Why Rick Ross Will Never, Ever, Win His Lawsuit Against LMFAO

For years now, Freeway Rick Ross, the real life drug dealer upon whom rapper Rick Ross bases his stage persona and kingpin image, has been trying to nail Ross (the latter) for making millions by selling his music under an appropriated drug lord persona. Last week, a California judge dismissed Freeway Rick’s most recent appeal, citing the rapper’s creation of original works that only used the name as a jumping-off point. Freeway Rick was not amused.

In a statement issued following the judge’s rejection of his appeal, the real Freeway Rick Ross remarked: “There is a teachable moment about the state of our community when a man who has a respectable job as a correctional officer, has to recreate himself in my former image as a large-scale kingpin to gain what he feels is social acceptance as a successful man.” Though Freeway Rick’s indignation does have a point here, he misunderstands Ross’ motivations. Ross was never thinking about perceived social acceptance as a successful man. He was thinking about actual success. And he actually achieved it by making insane amount of money because he understands the fan inclination to want to believe that artists’ music reflects a truthful depiction of their lives.

Hip-hop culture has always been based on the appropriation and re-interpretation of communal objects from the past. It’s called sampling. And hip-hop artists have been doing it in with their stage personas forever, pretending to be harder and more dangerous than they actually are. So when Ross took on the symbolic identity of a historical drug dealer, he was doing just that: “sampling” someone else’s life and then turning it into something new. And that is exactly why Rick Ross’ recent lawsuit against LMFAO for interpolating the lyric “Every day I’m hustlin” from his 2006 song “Hustlin” is so ironic, because when LMFAO jokingly altered that line, they were doing the exact same thing. Though Ross’ lawsuit states that LMFAO’s similar lyric is “an obvious attempt to capitalize on the fame and success of “Hustlin,” the reality of the situation is a bit more nuanced.

Just compare “Hustlin” to “Party Rock Anthem.” Where “Hustlin” paints a dead serious portrait of drug dealing life, “Party Rock” unambiguously pokes fun at the culture of mainstream hip-hop and pop by making everything about it completely over the top. From the clunky lyrics that spoof rap clichés (“now stop – hatin’ is bad”) to their goofy, stilted delivery – the lines that begin with “One more shot for us (Another round!)” are rhythmically hilariously unhip for a rap verse – to the “shufflin” line, the song is more than just critique of hip-hop and pop culture; it’s critique of the fabricated artists that demand everyone take their personas seriously.

Which is ultimately why Ross’ lawsuit is going to fall through; any clever listener with even a weak sense of irony can tell that the song is so clearly operating as a parody, placing it squarely within the realm of fair use. LMFAO are intentionally, if subtly, poking holes in the fallacious one-to-one relationship between musicians’ stage personas and their real lives that has come to dominate modern music (“Tight jeans, tattoo, cause I’m rock and roll!” is a line said with tongues planted firmly in cheek). Ironically, in an age when social media has given fans more access than ever before to artists’ mundane everyday existence, fans continue to believe that performers’ real lives echo how they act on stage and in their music. It happens, mostly, because fans sincerely want to believe. Ross has made a fortune out of pandering to that desire through an assumed drug dealer identity, and LMFAO have now made a fortune out of skewering his pandering through their own over-exaggerated pop star shtick. That he can be the legally sound object of parodic ridicule is a hard lesson that Ross will have to learn, at least as long as he can stay out of the way of any other crazy lawsuits of his own.

Why Almost Everyone Loves “Bowing Down” To Beyoncé

To be clear, this is not really about Beyoncé’s new album. It’s not about her incorporation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s feminist TED Talk on the track “Flawless.” It’s not about her anti-marketing strategy. And it’s definitely not about judging whether the music is “overrated” or not.

Because beyond any of the numerous aspects of the album’s production that Beyoncé had under her control – the probably insane non-disclosure agreements regarding the album’s release, the video treatments, the feminist lyrics, the genre-spanning production – what is just as fascinating about the new album are Beyoncé’s fans reactions to it, and the repeated hyperbole that they use when they talk about her, especially in contrast to their own lives.

It isn’t news to anybody that Beyoncé’s fans elevate her to the level of royalty, and, most of the time, to the level of a goddess. It’s become just as commonplace for the casual fan to refer to Beyoncé as “Queen Bey” as it has for some of the press’ most respected music critics. But if you comb through enough tweets and status updates about Beyoncé, you’ll see another interesting trend: that, in their veneration, her fans repeatedly tend to openly highlight their own supposed personal insignificance and lack of achievement to the pop queen’s grandiose accomplishments.

