When the stars and planets align, MTV’s writers and critics assemble to weigh in on new hotness, chart trash, and glimmers of hope in the pop-music landscape. This week’s roundtable includes Hazel Cills, Molly Lambert, Tirhakah Love, Meredith Graves, Meaghan Garvey, Hilary Hughes, and Simon Vozick-Levinson.
Lorde, "Green Light"
Vozick-Levinson: I can pinpoint the moment when I started to realize that "Green Light" is the best pop song I've heard yet this year. It's 49 seconds in, when Lorde sings about hearing new sounds in her mind and — presto! — there's a diegetic chord change as the piano that's been hanging tentatively in the background resolves into an upbeat house hosanna. By the time the first chorus finished, I was all-in, head-bobbing at my desk in a way that probably looked ridiculous to anyone who walked past just then. This is a song that gets better every time you play it, which I've done a couple hundred times already. The tricky way it's constructed, so it sounds a little like a few other bittersweet hits until suddenly it doesn't at all, shows off Lorde's sharpness and control as a songwriter. She seems to have spent the last three years absorbing everything about a certain kind of Top 40 orthodoxy and figuring out how to leapfrog past it. For a song about an ache that won't fade as fast as you want it to, "Green Light" is remarkably exultant and un-self-pitying — and why should she sulk? She's head over heels for the possibilities of pop music.
Cills: The first time I heard "Green Light," I remember thinking that I wished the entire song sat on the same level as the big, momentous chorus, when the piano kind of disappears behind her manic "I'm waiting for it, that green light, I want it!" cheerleader chant. But I've come to appreciate the buildup. I just hope the "dancing on the roof of an Uber" energy of the song's big moment isn't just Lorde dipping her toe into new waters. This is a Lorde we haven't heard before — not just reaching for new musical possibilities, but emotional ones as well. It's fun to hear pop's resident Allison Reynolds come out of her shell. Lorde has always been an intimidatingly cool and direct musician: somehow above it all, but also staring daggers at those who don't understand her. I'll always love the part in "Tennis Court" when she sings, "I fall apart / With all my heart / And you can watch from your window," and then giggles an Alison Moyet laugh. On "Green Light," we actually get to be right there, up close, with her.
Love: The case for Lorde’s stellar pop songwriting is only strengthened with “Green Light.” I love how the vibrant sounds of this record never stray too far from its dark emotional center. Resolution after heartbreak — no matter how cathartic — doesn’t always add up to healing. Even while she’s “hearing new sounds,” the past still tugs at her attention. (They order different drinks but still frequent the same bar, which doesn’t seem quite healthy, but I’ll chalk it up to different strokes.) Lorde’s writing is tight and economical, but it’s the selective way she delivers the lyrics here that's most instructive, particularly in the first verse. Breaking the "car"/"bars" rhyme pattern by fully enunciating “liar,” instead of forcing the fit, signals multiple layers of subtext. Peep how reverberated whispers accent the word, and you can hear that Lorde still has traces of hurt left to unpack, even if she feels good having left.
Hughes: I was also put off by this song's intro at first: It sounded disjointed to me, as if it had to lean on the visual foil of the music video to fully deliver the drama and justify its use of negative space. But different elements of “Green Light” leap out with every subsequent listen, and I’m finally, wholly onboard. The fact that you actually feel what a piano can do as a percussion instrument — and that it’s really put to work here as one, instead of a melodic vehicle — is just as refreshing as that unanimously adored chorus. (Seriously, every skeptic I’ve read or spoken with about this — including myself, like, 12 listens ago — shouts “THAT GREEN LIGHT! I WANT IT!” across the board with abandon, even if they’re not into the track as a whole.) What I loved about Pure Heroine was that it was a singular, inventive debut, that “Royals” and “Tennis Court” seemed to require their own taxonomy because the sounds she made couldn’t play nice in a regular game of “Listen if you like ____” Mad Libs. That she can inspire a complete and total geek-out about a damn piano line makes me really, really excited to see what else she’s got in store for us in the coming weeks.
Garvey: I admit, I didn’t totally get Lorde before this song. All I can say now is: I GET IT. Sign me up. Mom, queen of dancing on Ubers, all that.
Lambert: I laughed so hard the first time I heard “She thinks you love the beach, you’re such a DAMN LIAR!” because it so perfectly encapsulates the feeling of betrayal when you realize someone is pretending to be someone new, or, worse yet, they’ve just changed. The speedy piano house music aspect really conjures up the feeling of trying to talk to someone over loud music at the club.
Fleet Foxes, "Third of May / Ōdaigahara"
Vozick-Levinson: It can be tempting to blame Fleet Foxes for the later bands that subtly or unsubtly ripped off their sound to much greater commercial success. But their 2008 debut has held up better than most, partly because they paid as much attention to the melodic leads as to the harmonies. It's worth going back and listening to "He Doesn't Know Why" if, like me, you hadn't in a while. How many other folk-rock dudes from that era wrote verses that bright and dynamic? (I also recommend revisiting that video for the sight of a pre-fame Josh Tillman skulking with goats in the back of a barn.) All of which is a long-winded setup to say that I really like their first new single in ages. The chord progression that rolls through the song's first half — steady, calm, and lovely, with Robin Pecknold's voice dancing lightly over its surface — pulled me right in. The softly layered epilogues that come after that, stretching the song to nearly nine minutes, are almost too much, but only almost.
