aura bore us
This week, the Pop Life team asks: What are the long-term effects of going thru puberty at the same time as Justin Bieber? Is Bardi back? Does Rita Ora have aura? We also celebrated the anniversary of the Paris Commune at our offices, and our in-house pétroleuses have the party report (hint: it was 🔥🔥🔥 lit 🔥🔥🔥).
VIVE LA COMMUNE
There were two albums released last Friday, one that “matters” (viz. doesn’t actually matter) and one that doesn’t matter as an album per se, but you will hear the songs and a familiar feeling will come over you and you’ll almost remember what it felt like to feel things when you were 14 and everything was 2 Much. I’m talking, of course, about Biebs. As is typically the case with megastars in the maturity of their careers, the work is more introspective and the songs mostly lean low-key. There are a few singles that will weave their way into our sonic social fabric; you’ve probably already heard the one with Chance the Rapper. For most people, this will be the extent of their engagement with the music. At this level of stardom, the only people who care about an “album” are the label and music critics whose job it is to preserve the existence of “the album.” So, calling the record Justice and ripping MLK speeches — a bad look, to be sure — is less about substance and more about this thing we call culture reflecting our shared social fabric back onto us in a debased form. It’s an opaque sign that says “Something happened here,” and if you know more intimately what the sign is pointing toward, you may be justifiably angry. But Justin Bieber the pop star isn’t capable of doing anything to further racial liberation. The album gestures towards it vaguely because a revolutionary moment toward racial liberation happened. It didn’t succeed, now we have to live with vacuous statements about inequality; there are worse things.
Still, I listened, because I find JB’s career important, if only because he makes for a neat generational allegory. His trajectory from virginal “it” boy, to “swag,” then badboi, and finally sadboi has its foundation in the golden age of teen pop. Like most kids in my generation, he grew up on boy band R&B; he appeared to be Justin Timberlake 2.0. His emergence felt strange, though. The booming teen pop market did a nosedive after 9/11, seemingly indicating that childhood and innocence (as reflected in music selling a shitload of records) were things of the past. There were wars that followed, then financial collapse, to make the case even clearer. Still, hope finds a way, or, the world loves white children, and seemingly out of nowhere the prepubescent boy’s voice was everywhere.1 Art always lags behind political economy, and often the politics part does too; the Obama years came to a close, Bieber and the rest of us became adults, and the the future looked dim. It feels correct then that right around this time Bieber’s teenage longing turned to depression and desperation. (“I was by your side / So where are you now that I need ya?”) The bright, compressed mixes and R&B swing gave way to the low end and candyflipped screeches and whirr of EDM. Finally, us Beliebers could safely say that we “listen to him for the Skrillex” who was finally getting his due as a really talented producer.2
This album keeps with the murk and moodiness, but also reminds us that he may be the world’s biggest crypto-Pentecostal evangelist. “Holy,” the album’s first single, is similar to a lot of Christian rock in that you’re like, oh wait, is this a song about loving a lover or is it a song about loving Jesus? Once you hear this, it’s hard to listen to lyrics like “Midnight 'til morning / Call if you need somebody / I will be there for you” and not imagine this is the guy you met in class who seemed chill until he really suggested you come worship with his home church next Sunday.3 This effect is stronger because there are really no bangers to (secularly?) fall on your knees about, except the aforementioned “Hold On,” which gets close. Two of the tracks where Skrillex had a hand in the making are the most sonically interesting of the album. The benny blanco-penned “Lonely” lifts the Bieber life cycle into self-awareness, and in this way it almost feels like he’s saying goodbye. Not to music, but perhaps to the era where his music partially defined it. If Justin Bieber means something in 2021, it might be that we have reached the Then As Farce stage of the teen pop star. I’m not sure, but experiencing the dread of the long 21st century through him is the sort of thing you don’t get to ask for, but he’s an index nonetheless. Which should be one of the highest artistic accolades. 6 POPS/10
Speaking of prayer and worship, first in the heavy rotation list at the Pop Life offices is “Ritual.” If you’re listening to the new JB and left wanting for serious dance shit with allusions to religiosity, this might be your jam. This time, less actual religiosity and more Madonnaesque divine unchastity. Rita Ora even says “like a prayer” at one point!
Shout out to S/FJ for making me aware of “If You're Too Shy.” I always assumed The 1975 was one of those Big Indie™ bands that was like this but with better production and less twee charm. I apologize for my lad essentialism. I still don’t know much about The 1975, but the thing about a killer song is who cares. The chorus goes "Maybe I would like you better if you took off your clothes / I'm not playing with you, baby, I think that you should give it a go," and it’s like, YEAH. Magical songs like this one are all feeling at first; give it a few listens and you’ll realize how weird the lyrics are. In the end, it’s about a cam relationship. There’s a murder outside a motel, which seems like David Lynch coming and killing the vibe but then he’s being told to take off his clothes again and by the end you are convinced that there should be more songs about the digital female gaze with saxophones in them.
Cardi’s new song should be a lesson in pop economy. It states the chorus at the top, followed by a quick couplet, then gets into it. There are two verses, but otherwise it is really just one long chorus, repeated three times. Or, more precisely, the chorus is set up not by a verse, but by a pre-chorus, which is itself set up by a refrain. The effect is you get hyped, then really hyped, then it’s all 808s to the face.
People are trying to make aura happen again, this time on the blockchain. Somebody tell them it literally can’t happen.
Along with Hipgnosis and the like acquiring the catalogs of sanctified musical greats, this has set well-meaning folks on the left into fits of alarm. For sure, property is a scourge to the health of people everywhere, there is no doubt about that. But that’s all the NFT craze and Hipgnosis grabbing spree are about: property — or the means toward it. Since the dawn of the capitalist mode of production, people have been turning things into commodities. Nothing is holy here. It’s worth noticing though, because it can lead to a reactionary provincialism. One sees the vortex called commerce suck creations into it and debase them — it’s only natural to be anti-commercial then, right? The problem, put simplistically, is that commerce already defines every way we move, so this turns to a kind of defensiveness; cloistering the work of art from the outside world and making it something exclusive only to those deemed admission. I.e. trying to make aura happen again.
To be a communist is to take this contradiction seriously, to admit that everything gets sucked into the vortex. It means that the choice is between the elitism of defending the sanctity of art and the admittedly melancholic commitment to abolishing private property, which would destroy the mode that made those Wu-Tang songs you love so much and that Merck Mercuriadis bought up. If all this seems insignificant to the real struggle, it may be worth looking to the past.
In the final days of the Paris Commune, a cadre of arsonists — maybe it was the fabled pétroleuses — went to go burn down Notre-Dame. They were met by a group of armed artists from the Commune, there to defend it. We know how this story ends. It stands, even after threat in 2019. Would the Commune have succeeded, or even continued a bit longer if the cathedral went down? We’ll never know, but these same arguments appear among our friends every time the spirit of the commune comes over our lives. Should we destroy that statue? that liquor store? that apartment complex? that car dealership?
One way or another, it’s all got to go.
Lastly, please support the survivors and families of those affected by the tragic shooting that occurred in Georgia last week if you can. Red Canary Song is a collective doing great work to help organize and advocate for migrant sex workers. You can find their website and resources to support here.
His absence from 2020's Changes partially explains why it failed to live up to the prior Purpose.