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Sound and Vision: The Fall of R&B: How Pop Is Selling Its Soul for a Dance Beat

Remember the days when R&B and hip hop was the sound of pop? From the ‘90s to the mid ‘00s, music’s most dependable hitmakersMariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Toni Braxton, Boyz II Men, R. Kelly, Usher, Brandy, Monica, Alicia Keys, Destiny’s Child and Beyoncé, among themspecialized in “crossover” soul, climbing both the R&B charts and the Hot 100 in tandem.

But lately, something strange has been happening on Billboard’s R&B /Hip-Hop Songs chart: A hit is no longer necessarily a hit. Just because a song is big in the R&B sphere doesn’t mean it’s big anywhere else. For the week ending April 7, 2012, only one song in the R&B/Hip-Hop Top 10Tyga’s “Rack City”had managed a comparable placing on the Hot 100.

The song at No. 1, Beyoncé’s “Love on Top,” which had been there for multiple weeks, was way down at No. 54 on the Hot 100. (It briefly entered the Top 40 last September, debuting and peaking at No. 20 after Beyoncé performed it at the MTV Video Music Awards.) Meanwhile, there wasn’t a single R&B diva in the Top 40 aside from Janelle Monae, who got there by guest-singing on rock band fun.’s No. 1 hit “We Are Young.”

What happened to pop’s soul? There’s a disconnect between the pop and R&B charts that hasn’t been so pronounced since the days when Michael Jackson’s label, CBS Records, threatened to pull all of its artists from MTV if the then-fledgling network didn’t play Jackson’s “Billie Jean” video.

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Sound and Vision: Lady Gaga’s Album of the Year GRAMMY Nominee — Big Hit Or Major Miss?

In pop music, you’re nobody until everybody loves you or hates you, and few recording artists polarize everybody the way Lady Gaga does. Mad genius or plain mad? A true original or hopelessly derivative? Hit or miss?

That last question easily could apply to Gaga’s second full-length studio album, Born This Way, which was released to near-unprecedented fanfare in May of last year. The music press gave it “generally favorable reviews,” according to Metacritic, which assigned the album a score of 71 out of 100. Madonna, however, was less than blown away by the title song and first single, which many declared a too-blatant rip-off of her 1989 hit “Express Yourself.”

The woman who has spent her entire career nicking sights and sounds from other people, apparently agreed and recently joined the song’s chorus of detractors. “When I heard it on the radio… I said that sounds very familiar,” Madonna told ABC News’ Cynthia McFadden in January. “It felt reductive.”

As for the parent album, whether it’s good or bad is a matter of personal taste. Hit or miss, though? Commercially speaking, it depends on how you look at it. Born This Way sold 1.1 million copies in the week after its release, making it the biggest debut since 2005. However, Gaga’s sales feat becomes less impressive when you consider that some 440,000 of those copies were sold in the digital format by Amazon, which practically gave the album away for 99 cents.

By week two, sales of Born This Way had plummeted 84 percent, down to the mere-mortal level of 174,000 copies. In its third week, it sold 100,000 copies, and was replaced by Adele’s three-months-older (in the US) 21 at No. 1. When the dust settled and 2011 ended, Born This Way was the third-biggest seller of the year, with cumulative sales of 2.1 million copies, which means it did half of its business last year in its first week. The No. 1 album of 2011, Adele’s own sophomore effort, sold nearly three times as much (5.8 million).

If Born This Way were a Hollywood event movie, and in many ways it was marketed like one, it would be considered a disappointment, as aspiring blockbusters that only double their opening-weekend haul during their box-office runs are generally considered to be. Worldwide sales in the vicinity of 5 million lack luster when an album’s pre-release set-up positions it to be the biggest thing since sliced bread—or Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

Then there are the five singles from Born This Way. Aside from the aforementioned title track, which spent six weeks at No. 1, they’ve performed somewhat below Gaga’s usual Hot 100 standards. The second to fourth singles all reached the Top 10, but none of them enjoyed industry buzz or runaway success on par with previous Gaga hits like “Telephone” and “Bad Romance.” Meanwhile, the fifth single, “Marry the Night,” only reached No. 29 on Billboard’s Hot 100, making it Gaga’s first official single to miss the Top 10.

There’s always the February 12 GRAMMY Awards to provide a nice Gaga rebound (she’s up for three awards), but they probably won’t, not with Adele in the running (and performing). In fact, Adele might have been the one thing most responsible for blocking the view of Gaga for much of 2011.

