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Sound and Vision: Do Today’s Pop Music Producers Have Too Much Power?

Something interesting recently went down atop the U.K. singles and album charts. Elton John reigned on the list of best-selling albums with a collection of 40-year-old songs, while Florence + the Machine was No. 1 on the singles chart for the first time ever. The band’s vehicle? A song that was originally produced by Paul Epworth, a regular Adele collaborator (“Rolling in the Deep” and “He Won’t Go,” the best song on 21) who had never managed to go that high in the U.K. working with the world’s biggest female pop star.

Alas, he wasn’t exactly scaling that height with Florence either—at least not alone. And therein lies the twist in this chart saga: a good beat. Those Elton John classics had been updated with a danceable 2012 electro sheen by Australian production duo Pnau on the chart-topping Good Morning to the Night, an album featuring dozens of John songs from between 1970 and 1977 crammed into eight tracks and credited to Elton John Vs Pnau, while Florence’s Epworth-produced Ceremonials track “Spectrum” was the leading single via the re-titled and remixed-by-DJ/producer Calvin Harris (for optimal under-the-strobelight consumption) “Spectrum (Say My Name) (Calvin Harris Mix).”

When Bryan Ferry sang, “Don’t stop the dance,” was this what he had in mind? Beat-driven pop where singers share star billing with the producers who boost them to the top? More than ever, the recording arts have become a producer’s medium, in much the same way that film is a director’s medium, with the behind-the-scenes talent dominating both the sound and the vision. (The stage, in singing–when it’s actually live–as in acting, remains the domain of the performer.) With a smaller pool of star producers creating a bigger bulk of the hits, pop music has become as homogenized as Hollywood blockbusters.

According to Ron Fair, a veteran music executive and producer who has worked with Christina Aguilera, Fergie and Lady Gaga, it’s a logical progression from how records are now made. “A producer today is a hybrid role of producer, songwriter, and beat maker,” he says. “What we used to call arranging is now called making beats, so generally, the producer is the guy who walks in with the song. Back in [Beatles producer] George Martin’s and [Linda Ronstadt/James Taylor producer] Peter Asher’s day, they weren’t responsible for making songs.”

Dance music, however, has always been more of a producer’s forum than middle-of-the-road pop. But with disco in the ’70s, it didn’t always show. When one remembers Donna Summer’s greatest hits, Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” or Amii Stewart’s “Knock on Wood,” the spectacular vocals probably come to mind first, then the beat.  Continue reading ‘Sound and Vision: Do Today’s Pop Music Producers Have Too Much Power?’

Can D’Angelo Save Contemporary R&B’s Soul?

D’Angelo who?

If you’re a music lover of a certain age, too young to remember when contemporary R&B wasn’t joined at the hips with rap, or didn’t come dressed up in a shimmering electro-pop sheen, we’ll forgive you for asking.

Now let the history lesson begin! Flashback to 1995, back when 21-year-old D’Angelo (born Michael Eugene Archer) was quickly becoming one of the hottest things in music. Released that year, his debut album, Brown Sugar, helped usher in the era of neo soul, and with Voodoo, his long-delayed 2000 sophomore album, for whose “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” video he bared both body and soul (literally!), he became an R&B rarity: a sex symbol capable of seducing both fans and critics with his bulging talent.

The only way was up, it seemed. But instead of ascending, D’Angelo dropped out. In some ways, it wasn’t so surprising. When I met D’Angelo in the mid-‘90s before a taping of MTV Unplugged, I was immediately disarmed by his cheerful but low-key and unassuming manner. He easily could have passed as any guy in the audience who’d wandered into the performer’s circle by mistake—and I mean that as a compliment. Modesty in a hunky package, D’Angelo, unlike the egocentric superstars crowding the charts today, clearly wasn’t in it for the star trip. Whether sitting at the piano or plucking a guitar, he was playing for love of the game, not the “F.A.M.E.” and “Fortune” (to quote the crass titles of the two most recent albums by Chris Brown, D’Angelo’s modern-day antithesis).

After taking five years to release his sophomore effort, D’Angelo spent the next decade well outside of the spotlight, only making occasional scattered appearances on leaked songs and other people’s records (including Mark Ronson’s Record Collection). And like so many musical geniuses before and after, he was plagued by demons, which may or may not have shaken up his turbulent romance with fellow singer Angie Stone, the mother of his teenage son Michael, and which definitely led to several legal scrapes, including a 2005 arrest for drunk driving and drug possession, and another in 2010 for soliciting a female undercover police officer for sex in New York City.  Continue reading ‘Can D’Angelo Save Contemporary R&B’s Soul?’

