Hits and misses: kesha’s “true colors,” rihanna x calvin harris, radiohead’s return, and mitski
Every week, MTV’s writers and critics assemble and weigh in on new hotness, chart trash, and glimmers of hope in the pop music landscape. This week’s roundtable includes Jessica Hopper, David Turner, Meredith Graves, Meaghan Garvey, Eric Torres, Hazel Cills, Charles Aaron, Carvell Wallace, and Simon Vozick-Levinson.
Calvin Harris feat. Rihanna, “This Is What You Came For”
Turner: In 2011, a banger was easy to quantify as a song that thumped with enough force to level a building. This was peak EDM pop — Guetta, Avicii, Swedish House Mafia, and of course Calvin Harris all scored plenty of pop and festival hits with that formula. In 2016, EDM has chilled out and the combo of Calvin Harris and Rihanna means a different kind of banger. Structurally, the song fits their previous unstoppable hit, “We Found Love,” but where that song soared, “This Is What You Came For” cruises. No question this will own festivals all summer long, but one can sip a mixed drink to it without worrying about a bro elbowing it out of their hands. Progress?!
Garvey: I’m 90 percent sure this is a banger. It reminds me more of what Calvin Harris was doing back in his “I’m Not Alone” era — his bloghouse days, if you will — where he had these epic melodic choruses that would bubble back down into something calmer. Mostly, I like that it sounds like the 2016 version of a spunky mall makeover scene in an early ‘00s Disney comedy. Isn’t the sequel to Tyra Banks’s Life-Size supposed to be in the works?
Aaron: Somehow, Tay-Tay’s tiny Scottish consort’s Eurotrash EDM has always had a tad more humanity in its melodic DNA than the Swedish Douche Mafias of the world, and this is no exception. I agree with David that the percentage of bros knocking margaritas out of our hands on the dance or festival floor during this song will be fewer than usual. It’s all anthemic chill, as enjoyable in the shade (or in the men’s shoe department) as in the sun.
Wallace: Calvin Harris is simple and beautiful here, and Ms. Fenty fits into this vision like a well-manicured hand into a calfskin glove.
Vozick-Levinson: The song is called “This Is What You Came For,” and it’s no lie. This is a perfected product, a laser-etched glass paperweight that does precisely what you want a “Calvin Harris feat. Rihanna” song to do. It’s beautiful, is what it is. I’m mostly awed that she made this blissed-out pop giggle in the same year as the arty, insular head-trip grooves on Anti — talk about range! I hope some DJ blends this directly into “Needed Me” just to mess with people’s heads at the club.
Lambert: This song is good, but the vocal could be anyone — I expected more from the return of Calvin and Rihanna, because “We Found Love” is an undisputed champ of both discographies. In an era where every pop singer on the radio sounds like Rihanna, “This Is What You Came For” accomplishes the backward task of making Rihanna sound like every other pop singer. This would be a good eighth song on a RiRi album — an ice cube in a cold drink — but as a big ol’ summer jam fast-tracked for success, it’s a little lukewarm to me. The more I listen, the more I wish this song had been earmarked for Britney’s comeback instead. It’s also the insanely high expectations that “We Found Love” set up. Sequels hardly ever surpass the original.
Cills: I have to agree with Molly that, after a few listens, I wanted this song to be so much bigger and better than it is. I feel like Harris’s 2012 record, 18 Months, which included “We Found Love” and also hits like Ellie Goulding’s “I Need Your Love” and Florence Welch’s “Sweet Nothing,” was the last bit of speaker-frying EDM greatness we got from him. Motion, Harris’s next one, was a drip aside from a few songs, and “This Is What We Came For” follows in that album’s footsteps. Is it too much to ask for EDM to not chill out entirely?! Also, because Anti itself is so chill, I was looking for something big and over-the-top for Rihanna to face off “Work.” Maybe I just need to get used to this new type of banger. My love for Bieber’s Purpose, which we can all agree had perfect singles, proves that I am ready for the chill banger with OPEN ARMS! I’m just not sure “This Is What We Came For” has real song-of-the-summer longevity.
Radiohead, “Burn the Witch”
Garvey: Lol, imagine you’re getting ready to shock the world with your Claymation Wicker Man and then Lemonade happens. In theory, Radiohead “wiping their web presence” is an interesting response to the Event Album era, but if you’re not going to go balls out, delete your entire Twitter account, and go straight analog, I’m kind of like, “whatever, guys.” This sounds like a Radiohead song.