Here are some anonymous Beyoncé-related samples from the recent Twitter archives:

“I can barely make my bed in the morning. @beyonce is on a world tour and puts out an album and a shit ton of videos. what am i doing?”

“Beyoncé made more money in the past hour than I have in my whole life.”

“I don’t want to sound like a crazy stan, but listening to Beyonce’s new album is why we were put on this earth”

“Let it sink in that 2-year-old Blue Ivy Carter already has a verse on a Beyonce song, once again proving she is more powerful than us all.”

A recent Buzzfeed review of Beyonce’s new album takes a cursory stab at dissecting this phenomenon: “Even casual fans approach her as a sort of deity, in large part because thinking of her as a superhuman being is part of what makes her music and performances so much fun.”

 

As an explanation, this only covers half of the phenomenon; going out of the way to portray oneself as servile, incompetent, and generally inadequate doesn’t really align with the idea of what most people would consider “fun.” Still, it does address why people gravitate towards Beyoncé in the first place: she is indisputably one of the most powerful performers in the pop world, if not the most powerful; and her album sales, fan following, raw talent, and performance ability dwarf those of almost every other mainstream pop artist. Fans love her music, but they also love her success. They aspire to be like her, but know that they’re nowhere near her level. Beyoncé’s music is empowering, but it’s also intimidating. She is so successful, so rich, so famous, and has her entire show and persona so locked down that it’s almost difficult to completely identify with her.

What a negative comparison does accomplish, then, is to provide a way for fans to associate themselves with Beyoncé’s greatness, even if it is only in an inverse formulation. After all, negatively defining yourself against something still links you to the very thing you’re defining yourself in contrast to, simply by association. And the cultish denigration of their own lives Beyonce’s fans engage in may just constitute a roundabout way for them to connect themselves to Queen Bey’s own monumental success. From this angle, what initially seems like self-castigation might actually read as empowerment, because in the face of Beyonce’s chart-conquering albums and all-around pop music domination – feats that feel daunting to even hope to aspire to – it’s almost all that fans can do to connect with her and derive power from her immense success by showing how mundane their lives are by comparison.

And yes, Scrooge, this self-deprecation is most of the time just an egotistical attention grab from people whose names will, in all likelihood, never, ever be mentioned in the same breath as Beyoncé’s. Sure these negative comparisons are just a way for people to ride the tailcoats of the world’s most successful pop megastar and garner a few more retweets, followers, and page views. And of course, this gets increasingly annoying and insufferable the more you think about it. But honestly, we’ve got more important things to worry about here. Like preparing for Blue Ivy’s imminent, entirely baby-talk solo album. Just picture the tweets about that.

How The Songwriters Behind One Direction Secretly Control Your Mind

About a month ago, after One Direction dropped their latest release, Midnight Memories, most reviewers couldn’t help but point out the album’s shameless knock-offs of some of the biggest pop hits of the ’80s including “Jessie’s Girl,” “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” and pretty much any song by Asia, just to name a few. And, yes, while the songwriters behind the squeaky clean boy band’s smash singles make their musical points of reference pretty obvious to any listener older than 12, they also manage to pull off some patently ingenious lyrical references that slipped by most recaps of the album – mostly because that was precisely what they were designed to do.

Upon a first listen, the first verse of “Better Than Words” sounds like pretty standard fare for a One Direction song: a just-generic-enough description of crazy, undeniable love that sweeps you up in its whirlwind of affection and excitement.

Better than words
But more than a feeling
Crazy in love
Dancing on the ceiling

But, if you haven’t noticed it already, each line is also a song in its own right. The second line. The third line. And, you guessed it. These aren’t just lyrics in a One Direction song, they’re built-in references to seminal pop hits. And they’re placed directly next to the title of the One Direction song, itself the very first line of the song.

