Hits And Misses: Katy Perry’s Olympic Bummer, Prophets Of Rage Get Wicked, Plus Tinashe, Against Me!, And DJ Snake

Our critical roundtable disembowels the hits of today and tomorrow

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 Sasha Geffen, Doreen St. Félix, Molly Lambert, David Turner, Hazel Cills, Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, Charles Aaron, and Simon Vozick-Levinson.

Katy Perry, “Rise”

St. Félix: Yes, the Olympics are dramatic. They’re about adversity — this year more than ever, as the athletes have to battle Zika and political turmoil in addition to their opponents and the limits of their bodies. But the Olympics are also in the summer, and they’re in Rio! Tonally, this drudging ballad is off. Why isn’t this a vaguely tropicalia song? An upbeat, danceable track would have reflected the region, like Shakira’s “Waka Waka” did for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, and fit the mood better. It might have even shined up the dour coverage already surrounding this year’s games. This is ironic, of course, because Katy Perry is a machine of confection and white-girl gyration. Here, she was misused.

Geffen: It’s too bad there aren’t any Brazilian singers out there in the world. Even within Katy Perry’s oeuvre, “Rise” plays strangely like a dirge. Is this really the same artist who put out “Firework” and “California Gurls?” Why is she rattling around inside a snow globe of gloom and Klonopin all of a sudden? The line Perry’s selling is that she’d been working on “Rise” for a while, but as soon as I heard it I couldn’t shake the impression that it wasn’t written for her — another song for the pile of rejected Rihanna singles, maybe. Or let’s be real: Throw in a guitar solo and this could be a bonus track on Evanescence’s greatest hits disc.

Aaron: Now I know how a shot put feels — briefly ascending only to quickly crash into the sod with a heavy thud. And considering all the doping controversy surrounding the games, the line “victory is in your veins” might not be the best look.

Cills: Katy Perry’s been in a dark place for a while. While Prism was all over the place, I remember it being plagued by downer songs like “Unconditionally” and “By the Grace of God” that fall neatly behind “Rise” — lots of post-divorce, gotta pick myself back up drama pop. So this song doesn’t feel too left field for her in 2016, even if we associate her with the whipped cream and cotton candy of yore. Still, if you’re going to get Katy Perry to do an Olympics song, why not pick something fun? Do another “Roar.” Maybe even an ounce of the hellish mess that was “Dark Horse?” I’m desperate. She was the wrong pick for this, as Doreen said, and the tone is totally off.

Lambert: Ur gonna hear me snore! Getting a boring and sloooooooooow Olympics anthem when you’re expecting a fizzy summer Swift kiss-off is like ordering fries and being delivered a plate of dust. Is it just me or does Katy sound like she’s doing Winona Ryder’s impression of Björk on the verses here?

Prophets of Rage, “Prophets of Rage”

Turner: This is going to be rude, but I was in elementary school when Rage Against the Machine were a thing and not even alive when Public Enemy were a thing. A supergroup made by combining the two makes sense in a nostalgia-act, election-year kind of way, but it also leaves me pretty cold. The rapping is too tough, the guitars too funky. Is this music to mosh, dance, or make the thinking-face emoji toward? I just don’t know.

Aaron: Yes, David, you are being a little bit rude again, and that's part of why we love you, and I know that proclaiming you weren’t alive or in So So Def knee pants when so-and-so artist was “a thing” — and, as a result, being understandably confounded by their whole approach to music — is part of your brand, but ... what the hell were we listening to again? Oh yeah, this league of extraordinary rap-rock gentlemen. Well, “Prophets of Rage” is no “Fuck Donald Trump,” but as yet another “Where’s Zach?” post-Rage side project, it sounds more insurgent than Audioslave or Nightwatchman or Future User. Tom Morello’s guitar, Chuck D and B-Real’s voices, and the Tim Commerford/Brad Wilk rhythm section have earned my unfailing respect over the years, so peace out on any further quibbling.

