Ruminations on TV Shows, Comics, And Music
The narrative around rock music in the nineties was one of competition. MTV started the decade a brash consumer paradise, shaping the music people would buy by having Carson Daley and screaming teens cheer for the most radio friendly hit while Matt Pinfield whispered of Underground Music that would soon end up on Daley's show, and Kurt Loder would feed us a stream of future Trivial Pursuit info about all the bands inbetween.
I can't say it was a great or glorious time for music, as I'm hugely biased as having been a massive ball of hormones and spending money at the time. It seemed like an exciting time for music. Rock and roll had gone from summertime screaming hair metal of Guns N Roses to the wintry grunge of Nirvana. It was natural music evolution. And hip hop had gone from an autumnal symphony of samples twisted into new sounds to a One Sample Per Song streamlined spring pop fest. Not through natural music evolution, but through lawyers and copyright law. It was during the cultural awareness doldrums between Civil Rights Support and Wokeness, so while I'm sure there must have been a proliferation of articles (many probably rejected by Spin, Rolling Stone, and MTV News) about the racism behind the abrupt change of how artists sampled, due to financial restricitions, I never read them. So I thought the evolution was natural.
By the end of the 90s, MTV was declaring the death of Rock & Roll by pushing boy band pop, and the pop rock of 1970s influenced bands like Smashing Pumpkins. The hip-hop narrative they set was all 1980s (and therefore, also the 1950s) pop flavored nostalgia tracks as Lauryn Hill and The Fugees focused on reliving their adolescence through a more adult lens, and Sean Coombs and Faith Evans crooned about their recently killed peers.
By the time we reached the early 2000s, the joke about "Remember when MTV used to play music videos?" to "Remember when MTV 2 used to play music videos." Everything seemed to revolve around the nascent reality TV revolution that MTV had helped birth. Rock was sullen, and ready to be made fun and poppy again. But that's not really what happened. Instead, Radiohead's Kid A hit, and rock was still sullen and heavy but it sounded slicker. It was a natural less-poppy follow-up to their previous album, OK Computer. But with less narrative, and a focus on the sonic possibilities of rock and roll. It was a necessary shot in the arm to rock music. Not a lot of bands followed suit, but production techniques shifted, and a wider variety of rock started charting again.
What late 90s Radiohead did for rock, the early work of The Weeknd did for hip-hop.
It's not a perfect parallel. Radiohead was allowed to be experimental because they'd already been successful sounding like their peers. They were in their mid-30s and mid-career. The Weeknd was a 21 year old who came out of nowhere (Toronto, or Youtube, depending on your point of view), and he was experimenting with his voice because he hadn't settled into his own yet. And while his lyrics were as problematic towards women as most 21 year old males' are, his production was next level, and his Michael Jacksonesque vocals, occasionally shifted down or slightly up in a more Prince-like fashion than Cher or T-Pain.
The title, and opening track, Odd Look, is actually a remix of a Kavinsky song with The Weeknd rapping over it. Imagine the "Stranger Things Theme" with lyrics about how great he is with women. All you girls tryin to be saints / I'll make you roll with a sinner. It's the same rock and roll lifestyle lyrics from the previous album but with a retro pop hook.
It drops out into the percussive Tears In The Rain, which, surprise, is about how his ex is better off without him. Which, yea. Did you hear what he said about his exes on that last album? Run. The dude has a problem seeing partners as anything more than future song lyrics, and this is coming from a writer who once dated ten guys and referred to them, to their faces, not by their names, but by the order in which he met them. They all feel the same / adjust to the fame indeed.
The Professional sunrises out of "Tears In The Rain" and eventually hits its thesis in the breakdown. I love /You love / This love / We're professional / I know /You know /We're sophisticated /At lovin', lovin', lovin', lovin', lovin', lovin', lovin', lovin' / Lovin', lovin', lovin', lovin', lovin', lovin', lovin', lovin' / Lovin', lovin', lovin', / We're professional at lovin', lovin', lovin', lovin', lovin' / Lovin', lovin', lovin', lovin', lovin', lovin', lovin', lovin' / Lovin', lovin', lovin'.
We go back to an 80s computer sound for Gone, with the drums and bass knocking at the door throughout the whole song. Lyrically, we're still partying and making questionable decisions with women, but in this narrative, The Weeknd is the one fucked up, not the woman he's trying to go home with. Pr...og...ress? The music gets really spare in the middle, and stays that way for a deliberately uncomfortable amount of time.
Birds (Part 1) marches through the sparsity. With The Weeknd resuming his "don't fall in love with me" narrative. He's a really bad boyfriend, ladies. Really. Really bad. Probably worse than Prince. Probably worse than Freddy Mercury.
Ugh. It bothers me how much I like The Weeknd's music, given how utterly hedonistic and destructive his lyrics are, particularly towards women. Life Of The Party is another drugs rule my life, but let's fuck anyway, song. I like it as the middle of the Birds sandwich. It's still part of his warning, this way. Not just a red flag, but a red flag with a picture of a skull and crossbones roofying your drink.
It's actually surprising that Birds (Part 2) isn't already on a Quentin Tarantino soundtrack. It has the echoey surf guitar foundation, unnecessary violence, and liberal use of the N word. Really, all it needs to do is smack a paparazzo and give a self-righteous interview about it, and it could be Tarantino's personal theme song.
The screeching birds lead us into the Drake drenched part of the album as The Weeknd tells us what he Lives For. He got sober for an entire day to write this song about kissing bitches in the club. Sigh. Good to see that sobriety has him branching out of his comfort zone. Hey, this is the shit that he lives for. And what Drake lives for, too, I guess.
While the guitar plucks its way to the end of "Live For", the drums and The Weeknds haunting wails being us into The Zone. Drake says Whoa, all these broken hearts on that pole / Man, if pole dancing's an art, you know how many fuckin' artists I know? Yea, we get it Degrassi TNG. You're hard now. You've been hard the whole time.
There comes a time in a man's life /Where he must take responsibility / For the choices he has made / And there are certain things that he must do / Things that he must say / Like I love you / And I need you / I only want you / And nobody's going to know if it's true, ooh. Is this the bridge to a future, less objectifying Weeknd? We'll probably have to wait until the next album to see.
We opened up with a "Stranger Things" vibe. And that's how Pretty begins but it then becomes more like a track from the Natural Born Killers soundtrack. The closing verse (which is in French) gives the impression that this album is not about current issues, but The Weeknd looking back at their adolescence, which is slightly better. We were all terrible in high school.