OK, so what? What does this prove besides the fact that the One Direction songwriting team has a pretty decent knowledge of the Billboard charts of the last 35 years? Well, to feature the title of their own song as the first lyric, and then to follow that with several recognizable song titles (that most likely light up the subconscious pop music recesses of your brain) is to suggest a subtle connection between these tunes that immediately draws you in as a listener. “You remember these great songs, right?” the lyric whispers. “Then you might like this one too…”

This might seem far-fetched, but it’s how the brain works. And making reference to well-known past pop hits does more than just prime you as a listener to be more receptive to One Direction’s song, it also establishes the band as fans of pop music themselves, blurring the boundary between them as performers and their listeners as fans. This is the same logic behind other, less subtle, One Direction lines such as this one. When One Direction sing about other pop artists in this way (“Katy Perry’s on replay…”), they place themselves on the same level as their fans, depicting their lives as fundamentally similar to the people who would see them as unattainable idols otherwise. The message is incredibly clear and incredibly clever: One Direction listen to Katy Perry – just like you. Though you might know deep down that they are ultra-famous pop stars in their own right, simply hearing them make reference to another hugely famous artists makes the One Direction boys a bit more relatable to the teenage girls who are their core demographic, which of course helps move records off the shelves and perpetuate the rabid fandom surrounding the group. Of course, this isn’t new. It’s just another trick in the utility belt that the slickest songwriters in the world use to manipulate your perception of their music. OK, I admit that a description like that might seem a bit over the top. What I really mean is this: as long as these guys keep pumping out songs that are this catchy, the aural manipulation is fine by me.

Lana Del Rey Stole Half An Hour Of My Life And I Will Never Get It Back

I really tried to give Lana Del Rey the benefit of the doubt on this one. I swear. I was hoping that her half-hour long short film Tropico, “an epic tale based on the biblical story of sin and redemption,” wasn’t going to be another poorly–conceived attempt at grand symbolism and “deep” meaning that would inevitably force me to question why I ever derived any satisfaction from her music in the first place and would once again make me come face to face with the full scope of her guileless superficiality and lack of insight. But you know what Mick Jagger says.

So, just for convenience’s sake, even though the biblical triptych of innocence, sin, and redemption is the central conceit of the video, I’m going to ignore the overwrought and overused religious parallels that Lana cuts and pastes with bowling ball-level subtlety and focus more on her decision to include voiceovers of her reading excerpts from Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg poems, which is exactly as pretentious as it sounds.

A brief primer for those of you who skipped high school English class to smoke weed and drink your Dad’s leftover Canadian Club (apparently, like Lana): Whitman was a dude who loved the body. His body, in particular, but people’s bodies in general. His hope was to promulgate a mode of relation to others that was sexual, but was not bound up in the narrow cultural trappings of sex; a relation that was carnal, but not necessarily reproductive; outwardly focused, but not necessarily directed towards a single person; intimate, yet expansive. This sensual project had an associated political goal as well: the constitution of a more interconnected American community through the deep and authentic tenderness of complete strangers for one another. He saw his poetry as a conduit to accomplishing this.

Keeping Whitman’s intentions in mind, Lana’s overdubbed recitation of certain sections from his poem “I Sing The Body Electric” (a title that she cribs for her own song) comes off as darkly ironic in the context of Tropico. Where Whitman’s words are meant as statements of affinity to build a national community through affection, in Lana’s treatment and placement, they read like the exact opposite. Case in point: in the video, she sultrily reads the line “The curious sympathy one feels, when feeling with the hand the naked meat of the body,” over slow-motion shots of mens’ hands slapping strippers’ asses in a dimly lit strip club. So poetic, bro.

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I’m going to go out on a not-so-big limb here and venture that Lana isn’t using the poem in an intentionally ironic way. Though it would be great if she were deliberately juxtaposing these depraved images with Whitman’s words as an ironic reflection to demonstrate exactly how far America has veered from the poet’s idealistic vision of a community of strangers bound by sensuous ties that include, but aren’t limited to sex, I’m pretty sure that she’s just reading the poem because she thinks that lines like, “The womb, the teats, nipples, breast-milk” are fitting accompaniments for shots of naked bodies because of the very words they use, regardless of their original meaning. But still, even if she doesn’t mean it ironically, Lana’s misguided use of Whitman’s words actually does reflect just how far America has strayed from Whitman’s vision – simply because somebody like Lana, reading Whitman in 2013, sees language that is meant to describe a type of community-constructing erotic closeness that extends towards perfect strangers as a fitting complement to hyper-stylized shots of grubby dudes makin’ it rain on dejected strippers.

To its credit, Tropico really does try hard to reach for grand themes, but its effort just comes off more like a baby groping for the cookie jar than a deep meditation on the particularly American conflation of religious fervor, capitalism, and pop culture excess that it’s clearly trying to dissect. Like a true postmodern hipster, Lana devours centuries of American culture and regurgitates them without reflection or deliberation. It’s the Urban Outfitters model of cultural appropriation: the same type of thinking that rips keffiyehs and moccasins from their original cultural context and sterilizes them for style-hungry American consumers. But it’s OK, though. Lana’s next album is supposedly going to be called Ultraviolence, so we can hope for some great Clockwork Orange references. There’s no way she can screw those up, right?

