I’m not sure anyone would have predicted that pop’s it couple of the turn of the century would still be defining pop music ten years later, but it’s basically true: the template for the rave/R&B crossover sound of most pop today, in its dissociative or obliterative forms, was largely set by Justin Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds and Britney’s Blackout respectively (though of course they’d been gestating in various regional hip-hops previously). I guess the contemporary equivalent of Britney and Justin would be Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber, although their relative fame is reversed: I like Selena Gomez, but she obviously doesn’t have the cultural significance of Britney, while Bieber is unchallenged in his teen heartthrob supremacy in a way JT never was (possible just due to lack of competition; what other pop teenage boys are there now, except for One Direction?). Neither of them has produced anything that is likely to define pop for the next decade, either, but on the strength of Bieber’s new album, it’s not impossible that one day he might.
There are a bunch of good tracks on Believe, some of which (like “All Around the World”) are entirely on the rave revival target, though usually slightly better examples of the genre, such as the Max Martin produced and Nicki Minaj featuring track, “Beauty and a Beat,” which sounds about half-way between Nicki’s “Starships” and Orbital’s “New France.” I like “Fall” for the way it contributes to Bieber’s own mythologization of his relationship with Selena (improving the odds that, when they break up, he’ll make a record as good as “Cry Me a River”). The best track, though, is “As Long as You Love Me.” Alex MacPherson describes it as “a post-austerity, us-against-the-world electronic storm in which Bieber promises romantic fealty even as he’s buffeted this way and that by a cornucopia of sonic switch-ups,” which is pretty much spot on, but it’s interesting that it produces this effect through the medium of brostep drops, which have tended to be used in the obliterative school of 90s dance revival tracks (see Britney’s “Till the World Ends”). The bass wobbles here sound warm rather than abrasive, against which Bieber’s youthful voice sounds vulnerable, rather than, as it sounded to me in a lot of his earlier songs, whiny (something similar happens in “One Love,” which gets an extra spacey dimension from the twinkling Bei Maejor production, reminding me of his earlier excellent Ciara remix).
Bieber isn’t alone in adapting brostep sounds to a more warm, emotionally engaged rather than distant sound; this is a big feature of Cheryl Cole’s new album. It’s especially prominent on “Craziest Things (feat. will.i.am),” which will.i.am manages not to ruin, and even more so on “A Million Lights.” Emotional brostep isn’t exactly unprecedented: you could see a precedent in The Saturdays’ excellent Leopold von Skrillex-Masoch track, “Do What You Want With Me,” but this seems more like a transitional track within the obliterative rave&b subgenre; the British version of brostep (Modestep, Chase and Status) is more emotional than its US counterparts, but I don’t think either Beiber or Cheryl have the same drunken sentimentality as UK brostep; Bieber and Cheryl are a little more restrained, and thus genuine. Is this going to be the beginning of a trend towards more restraint in pop music? I don’t generally like restraint as such, but the tension between restraint and what is being restrained can be productive, and risks being lost in the generalized maximalism of Guetta and Calvin Harris.
A more definite trend I’m calling is the return of early 2000s Timbaland beats, with “Out of Town Girl,” a bonus track on Believe, and “I Care For U” and “I. F. U.” from Usher’s new album. (The title of this post is from Kitty Pryde’s “JUSTIN BIEBER!!!!!” which is very good and you should listen to if you haven’t already.)