Aaron: Lovely little video, lovely little song, vocals could’ve had less wailing and wobbling (but that’s ol’ Thom, innit?). Of course, my expectations are not that high. I thought their critique of technology/terror went exactly far enough on OK Computer and the musical experiments went exactly far enough on Kid A, and after Hail to the Thief their alienation stagnated into the indie-sulking version ofGran Torino. But this feels like an opening up/return to form of sorts!
Geffen: They did kind of go analog for a minute when they mailed out fliers reading “Burn the witch, we know where you live” with no context or explanation, which is a very Radiohead thing to do, only I can’t help but wonder if they thought for half a second how closely that line echoes the stalkery garbage that women tend to get in the mail and online and everywhere. I don’t know, I got Gamergate vibes for a minute, and then I wondered about it on Twitter and some men got upset with me. I’m glad the witch is a bowler-hatted bureaucrat in the video. The song itself sounds like Hail to the Thief–era Radiohead because it is — they’ve been working on it for more than a decade — and that’s fine by me because Thief is my favorite Radiohead album, which also upsets men.
Lambert: Scariest Claymation/Stop-Motion Music Videos Of All Time:
Sorry, Radiohead, you didn’t crack the top five, but if you remake some other Christopher Lee cult British horror movies as Claymation music videos maybe those rankings’ll budge next time. Oh, the song? It’s alright, nothing crazily novel for Radiohead. A li’l understated British repressive paranoia for the summer, with edgy strings like a cavalcade of ants overrunning your picnic.
Vozick-Levinson: I love Hail to the Thief, Sasha! Majorly underrated album that I was just vibing to last weekend. Related: I am a Radiohead fan for life, with every moment of every one of their releases lovingly inked on the walls of my memory palace. “Burn the Witch” is there too, now that I’ve listened to it approximately 400 times since Tuesday morning. New favorite details creep in each time — the way Thom Yorke sings the word “gallows,” the moment when the strings turn queasy midway through the second verse, the chilly relatability of the line “this is a low-flying panic attack” swooping in just before the chorus. So, yeah, it was pretty much guaranteed that I’d like this. But I especially appreciate how unlike a Radiohead song it often is. Those choppy orchestral riffs that charge through the song made me do a double take when I hit play. It’s reassuring to know my favorite band can still take me by surprise.
Hopper: I took Radiohead deleting their sundry platforms as a weird ode to Prince, but then again I see and hear Prince in everything right now, from this horrible Florida Georgia Line song to Lemonade. I keep coasting past “Burn the Witch” and leaning deep into their TKOLremixes playlist that follows on YouTube. I love recorded Radiohead most when they are clicky and frosty, cloaked in micro beats and European distillations of Detroit techno’s ambient cool. This song makes me more psyched to see this all live. I am generally stoked for the reprieve and reset a Radiohead record so reliably provides and having that come, like, late at night in July 2016.
Florida Georgia Line, “H.O.L.Y.”
Vozick-Levinson: Aren’t these guys tight with Nelly? Could they have maybe gotten him to punch up this snoozy groove just a little? This song would have been cut from the serious grown-up slow-jam half of Sweatsuit for being a teeny bit too safe. And wait — I’m sorry — the title, “H.O.L.Y.,” stands for “High on Loving You”? That’s, like,Wu-Tang solo album levels of goofy acronym acrobatics. On that note, I’m gonna go listen to an Inspectah Deck record that I think I still own on cassette somewhere.
Aaron: Simon, I respect your hip-hop punch lines, but that ol’ rap-rock hybrid is not all the Fla Ga bros have hustled to country radio over the years. This is a full-on ballad in the spirit of 2012’s “Stay,” but smoother and less labored. Yes, it’s corny and generic, and the bros are about a zillion times more effective on upbeat party-and-bullshit fluff, but this has also got an unstoppable melodic swell that even the heinous vocals can’t ruin. I already see the lighters flickering across the expanse of [FILL IN FINANCIAL INSTITUTION] arena.