…right?

Why Miley Cyrus’ ‘Bangerz’ Tour Might Be The Most Important Tour Of The New Year

When will the public finally take Miley Cyrus seriously? And no, I am not asking that facetiously. I will admit that she certainly doesn’t make it easy, especially considering her slew of press-baiting stunts over the last few months that sent every media outlet into a seemingly permanent salivary frenzy. Still, whether or not she is in control of her public image – the ultimate point of contention anchoring a furious celebrity blog-off several months ago – her (or her management’s) decision to bring Sky Ferreira and Icona Pop on her upcoming Bangerz tour is a totally brilliant move: one that crystallizes and enlarges the cultural impact of what each artist has, up until this point, been doing separately in order to make pop music a safer place for women to rightfully do whatever the hell they want.

The album cover for Ferreira’s new record Night Time, My Time features the melancholy singer staring somewhat crazily and vulnerably out at the audience, nude and framed by dripping shower tiles in Van-Gogh green. It’s more disturbing than it is sexy. But of course, that hasn’t stopped scores of critics from accusing her of employing nudity simply to boost album sales. The story, as she’s told it, is that Capitol, her record label, didn’t want her to be nude in the first place, and even suggested using other photos from past years for the album cover. But Ferreira was adamant. “It’s hard enough to be a woman making music at all,” she told Pitchfork. “But I’m not going to start covering myself up just to seem more credible—I’m going to embrace my sexuality because I have every right to.”

If there’s any statement that makes Cyrus’ recent salacious stunts more understandable in the light of the challenges that female artists face in the pop game, it’s this. While the double standard of female sexuality is (hopefully) not news to anybody, it’s even more pronounced in pop music, where any display of female sexuality is commonly demonized as a PR stunt or a money grab: essentially anything that constitutes the opposite of “authentic” music, which is supposedly focused on pure form and creation. This is, of course, total bullshit. To solely attribute financial motives to a female artist’s decision to pose nude is to subscribe to the same type of thinking that circumscribes female nudity to the porn set or the bedroom. It is to place rules around where and when it is correct for women in pop to make certain choices about their bodies, and strips them (pun intended) of the ability to even have that choice in the first place.

Ferreira is well-versed in the type of double standard that marginalizes female pop stars and their artistic opinions. “If a girl has a breakdown or if the black guy has a blog post, it’s a rant,” she said in an interview with Rolling Stone. “Someone like Billy Corgan can write a whole entire thing and people are like ‘Oh it’s just a blog post’ and Kanye does it and it’s a rant.” And judging by her album cover and her response to the media’s firestorm surrounding it, Ferreira should be taken seriously, because whether she understands it as such or not, she is trying to transform the female body into a site of self-expression as opposed to an object of capitalistic or sexual voyeurism. As if this weren’t hard enough within a generally patriarchal, money-obsessed culture, Ferreira is attempting to do so where all of those factors are amplified: in mainstream pop music.

But, luckily, she isn’t doing it alone. Icona Pop are just as determined to give women an opportunity to behave “badly” without fear of denunciation, to engage in all of the irresponsible things that they have internalized they must not do. See here: Lena Dunham dancing in ecstatic, coked-out joy to Icona Pop’s “I Love It” during the second season of HBO’s GIRLS last January. It’s not just the pulsing EDM synth bass that makes that cinematic moment feel so true to the song – it’s Dunham’s sensation of freedom from socially acceptable standards, and the veritable laundry list of supposedly forbidden feminine actions that the lyrics of “I Love It” detail:

“I got this feeling on the summer day when you were gone / I crashed my car into the bridge. I watched, I let it burn / I threw your shit into a bag and pushed it down the stairs / I crashed my car into the bridge / I don’t care”

Icona Pop

Realizing a sense of joy without a partner, destroying stuff for no reason, asserting ownership over your personal space, and generally not giving a shit. In a society that tells women, “Don’t be a victim,” instead of telling men not to victimize, it’s rare to hear these things promoted as feminine virtues, which makes it that much more imperative that Icona Pop do so, especially within the format of a mainstream pop song that is catchy as hell and could provoke a shout-along from even the most ardent anti-feminist. Which is why Cyrus might have made the best decision of her career so far to bring Sky Ferreira and Icona Pop on the road with her in 2014. There could be no better rebuttal of the flak that she’s received in recent months regarding her newly overt sexuality than to take the stage with fellow female performers who similarly reject the social tendency to restrict women’s desires, bodies, and emotions to a convenient space and time. I know it might not seem like Cyrus is twerking her way to a feminist revolution just yet. But she is definitely assembling the troops.

