Every week, MTV’s writers and critics assemble and weigh in on new hotness, chart trash, and glimmers of hope in the pop music landscape. This week’s roundtable includes David Turner, Molly Lambert, Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, Meaghan Garvey, Doreen St. Félix, Carvell Wallace, Ira Madison III, Hazel Cills, Jessica Hopper, and Simon Vozick-Levinson.
Chris Brown and Benny Benassi, “Paradise”
Turner: Who is Benny Benassi? What is a Benny Benassi? How does a Benassi make music? Chris Brown is a known quantity. What he brings to EDM tracks is a known quantity. Even what he brings to Benny Benassi tracks is a known quantity. Yet after falling into “Paradise,” I’m left wandering among shots of women and of Chris Brown dancing. Who is our bearded producer that’s given life to such a wondrous tune?
Wallace: Maybe the impact of tech’s ascendency as a cultural force is that nerdy white guys are this season’s hottest hip-hop accessory. Also, this video is brutal, and I can’t figure out how we as a society have arrived at a place where we’re watching Chris Brown make “oh yeah” eyes at some Victoria’s Secret models inexplicably pouring sand all over each other’s butts and we’re not burning things to the ground in protest. At this point, he’s such a noxious figure that I have to believe that he’s only kept afloat by his partnership with tech-bro producers on slightly-better-than-meh EDM tracks like this one (i.e. tracks that hide the artist’s personality much more than R&B does). The alternative — that his fame is based on people genuinely liking him and rooting for him — is too depressing to consider. And finally, Chris Brown is the only black person in this video. Even in the party scenes. Is that weird for anyone else?
Madison III: Benny Benassi has remixed many of my favorite songs. His remix of Madonna's "Celebration" is a thing of beauty. Chris Brown can carry a tune, which is as much of a compliment he gets from me these days. I do prefer him on EDM tracks instead of his rambunctious hip-hop songs where he's talking about not trusting hos, but when he's like, "will you remember me," I'm kinda like, I'd love not to! I wish Trey Songz or Justin Bieber — lord, even G-Eazy — had done this.
Garvey: Chris Brown pulls off EDM frustratingly well, but the EDC day party aesthetics cannot fool me: This is not the “Where Are Ü Now” that summer 2016 so desperately needs.
Hopper: Like our friend Zayn suggests: It’s a paradise, and it's a war zone. This is the first time I have cared for a Benny Benassi song since “Satisfaction" — though, admittedly, I am not keeping the tightest tabs on him. As someone who habitually flipped the station when I would hear that trademark “C-Breeeezay” cameo herald at the top of a track — for all the imaginable reasons someone would not want to willingly regard Chris Brown — I decided to stare that aversion down here, consider the whole of Chris Brown and his music as best as I can. Like with his Deorro collab from last year, the wild dynamics of EDM at its corniest allow Brown’s voice to go from the bottom to the top of his range in the span of a chorus. The corn is pure. The chorus almost makes me forget about the travesty of “Back to Sleep.” ALMOST.
Lambert: C’mon, you guys don’t remember Benny Benassi’s 2002 smash “Satisfaction,” with the leering video involving oiled, big breasted women operating power tools? I’ll be straight with you, I loved that song AND the sleazy video. It reminds me of an ancient time when popular DJs were people whose faces you didn’t necessarily know, who opted to fill their videos with hot people doing gimmicky things. I love Eurotrash! But this song is just plain old trash.
Cills: Echoing Ira and Carvell in that this song is listenable because of how absolutely anonymous Chris Brown sounds. And that works in his favor because we forget, well, that it’s him?
Tegan and Sara, “Boyfriend”
Wallace: Tegan and Sara tracks like “Closer” and “Fool for Love” make me tear up every time I actually sit and listen to them. They have this way of hitting the exact pitch that causes my whole self to vibrate sympathetically. It’s got something to do with those songs being about wanting. Longing. "Boyfriend" is also about wanting, but it feels less vulnerable and more strident. Less “I want this,” more “get your shit together.” It’s a deceptively aggressive hook masquerading as clothing-store pop. Tegan and Sara are the only people I know who can make powerful, meaningful, honest music that you still might hear while shopping for sunglasses and cheap rings.
Lambert: It’s not just because Tegan and Sara are twins that this reminds me of “Lies” by the Thompson Twins and other new wave synthpop jams.
St. Félix: It always feels like a relief and a revelation when a pop song goes past innuendo to bask in direct queerness. And not in a scintillating, silly "girl-crush" way like Demi Lovato's "Cool for the Summer." "Boyfriend" does this energetically, and without overt seriousness, even while thumbing the very real frustration of a woman falling in love with a woman who has loved a man.
