Thursday, January 21, 2016

Tay-Tay vs Tesfaye

Michael Jackson rocketed to solo fame with his debut album, Off the Wall. He transitioned from a cute child singer to more adult material, mixed in his own personal influences for the first time and made music people genuinely loved. Following that record, he put out the most popular album of all time, Thriller, and never looked back. There really will never be another Michael Jackson - the music industry has changed, concert tickets are more important than album sales, people stream, and tastes are diversified enough that there's less fame to go around.

At the same time, in 2015 we've got two albums, two artists, who's best comparison is, in fact, the King of Pop. Abel Tesfaye, better known as The Weeknd, produced a record you could imagine Michael Jackson stepping into off the street, a real heir to the kind of R&B influenced pop that MJ created. You've also got the mighty Taylor Swift, who's the true inheritor of Jackson's legacy of world domination.

I don't know that I'm ready to put 1989 in the same category as Thriller, but I also don't know how influenced I am by legacy and time. I was born in 1981; Thriller was already mythic by the time I heard the first note. Michael Jackson had created this larger than life persona - he was the Beatles all over again (even though his actual output and quality really can't hold a candle to them). Swift is intentionally working against legend stereotypes. She puts in great effort to be accessible, even as she's completely closed off. She just doesn't give off the same vibe.

But she can sell out stadiums around the world. She could tour non-stop and keep selling tickets. She's one of the only acts who can still pull off big tours. 1989 is well written and she's at the heart of it. Yes, there are producers and co-writers who've refined the pop sound, but MJ had Q and he didn't even write half the songs on Thriller. What's more, Swift has become the kind of cultural force worthy of Jackson's legacy. Ryan Adams' cover of her entire album gives her enough critical cred to get grudging acknowledgement from the "too cool for pop" crowd, and she's really, really good at what she does. Like MJ, she's managed every aspect of her career perfectly - the details are different, but the trajectory is the same.

Everyone, whether they admit it or not, has a favorite Taylor Swift song (mine is "Style"); the same is true with Michael Jackson ("Billie Jean"). They're both just so a part of the social fabric that we can't get away. When you pair that with actual, real talent, plus charisma, you get a unique superstar. You just do.

We're hesitant to enjoy this comparison, though, because the music is so different. Taylor is not giving us something new, she's merely perfecting the girl with guitar sound and rounding it out for a larger pop audience. To hear MJ's musical inheritor, we have to hop over to The Weeknd's Beauty Behind the Madness. He's making the same music moves Jackson made with his solo career - he's bringing R&B to pop in new ways. He's using the same Swedish producers to make the sound run, but he's also got a rabid determination to fulfill a singular vision.

I love the story about Disclosure, who are essentially just producers, getting locked out of production for The Weeknd track on their new album. It speaks well for his artistic purity, as does his insistence of keeping the same lyrical content, even if that content - largely a collection of hedonistic nihilism - will keep him from MJ-level success, but he's going to be seen as one of the first to make the kind of incremental pop music transition.

A lot of the songs on the album are just well-produced blah. It's interesting, though, that his singles, "Can't Feel My Face" and "In the Night," take the lyrical content and add to it some measure of reflection that causes us to perceive the drugs and sex and lifestyle the lyrics represent in profound and complicated ways. They're are exactly the opposite of the rest of the album. This bodes well for the future, not so much the present. In the end, though, Beauty Behind the Madness is a production album - it's far more about what's being done in the control room than it is on songwriting or performance. People like the album and they like what it represents, but with the competition for Best Album this year, it doesn't stand any real chance.

There's no doubt Taylor Swift is the favorite to pick up her second (and first deserved) Album of the Year award, but the competition is indeed stiff... more to come.

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