Saturday, November 24, 2012

Burning Questions: Pop Music Mysteries That Kept Me Awake Last Night

1. I've been well aware of One Direction's ascendant popularity for many months and even wrote about the British vocal quintet in April for my OurStage Pop column, but did I miss the group's coronation as the new princes of pop? (Move over, Bieber?) How did OD's second album, Take Me Home, sell 540,000 copies in its first week (making it the act's second No. 1 album of 2012 and the year's third-biggest debut, behind Taylor Swift's Red and Mumford & Sons' Babel), more than the November 13 releases from Drake collaborator the Weeknd (86,000), Soundgarden (83,000), Christina Aguilera (73,000), Green Day (69,000) and Susan Boyle combined? Quick, can you name at least one One Direction member -- the cute one? Is there a cute one?

I think I've been living on the other side of the world for so long that I wouldn't know a Western global pop sensation if it banged me on the eardrum, but when did these guys get to be bigger than Justin Bieber, whose Believe sold 166,000 less than Take Me Home in week one? Maybe the lack of Bieber buzz in Bangkok should have been a clue: He's on his third hit single from Believe, and I've yet to hear any of them playing anywhere around town. I can't say I don't occasionally catch snippets of One Direction's "What Makes You Beautiful" and "One Thing" here and there (even at DJ Station, where pop divas and Maroon 5 generally rule), but then I still hear Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" everywhere I go, and her Kiss couldn't even cross the 50,000 line in its first week.

2. Speaking of prepubescent pop, more than a decade ago, when 'N Sync was the One Direction of its day, did anyone dream that the other Justin (Timberlake) would go on to become a both a bankable and highly sought-after actor with the names David Fincher, Clint Eastwood and the Coen Brothers (directors of his next film, Inside Llewyln Davis) on his acting resume? Despite his growing rep as a thespian (he was one of my favorite things in The Social Network -- the Rooney Mara scenes were the other), I still prefer him as a pop star. I can't help but feel cheated because of his musical inactivity. And by his marriage, too: I'm sure Jessica Biel is a great girl, and I know we can't help whom we fall for, but I wish Timberlake belonged to a more exciting celebrity coupling.

3. If Lana Del Rey would leave the shady-lady persona on her video sets and act naturally elsewhere, would it help her get a bit more street cred? I'm convinced that "Ride," the Rick Rubin-produced first single from her new EP Paradise, would be considered the future of pop were it a Cat Power song, or had it been released on a black label and popped up, uncredited, at the end of the next episode of Revenge. If the woman singing the song didn't always run around looking like she just spent 12 hours in hair and make-up, she'd probably be more universally acknowledged as a serious artist and possibly even be a real contender for one of the Grammy credibility-boosting left-of-mainstream spots in the 2012 Best New Artist line up -- the ones that I'm convinced are going to go to Frank Ocean, Emeli Sandé and/or the Lumineers (joining virtual shoo-ins Carly Rae Jepsen, fun. and Gotye).

4. Am I the only one who didn't even realize that Susan Boyle was releasing a new album on November 13 (Standing Ovation: The Greatest Songs of Stage, a collection of Broadway show tunes)? Her fourth album in four fourth quarters debuted on Billboard's Top 200 album chart at No. 12, six notches below Rod Stewart's Merry Christmas, Baby. Maybe she'd be more competitive if she had released a sequel to 2010's The Gift instead, or maybe (hopefully) she's simply almost over.

5. How did Soundgarden get its new album, King Animal, the band's first in 16 years, to sound both totally 2012 and like a proper follow-up to 1996's Down on the Upside that could have been released a few years later, without seeming to be stuck in the '90s or just doing it for the kids' approval? As the guys proved in Melbourne last February, Soundgarden still rocks. King Animal won't be replacing Badmotorfinger in continuous heavy rotation on my iPod anytime soon, but "Taree" will make a nice companion piece to "Pretty Noose," "Burden in My Hand" and "Blow Up the Outside World," Down on the Upside's trio of great singles.

6. Why am I struggling to care about "Woman's World," the first single from Cher's upcoming studio album, her first since 2001's Living Proof? She's one of my all-time favorite performers, and her voice is in excellent shape, but listening to it, I can't help but wonder, It took the better part of a decade to come up with this? For better or worse, "Believe" will go down in history not only for being Cher's biggest hit and umpteenth comeback, but also for kicking off pop's Auto-Tune craze. Topping it was always unlikely, but I was hoping for something more than standard dance-pop with a rainbow flag on top. (Fun fact: Cher's 1998 comeback single, "Believe," shares its title with Justin Bieber's latest album, while her 1979 comeback single, "Take Me Home," shares its title with One Direction's.)

7. Kelly Clarkson is a bonafide pop star, with 10 Top 10 Hot 100 singles in 10 years, so why does it still seem too early for her to be putting out a best of? I have a hunch: Because she's yet to tap her full potential as an artist. Now that she has an album full of greatest hits, I wish she'd toss her increasingly stale pop-rock formula aside and record the killer stripped-down folk-pop album I know she was destined to make and probably would have with 2007's My December, had Clive Davis not intervened.

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