Hopper: When Heartthrob came out, I was like, “The next record, they are going to be the American Robyn.” And lo, they are. Synthpop dynamism with humanity intact. You can tell they are incredible students of pop — that pre-chorus! — but they still absolutely sound like them. The through line is still there under the propulsion. Actual cool for the actual summer.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, "Purple Rain"
Vozick-Levinson: It's not like we needed Bruce Springsteen to tell us that "Purple Rain" is one of the songs even the robots who replace us in the 23rd century will feel deep in their solid-state hearts. It's an inarguable classic. Duh. But there's an emotional depth to this performance that elevates it way above a dutiful RIP-of-the-week tribute. Bruce and Prince were contemporaries of a kind — Purple Rain and Born in the U.S.A. were released weeks apart in the summer of 1984, aiding both guys' ascent into subtly subversive American pop stardom in the year of Peak Reagan. Watching this clip, you can almost see Bruce thinking that if he'd been the one to go first, Prince might have been singing "I'm on Fire" or "Brilliant Disguise" at his next show. And how beautiful would that have been? Great, now I'm sad all over again.
Hopper: Watching the solo turn to oatmeal in the capable hands of Nils Lofgren made me just think about how even if you can play a Prince song, only Prince can Prince. Also, it made me happy to see that Springsteen really knew the song; the night I saw him in Chicago was when Glenn Frey had just died and he did “Take It Easy” with his eyes cast down at a teleprompter. And maybe that’s out of the shot here, but it is difficult to believe that “Purple Rain,” given its proximity to “Born in the U.S.A.,” is not as much a part of Bruce’s DNA as his own hits. This has me thinking about the different ways these two sang about the same things, sang about baddest bad girls who do what they want — Springsteen’s “Candy's Room” versus, say, “Pussy Control.” Bruce’s tension was class striving pulled tight, Prince’s was erotic even when he was singing about God. This fits the night, the mourning, in a way — it is a dirge, it is a uniform slog. But to me it highlights that joy, for Springsteen, is just beyond his grip, and for Prince, it was always right there, in his pants.
Willis-Abdurraqib: So, the thing is that I should love this: my actual favorite musician of all time covering one of my other favorite musicians of all time. And it does make me sad to watch, in part because I think I’ve come to terms with Bruce’s mortality as of late, having watched him hobble a bit around the stage in Jersey this winter. I think the solo kills the good, nostalgic vibes I felt. I have always felt like the "Purple Rain" solo is one of those moments that should live in the hands of Prince and no one else, and every time I hear someone else try to do it, I cringe a bit. I don’t want the guitar solo/closing falsetto combo at the end done by anyone other than Prince, but I also think that many of these tributes are less about pulling off a quality music product, and more about standing firm against the fact that Prince was here and inspired all corners of the musical world. This was touching, when considered that way. I try not to imagine the state I will be in whenever Bruce is called home.
Dawn Richard, "Honest"
Turner: Fade to Mind as a label are good, not great. Their musical aesthetic flirts too closely with pop as a genre, but never fully embraces it — and that is all I hear on “Honest.” Richard’s lyrical and vocal performance carries this song; the languid production lets down the rest of the track.
Hopper: Dawn is without flaw — she knows her voice so well, but this song feels like the producer here didn’t. This too-smart-for-the-club, maybe-this-is-a-chorus-maybe-not vamp and the pseudo-Amen-break sample just warping the vibe. I want Dawn to do a GoFundMe where we all can pledge for her to do a Grand Tour through the studios of the producers who would know how best to lay the foundation for the wonderland of her voice. I have $25 to put toward her working with Chad Clark, Jimmy Jam, Kate Bush, and whatever teenage girls in their Indiana bedroom supplant Metro Boomin as the hitmaker of 2017.
Willis-Abdurraqib: I agree with Jessica’s GoFundMe idea, mostly because I feel like Richard is often like a really great athlete who doesn’t have a great team around them, and yet who carries their team to the playoffs anyway. I’m always rooting for her, because I feel like she’s an immense talent who has done some really brilliant things, but the pace of this song's production is really confusing. It's a bit frantic, and there's not a lot of time for breath-catching. There are points where it feels like it’s reaching toward a dance track, and then it sharply shifts into being a bit plastic and boring all over again. I just want everyone to appreciate Dawn Richard as much as I appreciate Dawn Richard.
M.I.A., “Rewear It”
Turner: I love for people to achieve full self-parody. What is the point of living life if one isn’t one's most true and most false self at once? Then I listened to “Rewear It.” I cannot help but feel strange hearing one of pop’s great provocateurs shilling not only for a fast-fashion company, but for their fucking recycling clothes program. If the song was a banger, I wouldn’t be so conflicted. Maybe it is good M.I.A. threw H&M D-level music. I don’t know, y'all. Why didn’t she do this with Uniqlo?!
Wallace: This is a boring track and M.I.A. looks bored making it. I have a difficult time believing that anyone besides the marketing agency that came up with the concept took this as a serious offering. A celebrity with cloudy politics is nothing new, but M.I.A. was so damn strident and dangerous that partnering with H&M feels like more than just hypocrisy. It feels dramatic. Like fuck you and fuck this. Or maybe she just needed the money. Who knows? The industry does weird shit to people.
Cills: Agreed that this is a bore. It just kind of plays like the bare minimum effort from M.I.A., advertising campaign gig context aside. She can do so much better and bigger than this! It does what it's supposed to do which is soundtrack a cool-looking ad, but I can’t imagine listening to this as a stand-alone song. (And maybe it’s unfair to review it as such?)