Graves: Though I will admit up front to feeling particularly tender this week, this song made me all wobbly. Fleet Foxes are so comforting. Their music is always warm and consistent, like coffee from familiar franchises and rooms in brand-name chain hotels designed to look just a little bit artsy (coincidentally, the locations where their music is most often heard). Someone is singing inside a small house, probably a cabin somewhere, maybe in the kitchen washing the dishes, and you are standing in the front yard or walking up to the door and you stop when you hear their voice, and you listen for a minute before they get that tingling on the back of their neck that lets them know another human is around, listening to them sing — that’s the Fleet Foxes vocal preset, overheard plainsong, simple and deeply honest. No feigned fragility or yowling, none of the student-loan debt you hear in most songs heavy with references to the Civil War — just the familiar sound of being human and questioning why that hurts sometimes.
Love: I feel you on the “overheard plainsong” tones, Meredith, and I'm so appreciative of them. The only whiff of pretension in this song is its length. Charge it to my dwindling attention span, but this damn near nine-minute plummet into the revelations and “innocent lies” one might encounter on the tragic side of the firing line can feel, naturally, exhausting. Thankfully, the song itself is not the least bit tiring — rather, it keeps us in a sedated lull while the Foxes' harmonizations intone urgency without being overly pushy. Even when the pace kicks up following the midpoint and the overlapping images bleed into more current sociopolitical issues — from reparations etched in ivory pillars to the lines, like walls, that we draw to selfishly withhold the golden parts of ourselves from one another — it’s all handled gracefully. The revitalized social currency of political consciousness still ain’t enough for Fleet Foxes to shed their subtlety. Genteelness will probably, hopefully, never go out of style.
Graves: Yes on the subtlety, for sure. And with regard to the length of the song, I guess I think of it like: OK, a song is a five-mile drive between two locations. Sometimes it will only take five minutes to get from A to B in good weather, but if it’s snowing and you want to drive safely, sometimes it will take you 15 or 20 minutes! That’s what this song sounds like to me. This is long like The Dismemberment Plan’s “Respect Is Due” is long. It doesn’t feel long, because you’re looking out the window and the snow is nice ...? I need to quit this metaphor. Sorry, guys.
Hughes: DON’T QUIT THE METAPHOR, I LOVE THE METAPHOR. My head went to a driving place with this, too, but specifically on the Pacific Coast Highway, or some other road that involves hugging curves at 5 mph so that you don’t tumble off a cliff and into oblivion. Sometimes, you need to respect what the space will allow, even if that just means rethinking how quickly you move through it. The nine-minute version of “Third of May / Ōdaigahara” checks that box for me — it feels as if they’re giving enough space for the pendulum of this movement to stop of its own accord. In other words: I’m into it. As a superfan of indie/folk/indie-folk in general, this is hugely relevant to my interests, especially with that psych-y, symphonic flourish at the halfway point.
Lambert: Help, I’m nostalgic for freak folk.
Khalid, "American Teen"
Love: In some ways we needed this. Well, maybe not “we” — but, like, the kids. The kids need this, right? It seems like every week more shit hits the fan in America, so much so that we forget amid all the stains that we’re still living pretty privileged lives. It's a little ironic to me that a time as full of angst and disenchantment as teenage adolescence can also be a time of gratefulness nearing patriotism. But I still find it hard, even now, to think of a time when I felt more patriotic than gliding through my high school hallways bumping “Party in the U.S.A.” with a group of nerdy theater kids. While I doubt “American Teen” is going to evoke the same ubiquitous adulation (not to mention cross-cultural appreciation) from the young folk, I did come away from this feeling a lot less annoyed than I initially imagined. Good thing this song is only the intro to the new album, on which Khalid chronicles his growth, relationships, and eventual dissatisfaction with America. "American Teen" the song only serves as an appetizer for far more nuanced work afterward.
Cills: I love the production on this and its Saturdays=Youth vibe, but this song is so wholesome in a way I can't really even compute at this moment in time. Something about "my youth is the foundation of me" feels like it was ripped straight from an American Eagle campaign. It's obviously something I have to hear in the context of the whole album, like Tirhakah said, but I guess I'm also just searching for fear and sarcasm in any vaguely patriotic statement these days? But then I come back to what I felt with Lana Del Rey's "Love", or why I love a song like Rihanna's "We Found Love." I do want sparks of optimism from pop music in times like these, but something about that being bundled with American identity freaks me out.
Garvey: Earlier this week on The Bachelor (I know), Nick Viall had a very awkward conversation with probable front-runner Vanessa, a special ed teacher from Montreal, as to whether he would consider moving to Canada were they to get engaged. Demurring, he said something that nearly caused me to throw my remote at the TV: “Not to sound corny, but I’m really proud to be an American.” My relationship to the show is one of nihilistic voyeurism, but it felt like the moment the lights come on as the club closes down and you instantly sober up and look around like, “What?!” And like Hazel, I get a similar double-take of confusion here, which in turn makes me feel double-jaded for being so skeptical of the clearly super-talented Khalid’s positivity. Like, I’m all for making the best of a shitty situation, but the thought of this all-American sentiment blowing up right now feels deeply, deeply weird. I much prefer a song like “Saved,” which has these delicate vocals and string plucks that remind me of the best of mid-2000s indie-folk stuff. Or maybe I should just let people be happy? I don’t know!
Vozick-Levinson: My first thought was that this is 2017's own syrupy-sweet Vitamin C prom theme, but that reference alone shows that I'm way too far removed from my own days as an American teen to fairly judge this song's merit. I will therefore recuse myself here, except to say that Khalid has a really excellent voice — which, as Meaghan points out, is put to much greater use on "Saved," on which the ratio of songwriting clichés to distinctive performance quirks is just right.
Lambert: I watched two minutes of the SoulCycle pre-roll commercial before I realized I was watching an ad and needed to click forward to hear the actual song. (I have a cold and I’m jacked up on meds, please don’t judge me.) I love the drum pads and the synths, and I agree with everyone getting a teen-movie vibe from this. Specifically it’s giving me Simple Minds’s “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” at the end of The Breakfast Club (I'm raising my fist like Bender).