The antithesis of all things Gaga, she’s a singer who gets by without gimmickry and flash, just strictly on the power of her voice. Her 21 singles have had considerably more staying power than those from Born This Way—the third, “Set Fire to the Rain,” just became the third to hit No. 1—which means that when the dust settles (again) and 2012 ends, some other 21 single probably will still be jerking tears (“Turning Tables”?) or rocking the house (“Rumour Has It”?).

Even Gaga’s videos and live award show performances are no longer the talk of every town, not when Adele hits the same stage, accompanied by a tremolo piano melody, effortlessly knocking rare notes way back into the nosebleed seats, and bringing on the heartbreak with “Someone Like You.” She did just that at the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards in September, and she walked away with the most-talked-about live TV performance of the year (without having to reveal that she was pregnant!). Gaga performed “You and I” at the VMAs, but it was Adele whose song was No. 1 on the Hot 100 within days of the ceremony.

Adele will likely steal Gaga’s GRAMMY thunder, too. Gaga scored her third Album of the Year nomination for Born This Way (her second was for the 2009 EP The Fame Monster), but there’s no stopping the Adele express, which is likely to run over everything in its path. Gaga may have to settle for Favorite Album of the Year at the January 11 People’s Choice Awards.

So hit or miss? I’d say Born This Way falls somewhere between stunning success and magnificent failure, definitely closer to the former when both artistry and commerce are accounted for. Derivative first single aside, the album was an uncompromising pop opus, one that is musically to the left of the one that made Gaga a superstar.

Had its more difficult tracks—”Scheiße” and, say, “Heavy Metal Lover”—been recorded by someone like M.I.A. or an obscure European electronica act, they probably would have been declared masterpieces of iconoclastic electro-pop. “Judas,” for sure, would have had considerably lowered chart expectations (it hit No. 10). Released under any other name, Born This Way, far as it is from the mainstream that Katy Perry and Rihanna call home, probably would have sold a small fraction of what it did sell with Gaga’s name plastered on the cover.

There’ll be future hits for her, though, more GRAMMY nominations. And even if her reign as the hottest thing in music is over for good, Adele shouldn’t get too comfortable at the top. In pop, nobody stays there forever.

Sound And Vision: Britney Spears At 30 — Where Does She Go From Here?

It seems like just yesterday: She was invading the dreams of pedophiles and lusty teenage boys everywhere. But that was 1998, the year Britney Spears, then sixteen, broke with her No. 1 debut single, “…Baby One More Time,” and its accompanying video, in which the singer made an unforgettable first impression as Lolita-lite, a sexy school girl who was up for just about anything.

At the time, Britney seemed destined for the cut-out bin in two years flat. Her synthetic pop sound didn’t sound built for longevity. And didn’t the name Britney Spears, which was too close for comfort to that of ’80s hair metal heads Britny Fox, have one-hit wonder written all over it?

Boy, was I wrong! Thirteen years later, she’s still with us. Her albums may no longer be as huge as they were at the dawn of the century, but she’s still one of the leading ladies of pop. Super-stardom, however, isn’t everything. Even an act with a hit list that’s as thematically shallow as Britney’s must crave a little artistic growth. She’ll turn thirty on Dec. 2, but to me, she’s still seventeen—partly because I don’t want to admit that I’m getting so old, but mostly because Britney herself still doesn’t sound as if she’s a day over twenty.

Sure she’s lived a lot. There have been two marriages, two divorces (actually, one divorce, one annulment), two children and countless scandals. I interviewed Britney for Teen People right after the release of her second album, Oops!… I Did It Again, in 2000, back when she still hearted Justin Timberlake. She struck me as a sweet teenage girl with a maturity level that matched her age. I don’t know what she’s like today, but her music doesn’t make her sound much older.

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Sound And Vision: Why I’m Seriously Considering Boycotting Music Award Shows

On November 9, Nashville celebrated itself (again!) with the Country Music Association (CMA) Awards. For the fourth consecutive year, the event was hosted by Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley, but the masters of ceremonies weren’t the only thing that gave me that old deja vu feeling. Hadn’t these accolades already been handed out just a few months ago?

Wait, those were the Country Music Television (CMT) Music Awards in June. And before that, there were the Academy of Country Music Awards. And, just in case that’s not enough Music City honors for you, there are the 2nd annual American Country Awards coming up on December 5.

Pop and R&B are just as self-congratulatory, offering the MTV Video Music Awards, the MTV Europe Music Awards, the Billboard Awards, the American Music Awards, the Teen Choice Awards, the BET Awards, the BET Hip Hop Awards, the NAACP Image Awards and the Soul Train Music Awards.

Then, of course, there are the GRAMMYs, which following so many other back-slapping fests, have been losing their lustre for years now—though that’s hardly the only reason. Winning one used to be the musical equivalent of snagging an Oscar, but now its just more clutter for the awards shelf.

