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The Star Online: Entertainment: Music

Peccant pop stars

Posted: 15 Jan 2014 08:00 AM PST

Some of the music — and antics — of today's artistes leave a bad taste in your mouth.

The record-industry score-keepers at Nielsen SoundScan recently confirmed something many music fans had probably already assumed: Robin Thicke's Blurred Lines – the cheeky disco-funk jam with the controversial, nudity-enhanced video – was the biggest-selling single of 2013, with 6.5 million copies sold.

The tune, nominated for record of the year at this month's Grammy Awards, spent 12 straight weeks atop Billboard's Hot 100, longer than any other song last year; that video, meanwhile, has racked up nearly 300 million views on YouTube.

However singular its domination, though, Blurred Lines was just one of a number of hits that reflected the return of raunch to pop music after several years in which propriety was a more dependable pose.

In 2012, you couldn't turn on the radio without hearing Carly Rae Jepsen's squeaky-clean Call Me Maybe or We Are Young by the cuddly New York trio, Fun.

Adele topped album sales that year and the year prior with her old-fashioned 21. And let's not forget – or maybe let's do – the self-consciously virtuous folk-rock revival that made mainstream stars of Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers.

Robin Thicke may be well-known for his sexy songs, but his 2013 album was deemed a little crass.

Robin Thicke may be well-known for his sexy songs, but his 2013 album was deemed a little crass.

By comparison, 2013 came in like a wrecking ball, to quote the year's most important vulgarian, Miley Cyrus, who set off a national debate about the boundaries of taste with her thrillingly lewd appearance alongside Thicke (and a giant foam finger) on the MTV Video Music Awards.

Pop always circles back to sex; it's low-hanging fruit ripe for the picking when innovation runs short, the economy tanks or a generation of kiddie-culture stars come of age.

But for listeners who count on artistes to push limits, last year's wave of obscenity felt like a course correction after the conservatism of the early 2010s.

Cyrus pushed plenty. In wake of the VMAs, she extended the naughty streak with the clip for her chart-topping power ballad Wrecking Ball – it depicts a naked Cyrus astride just such an implement of destruction – and her album Bangerz, on which the former Disney Channel star raps slyly about replacing a man with a battery pack.

For Cyrus, 21, the twerking and tongue-wagging served as a rupture with her tween-idol past.

Ditto Justin Bieber, who spent much of the year sketching a map of grown-up misbehaviour, with unsavoury incidents involving a mop bucket, a Brazilian brothel and a woman reported to be a porn star.

Justin Bieber, the man-boy every grown up loves to hate, got himself into a lot of very adult problems last year.

Man-boy: Justin Bieber got himself into a lot of adult problems last year. — AFP

Yet as unified as they seemed in their determination to titillate, Miley and her peers each had their own agendas.

With Blurred Lines (and other off-colour songs from Thicke's album of the same name), the 36-year-old singer's goal was the exact opposite of Cyrus'. He was using sex to age himself down and shake off the harmless adult-contemporary vibe he'd accrued thanks to his ultra-sensitive 2007 hit Lost Without U.

You got the same feeling from Bruno Mars' Gorilla and its video, which starred Freida Pinto as a tequila-pouring pole dancer. Here was the kindly balladeer of Just The Way You Are in a racy rebranding effort.

More pointed bawdiness came from Kanye West, whose album Yeezus felt at times like an explosion of psycho-sexual politics, and Lady Gaga, who for her song Do What U Want enlisted R. Kelly for a little bump 'n' grind at the intersection of desire and celebrity.

Kelly lent his imprimatur to several other stars in 2013, including Bieber (in the steamy PYD) and Mars (in an even more lascivious remix of Gorilla). The veteran R&B star put out his own album too, Black Panties, which after a string of decorous retro-soul discs heralded his re-embrace of the kind of outsized bedroom boast with which he'd made his name.

"Tonight," he sang, "you're lying with a sex genius."

And then, perhaps boldest of all, there was Beyonce, who shocked the world in December first by releasing a self-titled album on iTunes with no advance warning, then by peppering the record with far more sex talk – much of it unprintable here – than she'd previously given us reason to expect.

The superstar's aim seemed to be providing fans with a glimpse into her tightly guarded private life. One highlight of her album is Drunk In Love, a bass-heavy duet with her husband, Jay-Z, about the liberating joy of married sex.

Counter-examples, of course, pointed toward other themes. Eminem scored the year's second-biggest-selling album with The Marshall Mathers LP 2, where the closest thing to a sex song is Love Game, a hateful screed against an unfaithful ex.

And Lorde and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis both had huge hits with songs about economic woes. In Royals, Lorde described not being able to relate to visions of "gold teeth, Grey Goose, tripping in the bathroom"; the latters' Thrift Shop is about finding a mink coat for "99 cents".

But perhaps that class consciousness was part of what fuelled the ribaldry that otherwise flourished. Even the most adventurous evening in, after all, comes cheaper than a night on the town.

"It's just one of those songs that loosens people up," Pharrell told me over the summer, referring to Blurred Lines, which he co-wrote and produced. "With everybody so anxious about everything going on in the world, people need something to help them be happy again."

In an increasingly oversaturated media environment – one in which Cyrus' every move makes Google News – we also need something to hold our attention.

That might be how we ended up with Timber, which after four weeks at No. 2 is shaping up as one of 2014's first inescapable hits. An ostensibly party-starting duet between Pitbull and Kesha, the song seems at first like a product of the same mind-set that gave us Blurred Lines and Wrecking Ball.

"I have 'em like Miley Cyrus," Pitbull brags over a kind of electro-hoedown groove. "Clothes off, twerking in their bras and thongs."

