Hey Aubtorage! (Yes, that's you.) I'm Sam Lansky, and this is my column, "Pop Think," where we talk about the good, the bad and the ugly of the pop music world -- but this week, there will be no "bad" or "ugly" involved. Why? Because my subject is the great Aubrey O'Day (who will for the duration of this piece be referred to interchangeably as "Aubrey O'Slay," "Aubrey O'Legend," "Flawlessbrey O'Day" and "Godbrey O'Day" -- feel free to pick your favorite), who rose from the ashes of Danity Kane like a phoenix, ascending gloriously to take her rightful throne at the top of the charts. (OK, I'll stop now.)
In all seriousness, Aubrey has always been underrated, remarkable more for her big personality, flashy style and uninhibited demeanor than for her considerable music talents -- but then, she hasn't always had the material to show it off. All that is changing with the release of her latest single, "Wrecking Ball," an infectious pop-rock nugget that sheds the glitzy dance vibes of her past singles in favor of an ultra-radio-friendly sound, songcraft at its very finest and vocals stronger than ever.
With a new platform buoyed by her appearance on "Celebrity Apprentice," a deal with SRC Records/Universal Motown and a refined sound that diverges from the house-influenced dance-pop currently dominating the Hot 100, Aubrey is back and better than ever -- and this week, I'm taking a look at how she's primed for a major musical takeover. You ready, Aubtorage? This is not another love song.
From her first appearance on MTV's "Making the Band 3" back in 2004, it was obvious that Aubrey O'Day was a star. A preternaturally self-possessed HBIC who held her own through the in-fighting and obstacles that made "Making the Band" so compulsively watchable, Aubrey became the breakout star of the show and its resulting band, Danity Kane, a five-piece girl group who released two major albums (2006's Danity Kane and 2008's Welcome to the Dollhouse), including two top 10 hits, the grimy urban swag-before-it-was-swag-anthem "Show Stopper" and 2008's mind-blowingly good "Damaged." (If you haven't heard the Siik remix of "Damaged," brace yourself for a major popgasm.)
Read more about Aubrey O'Day's new music after the jump.
But amid rumors of intragroup discord and band mastermind Diddy's growing dissatisfaction with Aubrey's ultra-sexy image, Aubrey was dismissed from Danity Kane, prompting the group to split altogether following the release of Welcome to the Dollhouse in 2008. From there, Aubrey focused her efforts on building a brand through a series of reality TV endeavors. Her 2011 Oxygen series, All About Aubrey, followed her as she got back into the studio and ultimately signed a solo record deal while battling with her team, weight and the media. Most recently, she is appearing on Season 5 of "Celebrity Apprentice," where (at press time) she is one of the six finalists still remaining on the show, despite a dramatic spat with Arsenio Hall and Clay Aiken last week. ("A dramatic spat with Arsenio Hall and Clay Aiken" is not a phrase I ever imagined writing when I declared myself an entertainment writer a few years back, BTW.)
Aubrey has gained more of a following for being a performer and a personality than for being a vocalist. Her vocals on Danity Kane's two albums and later, on solo songs like her cover of "Party All the Time" and first single "Automatic," are breathy and provocative, not chill-inducing in their clarity. "Automatic" kicks off with robotic synths before Aubrey's Auto-Tuned voice intones of "Look at my body, it's so official/ Every time they see me, I shoot over like a missile."
A shift away from that sound is part of what makes her new single, "Wrecking Ball," such an exciting artistic development for her. It's a midtempo with production that's less flashy and allows the space for Aubrey's voice to shine. Honeyed and emotive, her vocals rise above a snare: "Instead of breathing, I keep holding my breath/ This love is leading us nowhere." The chorus is strong and melodically charged: "You think you can read my mind/ But this is not another love song/ Don't even waste your time, I'm already gone." It's sounds like a pumped-up reimagining of Jessica Simpson's "With You," with more bitterness and disillusionment. It's no surprise that it was co-written and produced (alongside fellow songwriter Steven Miller) by David Hodge, who helmed Kelly Clarkson's disenchantment anthem "Because of You." "Wrecking Ball" was also penned by and features background vocals from my girl Pia Toscano, a finalist on last year's American Idol who was an early front runner to win. Her premature ejection from the competition caused an outcry among viewers. Given that she had a hand in writing this pop gem and has a solo deal with Interscope Records (her debut single, last summer's "This Time," was another example in exceptional pop midtempo finery), it kinda seems like Pia's getting the last laugh here.
And the reality is that Aubrey's earlier tracks such as "Automatic" and "Hitchhiker" failed to garner the kind of commercial success that they deserved, so Aubrey is smart to be shifting directions with "Wrecking Ball." Personally, I'm gunning for her to continue working with talents like the team from this song. She has the vocal talent and the bright persona to continue making this particular brand of pop, which packs an emotional weight and commercial appeal that the niche draw of a song like "Automatic" didn't. Now, all she has to do is continue putting them to work -- and I can't wait to watch her demolish the charts like oh, say, a wrecking ball.