In a few weeks (November 30, to be exact), the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences will announce the nominees for the 2012 GRAMMY Awards (to be held on February 12). Doesn’t it already feel like we’ve been there and done that over and over and over already this year? Am I the only one who doesn’t doubt that we’re in for another repeat of The Adele Show, with a very special appearance by Lady Gaga. Good as it is, like Christmas, I only need to sit through it once a year.

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Sound And Vision: Beyoncé’s “Plagiarism” Controversies — Has She Been Caught Stealing, Or Is She Paying Homage (Again)?

Beyoncé is having a rough 2011. I don’t know how she felt about turning thirty on September 4, but if she’s as career-obsessed as I suspect she is, it was probably the least of her concerns. Yes, 2011 has not been without a few triumphs: She rocked the Glastonbury Festival in June, and she set a Twitter record for “most tweets per second recorded for a single event” (8,868) when she announced at the August 28 MTV Video Music Awards that she is expecting her first child with husband Jay-Z.

But by October, even that bright spot was mired in controversy when Beyoncé’s baby bump seemed to collapse as she sat down for a couch chat during an Australian TV appearance. A faked pregnancy? Stranger things have happened—like an underperforming Beyoncé album. Despite debuting at No. 1 with 310,000 copies sold its first week in June, Beyoncé’s fourth solo album, 4, has sold below expectations while failing to launch a major hit single.

But collapsing baby bumps and album sales might be small-time woes compared to the accusations of theft and copyright infringement that continue to dog the singer.

In the past, she’s been accused of contributing minimally to the creation of some of the songs for which she receives songwriting credit, and in 2005, she was sued (albeit unsuccessfully) for copyright infringement for her 2003 No. 1 hit “Baby Boy.” Then in 2006, Destiny’s Child‘s “Cater 2 U,” for which Beyoncé and her group mates were listed as co-writers, was at the center of another copyright infringement suit, which was settled out of court.

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Sound And Vision: Can Florence + the Machine End 2011 Where Adele Started It (on Top)?

Florence Welch must be in a state of extreme suspense right about now. And if she is, no one would understand how she feels better than Adele. At the dawn of 2011, Adele was in the very same position in which the lead singer of Florence + the Machine now finds herself, coming off a GRAMMY-nominated (and in Adele’s case, GRAMMY-winning) US debut album with extremely high expectations from people who are music fans, music writers and both (like yours truly). Would album No. 2 be career boom or bust?

For Adele, the rest is recent music history. Her sophomore album, 21, is the biggest seller of 2011 so far in the US, where it has launched two number one singles, song of the summer “Rolling in the Deep” and the big-boned ballad “Someone Like You.”

Florence, in a sense, is someone like Adele. Both British acts broke big in the States on TV (Adele on Saturday Night Live in 2008, Florence at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards); both were nominated for the Best New Artist GRAMMY (Adele won, Florence lost); both have worked extensively with producer Paul Epworth; both were cited by Beyoncé for influencing her during the making of 4; and both played major roles in making the pop charts safe once again for British blue-eyed soul.

But is this where the similarities end? Does Florence’s upcoming second album, still untitled as of mid-September, have the same potential as 21? The power to move continents of fans with its fiery emotion, bringing them to their knees and sending them crawling en masse to iTunes?

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Sound And Vision: Celebrity Feuds — Pop Is a Battlefield, World War II

“Take back Vanessa Redgrave
Take back Joe Piscopo
Take back Eddie Murphy
Give ‘em all some place to go”

— Tom Petty, “Jammin’ Me” (1987)

“Fuck Tom Petty!”—Eddie Murphy

Oh, those crazy stars! What will they say next? And will they ever learn? What a tangled web they weave when they start to take pot shots at each other.

Celebrity feuds have existed since before the dawn of the pop charts. Eminem owes much of his early notoriety to cutting down to size the likes of Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, ‘N Sync and Moby in videos and on record. Meanwhile, off the record (though always totally for attribution), Katy Perry has never met a fellow chart-topper she wouldn’t slag off.

But lately, stars keep colliding and disturbing the peace in the music galaxy. Liam Gallagher just filed suit against his brother Noel over the latter’s claim that Liam pulled out of a high-profile Oasis gig in 2009 due to a hangover and over comments Noel made blaming Liam for the demise of the band. But then brothers in arms have engaged in verbal—and occasionally, physical— combat since the heyday of the Kinks, which featured the dueling Davies, Ray and Dave. Chris and Rich Robinson of the Black Crowes, William and Jim Reid of the Jesus and Mary Chain, and Kings of Leon‘s Followill brothers have the battle scars to prove it.