Unlike last year's durable pop erotica, though, Timber wears out its welcome as soon as you realise that this isn't a song about the excitement of being turned on – it's about utilising a flimsy turn-on to manufacture excitement.

Coupled with recent signs of economic improvement, it could be bad enough to send us tumbling back into wholesomeness. — Los Angeles Times/McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

> The 56th Annual Grammy Awards will be held on Jan 26 (Jan 27 in Malaysia) at the Staples Centre in Los Angeles, California.

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Former Beatles to perform at Grammys 2014

Posted: 15 Jan 2014 02:00 AM PST

Paul McCartney is up for two awards while Ringo Starr is set for his maiden performance at the Grammys.

FORMER Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr will perform at the Grammys later this month, as the legendary group is given a lifetime achievement award, organisers said on Tuesday.

It was not immediately known what the duo will play at the ceremony, music's biggest honours, on Jan 26 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California.

But their performance will provide a colourful warm-up for the special Beatles tribute show organised by the Recording Academy on the night after the Grammys.

The event – to be televised on Feb 9, exactly 50 years after the group's iconic The Ed Sullivan Show appearance – will feature a parade of top talent performing the Fab Four's hits.

At the Grammys, McCartney, 71, is up for two awards as a solo artiste: best rock song for Cut Me Some Slack and for best music film for Live Kisses.

While McCartney has sung before on the Grammys stage, it will be a first for 73-year-old Starr, according to the Academy.

Among the nominated artistes scheduled to perform are rappers Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, country's Keith Urban, pop star Taylor Swift and French electropop duo Daft Punk. – AFP Relaxnews

A fool's game

Posted: 15 Jan 2014 08:00 AM PST

With so much music being streamed, swapped and downloaded from so many outlets these days, it's valid to ask whether we can arrive at any sort of Grammy consensus.

The nominations for the 56th annual ceremony give us the answer: No. Successfully predicting musical consensus is, more than ever, a fool's game.

Few, for example, would have bet on singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles' The Blessed Unrest, landing an album of the year nomination. Sales have just been so-so, and it dropped out of Billboard's Top 200 album chart recently, only to sneak back in the latest ranking.

Deserved or not – the latter, from this perspective – the album took a slot away from one seeming shoo-in, Justin Timberlake's The 20/20 Experience. The Recording Academy also passed over Kanye West's acclaimed Yeezus and Kacey Musgraves' far more lyrical and way less treacly Same Trailer, Different Park.

Bareilles' December surprise almost seems like a mistake. Other than for the year's Best Album, her new work earned her just one other nomination – pop solo performance for Brave, an aspirational song that borders on propaganda.

Sara Bareilles is a surprise nominee in the Grammys. -- AFP

Jay-Z received the most Grammy nominations for his album, Magna Carta ... Holy Grail. — EPA

That Bareilles and a few other left-field nominees prevailed over higher-profile artistes in that category serves as a reminder that the 12,000 voting members of the Recording Academy have some pretty Protestant tastes – and that buzz doesn't always matter. If it did, Timberlake would have ruled the nominations and New Zealand singer Lorde would have already been awarded 2014's Best New Artiste.

As it happens Lorde was passed over in the category, even though Royals got nominated in two of the big four, Song Of The Year and Record Of The Year.

Occupying Lorde's should-be spot in the New Artiste category is one of the night's biggest surprises: James Blake, the British singer and electronic music producer who recently won Britain's Mercury Prize.

Unlike Lorde or young electronic dance music chart-buster Avicii (also passed over in the category), Blake didn't make much of a mark on the American charts and got scant commercial radio airplay. But then, in this same category two years ago voters, gave the similarly gentle tones of Bon Iver the Grammy, and last year it awarded it to the harmless Fun, suggesting a new category might be necessary: Best Young Adult Contemporary Album.

Then there's Jay-Z. For many reasons, it's tough to weep for him. After all, he earned the most nominations this year with nine. But his Magna Carta ... Holy Grail, was denied solo nominations in the major categories (though he got one as a contributor on Kendrick Lamar's Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City).

Lorde's single, 'Royals', speaks of the plight of folks who can't afford to simply throw money away. -- AFP

Lorde's single, Royals, speaks of the plight of folks who can't afford to simply throw money away. — AFP

As usual when he releases a record, though, Jay-Z again dominated the rap division, earning five nominations in the four categories.

Harder still, in general, is to cry for West, whose self-proclaimed "genius" didn't earn him respect with Grammy voters this year. Despite the praise for his adventurous Yeezus, West received only two nominations for it: one in Best Rap Album, and another for New Slaves as Best Rap Song.

Kanye haters will no doubt be gunning for him to suffer the ultimate ego buster: losing in both categories to the much-dismissed Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, the upstart rapper-producer team whose seven nominations are among the most for any artistes.

Better to expend your emotions celebrating the assured showing for Lamar, whose rise from mixtape master to toast of the Los Angeles hip-hop scene to master rap provocateur has been as quick as it has been confident. His Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City had been mentioned as a contender for Album Of The Year, but many expected Drake's Nothing Was The Same to occupy that slot.

Instead, Drake got the shaft and Good Kid earned mention alongside Taylor Swift's Red, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis' The Heist, Random Access Memories by French dance duo Daft Punk and Bareilles' album.

That rock music was shut out of the major categories – unless you count Imagine Dragons, which I don't – offers evidence of the genre's current lack of heft.

So fragmented and confused is the electorate and so unfocused is rock 'n' roll in 2013 that Led Zeppelin, a band that disbanded more than three decades ago, earned a Best Rock Performance for Kashmir, which was on the soundtrack of their concert film, Celebration Day.

Led Zep, in fact, received as many nominations as Bareilles did. Need any more evidence of the chaos at hand? — Los Angeles Times/McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

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Peccant pop stars

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