EDM’s Nouveau Riche And Hip-Hop’s Old Money: Comparing The Top Earners

A lot has been made about EDM’s rise to prominence in the U.S., especially by us. Assertions about the genre’s popularity were previously observations of the cultural zeitgeist. Beiber going over a “dubstep” beat. Paris Hilton tryingand failing, in spectacular fashion—to DJ. The return of rave culture and all of the wonderful, sweaty gyrations that accompany the scene. In early June, however, there was another metric by which we could measure the success of many of EDM’s finest: Cash money.

CelebrityNetWorth.com came out with a list of the Top 30 richest DJs in the world earlier in June (seen right). Now, there are a couple of surprises on this list. For example, despite having a hand in producing two of 2011′s biggest hits in “Look At Me Now” and “Give Me Everything,” Afrojack somehow finds himself at the bottom of this list with a purported net worth of $2 million. Also, the list is lopsided in terms of seniority. The top fifteen earners, from The Chemical Brothers down to Tiësto at number 1, have mostly been in the game since the ’90s, with the arguable exception of David Guetta. The rest, however, are almost all young upstarts like Avicii, Swedish House Mafia, and Skrillex.

This list isn’t the full story either. No list of unfeeling numbers can capture the extent of the sweet life that many DJs live. Sure, always being on tour can be tough on one’s personal relationships. But these guys (and the list is all male, as it happens) are playing music for a living! The women, drugs, relative fame, and parties aren’t bad either.

But with this new information comes new comparisons. Fresh comparisons. Dope comparisons. Swag comparisons. You know where we’re going with this.

Forbes releases a number of music-earning lists annually and none carry the same weight as their installments covering the richest and top earning in Hip-Hop. There are two lists reflecting the amount of paper that the biggest in the rap game can throw around; Cash Kings: Hip-Hop’s Top Earners and The Forbes Five: Hip-Hop’s Wealthiest Artists.

Continue reading ‘EDM’s Nouveau Riche And Hip-Hop’s Old Money: Comparing The Top Earners’

Sound and Vision: The Mid-Year Pop Report–Winners and Losers of 2012 So Far

Time flies, they say, when you’re having fun (probably more so when you’re having fun in fun.!), and 2012 appears to be whizzing by at a faster clip than usual. Not everyone is having such a blast, though. Yes, these are the best of times—still!—for Adele, but how could they not be? She continues to hover around the top of the charts with 21 more than a year after its release.

What about her brothers and sisters in pop? Here’s a scorecard for the first half of 2012.

Winner!

Rihanna with a beat A word of advice to Rihanna: Don’t stop the dance. After she spent 10 weeks at No. 1 with “We Found Love”—her collaboration with Scottish DJ Calvin Harris and the first single from Talk That Talk, her sixth album— neither Jay-Z (on the album’s title track), nor Chris Brown (on the single remix of “Birthday Cake”), nor Coldplay (on whose Mylo Xyloto track “Princess of China” Rihanna appears) could boost Rihanna back into the Top 10.

It took a return to strobe-light pop, with Harris as co-producer (along with Dr. Luke and Cirkut), to give Rihanna her first new Top 10 hit of 2012, with “Where Have You Been.”

Loser!
Lady Gaga in Southeast Asia The year began pretty quietly for Gaga until she kicked off her “The Born This Way Ball” tour in Southeast Asia in April. Then everything that could possibly go wrong did. Christian groups in South Korea, where she played Seoul on April 27, slammed her less-than-holy stage antics, resulting in government-imposed over-eighteen age restrictions for the opening-night show. Meanwhile, the protestations of the Muslims in Indonesia led to the cancellation of her June 3 show in Jakarta.

In Thailand, things went from bad to scandalous. First, she incited the ire of locals by touting Bangkok’s supply of “fake Rolex” moments after arriving for her May 25 concert there. Then they ripped her apart some more for wearing a traditional Thai headdress with a bikini and for sitting on a motorbike with a Thai flag tied to it during the show. At least she didn’t simulate sex with a statue of Buddha.

Winner!
White boys with an edge Nothing but the beat isn’t just the title of David Guetta’s latest album. It’s become pretty much a mantra for most of the women in pop (see Rihanna) and many of the artists formerly known as R&B and hip-hop stars (Usher, Chris Brown, Nicki Minaj).

