With global warming, political unrest, and a cratered international economy serving as the shaky pillars of today’s world, we need pop music now more than ever. As hopeless headlines continue to paint dark horizons for us, pop is one of the few lights to shine through and inspire whimsy. Even the harshest skeptic has no choice but to relent and give into the genre. So we present Pop For Skeptics, a regular Flavorwire column committed to curating and commenting on the best ear candy from the US and around the world.
Everybody in the entire world loves Calvin Harris. It’s inarguable. To deny it is to deny the fact that “We Found Love” is now a three-word shorthand that evokes pulsating dance beats and Rihanna’s Amazonian wailing; to deny it would be to deny the ubiquity of one of the most successful pop songs in the 21st century. But with this ubiquity comes a price. In the run-up to the October 30th release of this third studio album, 18 Months, Harris faces a big ol’ fork in the road. He has been raking in collaborators by the handful, including Florence + the Machine, Ne-Yo, Ellie Goulding, and, of course Rihanna. This is the kind of creative promiscuity that invites speculation as to whether Harris will go the way of other quick-to-peak DJ-producers before him, or if he’ll find a way back to the niche where he became a darling in the first place.
There’s a lot satisfaction in seeing Harris come so far in the past three years, when he was already beginning to make ripples as “The New King of Electropop.” But when all is said and done, we’d like him to find his way back to the kind of quirk that made “Acceptable In the ’80s” such a genius bit of pop:
There are two roads ahead for Harris. One leads to continued career satisfaction, and the other leads him off a cliff overseeing production for albums by the likes of Nicole Scherzinger. Let’s take a look at a few superstar DJ-producers who rose to fame before him, and how their creative choices have led them down one path or the other.
It does sound a mite xenophobic to say that for any DJ-producer to invest in the careers of musicians in non-English-speaking markets is a step back. Timbaland made his name working with Missy Elliott and Aaliyah, but it wasn’t until Nelly Furtado, Madonna, and Justin Timberlake demanded his hip-hop-infused-pop — and when it was all that radio seemed to play — that we experienced peak saturation with the producer’s minimalist style between 2006 through 2008. It was at the tail end of that wave of hip-pop when Timbaland tried to help Japanese pop star Utada Hikaru break the US with his Midas touch. He failed:
Similarly, when we consider David Guetta’s work, there are basically two eras defined by life before and after this single video:
Life after “When Love Takes Over,” sadly, is defined by Jessie J, Akon, Pitbull, and will.i.am. Success might be relative here, but for a man who made his mark in pop on the back of such an anthemic song, mediocrity is its own kind of failure. The euphoric bombast that made “When Love Takes Over” so spectacular made every other collaboration he produced since then terribly forgettable and throwaway.
Less cut-and-dry is the case of Diplo. His ability to make a solid pop song is unquestionable, but what might stymie his staying power is a tendency toward pop imperialism. The trail is there — after having worked with M.I.A. on her breakthrough album Arular, Diplo took credit for the lion’s share of the listenable genius on the record and then flipped it over to other pop stars. At first, seeing names like Amanda Blank, Die Antwoord, and Robyn seems innocuous — such performers are in line with Diplo’s left-of-center street cred.
Then comes the break in character. Diplo ditches the niche performers and goes corporate with acts like Chris Brown, Usher, and Justin Bieber. You can’t begrudge a DJ-producer his yearning for success, but when he upgrades in a way that’s so inconsistent with his brand, you can’t help but wonder if perhaps this marks a decline. It’s not that Diplo has become incapable of making good pop, but like everyone on this list — and even Harris himself — Diplo is in danger of (or, depending on who you ask, already in the process of) diluting the very essence of what made him so special to pop in the first place.
Timbaland, Guetta experienced — and Diplo is now in the midst of — a churn-and-burn through so many kinds of pop performers that, ultimately, it cheapened their aesthetics. Although they may be in demand, their creativity has taken a hit as they’ve gone into the business of, basically, licensing their signature sounds to whoever wants to buy them.
But all these DJ-producers have at least had the luxury of building a succession of hits and maintaining some kind of foothold in the upper echelons of pop. Someone who may have irreparably jumped the shark — and through no fault of his own — is 23-year-old Avicii. While he enjoyed plum spots on many best DJ ever lists, it was the thoughtless ripping off of his tune “Penguin” by Leona Lewis’ team that cast a harsh light on the DJ. Even the eventual joint credit on this song does him no favors, as the damage to Avicii’s career is done:
THE ONCE AND FUTURE KINGS
All of which is to say that maybe the prestige of working with high-profile pop vocalists and rigors of trend-chasing are not the best path to longevity. Our favorite DJ-producers look for ways to make music on their own terms. Just as some successful musicians end up breaking from their major labels and continue releasing music independently because it allows them to call the shots, many DJ-producers stick to the outskirts of pop music, content with a level of autonomy that they’d otherwise not enjoy in the pursuit of Top 40 success. They may not be fast-tracking their careers to David Guetta levels of radio saturation, but what they have then is a niche they love to work in and a loyal audience that respects their creative choices.
These DJs are able to enjoy careers of substance where their music — not the voice featured within it — takes center stage. The evolution between singles and albums is palpable with artists who are less concerned about scoring chart hits and more concerned with making danceable pop music. The first name that springs to mind is Armin van Buuren:
Van Buuren has built a cult-like following within the dance world by picking vocalists who are well established particularly in that scene, like Sophie Ellis-Bextor and iio’s Nadia Ali. Without a celebrity singer to distract listeners, the best parts of his music shine through. Unlike Timbaland and Guetta, it’s Van Buuren’s beats his audience is listening for, and that keeps him from getting lazy and relying on a hit-making formula.
It seems natural that Harris avoid simultaneous saturation and dilution by finding his way down this path, privileging his fans in the club over the pop grind that would force him to cater to the flavor of the week. Just because we can’t deny the power of “We Found Love” doesn’t mean that it’s the best use of the man who created a track as quirky and unusual as “Ready for the Weekend”: