The Music Club

The Pop History Lesson Inside Justin Bieber’s “Baby”

Justin Bieber

Thanks, Ann, for your thoughts on the “hard-soft dynamic,” which, I agree, we heard all over the place in 2010. (To your list I’d add Our Lady of the Boudoir, Sade, who muscled up her songs with heftier beats and distorted guitars and martial imagery.) I wonder, though, if we shouldn’t be focusing more on the wizards behind Ms. Perry’s “Teenage Dream.” Has anyone done more to construct a hardened rock-candy shell around bubblegum pop than Swedish songwriting demigod Max Martin and his American protégé Dr. Luke?

Hard-soft has been Martin’s mode since “… Baby One More Time” (1998)—those growling opening keyboard chords heralding the arrival of a tougher-minded teenybopper music, which jettisoned puppy love sentimentality in favor of provocation. Martin’s tunes offer timeless pop bliss, but the lyrics are designed to titillate (“I want it that way“—which way is that, exactly?) with winks at violence (“Hit me, baby, one more time”), “edgy” sexuality ("I kissed a girl/ And I liked it“), salty language (“My life would suck without you“), and rebel girl postures (“Raise your glass if you are wrong/ In all the right ways,” “I am messing with your head/ When I’m messing with you in bed“). Lately, Martin’s project has been extended by Dr. Luke and his zany vulgarian sidekick Ke$ha, who only sings a love song if it’s also a drug song.

Now, I love Max and Luke. (Check my best-singles list.) But the relentless, straining épater les parents thrust of a certain brand of radio pop—I find it depressing in large doses. I wonder if the teen-dream nostalgia that infected indie acts like Best Coast and Wavves in 2010 wasn’t in part a reaction to Ke$ha, Pink, et al.: a yearning for the purer jukebox hits of yesteryear, songs with more moonglow and fewer “touch my junk/ gettin’ too drunk” couplets.

Of course, there was just such a song in 2010—my favorite of the year, in fact. I couldn’t resist Justin Bieber’s “Baby,” which struck a perfect balance between hip-pop production and circa-1963 malt-shop throb. (Listen to Bieber’s opening “oh-oh-oh-oh-ah-ah-ah”; listen to that doo-wop chord progression. A cheeky history lesson, courtesy of Tricky Stewart and The-Dream.) “Baby” reached only No. 5 on the Billboard charts, but it was clearly the people’ choice. The video is the most viewed in YouTube history: as of this writing, 444,225,275 viewings and counting.

For snobs, Bieber is an easy punchline. But of course, Bieber is playing a time-honored teen idol role: easing a new generation into the joys of pop and the mysteries of eros, singing songs flushed with romance but notably free of sex itself. He pulled it off with a mix of guilelessness, showbiz panache, and social-media-age savvy that I found charming. Above all, he did it with good music. My World 2.0 is full of excellent pop/ R&B songs that Bieber performs with occasional ingénue awkwardness, but mostly in fine style. I like Bieber’s raspy vocal tone. He still hasn’t sung as well on record as he did on those adorable early home videos that got him a record deal. (I love Bieb’s bedroom performance of Chris Brown’s “With You,” with the Bart Simpson and Tupac posters on the wall in the background.) But he’s gonna grow. The planet’s tweens are in fine hands.

Much more to get to, and space is running short. So I guess I’ll save my positive, peaceable thoughts for round three and say a few contrarian words about Ann’s favorite album, Janelle Monáe’s The ArchAndroid, and Carl’s favorite, Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh.

To begin with the latter: return of the ankh? Did it ever go anywhere? Figuratively speaking, Badu’s music has always been ankhs-ridden: awash in a haze of Afrocentric spirituality, runic lyrics, and music that tilts toward the squishy and the psychedelic. New Amerykah Part Two marked a return, of sorts, to the beatific sound of Baduizm (1997). (It was a crowd-pleasing revivalist move: neo- neo soul.) So we got songs full of jazzy chords, Fender Rhodes keyboards, and the requisite psychedelic wiggles and squiggles—loping funk-soul grooves designed to evoke a sun-splashed summer day in 1972.

But the arc of Erykah Badu’s music bends toward formlessness. For me, she’s one of the most frustrating stars in popular music. She’s obviously talented and is a great singer; but she has zero discipline and a near total disdain for the practice of songwriting. She thinks it’s enough to drag ?uestlove into the studio, whip up a desultory groove or two, and disgorge some woozy lyric for five or so minutes. (Carl, can you explain to me how I’m supposed to handle the swirl of harp arpeggios and New Age mumbo-jumbo that Badu has titled, um, “Incense“?) Badu’s jive sells in black bohemia, where longing for an arty heroine is apparently rabid. But I’m not buying.

Janelle Monáe isn’t as full of it as Badu, and when she concentrates she can write a real song. I respect her taste: I like Cab Calloway and James Brown and Sun-Ra and Hendrix and Prince, too. I especially respect her showmanship; the woman can dance. The fact that she can’t really sing doesn’t seem to me such a problem—she compensates for her technical limitations with vaudevillian pizzazz.

But Monáe suffers from the same syndrome as Badu. It seems to me both women love the idea of greatness above all—even more than they love music itself. New Amerykah Part Two and The ArchAndroid carry the same message: This is a great album. Monáe and Badu want to be geniuses, and they want to do it the easy way, by shortcut—by tossing together Afro-futurist theology, ‘70s soul, and other hallowed styles and signifiers, and insisting that it all adds up to something transcendent. It pains me that so many smart critics have fallen for music that’s so slapdash and self-impressed.

What am I missing?