Madison III: I'm not opposed to brands producing songs. For instance, I think that Converse song with Mark Foster, A-Trak, and Kimbra from a few years back bangs. But H&M seems to have found some GarageBand beats and was just like, "Well, here you go." Tragic.
Lambert: Maybe she recycled an old beat she found on her hard drive because this song is about recycling! Every rapper is self-contradictory, but yeah, I’m having a hard time reconciling people’s champ M.I.A. working with H&M, whose clothes are sewn by workers in Bangladeshi factories that often lack proper fire exits. And H&M are likely only doing this recycling thing as a PR move because they got caught throwing out tons of unbought merchandise. I feel cynical.
St. Félix: Seconded, Molly. M.I.A’s increasing political self-contradiction is an abyss almost too murky for even my noncommittal self to wade in. Especially after the controversy with the "Borders" video last year — when a visual about the refugee crisis became all about her righteous indignation over the Paris Saint-Germain team threatening to sue over the doctored "Fly Emirates" shirt she wears in the video — I am suspicious of this. One minute, fashion is the surface on which she speaks out against ethnocide, and then the next, it’s just a casual payday. Ten years ago, I worshiped her as a brave and master satirist, tearing off the empire’s clothes wherever she went. Today, she’s wearing them.
Willis-Abdurraqib: It has been terrible watching M.I.A. become old, boring, and contradictory. It really wasn’t that long ago when I thought the “Bad Girls” music video was one of the coolest things I’d seen. I think the thing that has made this stage of M.I.A.’s career so disappointing and jarring for me is that I never expected it to happen. Not only is this boring, but it feels really lazy. I think I always felt really drawn to M.I.A. because she never appeared to be lazy, intellectually or creatively, even when she didn’t exactly hit the mark. Now it feels like she’s just sleepwalking from one career movement to the next.
Kelsea Ballerini, “Peter Pan”
Cills: This is one of the more romantic depictions I’ve heard of a stereotypical man-child, and I think it would have gotten its point across without the explicit, clichéd Peter Pan/Neverland references, which are a little too precious. But while I tend to love extreme pettiness in pop, I do like Ballerini’s voice here, even with its easygoing complacency.
Wallace: I like her voice, too. It’s solid and authoritative. People will be tempted to compare her to Taylor Swift as country’s next crossover girl, but her style doesn’t trade on youthful exuberance as much as a kind of knowing confidence. I have to admit, though, that I spent the first minute of the video thinking the “Skip Ad” button was going to appear.
Lambert: Lana Del Tay! I like how Taylor leaving country has left an open slot for every possible young female country contender with blonde hair and bad boyfriends. It’s fun to watch.
Hopper: Little more psyched to see her go this way than her breakout flirtation with country EDM. Because I am cynical, I wonder if someone is piloting her direction, modeling her entirely on Tay-Tay clichés, and I wonder what kind of shit she dreams of actually doing. Historically, country had a lot of excellent songs about living with and loving and leaving disappointing men, and I appreciate that she taps into that.
Will.i.am feat. Nicole Scherzinger, "Mona Lisa Smile"
Turner: I was the only person in the history of my school's art history program to never study abroad. I mention this because I’m going to further disappoint my former professors by not name-dropping all of the art history references in this video and instead focusing on just how intoxicatingly boring this track this is. Will.i.am made a sleepy banger, which in our post-EDM world is a considerate choice.
Madison III: I pity the plight of the original Rita Ora, otherwise known as Nicole Scherzinger. She's never released a solo album in the United States. For years, her unreleased debut Her Name Is Nicole was sadly available for pre-order on Amazon. She eventually released an album in the U.K. and then ended up on X-Factor there. But she's largely been forgotten, despite the fact that she can really fucking sing. She's low-key one of the greats. So how sad is it that she's been resorted to humming — humming — on a Will.i.am track?!
Hopper: I know this is supposed to be all a-ha clever, but this shit is stalky. The humming is the only thing I can explain about this song (or its appeal!). Scherzinger is recreating the vocals of the Luiz Bonfá song sampled here; my guess is that it is for unclearable rights or similar legal reasons. Or perhaps the original had too much life to it, and they needed something that more closely approximated a creeping death? Either way, everyone just skip this directly and go pick up Bonfá’s Black Orpheus soundtrack instead.
Lambert: Scherzinger is the classic person who is technically talented in every way but just doesn’t have “it” for some reason, and it must drive her insane.
Wallace: How do you have Will.i.am and Nicole Scherzinger in the studio and you let Will hold the mic the majority of the time? What if this ends up being the last thing Nicole’s career ever tolerates? Is this how we want to remember her? A song where they literally wouldn’t let her open her mouth? Disrespectful. Pour some mild and only slightly alcoholic liquor out for the homey.
St. Félix: Her contribution is like a hum-wail-dirge. This video is giving me hives. Instead, I’m going to watch Timbaland’s "Scream," featuring Nicole and another cautionary tale, Keri Hilson.