Why Kanye’s ‘Bound 2’ Video Could Have Been Great (And How Franco And Rogan Get It Right)

In the avalanche of criticism aimed at Kanye West’s ridiculous, obviously green-screened, naked Kim Kardashian-featuring, fake motorcycle-riding new video for “Bound 2,” is one common complaint that just keeps recurring: the video is too damn cheesy.

And, yes, it is. Yes, it’s the visual equivalent of a romance novel you’d find in the supermarket checkout line, or a drunkenly ill-conceived artistic partnership between Lisa Frank and Thomas Kinkade. But, of course, when a video is so incredibly kitschy in the way that “Bound 2” is, it’s usually a signal that the people who created it must have done so intentionally. Other than a basic lack of self-consciousness on the part of the director and star, how else could you explain why an idea this cheesy is executed so gleefully and without restraint?

 

And if you look at it intentionally that way, then maybe it’s possible to see the the video as a deliberately corny ode to the feeling of falling in love, to the understanding that the cheesy and stupid emotions that you never thought would ever possess you can be both surprisingly real and frighteningly in the driver’s seat when it comes to your decisions; that the cheesiness of those emotions actually isn’t fabricated, but real, and might in fact be the only thing really worth championing in a world where so much else is fake and manufactured, which might be why cheap green-screening takes the center stage in the video: as the visual equivalent of the inherent corniness that real, uncool, stupid-looking human love entails.

But, of course, according to Kanye, that’s not what he means. In an interview yesterday with The Breakfast Clubon New York’s Power 105 FM, Kanye stated straightforwardly that his intention with the video was “to show you that this is The Hunger Games. I want to show you that this is the type of imagery that’s being presented to all of us, and the only difference is a black dude in the middle of it.” Admittedly, this is a pretty vague statement, but his remarks later on in the interview clarify his position a bit, as he goes on to say: “We’re enslaved by brands…We’re controlled by peer pressure. We’re controlled by the desire for a particular car.”

So Kanye’s true motivation, if we’re to take him at his word, is to reveal the inherent manipulation behind the images that we consume every day, and the way in which they subjugate us into a cycle of unthinking, slave-like consumption. OK, this sounds familiar. But really, and more specifically, if Kanye really does stand behind his Hunger Games comparison (in that most images we see are part of marketing plan hatched from the minds of the business oligarchs that shut out from positions of power the very people to whom they are marketing), the “Bound 2” video can be seen as pointing out the hypocrisy of music videos in general, but of hip-hop videos in particular. After all, the urban music video tropes of hot, half-naked women and expensive cars have been played to death, but still remain entrenched in visual representations of the genre, as they have been for years. “Bound 2” pulls back the curtain to reveal the behind-the-scenes creation of that imagery in order to expose its true stupidity. You know when rappers look cool? When they’re riding motorcycles down a hood street from canted camera angles and multiple perspectives. You know when they don’t? When they’re doing it in a single-angle shot in front of a green screen.

What complicates the execution of this vision is, ultimately, Kardashian’s back story and reputation. When you’re trying to ridicule oppressive and unrealistic imagery, choosing to feature somebody whose sex tape catapulted her to fame (among other dubious achievements) seems detrimental to the cause. Which is partially what makes the über-viral James Franco and Seth Rogan parody of the music video so effective. Because, let’s be real. It’s barely even a parody. The guys just remake the original video, practically shot for shot, with almost no observable changes. So why is it so hilarious simply to replace Kardashian with Rogan?

 

If we’re judging Franco and Rogan’s version by Kanye’s stated intention for the original video, then the parody actually operates in an almost identical way: by revealing the stupidity of the images that the media forces on unwitting consumers on a daily basis. But the big difference in the parody is that Franco and Rogan actually do nail something that Kanye doesn’t: the open objectification of women’s bodies for profit and publicity that hip-hop accepts so readily as an unquestioned fact of life in the music business. And maybe Kanye wasn’t even attempting to touch that in the first place. In all probability, he was too focused on the overall creation of false imagery around artists in general, and not on hip-hop tropes in particular. Likely, he was too close to the subject matter, and too infatuated with his leading lady, to see beyond his own attempt to reveal truths, however narrow, about the nature of consumerism, branding, and the music business. Still, Franco and Rogan get the neglected, but critically important gender piece right that Kanye misses.  To adopt Ye’s phrase: they show us the type of imagery that’s being presented to all of us. And the only difference is a fat, shirtless, hairy, white dude in the middle of it.

