Sunday, August 6, 2017
by Simon Reynolds
Just as there are those who worry about additive-riddled junk food, so too there's an unofficial "campaign for real music."
Adherents fret about the unauthenticity of mainstream pop performers who, in the tradition of Milli Vanilli, mime to backing tapes when supposedly performing live. For these people, Paula Abdul has become the focus of the latest crisis of confidence.
The session singer Yvette Marine has claimed that the lead vocal on two tracks from Ms. Abdul's first album, Forever Your Girl, which has sold seven million copies, is a composite voice. Ms. Marine claims that her original "guide vocal" was used to beef up Ms. Abdul's singing and has filed a false-and-deceptive-packaging suit against Virgin Records, which has denied the charges.
Although the allegations are not as threatening to Ms. Abdul's credibility as the Milli Vanilli revelations were to theirs, they are timed to cause maximum embarrassment: Ms. Abdul's second album, Spellbound (Virgin 91611; all three formats), will be released this week. The controversy has reawakened familiar anxieties about the dehumanizing effect of technology on music. As pop production grows steadily more complex, it also becomes increasingly specialized. The person who sings the song is less and less often the person who wrote it, while the sound is more and more the creation of the producer.
Most songs on Spellbound consist of rhythm tracks and keyboard sequences programmed by the album's producers, V. Jeffrey Smith and Peter Lord. Session musicians were occasionally employed to lay down rhythm guitar parts or saxophone and violin solos, but they sound incongruously "organic" amid the inhuman perfection of the metronomic beats.
This way of making records was the norm in the Tin Pan Alley era of the '50s, and it has continued to be the rule in black pop and dance music. But such division of labour cuts against the notion of authenticity that emerged in the countercultural '60s, when it was expected that singers would be responsible for the meanings of their own songs. This notion is what lies behind the hostility toward manufactured pop. The fear is that the artist's style will be totally superseded by the producer's trademark commercial sound, and that the gritty spontaneity of rock-and-roll will lose out to programming expertise.
It has been a long time since pop records documented live performances; instead, their simulation of them is constructed painstakingly in the studio. No longer is it necessary for musicians to play in one another's presence. Vocals rarely take place in "real time" but are a collage of the best-sung phrases edited from numerous vocal takes. Bad notes can be corrected by altering the pitch; weak voices can be thickened by multi-tracking.
For most people, this surgical procedure seems distant from the "raw expression" of Elvis Presley or the Rolling Stones or the Sex Pistols. It's hard to accept the fact that this techno-pop is music, but it's also unlikely that today's 16-year-old pop consumers care; all they hear is the immediacy and effervescence of the product.
Paula Abdul's unusual route to pop stardom was via her award-winning choreography for promotional videos of artists like Janet Jackson, ZZ Top, George Michael and INXS. This background makes her particularly emblematic of the state of modern pop, the suspicion being that she was given a recording contract because she's videogenic rather than a gifted natural singer.
Ms. Abdul's 1988 debut, Forever Your Girl, was clearly modeled on Janet Jackson's 1986 album, Control, whose widely influential techno-funk sound was created by her producers, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Like Ms. Abdul, Ms. Jackson has a serviceable rather than astounding voice, and so Mr. Jam and Mr. Lewis devised a breathless, dynamic electro-pop sound based around clipped, urgent hooks rather than complex melodies and soul diva singing.
Ms. Abdul's debut album cleaved to the same effective formula. The crucial difference was that Ms. Abdul replaced Ms. Jackson's soft-core feminism with a more traditional female persona, as can readily be seen by contrasting the album titles Control and Forever Your Girl.
Spellbound builds on that winning approach. Musically, Mr. Smith and Mr. Lord have constructed a state-of-the-art dance pop that mixes influences from house, swing beat, rap, Prince-style pop-funk and "Euro-black" groups like Snap. Lyrically, Ms. Abdul's persona is flirty but wholesome. Although tracks like 'The Promise of a New Day' and 'Rock House' feebly gesture at the social-awareness-by-numbers of Janet Jackson's second album, Rhythm Nation 1814, most of the songs are gushing tributes to boyfriends.
New songs like 'Rush Rush', 'Spellbound', 'To You' and 'Will You Marry Me' reiterate the sexually apolitical attitude of previous hits like 'Knocked Out', 'It's the Way That You Love Me' and 'Forever Your Girl'. Even when wronged in love ('Foolish Heart', 'Blowin' Kisses in the Wind'), Ms. Abdul's persona is aggrieved but hopelessly devoted, her voice tremulously verging on a Betty Boop whine.
The best tracks on Spellbound are those that make the furthest departure from the Abdul norm. 'Vibeology' combines Parliament-Funkadelic influences and contemporary house mannerisms with results as sultry and engaging as Deee-Lite; Ms. Abdul sings dance-floor doggerel like "I'm in a funky way" in a cartoonish chipmunk squeak. 'U', one of the handful of tracks not produced by Mr. Smith and Mr. Lord, is also excellent. Composed and produced by Prince's Paisley Park organization, the track combines a military beat with a staccato, hard-rock riff and jazzy harmonies – Prince's trademark – to eerie effect. It's the best thing Prince has been involved in since his 1988 album Lovesexy.
The main vein of Spellbound, however, is precisely what one expects from Paula Abdul: brisk beats, stuttering synthesizers, stammering bass lines, nervous tics of rhythm guitar and a profusion of hooks designed to snag consumers by the ear. The music sounds spectacular; its endless crescendos and hyperactive rhythms are designed to go in sync with the rapid-fire quick cuts of the videos, the jut and thrust of the choreography.
A phenomenal number of man-hours go into each of these spectacles of effortlessness. For the videos, there's storyboard writing, makeup, lighting, interminable takes, editing, tinting, special effects. Musically, there's programming, arranging, treating, remixing and, in the case of Spellbound, processing the entire album through Q-sound, a technique that makes records sound more three dimensional, so that every snare kick hits the listener in the gut.
If it seems like there's no spontaneity involved in this process, it's best to remind yourself that this isn't rock-and-roll. Ms. Abdul belongs to the tradition of show-biz entertainment in which every inflection and gesture is choreographed and rehearsed to the point of robotic precision. She has said that it wasn't a rock or rhythm-and-blues icon that inspired her to enter the business, but Gene Kelly. What Ms. Abdul's music offers is the sterile exhilaration of a Hollywood blockbuster, where every edit and sound effect is designed to fit into the listener's reduced attention span.
Just as these spectacles are diverting at the time but leave you feeling empty afterward, Spellbound is louder than life but lacking in resonance. As with junk food, you might occasionally want to get high on all the empty calories and additives, but you can't live off the stuff.