But in reality, it isn’t all about the beat. The two biggest No. 1 singles of the first six months of 2012—fun.’s “We Are Young” and Gotye‘s “Somebody That I Used to Know”—are both quirky pop songs that have little to do with the prevailing sound of the times (dance music). Where either act goes from here is anybody’s guess, but it’s nice to know that in 2012, you can still score a big hit even if you can’t dance to it.

Loser!
Madonna’s latest album Okay, so the Queen of Pop is in no danger of being evicted from her throne and sent to the poor house anytime soon. She can still demand top dollar (as in hundreds of them) for mediocre seats and sell out her current “MDNA” world tour anyway. And her 12th album, MDNA, did debut at No. 1 with 359,000 copies sold in the week after its March 26 release.

Alas, it spent only a pair of weeks in the Top 10 (dropping a record 86.7 percent in week two), and by the time the “MDNA” tour kicked off in Tel Aviv on May 31, it was out of the Top 100 completely. Meanwhile, “Give Me All Your Luvin’,” the first single, hit No. 10 on Billboard’s Hot 100, but it was on and off the charts within two months, and thus far, there’s not a follow-up hit within earshot.

Winner!
Lionel Richie Sometimes it’s not where you start but where you end up a few weeks later. Although Richie’s latest album, Tuskegee, entered Billboard’s Top 200 album chart in the runner-up position to Madonna’s MDNA, it didn’t stay there for long. It eventually crawled up to No. 1, and by May, it was the second best-selling album of 2012 (with 789,000 copies sold), right behind Adele’s 21.

Loser!
Adam Lambert His sophomore album, Trespassing, did debut at No. 1, making him the seventh American Idol contestant to get to No. 1. Unfortunately, Lambert did so with only 77,000 copies sold—the lowest sum for a No. 1 debut since February of 2011, when Amos Lee’s Mission Bell began on top with first-week sales of 40,000. And it was only downhill from there. After four weeks on the Top 200 album chart, Trespassing was way down at No. 54.

Where were those Glamberts when Adam needed them? Did they defect to Team Beliebers?

Jay-Z and Pearl Jam To Headline Budweiser Made In America Festival

Jay-Z will kick off the fall with a two-day festival in Philadelphia this September featuring several big names from across the musical spectrum. Jay-Z, headlining along with Pearl Jam, will be joined by other rap and hip-hop acts such as Odd Future, Maybach Music (feat. Rick Ross, Wale, and Meek Mill) and Drake. Several indie pop and electronic artists will also be making appearances, including Miike Snow, Passion Pit, Dirty Projectors, Afrojack, and Skrillex, just to name a few.

The festival will be set in Philadelphia’s own Fairmont Park over Labor Day weekend, dropping beats to support the United Way. According to Billboard.com, Jay-Z stated, “[W]e will not only make history but we’re benefiting a great organization.” He went on to discuss the eclectic program selections, saying that the festival “will encompass every genre of music, creating and showcasing the only genre that matters, ‘great music.’”

Live Nation will produce the event, opening ticket sales on Wednesday, May 23. With a full lineup still yet to be released, show-goers can expect a mix of “rock, hip-hop, R&B, Latin, and dance,” as declared in the press release on Monday morning.

Same Sex Marriage? 50 Cent’s Not Against It

Rapper, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and social media kingpin 50 Cent recently weighed in on Obama’s backing of same sex marriages. In an interview with XXLMag, 50 Cent stated that he supported the President’s decision, saying, “I think everyone should be happy. You know, I think a fool is going to go against same sex marriage at this point.”

50 joins a growing list of rappers including T.I., Jay-Z, and Nicki Minaj who have all condemned opposition to same sex lifestyles. “What people do in their own homes is their business and you can choose to love whoever you love. That’s their business,” Hova said in an interview with CNN. “[It] is no different than discriminating against blacks. It’s discrimination plain and simple.”

The reaction to Obama’s comments would appear to follow a trend in hip-hop of more openness and anti-homophobia. Blog-hyped rapper Lil B made waves in April of 2011 with the announcement of his full length LP “I’m Gay (I’m Happy).” Up and comer A$AP Rocky also made his stance on homosexuality clear in a piece from Complex Magazine, saying, “I used to be fucking homophobic. That shit is ignorant. You will lose a lot of time and friendship being homophobic.” Rappers stating indifference to homosexuality is one thing. But hip-hop’s historically homophobic image makes recent comments from rappers like these all the more remarkable.

Watch the full clip of 50 Cent talking to XXLMag below.

 


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