Why No One Needs Lady Gaga To Reinvent Pop Music (And Why She Isn’t Doing It Anyway)

In the 1950s and 60s, the Pop Art movement upended the staid world of fine art by incorporating elements from advertising, television, and consumer products packaging. It fundamentally shifted the public perception of visual art, redefined the acceptable subjects for the medium, and subtly exposed the supercilious pretension and meaningless market forces that governed the art world with shadowy power.

In 2013, Lady Gaga released ARTPOP, which features a track called “Sexxx Dreams,” and lyrics like “Cuz that bitch, she’s so thin (oh la la la) / She’s so rich, and so blonde / She’s so fab, it’s beyond.”

artpop

This is not to discount her new album totally out of hand, (because, actually, her R. Kelly collaboration is pretty damn catchy) – just to say that Gaga’s self-proclaimed revolutionary pairing of high-brow art culture and pop music is actually very far from progressive, especially if you take her at her word about the motivation behind the project.

Gaga has stated that “the intention of the album was to put art culture into pop music, a reverse of Warhol.” So immediately it’s pretty obvious that she still considers art and pop music to exist in completely separate and non-overlapping spheres, which may be true, at least for the majority of serious artists who take on some projects partially for the sake of pure creativity, because they can’t not make art, and because even in a modern society that has devalued the role of the creators by overvaluing the distributors (ahem – the Spotify model), they still see value in the process of making stuff for its own sake.

But Lady Gaga’s understanding of art culture seems a bit different. Her obsessions and collaborations with huge art world names like Marina Abramović and Jeff Koons feels a lot like her own admitted obsession with fame, a major and ongoing theme in her music and life. Coincidentally (or not), the artists that Gaga admires most are those that have been prominently in the public eye for years. They are the giants on the world stage. Koons, who designed the ARTPOP album cover, recently sold one of his statues for $58.4 million. It was a gigantic orange balloon dog.

gaga1

So if Gaga’s definition of art culture centers primarily around phenomenally successful artists who drag in gigantic profits by creating tacky pieces that seem to tacitly mock thequestionable taste of the buyers who fork up incredible sums of cash for them, well, then it’s not that far off from her understanding of the culture of pop music. A culture that is equally obsessed with profits, fame, and having stupid and vacuous fun. And a culture that, in recent interviews, she has painted as totally divorced from the world of pop music.

In interviews and in her own music, Lady Gaga has always been upfront about pop music as a commercial medium, and about herself as an object of commerce. But if her understanding of art works similarly – as a medium for expression, sure; but more importantly, as a medium for fame and profit – then art and pop are far from incompatible, as she would have her fans believe. In fact, they are almost one and the same. Case in point: the “artRave” at the Brooklyn Navy Yard on the night of the album’s release that featured Koons’ statues and Abramović’s videos, and which was the culmination of Interscope Records’ $25 million promotional push.

Look, there is nothing wrong with being a successful artist, or in appreciating the work of artists that are successful. But if Lady Gaga wants us to believe that she’s really innovating in the pop world and bringing together supposedly irreconcilable cultures, she should try to look a little deeper, or at least not dissemble so much. Because, come on. Abramović? Jay-Z got to her first anyway.

Why M.I.A. Doesn’t (Really) Care About World Politics

Let me start off by saying that M.I.A.’s new album Matangi is generally pretty enjoyable, and that “Bad Girls” was used to excellent effect in the trailer for “The Heat.”

Moving on…

M.I.A.’s sometimes frustratingly reductionist views on world politics can easily get in the way of simply enjoying her music; music that is often pretty good, and at its best, manages to pull off a tricky blend of catchy memorability, adventurous experimentation, and irreverent fun. Still, it’s hard to ignore her consistent need to obliquely detail the struggles of the disenfranchised, the downtrodden, and the oppressed. Which of course she does only as long as it all takes place over a hot beat featuring indigenous drummers recorded in various exotic locales around the world, ’cause that’s how she rolls.

