). Creating music that meets both criteria, on the evidence of this song and her debut album, seems to be no problem for Miss Grande.

 

The good, the bad and the unchanged: the 2014 Grammys

I admit I gave up hope for the Grammys last year. After witnessing the most popular music awards show all but shun Frank Ocean (despite ubiquitous critical praise and tremendous commercial success, Channel Orange won a Grammy for “Best Urban Contemporary Album” — a category created for the purpose of giving Ocean the award), and reward — surprise, surprise — the record with the best sales figures (Mumford & Sons‘ Babel), I crossed my arms and stamped my feet and rashly declared the whole ceremony a wash. (It wasn’t; The Black Keys and Dan Auerbach came out all right.)

Granted, my opinion of the show dwindled significantly after Adele won everything two years ago, and when Kanye West’s peerless, hip-hop opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy somehow failed to earn an Album of the Year nomination. Ergo, wholly embracing my dispositional pessimism and writing off the Grammys as a farcical popularity contest where sales quantity was positively correlated with quality, and artistic merit only mattered in dollars and cents, seemed inevitable. (Again, not true; a number of critical darlings including Ocean, Miguel, Fiona Apple and the aforementioned Keys were recognized last year.)

All that to say I didn’t watch the telecast this year, I didn’t watch it last year either, save for the AotY announcement, but I did read up on the winners and, I have to say, as much as it pains me, there remains some justice in the music world. I loved Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, which won Album of the Year, and Kacey Musgraves’ defiant, iconoclastic Same Trailer Different Park, awarded Best Country Album (the trenchant and acerbic “Merry Go Round” was also a winner), topping the heavily-favored Red, to my overwhelming delight. (Despite popular opinion, I don’t dislike Taylor Swift. The message of her music is misleading, and her new sound is at best nominally country, but she writes a killer hook and cranks out Top 40 hits, one after another, like a Gatling gun.)

Moreover, “Get Lucky” won a bevy of awards, Record of the Year among them, and was performed live to great success by Nile Rodgers, Pharrell Williams,  Stevie Wonder and, most surprisingly, the imitation robots themselves. (OK, I watched the performance, but on YouTube, ex post facto.) And Vampire Weekend snagged a gilded gramophone, Best Alternative Music Album, for Modern Vampires of the City. A real awards-show coup, right? Critical acclaim still means something! There’s hope yet for the Grammys! Hoorah!

Well, not so fast.

That Jay-Z (Or is it “Jay Z“?) won anything (Best Rap/Sung Collaboration) for a song off the phoned-in drivel titled Magna Carta Holy Grail borders on sinful, and Ben Haggerty’s sweep of the remaining rap awards, for his gay-is-OK anthem “Same Love” and The Heist (with Ryan Lewis), somehow trumping Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city, feels to me like political posturing and message mongering from the industry that blew their chance at it last year. (Frank Ocean famously announced that the inspiration for Channel Orange came from his romantic entanglements with another man.) Though, if that is the case, at least Macklemore’s ideology and this quasi-endorsement of it share a shameless heavy-handedness. So they’re honest about their myopia.

And Imagine Dragons’ Best Rock Performance win, for “Radioactive,” is baffling to say the least, mostly because the song has more in common with EDM than rock (Think maybe the song’s popularity bolstered its chances?), but I suppose it was silly of me to carry a torch for Queens of the Stone Age, who as yet have not won a single Grammy award. (Seriously though, …Like Clockwork kicked major tuchus.)

Disappointment and confusion aside (“Holy Grail,” really?), I didn’t turn away from 2014’s list of winners with disgust and indignation — though I will never forgive nor forget the snubbing of Frank Ocean — which I consider a major step forward for someone like me, whose baseline temperament, especially regarding the Grammys, hovers near contempt. And, in a way, the list made me feel validated. Some of the albums I adored received their due recognition and admiration, and I’ll be the first to tell you there’s little else I enjoy more than being right.

Which rightly begs the question, have I changed my mind about the Grammys? Has my faith been restored, my skepticism vanquished?

Well, there’s always next year.

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