In the The New York Times a couple weeks ago, critic Jon Caramanica addressed a summer of popular music that was defined by an "elegance problem," a 3-month period where a cute-if-unremarkable, almost hook-less Marvin Gaye revamp called "Blurred Lines" could dominate Top 40 radio for a whopping 12 weeks. He even went so far as to praise the scourge of American society, Ms. Miley Cyrus, and her VMA performance as "officially [putting] a bullet in the summer of smooth." After reading his piece, I've never appreciated Miley and that foam finger more.
Indeed, in reaction to a half-decade of popular music characterized by slamming house drops and ear-drum combusting dubstep, the genre appears to have taken a left-turn, harkening back to the smooth R&B and disco sounds of the late 1970s and early 1980s. And while some of these attempts at funk R&B revivalism have been fantastic, a refreshing pallet-cleanser after five years of faceless, aural molestation by Swedish House Mafia, Skrillex and the like (Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" and Drake's "Hold On, We're Going Home" are two personal favorites), Top 40 as a whole is starting to feel a little bit like riding in the car with my dad while he grooves politely to his favorite oldies station on Sirius: Passively enjoyable, largely nondescript, and ultimately pretty bland.
It's not that flirting with the sounds of the past is inherently problematic. Contemporary artists exploring their influences, cherry-picking certain aspects and ushering them back to the forefront with a new sonic twist has historically yielded some breathtaking results. One of my favorite examples is Justin Timberlake's career-defining 2006 single, "SexyBack." Here was a song that, in the span of four minutes, took the disco format and completely reinvented it for a new generation, distorting the synthesizers and vocals, sharpening the lyrics with a hip hop edge and, along with his entire FutureSex/LoveSounds album, effectively setting the stage for the EDM assault that followed in the next 6 years.
The problem with our current nostalgia-obsession, our "elegance problem," is that many of the artists involved seem plenty comfortable doing a simple imitation of Earth, Wind & Fire, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson and sometimes of their own back catalogues, rather than doing anything inventive to bring those sounds into 2013. Unfortunately Mr. Timberlake, once the most exciting and boundary-pushing of his generation of pop superstars, is currently the number one perpetrator in this bout with pop culture-karaoke.
When Justin released the first part of his 2013 double album, The 20/20 Experience, back in March, the reaction felt like a thudding comedown, something rather slight and subtle for a project laced with such high expectations. Initially, I found the record rather enjoyable: the largely retro production, courtesy of Timbaland, was rich and filled with flourishes and details that made for great headphone listening. And frankly, it was just nice to hear Justin's sweet croon after its absence from the pop music-roar for so many years, a void filled only with the screams of Perrys and Pitulls. There was certainly no male pop star who had risen in the interim to fill his place in the landscape.
After those first few listens, however, major problems with 20/20 became apparent and the album began to feel a bit like sonic masturbation on the part of its creators. First and foremost, while the production remains textured, it's hardly innovative. We have heard many of these drum sounds from Timbaland for decades (Listen to "Mirrors" and hear an almost identical drum kit to "Cry Me a River" and "What Goes Around / Comes Around"), only this time they are filled out with large, orchestral instrumentation instead of Timbaland's usual whirlwind of skittering synths and middle-eastern embellishments.
Secondly, while Justin graces us with his best MJ and Prince impressions, lovely falsetto, sweet devotional coos and banal sexual come-ons, most of the hooks and lyrical content are characterless and forgettable, unable to stand on their own and out of the context of the album as a whole.
And yet every song is almost 7 minutes in length, 4 minutes too long for most of the tracks and 7 minutes too long for others (In what world do we need 7 minutes of "Spaceship Coupe?"). The length of these songs often does them a serious injustice, taking what could have been a cute filler pop song and turning it into a bloated mash. Moreover, repeated spins revealed that 20/20 was the sound of two of pop music's best simply tickling each other's already well-explored fetishes for 70 minutes which, while fun for second and admittedly executed with workmanlike aplomb, also grows stale pretty fast.
But things have really fallen apart for JT as he prepares to release the second part of The 20/20 Experience, due on September 27. The first single, "Take Back the Night," is such an egregious, milquetoast impersonation of Off The Wall-era Michael Jackson that when I first heard it, I thought it may have been a one-off, B-side cover from that album, something Justin did just for fun. But as it turned out, this was in fact Justin's lead single and I was floored by the mediocrity, lack of fire and the seeming inability to say or contribute any new ideas to popular music, ideas which it desperately needs. I almost couldn't understand it: For years, Justin did a mind-bendingly good job of mining the sounds that defined Mr Jackson and his peers, updating them and making them completely his own. "Like I Love You," "Cry Me a River," "Rock Your Body," "My Love" -- the list of examples seems endless.
But the problem with doing a mere impression of Michael Jackson, as Timberlake so blatantly does on "Take Back The Night," is that you will always lose. Jackson was a singularly gifted writer and innovator, culling from a myriad of influences -- disco, musical theater, R&B, arena rock, hip hop and more -- to create his signature sound. By effectively releasing an Off the Wall toss-off as his lead single, Justin is doing himself and his audience a great disservice, highlighting his recent shortcomings as a songwriter and denying his place on the pop music vanguard. When did Justin transition from pop's most reliable and well-loved trailblazer into a scoop of sugar-free vanilla ice cream? More importantly, If you're not going to give us something fresh, Justin, then who is? Ke$ha? Flo-Rida?!
This morning, when I heard Justin's second single from the 20/20 sequel (The song is called "TKO," another airless, 7 minute retread, this time of his own work on the FS/LS cut "Chop Me Up") I had to speak up because this is getting sad. Sad for pop, which is suffering from a lack of a true sonic torchbearer like MJ, and sad for Justin who once seemed like our generation's best bet at this type of musical chieftain.
Justin was recently married and it has been said that bliss and contentment are terrible for art and creativity. He also stopped making music for 6 years which could have been detrimental to his ear and his ability to spot what's next. Either way, I feel like retracting the piece I wrote last year bemoaning Justin's disappearance from music.
Yes, we desperately wanted Justin to take back the night. We were just hoping that he would light the way to pop's future rather than stare vacuously into its past.