Which highlights one of the more frustrating inconsistencies of M.I.A.’s music. It’s not about the annoying but forgivable contradictions between her lavish lifestyle and her political views – because really, what successful musician making a living from an anti-authoritarian image can really sustain that point of view once the checks start rolling in? For M.I.A., what’s more questionable is the way in which she portrays herself as the musical mouthpiece of the world’s poor and forgotten third-world citizens, while really using their plight to further her own self-aggrandizement with musical tropes that come straight out of the mainstream pop playbook.

M.I.A. is obviously pretty eager to place herself in contradistinction to meaningless, uncontested pop cliches in favor of more spiritual and alternative leanings, especially on Matangi. “Y.A.L.A.” is a song-length Eastern repudiation of Drake‘s unbearably ubiquitous exhortation to live life to the fullest, and ”Come Walk With Me” turns the tables on generic pop calls to action, with lyrics like:

You ain’t gotta shake it, just be with me
You ain’t gotta throw your hands in the air
Cause tonight we ain’t actin’ like we don’t care

OK, M.I.A., we get it. You’re an iconoclast! You’re different! But, honestly, even if M.I.A. isn’t commanding you to party until the sun rises like the Ke$has and Mileys of the world, most of her lyrics still manage to center around the pretty well-trod pop territory of how chest-thumpingly awesome she is. When she spits out half-baked lines like:

I’m ice cream
And you’re sorbet
They got guns but it points the wrong way
Yeah I’m on it they cirque de soleil

on the album’s title track, it almost doesn’t matter that she’s rapping over tribal beats and occasionally throwing out references to Buddhism, favelas, and vaguely revolutionary politics. She still sounds like just another blaring pop self-promoter, who may appropriate world music, yes, but who does so mostly just as a background pastiche over which she can brag about her own awesomeness.

Even M.I.A.’s political appearances seem less for the betterment of those people whose problems she supposedly brings to light and more for the advancement her own profile. See: Julian Assange‘s ten-minute long Skype call that took place during the opening of M.I.A.’s November 1 show at New York’s Terminal 5, in which he called her “the most courageous woman working in western music, without exception.” Sure, Assange was mostly praising M.I.A. for her political perspectives rather than her hot beats and passable rapping (because you can’t expect a man who looks like he was kicked out of a second-rate Krautrock band to have reliable taste), but his comments and his appearance do highlight the hypocrisy of M.I.A.’s public image as the musical martyr-savior of the politically persecuted. From calling in notorious friends to proselytize for her greatness, to engaging uncritically with hip-hop tropes of self-aggrandizement, M.I.A. comes off as less of a populist organizer and more of an authoritarian leader who co-opts the bandwagon of proletarian equality just so he can erect kick-ass bronze statues of himself in every public square.

Which leaves M.I.A.’s musical message in a pretty precarious place overall. Self-contradiction is a fact of life, and musicians are no more immune to it than anybody else. But there does seem to be something disingenuous about a musician who raps about the problems plaguing the impoverished majorities of the globe, while not-so-covertly pushing her own personal agenda by appropriating and re-selling the very music of the people she is supposedly benefiting. Still, though, it could be worse. She and Assange hopefully aren’t scheming to start a Kraftwerk cover band anytime soon.

Why “Royals” Isn’t The Song You Think It Is or: Lorde Is Lying to You

Everybody has heard Lorde’s ubiquitous tune “Royals” somewhere at this point. It was on heavy rotation throughout the summer and has ruled the Billboard Hot 100 for the last two weeks, beating out pop record-destroyer Katy Perry’s new song “Roar” (which, honestly, is a pretty weak effort in itself – I’m talking to you, Dr. Luke). This is, at the same time, both totally predictable and incredibly interesting.

Lorde-The-Love-Club

Lorde has a great voice, a solid stage presence, and she doesn’t write bad songs to boot (and yes, she does write at least part of her songs, though her strong co-writing team consists of a few seasoned vets from the pop-punk scene back in New Zealand, and we all know those dudes know how to write a hit). All of these factors notwithstanding, the song that’s getting the most play from her EP and album is objectively nowhere near the best tune on either of those releases, which arguably contain way better songs than the finger snappy harmony-laden hypnotism of “Royals.” And, weirdly, from a surface-level lyrical scan “Royals” reads like a straight-up denunciation of pop materialism, making it the complete opposite of what people have been clamoring to hear for the last decade or so. Check out this stanza:

But every song’s like:
Gold teeth
Grey Goose
Tripping in the bathroom
Bloodstains
Ball gowns
Trashing the hotel room

We don’t care

We’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams

Even though Lorde makes a laundry list of the trappings of crass materialism as if she’s a giddy rapper who just got his first advance from UMG, she is quick to tell you: “We don’t care! This isn’t us! We don’t need to own these material things to be happy!” Not only that, but Lorde insinuates that she and her intended audience are even better off without those things.