Hopper: I have found myself caught unwittingly in FGL’s swell at times — I have actually cried to “Dirt” while stuck in traffic — but this song is not quite that potent. What they are doing here is a tune that Prince taught us all — it’s a song that seems like it’s about God, but it’s actually about very secular fucking. That synthetic-sounding cymbal build on the verse-chorus transition makes me think of Mutt Lange’s production trademark of reverse reverb, which really lends to the track’s “timeless” ‘90s light FM aesthetics. For a soul-deadening, faux-Christian country hit about a vagina, it’s OK.
Geffen: “Mitski goes industrial” is not a phrase I was expecting to type at any point, but I’m so glad I get to now. She played a new song that reminded me of Xiu Xiu at a show last year, and I’m getting even more Xiu Xiu/Ten in the Swear Jar echoes here. All the death and anxiety that roiled underneath the surface of Bury Me at Makeout Creek is finally bubbling to the surface; it’s no longer packaged inside bright and shiny guitar pop, though Mitski’s never lost her feel for hooks, either. She gets to be a little meaner, a little less academic, a little more visceral the more she makes music. I’m here for this direction.
Cills: Definitely getting Xiu Xiu vibes, especially that froggy saxophone. Something I love about Mitski’s music is how her songs build with intensity as the track moves along. She has this way of starting her music in the quietest place and completely changing direction on you or letting the track kind of run off the rails in the best way. “Happy” is one of those songs. It plays like a big finale song, like you just know this is her show-ender this next tour cycle.
Lambert: Puberty 2 is definitely the best album name of the year so far. “Happy” hooks me for good when the skronk drops in at a minute and a half — taking strategy mountain by tiger.
Vozick-Levinson: I love Mitski’s precise lyrical eye, the way she never wastes a word but always finds a way to completely floor me. This song’s arc from “He bought cookies on the way / I poured him tea / He told me, ‘It’ll all be OK’” in the first verse to “I turned around to see all the cookie wrappers and the empty cups of tea / I sighed and mumbled to myself, again, ‘I have to clean’” in the last one should be taught in MFA programs. In my head, this song is narrated by the woman whose home John Lennon creepily fantasized about torching in “Norwegian Wood.”
Hopper: Exactly, Simon. It highlights the way in which Mitski is a corrective to so much. She is balm and a razor-sharp answerback.
Aaron: Mitski’s one-woman one-acts about emotional obliteration are subtly grand, building their intensity deliberately, as Hazel points out, and often becoming thrillingly heroic. Here, she rules lionheartedly, as love once again shits the bed. I just wish she could beat her deadbeat suitor over the head with that baritone sax; but Mitski’s beyond it.
Torres: I’ve listened to this song at least 50 times. I’m very much into that winding unpredictability you mention, Hazel — it’s a facet that made the last Puberty 2 single, “Your Best American Girl,” so astounding. Pretty much every Mitski song is shot through with that sense of clarity and intention, particularly in her (often devastating) lyrics. But she’s so good at throwing curveballs, too, like this song’s chugging industrial intro and unexpected saxophone. I also love that this is the first song on this album — it sets a tone while still coming across as this totally showstopping moment. There truly aren’t any working artists who make me as excited about indie rock as Mitski does.
Zedd feat. Kesha, “True Colors”
Turner: Even through my very rose-tinted, pro-EDM glasses, Zedd’s last album was pretty mediocre. That’s what makes this collab between him and Kesha so disappointing. She remains a great singer and Zedd remains Zedd. As an example of how much pop’s missed Kesha, this works, but as Deadmau5 best summed up the German producer: “We all know zedds shit sucks. But we love him.”
Aaron: I do not exactly ride for Zedd — “Clarity” and “Break Free” are basically where it begins and ends for me vis-à-vis quality Zedd. But I did nod warmly in his direction when he stepped up to produce a Kesha track; unfortunately, that’s basically where Zedd’s contribution ended. “True Colors” is, in terms of what the song needs, unproduced and brings none of the Z-man’s generalized talent for flush-in-the-face emotional exultance, which is what this situation most certainly requires. Why, after all the hellishness Keha’s been put through, and the pro performance she gives here, does Zedd bail on her and fail to employ his usual strategy of BUILDING AND BUILDING AND DROPPING AND BUILDING AND BUILDING AND DROPPING until everyone involved is thoroughly wrung-out and momentarily cleansed of bad feelings? I mean, if you’re gonna help a sister out, help her out!
Geffen: It is great to hear Kesha sing again but this feels like a cop-out: new music that isn’t really new and probably does more to boost good-guy Zedd than Kesha. While she elevates the track above and beyond the original, I’d probably say the same about an a cappella cover with the same vocals. Also a bummer to know that Kemosabe is taking a cut from all those streams.