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Sound And Vision: Does Katy Perry Have Staying Power?

Go ahead. Admit it. The first time you heard Katy Perry‘s “I Kissed a Girl” way back in 2008, you knew that by the time the novelty of a song about dabbling in lipstick lesbianism ran its course, so, too, would the career of the straight woman who was singing it.

Then something strange and unexpected happened when the clock struck Perry’s 15th minute of fame: It kept right on ticking. How did she pull it off? I have a few theories.

No. 1. She’s shallow and proud of it. Unlike Lady Gaga, Perry won’t take credit for trying to save pop music, gay people or the world. She never pretendsthat her music is anything more than feel-good pop. Who else would invite Rebecca Black, the most-hated pop star who’s not really a star (“Friday,” which peaked at No. 58 on Billboard’s Hot 100, wasn’t the big hit everyone seems to think it was) to co-star in one of her videos (“T.G.I.F. [Last Friday Night]“)? “Firework” is about as deep as Perry gets—and lest she come across as too earnest, she tempered the semi-serious message with firecracking boobs in the video.

No. 2. She’s up with regular people, because she’s one of them. Gorgeous but not intimidatingly so, sexy without selling sex, Perry also manages to be quotably catty while still being likeable. Gaga is outrageous and memorable, but she keeps her emotional distance. For all her avowed egalitarian values, there’s something distinctly remote about Gaga, on and off her records. You don’t imagine yourself hanging out with her on a day off. Britney Spears has lived in a bubble for years. Beyoncé is too fabulous. And Rihanna plays with guns.

That leaves Perry to bring a little humanity to pop divadom. She doesn’t have to be photographed taking out the trash to convince fans that she’s just like them. She could probably have any guy in Hollywood or on the charts, but instead of hooking up with a genetically blessed stud of the moment (so Taylor Swift, so Miley Cyrus), she went and married Russell Brand, a goofy comic with a sketchy past.

No. 3. She rocks the singles scene. She lacks Adele‘s vocal power, and she uses many of the same producers and co-writers that her peers have been passing around for years (for the love of God, girls, give Dr. Luke a rest!). But Perry’s singles still stand out, and they’re sturdier than they might initially sound. “Teenage Dream” and “E.T.” don’t exactly blow you away on first or even the 10th listen. They burrow into your subconscious slowly. But once there, they don’t let go. (Ironically, Perry’s crowning musical achievement, the Timbaland collaboration “If We Ever Meet Again,” which I’ve seen fill dance floors from Buenos Aires to London to Melbourne, only went to No. 37.)

When Teenage Dream was released in August of 2010, the reviews were mixed to downright hostile. But Katy Perry is not an album artist. Her music is best digested in bite-sized nuggets. By the time Teenage Dream was logging it’s third No. 1 hit single (“Firework”), it had been nominated for Album of the Year at the GRAMMY Awards, alongside critical favorites by Eminem, Lady Gaga and Arcade Fire. Strong, distinctive videos pulled off without any assistance from hordes of gyrating dancers helped too. Look for her nine nominations at the August 28 MTV Video Music Awards (more than any other artist) to further boost Teenage Dream‘s staying power.

The album has created a fifth Top 3 single and shifted more than 1.5 million copies in the US, and it’s still going as strong as, if not stronger than, the superstar albums that came after it. Rihanna has sold nearly as many copies of Loud (released in November 2010), but after three No. 1 hits, she’s struggling with the fourth and fifth singles, neither of which is likely to go Top 40. Lady Gaga’s Born This Way opened spectacularly in May, then cooled off quickly, with none of the singles repeating the success of the No. 1 title track so far. And poor Beyoncé. Her fourth solo album, 4, has yet to produce a runaway hit at all.

By the time Gaga is trying to extend the lifespan of Born This Way with an expanded limited edition release featuring five new radio-friendly tracks, Teenage Dream’s “Peacock” or “Circle the Drain” probably will be scaling the charts.

But will we still be singing along in 2015? That’s open to debate. Pop history is littered with artists who fell out of favor after two huge albums (see Debbie Gibson, Perry’s “T.G.I.F.” video mom). But even if Perry is just a pop footnote by mid-decade, she’s already surpassed everyone’s wildest teenage—or grown-up—dreams.

 

Surprise! Gaga Offends Another Group Of People

It really shouldn’t come as a shock to anybody that Lady Gaga has managed to piss people off once again. The “Mother Monster” superstar has made it clear that attempts at being outrageous and controversial are her thing. She was addressed last year by PETA for showing up to the MTV Video Music Awards in a meat dress. More recently, Gaga has been criticized by the Catholic Church for her “Judas” music video. Her loyal fans believe her to be one of a kind, but many don’t see any originality. Regardless, there’s no denying the buzz created everywhere she goes. So what did she do this time?