Then why are you most likely to hear “Royals” bumping from the tricked-out speaker system of a luxury SUV? Are too many people with selective listening habits just misinterpreting the song? Well, that’s definitely part of it; and in the contemporary atmosphere of excessive brand call-outs, it’s hard for songs critical of those tendencies to be appreciated for what they “actually” mean (read: “Gucci Gucci”). BUT, I would argue in this case, “Royals,” the song itself, is the real culprit here more than its listeners are. And while it might be hard to understand the immense popularity of a song that broadcasts a truly sincere message of anti-materialism, it’s a lot easier to understand the immense popularity of a song that…well…actually does the very opposite.

Let’s go back to the lyrics:

But everybody’s like:
Crystal
Maybach
Diamonds on your timepiece
Jet planes
Islands
Tigers on a gold leash

We don’t care

We aren’t caught up in your love affair

Look, I’m not going to make the argument that just because Lorde is on a major label, she can’t offer up some sort of valid countercultural arguments about money and consumption. That’s a cheap shot, and is not (entirely) true. After all, one does have to have wide exposure in order to introduce a new way of thinking to others in order to eventually change their minds. Maybe in tackling the pernicious culture of American materialism, Lorde has chosen the perfect medium to influence the most people possible: a commercial pop song.

There’s just one problem: it’s a commercial pop song. By definition, a pop song decrying conspicuous consumption is like some rich oil tycoon telling the poor folks on the bad side of town that it’s OK for them to be poor – that in fact, it’s preferable, because it’s a more authentic existence than his own supposedly bloated and meaningless one. Of course, he tells them this to subjugate them into a further cycle of consumption of the very products that HE is creating so that he can perpetuate his own moneyed existence. Yes, it’s economic like that. Sorry for the old man rant. Two points:

  1. Lorde is making music to sell music to you. There is tremendous money in pop, and it is made to be consumed and purchased, otherwise it will not exist. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, of course. BUT it reveals how hypocritical it is to craft a pop song (not just any song, but A POP SONG) that rails against consumption.
  2. Lorde’s press persona is that of a young upstart who came into the game totally by her own merit. And while Lorde was found to be exceptionally talented at a young age – which she obviously still is – she was then courted and incubated for future stardom by Universal, which carefully plotted out marketing plans and release schedules. (This is how pop music works.)

So while Lorde’s image, as bolstered by the anti-materialist sentiment of “Royals,” is presented as a contrast to people like Lana Del Rey (who she directly calls out in her “tigers on a gold leash” line), the team behind Lorde’s success – and it is a sizeable team – is subtly using that same iconography to market her. Look at this image of her with her dog:

Lorde og

OK, yes I know dog is adorable, but focus! Now, look at this photo of Lana Del Rey:

Lana Lion

Same vacant, open-mouthed, sexy stare. Virtually the same confident, seated stance with powerful animals by their sides. These are the poises of powerful women and there is no coincidence that they are similar. While the dog in Lorde’s photo establishes her as a more down-home personality than Lana’s overblown image of her own royalty, the intention and impact is still the same, and in that way, there is barely any difference.

So what’s the problem? Why can’t a pop musician write a song saying how ridiculous all of the materialism in pop is? Well, she can (obviously). The issue is simply that there is innate hypocrisy in how “Royals” has gone about it. By singing “We’ll never be royals,” Lorde lumps herself in with the sweaty, starving, overworked and underpaid masses. But, of course, she is speaking from the bully pulpit of pop music, which, ironically, makes her virtual international royalty in our entertainment-saturated age. What’s more, she’s spinning a yarn of material success as something really not that great and desirable when her song is engineered to produce the very material wealth that she’s criticizing.

For what it’s worth, I am not blaming Lorde entirely for this hypocrisy. We’re all implicated as listeners and consumers of pop music, and what we choose to consume makes a huge difference. To put it all into context, it’s not really a huge deal. After all, this kind of thing has happened many times over in pop history. I mean, just look at the mainstream appropriation of punk to sell counterculture to bored suburban teenagers who hang out at the mall (me at age 14). At least then you didn’t have to pose with a tiger.