Wallace: This is a very good and, dare I say, nuanced vocal performance on an aggressively meh track. Kesha deserves better. We all accept that Zedd’s comfort zone is epic blandness, but on the work of his that I like the most — “Clarity” and especially “Stay the Night” — he gives his artists the gift of a compelling melody and a relevant pre-chorus and drop. None of that is present here, and as a result, the song neither lands nor comes fully to the surface. I’m all for Inspirational Kesha, but this track seems to think that means a Kesha without teeth.
Lambert: Despite having skimmed stories that explained what this song was, I 100 percent still thought it was a Cyndi Lauper cover until I listened to it right now. Now I’m mad at myself for being disappointed that it’s not, because Kesha would slay a cover of that “True Colors,” and this is just blah because Zedd is blah, although I never turn off “Clarity” when it comes on the radio ‘cause it is the piece of me I wish I didn’t need.
Cills: This tracks feels so lifeless. It’s the least Kesha thing I’ve ever heard from her, although her voice sounds fantastic. But because she’s in a horrific situation, I feel like I have to let Kesha do whatever she needs to do right now to get out there again. Kesha has literally been erased from today’s contemporary pop music, so the fact that Zedd’s song does so little to showcase her personality seems especially egregious.
Torres: I also completely went into this thinking it was going to be an EDM Cyndi Lauper cover, Molly. So since I was bracing for something like those randomly decent “Fast Car” covers, this comes across instead as oddly … flat? It’s definitely a strong vocal performance from Kesha, but I think I’m also ready for a return to glitterbombed, electropop mastermind Kesha. I mean, she penned one of Britney’s best songs of the 2010s — there’s no doubt in my mind that she’s got a lot more of those insane, undeniable bangers to come. (I also really would have enjoyed a Lauper cover, though.)
DJ Shadow feat. Run the Jewels, “Nobody Speak”
Graves: Shh … what’s that sound out there in the distance? That’s 10,000 ignored freelancers tweeting “I don’t work for free, I am barely giving a fuck away,” which is the new #BBHMM in the same way that “picture this, I’m a bag of dicks” is the new “you should all run naked backward through a field of dicks,” though both of those are El-P, and — anyway, what was I saying? Run the Jewels is referencing dicks. Again. RTJ itself is a bag of dicks; it’s so many dicks at once. References to actual IRL dicks, to all y’all being dicks, dipping your dick and dick accessories in a piranha tank. Now they’re dipping their dicks into DJ Shadow’s beats for a song that maybe belongs on the soundtrack to Will Smith’s Wild Wild West. It’s a slow motion spaghetti western scene where El-P and Killer Mike are rogue sheriffs, kicking in the door of a saloon before denouncing everyone inside (as dicks, duh) and shooting up the place before smoking a fat blunt with the old gold-panner at the player piano and doing that goofy Run the Jewels hand sign.
Aaron: I agree with Meredith — too many dicks and/or dick jokes, but are they jokes? Or are they just dicks? And Shadow’s beat is too dang cinematically playful to really complement the lyrical masculinity on display here. I’m a certified RTJ stan (no matter the number of dicks) and I stanned hard for Shadow throughout the glorious indie hip-hop mid/late-‘90s Shangri-la, but my brow remains somewhat furrowed on this one.
Wallace: Charles, your brow furrowing is probably because it’s 2016 and this sounds like something Handsome Boy Modeling School would have made in 2001, which itself would have sounded like something Cut Chemist would have made in 1995. I realize that this is on purpose and that Shadow probably misses the Chop Up The Soul Kanye just like Kanye’s alter ego does, but the problem is that it’s really only those two guys. How many dorm rooms that smell of weed and socks, lit by neon posters of MF Doom, still exist? Are they making another season of Aqua Teen Hunger Force somewhere? Anyone who really gets hyped off this beat is 43 years old by now, and 43-year-olds can’t play lyrics like, “I will punch a baby bear in his shit” because their toddlers, who are probably literally holding baby bears in their chubby toddler arms, will ask too many questions. It’s a shame. I personally love this cinematic beat and rip raw battle flow, but in a year which has shown us Lemonade and Pablo and music that’s really about life, raps about rapping seem to be without a purpose.