Brit & Avril: Wily pop vets?
In these days of disposable pop stars, it's easy to reward an artist, whether legitimately talented or not, for simply sticking around for a while. American Idol and the teen-pop racket have taught us not to get too attached. A hit today, a has-been tomorrow. (Note to Ke$ha: Invest wisely).
As for those pretties who hang at the popular party for more than a can of Red Bull, survival skills often have more to do with titillation than tunes. Britney Spears, who released new single Hold It Against Me on Tuesday, has proved durable for 13 years mainly because of her blond pop-culture cachet and her ability to make Matt Lauer blush; as a singer, well, she shows all the robo-range of Max Headroom and the Chipmunks.
Nevertheless, the 29-year-old's new song, a club-throbber about the politics of the pickup, debuted at No. 1 on iTunes. Produced by Dr. Luke, the man who made Katy Perry rich, Hold It Against Me, with its grind-friendly beat and cheeky lines ("You feel like paradise / And I need a vacation tonight"), succeeds not on any artistic merit, but because it's Britney being scandalous — or at least trying to be.
Spears makes sense in 2011. But consider the case of Avril Lavigne, who dropped her new single, What the Hell, the same day as the former Mouseketeer. At one point, What the Hell was right behind Hold It Against Me on the iTunes charts. (Hell is produced by Max Martin, who just happened to helm Baby One More Time and Oops! … I Did It Again, iconic smashes for Spears.) Lavigne, the 26-year-old Canadian, showed up eight years ago with debut hit Complicated. She's not overwhelmingly charismatic, and her voice, although better than Brit's AutoTuned coo, is a bratty unrefined caterwaul.
And yet, there's something about the relatively sexless Avril — something entirely different from what Britney is packing — that's likable and resilient. As illustrated in What the Hell, these intangibles are presumably based on brass: a tough girl staying strong in the 21st century. The new song has a hyper happy-organ groove, and typical girl-power get-crazy lyrics ("You say that I'm messing with your head / All because I was making out with your friend"). In the end, What the Hell is forgettable. But Lavigne, it seems, is not. And in this day and age, for better or worse, that really is impressive.
- - -
The Kid Lulu Playlist
Last week I provided loyal Pop Life peeps with the second batch of my favorite chill-out songs, a trusty assortment of iPod stress-relievers. I'm obviously a firm believer in the power of the playlist. So when my oldest daughter, Kid Lulu, started showing signs of morning nerves and school stress, I infused my crack parenting ("I'll give you a dollar if you stop crying") with a playlist tailor-made for a 7-year-old. I mixed current hits with singable classics and morale-boosting gems. It's nothing earth-shattering; I just wanted to help Lu kill some time on the bus. Still, I thought you might like to see what a music critic dad (who was a nervous kid himself) spins for his brilliant and thoughtful, if esteem-frazzled, daughter.
• Instant Karma! (We All Shine On), John Lennon & the Plastic Ono Band
• Baby, Justin Bieber
• Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha, Sam Cooke
• P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing), Michael Jackson
• You May Be Right, Billy Joel
• I Won't Say (I'm in Love), Cheryl Freeman (from Disney's Hercules)
• What A Girl Wants, Christina Aguilera
• Power to the People, John Lennon & the Plastic Ono Band
• I Gotta Feeling, Black Eyed Peas
• Vertigo, U2
• Whip My Hair, Willow Smith
• Alice, Avril Lavigne
• Time Warp, the Glee cast
• A Little Less Conversation (Junkie XL Remix), Elvis Presley
• You'll Be In My Heart, Phil Collins (from Disney's Tarzan)
- - -
ALBUM REVIEW Carter Burwell, True Grit: Soundtrack From the Motion Picture (Nonesuch)
From Blood Simple to The Big Lebowski to No Country for Old Men, Carter Burwell has been the Coen brothers' composer of choice for almost the entirety of their quirked-out careers. And just as the sib filmmakers have thrown myriad contrasting looks onto cineplex screens — from farce to drama to whatever the heck Barton Fink was — Burwell has kept the peculiar pace with memorable scores that range from the yodeling mania of Raising Arizona to the minimalist chill of Fargo. If the Coens are typically accused of lacking heart, Burwell just as often gives their movies a needed, if complex, touch of warmth.
With the new True Grit, the Coens offer up another interesting task: Soundtrack a road-movie Western dealing with biblical retribution, the ephemeral nature of life and an unlikely alliance between a 14-year-old girl and a grizzled U.S. marshal. No one would ever confuse Burwell's style with the overt ragtime gestures of fellow composer Randy (Toy Story) Newman, but if you were ever going to make comparisons, now would be the time. Using piano, woodwinds and strings, Burwell blends Aaron Copland's Americana with such spirituals as What a Friend We Have in Jesus and Leaning on the Everlasting Arms. (Alas, the vocal version of Everlasting Arms by Iris DeMent heard over the movie's credits is available as a download only.) Per usual, the Coens end their film not with a hug but a bittersweet adieu. And yet, as Burwell's score rises, you can't help but hear the prickly film's beautiful heartbeat.