Today, well be discussing how a Selena Gomez song might foreshadow humanitys triumph over biological death but first, raise your hand if you remember EDM. It was short for electronic dance music, a style once poised to eat the planet for lunch and then eat itself for dessert. Five summers ago, as a new league of superstar DJs were being paid astronomical amounts of money to perform at packed festivals the world over, the musics sustainability didnt appear to be at the forefront of anyones mind. In 2015, Forbes reported that the EDM bubble was about to burst . In 2016, Pitchfork made the case that it had .
But this unofficial collapse hasnt forced the star producers of EDM to unplug their laptops and register for the GRE. In fact, plenty are faring exceptionally well this summer, taking up residence on the Billboard Hot 100 after partnering with an array of willing pop vocalists Calvin Harris with Pharrell Williams, the Chainsmokers with Coldplay, David Guetta with Justin Bieber. These kinds of genre-splicing collaborations arent anything new, but with EDM now in decline, theyve quietly reversed their polarity. Instead of making dance tracks that behave like pop songs, these producers appear to be making pop songs that behave a little more like dance tracks.
In most instances, the result is just a mirror-image of the same old thing, but for a certain class of pop singers, it seems to be changing the way they apply their physicality to a geometric dance rhythm. You can hear it on the radio this summer whenever Gomez goes hopscotching across the grid of Kygos It Aint Me, or when Alessia Cara leans hard against the right-angles of Zedds Stay, or in the way Halsey seems to be gasping for air in the digital vacuum of her solo single Now or Never. All three songs are delivered with mechanical clarity, with all three vocalists making direct lyrical references to eternity. Are they singing about transhumanism?
Not long after our species learned how to dream, we were probably dreaming of ways to exceed the limitations of our bodies. Its the stuff of religions and comic books. Now, its the work of Silicon Valley, where a growing number of transhumanists believe that mankinds next evolutionary leap will occur once we figure out how to convert consciousness into code, allowing for a digital transmigration of souls. In his recent book, To Be a Machine, author Mark OConnell describes transhumanism as a liberation movement advocating nothing less than a total emancipation from biology itself. That emancipation means eternal life inside a supercomputer. Heaven is a hard drive.
The idea isnt so shocking if you watch Black Mirror or if you listen to pop music. For well over a decade now, Auto-Tune software has been narrowing the musical gap between humans and machines, generating signature hooks for everyone from T-Pain to Future. However, whether we as listeners embrace Auto-Tune as a tool or denounce it as a crutch often depends on whos singing through it. When Kanye West uses computer software to manipulate his voice, hes an artist. When Britney Spears does the same thing, shes a girl who cant sing.
That double standard helps to explain why Ellie Goulding hasnt been recognized as one of the more significant pop vocalists of our time. The British singer always had bright ideas about phrasing, but it wasnt until she loaned her voice to a few juggernaut EDM singles that her singing began to feel totally frictionless. And it had more to do with Gouldings inflection than whatever digital processing she was applying to it. By the time she released her 2015 album, Delirium, Goulding was weaving the curves of her voice through a world of clean-edged rhythms as if drawing a map to the future.
[Ellie Goulding is singing from inside the pop machine]
With Now or Never, Halsey has that map folded up in her back pocket. Its a slower, stronger, smarter, more spacious song than Closer, her massive EDM hit with the Chainsmokers, and it gives the 22-year-old the opportunity to do some captivating things with her breath. When shes breathing in, shes all human, taking sharp little hits of oxygen that dramatize the ballads sustained romantic ache. But when shes breathing out, shes at least half-machine, singing about pain with precision. Listen close to how she lingers on the words now, time and forever. The grain in her voice sounds like its pixelating.
Alessia Caras Stay a collaboration with the German EDM producer Zedd addresses the gap between data and soul in the form of a simple duet, with a refrain thats delivered in two parts. First comes Cara pushing her voice especially hard into the songs rigid architecture. Then comes a gush of synthesized melodies pantomiming what the 21-year-old just sang. Its a game of call and response, but the call sounds big-hearted, and the response sounds no-hearted, giving the dialogue a sinister glint. Cara is singing about forestalling a separation, but she might as well be teaching the HAL 9000 how to sing Daisy.
With It Aint Me, Norwegian producer Kygo isnt playing a game so much as conducting a test one in which Gomez must first coo alongside a gently plucked guitar and then over the relentless thuds of sub-woofing bass. As the song builds its graceless crescendo, the coffee shop turns into a rave, with the most promising 25-year-old in pop showing us how she can make her voice feel artificial in an intimate setting and expressive in an anonymous one.
That so-real-it-sounds-fake quality in Gomezs singing is put to far better use over the uncluttered beat of Bad Liar, a hit single about an affection that cant be suppressed. The song radiates such indomitable charm, even its bad lyrics ooze weird charisma. In the first verse, Gomez asserts, just like the Battle of Troy, theres nothing subtle here. Sure. In the second verse, she purrs, If youre the art, Ill be the brush. If she says so. And does she? Are these malformed bits of poetry the result of human error, or were they written by a buggy algorithm? Its hard to know for sure, and the pleasure is in the not-knowing.
Youll want to savor that confusion until Gomez reaches the bridge and blurts out the most metaphysical romantic advance to grace the radio in years: Oh, baby, lets make reality. Amazing, amazing, amazing, amazing. The nature of her proposition depends entirely on whether shes pretending to be a machine, but either way, whos going to sayno?
Read more here:
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