Well, Lady Gaga was recently in Australia and during a performance in Sydney she came on stage dressed up as a mermaid…in a wheelchair. This is apparently her new alter ego, Yuyi. It doesn’t seem worth it to question the meaning or reason behind the new character; Gaga’s history of crazy costumes should be enough. But a few disability organizations feel differently. After the show, the Roman Reed Foundation for spinal chord injury research tweeted, “Dear @ladygaga how about using your celebrity status 2 try 2 get us out of wheelchairs. Instead of cruising one. Cool?!” Other organizations mirrored these sentiments, hoping Gaga would use her fame to help their cause instead of just for entertainment. Following her concert, Gaga was the target of offended fans that took to throwing eggs at the pop star and her entourage. She has not taken to Twitter at this point with any kind of response to her fans or the disability foundations.

Aren't mermaids supposed to be colorful?

Should Lady Gaga be subjected to this constant criticism? She’s definitely asking for some kind of reaction. Whether or not the response is actually legitimate, it seems obvious that most of her choices are bound to draw criticism from somewhere, and that she’s willing to deal with the consequences. But then there’s the issue of how far is too far. It’s doubtful that Gaga used a wheelchair on stage to purposely offend anyone, but that doesn’t mean that the prop didn’t do just that. It’s possible, though, that Gaga meant to use the wheelchair as a way to empower those who are permanently confined to them. After all, her message has always been to be yourself and to embrace your uniqueness. What do you think?

Discourse & Dischord

The Good

Fallon and Timberlake get insane in the membrane with “History of Rap 2”

Jimmy Fallon had Justin Timberlake back on his show this week, and the two reprised their “History of Rap” schtick with the help of back-up band The Roots. Watch the two comedians tackle Kurtis Blow, Salt ‘N Pepa, DMX, Cali Swag District and more to the delight of the audience.

The Beastie Boys action figures battle in new video

Last time Spike Jonze teamed up with The Beastie Boys for a video, the result was the indelible video for “Sabotage.” Their newest video collaboration for “Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win,” is just as funny. Watch the Boys’ plastic alter egos get in on the action below.

The Bad

Rebecca Black releases “My Moment”

Rebecca Black wants to be taken seriously as an artist. Personally speaking, we’re not there yet. So her sophomore effort, an über earnest ballad called “My Moment,” feels a little icky. Documentary-style videos of career highlights usually happen after you’ve actually made it (See Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” or Bon Jovi’s “Dead or Alive”). This video of a guitar novice trying to play “Sweet Child O’Mine” over some suggestive moaning is less painful to watch, but if you simply must assault your eyes and ears, do so at your own peril below.

Stage collapses on Cheap Trick during Ottawa Bluesfest

Cheap Trick was in the middle of their set at the Ottawa Bluesfest on Sunday, when the stage came crashing down around them. But don’t worry—daddy’s alright, mommy’s alright and the band members are alright. (Sorry, we couldn’t resist incorporating some of the lyrics to “Surrender.”) Check out the wreckage below.

The Ugly

J-Lo and Marc Anthony call it quits

Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony announced the end of their seven-year marriage this week. We definitely didn’t see it coming after their COMPLETELY AWKWARD public appearance at the GRAMMY Awards back in February. Re-experience the mutual contempt below.

Flaming Lips release new songs in gummy form

You know what pairs well with gummy fetuses? Flash drives. So goes the absurd logic of Flaming Lips. The band is planning to release three new songs, but here’s the catch: They’ll be on flash drives floating inside fetus-shaped gummy candies. If it feels wrong to bite into anything remotely resembling a baby, by all means, cut into it with a knife. We’re sure the music will be worth it the guilt.

Miscellany

Blake Shelton nabs Number 1 spot on Billboard with Red River Blue
MTV Video Music Award nominees announced
Trey Songz to star in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3D
Katy Perry will voice Smurfette in new Smurf movie
Demi Lovato and Ryan Phillippe are or aren’t dating
Jay-Z and Kanye West album Watch The Throne drops August 1
Bette Midler thinks Lady Gaga’s mermaid in a wheelchair routine is a little fishy
Bruce Springsteen plays Clarence Clemons tribute show
Adele, Elbow, PJ Harvey nominated for Mercury Prize
Ja Rule sentenced to two years behind bars for tax evasion
Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez crash wedding
Atlantis crew gets wake-up call from Beyoncé

 


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