Vozick-Levinson: Supergroups often suck, but this one, amazingly, doesn’t. Maybe it’s because Chuck D was always one of Zack de la Rocha’s clearest stylistic forebears — hearing Chuck rap over what’s basically a Rage instrumental is like hearing Willie Dixon’s ghost front Led Zeppelin. It’s a little disorienting, but it feels right. Or maybe it’s because this year has taken such a dark, desperate turn that putting two stereos facing each other and playing Nation of Millions and Evil Empire at the same time, on repeat, really loudly, forever, like some kind of revolutionary Zaireeka Molotov, feels like a perfectly reasonable response to circumstances. I wish these guys had infiltrated the RNC house band instead of G.E. Smith.

Turner: OK, we’re one more day into the Republican National Convention, and now that Third Eye Blind are suddenly the most political band of 2016, I’d like to revise my earlier opinion and welcome more Prophets of Rage. Is this exactly for me? No. But someone needs to give a soundtrack to these next four months of slow-moving hell, and when the update to “Fuck Donald Trump” include G-Eazy and Macklemore, I’m thinking perhaps I dismissed this too soon.

Lambert: Just dropping in to say that I love B-Real sooooo much and I laughed really hard at “league of extraordinary rap-rock gentlemen.” Carry on, good sirs of Prophets of Rage.

Against Me!, “333”

Willis-Abdurraqib: I love this a lot. Laura Jane Grace sounds great. Against Me! are a band that, for me, need the right production to match the impact they had at their peak, and the production here really does the trick. It’s that perfect balance of clean, but not too clean, so it still feels like an AM! song. I have to point out that it’s also lyrically fantastic. Against Me! have always been one of my favorite lyrical bands, and they're really carrying on that tradition here.

Vozick-Levinson: Agree on those lyrics, Hanif — “feeling like I need to fall down some stairs,” what an opening image. The ’00s-radio-anthem production threw me for a loop: I missed the raw fury of Against Me!’s last album the first couple times I listened to this. But it didn’t take long for the song’s relentless forward rush to pull me along.

Lambert: Dig those huge Atom Willard drums! Summer always puts me in the mindset for pop punk. Maybe it’s because it’s Warped Tour season? The chorus is giving me early Queen.

Aaron: A taut, coherently raging manifesto that’s more about articulating poetic self-determination than punky dynamism. The guitar churn is only there to urge on Laura Jane Grace’s beautiful fuck-yous and this-is-who-I-ams. And it’s riveting.

Tinashe, “Superlove”

Turner: The meme-ification of music can be an exhausting matter when songs like Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” rocket to No. 1. But when kids create a viral dance called the running man based on Ghost Town DJs’ classic “My Boo” — despite the running man already existing — then there’s no point resisting. I feel similarly about what Tinashe, The-Dream, and Tricky Stewart have done with “Superlove,” a song that couldn’t be more Atlanta bass unless it was in a So So Def XXL shirt. Stylistically, this feels so so far from the first few songs Tinashe released from Joyride that the album’s ongoing lack of a definite release date is still a cause for concern. But it’s such an upbeat joy that I’m happy to keep playing the waiting game.

St. Félix: This is a Frankenstein of a summer song. And Tinashe is autonomous: At least, I hope she still is, despite the massive delay of this album and the fact that this single is a composite of at least three pop skeletons from the last decade. “Drunk in Love” word cadence appears right in the beginning — “you got me riding on that, riding on that ...” “Superlove” is wired like Nicki Minaj’s “Superbass,” and shares similar rap-singing. And of course, Charli XCX put out a song called (wait for it!) “Superlove.” I just want more vision from her.

Cills: The last we heard from Tinashe, she was singing lines like “my name on your bitch, yeah, she tatted” in the somewhat menacing (but sexy!), haunted music-box sounding “Ride of Your Life.” So this is a huge departure — it’s nostalgic, it’s bubbly, it’s almost sickeningly earnest. But Tinashe ultimately makes cutesy lines like “this is what love in Paris is” work for her. We’ve heard Tinashe play Bad Girl, we’ve heard her play Good Girl, but she never sounds like those archetypes wholly. She gets away with this Frankenstein song, even if it sounds like other hits, though it couldn’t be further from her best. But even though I like “Superlove,” its release has me worried. Tinashe has enough star power, at this point, to captivate without biting other people’s styles. So why not let her do that? My worry is that pulling her from the tour and releasing such varied singles means her people are using the songs to gauge new directions for Joyride. I hope Tinashe is autonomous too, but she doesn’t need to test the waters this way.

