What Does It Mean To “Work” In Pop?

Work. Werk. Werq. Wurque. Trabajar. Lavaro. Travail. 工作.

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Pop stars love to give us peasants an anthem to make us feel good about the grind. From Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” to Britney Spears’ “Work Bitch,” there’s something comforting in the knowledge that maybe, just maybe, pop stars are just like us. Working for the man with little to no reward. Doing mindless tasks that don’t fulfill one’s soul just to get by and make one’s life better. Except pop stars are not like us. They are inhuman. Haven’t you heard? Kesha knows this all too well… I digress.

It’s only February and 2016 has already spawned TWO anthems dedicated to productivity… on the dance floor and in the bedroom, that is.

First up is Rihanna’s incoherent, yet catching as f*ck, lead single, simply titled “Work.” The bop sees our bad girl RiRi going back to island roots, and she brings “dont say they’re fucking dating” Drake with her. After the mess that was the Anti rollout, “Work” was a real disappointment at first listen. It was as if “work” was the last thing Rihanna wanted to do, both the song and actual activity. A few weeks later, I can’t get the f*cking song out of my head. AKA, SMASH!

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Meanwhile, Fifth Harmony has been hard at work on their sophomore album, which was just announced this past week (7/27 out May 20th…¯\_(ツ)_/¯). The ladies just dropped their new song titled, “Work From Home.” I was like, GREAT! It’s the timely, and #sorelatable follow-up to Bruno Mars’ “The Lazy Song.” Nope. It’s more of a “let’s play hooky and say we’re working from home so that we can have ‘sex for breakfast’ and follow it up with an ‘afternoon delight'” type of song. Fair. Even with the lack of a ‘fifth harmony,’ the song is a bop. It is with that song that it has also become clear who the two girls the label has branded as the stars of the group are (*cough* Camila *cough* Normani *cough*). Their transformations from Disney princesses to Lolita jailbait are complete.

The irony of the use of the word “work” in pop music is not lost on me, especially in 2016. Rihanna’s “lazy” vocal performance on “Work” is intentional and speaks to her Bajan roots. As intentional as it may be, it feels like a song that she was not happy to be singing, considering the rest of Anti is a stark contrast. Fifth Harmony poses a different question. “Work From Home” is a smash, but is lazy not in the vocal performances themselves, it’s also rooted in the sloppy vocal production. The tuning is almost unlistenable, being present at the beginning, middle, and end of every word, distorting the personality of each girls’ voice (Poor Dinah Jane). Jury’s out on who’s going to be the Zayn of the group, shading the brand once they inevitably go their separate ways. My bet is on Lauren. 

This is the “cash cow” mentality that is present in pop music today. Rather than taking the time to produce quality vocals, from very capable singers, execs are accepting one or two vocal takes with a “we’ll fix it later” attitude. Case in point, Adele’s smash, “Hello,” suffered a similar fate, distorting the singer’s famous pipes (compare to the second single “When We Were Young”… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯). Just turn on the radio and you’ll hear a gaggle of underperformed and overproduced pop. That’s not to say that these songs aren’t good. They happen to be good songs. If more time and effort was invested in them, they’d be great! From my vantage point, this seems to be one of the ways the music industry cuts corners to save money on the production of a major release. This is just a piece of a much larger conversation… More on this later. 

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We all remember the mess that was Britney Jean? Producer William Orbit gave a peek inside this creativity-stifling trend after he received backlash over the infamous glitch in “Alien.” Orbit said via Twitter (post has since been deleted), “If yr familiar my workings over the years, u’ll know I’m usually in a position to intercept rogue glitches before they land,” along with some cryptic tweets presumably shading the album’s executive producer, Will.I.Am. Orbit also was on the defense over Madonna fans’ criticism on the production on 2012’s MDNA. He cited “deadlines” and “schedule conflicts” for the seemingly rushed production. This all paints a larger picture at how the industry is trying to recover its losses from the era of illegal downloading. Streaming services seem to be playing a large part in the stabilizing of the industry while also the starting a new conversation (that’s another post). Emphasis has been put on how much money can be made from the product as opposed to the quality of the product itself. It’s the same as making something with a cheaper, but unsustainable material as opposed to something more expensive, but durable. My question is do we, as pop music lovers, have to settle for a half-assed song from our faves? Have we been so spoiled with the immediacy of “free” music that we’re willing to listen to anything that makes us sashay, vogue, and twerk, because it’s there? Even if it lacks artistic and professional integrity? These are questions I hope to answer and have a dialogue with you about. What is it we really value in music? Often times I find people on my social media feeds talking about the Billboard Charts. We seemed conditioned to value the chart position as opposed to the art itself. 

Maybe some of these pop stars ARE just like us. Singing songs, making videos, and promoting an image for the man just to “get through it” all to eventually be able to do something with their lives that give them a sense of meaning. Either way, they betta work bitch.

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Leave a comment below and share your thoughts! In the mean time check out my Work Playlist on Spotify!

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