Aaron: I appreciate this song’s urgent energy, and I hope it’ll result in a stitched-up monster hit instead of just a monstrous stitch-up. Sure, “Superlove” might be less cheesy without the rote ATL 808 bass and rattle-trap percussion, but that stuff makes it feel like a mixtape throwaway that’s way catchier than it needs to be, which is a good formula for a hit/radio single. And the phrase “grindin’ up in this bitch” is definitely meme-worthy. I may be in the minority, but I’d rather keep getting scattershot Tinashe singles instead of a full album: She seems to lack a unified vision, but she sure can tweak a beat and ride it, and that’s a dope thing.

Lambert: I just got served an ad for the new Ice Age movie with one of the characters doing the running man to “My Boo,” but as far as overexposed memes, I will never mind being reminded of “My Boo.” Therefore I’m sweet on “Superlove” because it sounds like a squirt gun, and I’ve been known to commandeer the stereo at parties to put on So So Def Bass All-Stars. I’ll save my deep thoughts about where Tinashe’s career is headed for after this heat wave ends.

Brand New, “I Am a Nightmare”

Aaron: Per emo style, it seems like the title should be “I Am a Nightmare and You Are a Miracle” to achieve max impact. Anyway, this is a wonderfully written and performed song, absent high-pitched hysterics, which will likely be underrated like most of Brand New’s career. The guitar riff sort of sounds like Alkaline Trio, but that’s fine by me. (Oh yeah, all you n00bs yakking about the new Blink album, it’s pronounced Matt “Skeeba,” not “Skibba”; just wanted to get that off my chest.) Very happy that these guys are getting to play arenas with Death Cab on the current tour because Brand New songs actually improve with volume and breadth, unlike a lot of emo, which just ends up sounding like overblown dinkiness.

Willis-Abdurraqib: OK, so I actually don’t think this song does it for me, and I have desperately wanted it to. I also have felt, for a long time, like the longer Brand New stay together, the less quality comes out of them. I think they are a band with a small handful of VERY good ideas, and its used them up a bit. This song sounds and feels like it’s not hitting on any of those good ideas. I do agree that it’s a bit Alkaline Trio–like, and while I love Alkaline, I don’t know if I like when Brand New sounds like Alkaline. I come to emo to feel ... well, emotions. I approach this one and feel nothing.

DJ Snake, “Ocho Cinco”

Turner: Every few weeks, I get an urge to listen to the greatest song ever created by humans: “Lean On,” the magnum opus of Major Lazer, DJ Snake, and MØ, which has been viewed more than 1.5 billion times on YouTube. Sadly, “Ocho Cinco” doesn’t quite reach the heights DJ Snake hit with “Lean On,” or even with his own recent singles, “Middle” and “Talk.” Yellow Claw’s production help can’t distract from the fact that this song mostly just flops along through the most routine EDM motions. The good news: Even a lesser DJ Snake single is worth at least a few playbacks.

Cills: This song makes me feel 100,000 years old.

Aaron: I am DJ Snake’s biggest 100,000-year-old fan, Hazel, so please allow me to welcome you to the Old As Fuck Dance Music Klatsch. First order of business: Our slithery French frère is the only top EDM act who actually seems to enjoy and understand techno more than any other genre. But he doesn’t really enjoy it unless it’s sullied by other genres — see his recent trop-house escapade “Middle.” “Ocho Cinco” sort of reminds me of ’90s Brooklyn hardcore techno from the likes of Adam X, Frankie Bones, Lenny Dee, and Heather Heart, which mangled acid house, hip-hop, and gabber into an absurdly aggressive rave-mosh. Or you could simplify and just say it’s unnaturally funky and slickly poppy brostep. But listening on headphones in a café on a sunny afternoon, it mostly just seems cute and boyish and primed for the Spring Breakers director’s cut, but not entrancing enough for me to go outside and blast in the car. David’s right that this just isn’t up to DJ Snake’s usual standards (maybe his first single that’s off the mark), but it’ll still wallop a fest of wastoids.

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