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Fools Before Wise Men
A*Teens: Pop 'Til You Drop!
At the end of my sheepish admission that I enjoyed parts of Teen Spirit, the second A*Teens album, I said "I'll be very surprised if these four kids manage to make a third A*Teens album." In the middle of the terrifyingly guileless page of tiny-print thank-yous in the booklet for the third A*Teens album, Pop 'Til You Drop!, Marie begins her section "Wow, we're back again, with a third album... Can you believe it!?"
No, I can't. This record has no business existing. One novelty-record of vaguely-updated ABBA covers by perky Swedish teenagers, that much I could understand. But a second record of new songs was clearly the record-label's trepid indulgence, and their patience had to expire. I think the four kids are all still officially teenagers, but not for long. I joked that they'd start wanting to co-write; Sara gets a credit on one of these, and Dhani and Marie (oh dear, I just realized what that sounds like) get two each. I joked that their co-writers would want to play and sing themselves, and over the course of this record most of them do. They, or their handlers, have the sense not to fall back on ABBA again, but they borrow an Elvis song and some uncredited riffs that sound suspiciously like Madonna samples, and somehow talk Alice Cooper into making a guest appearance. And the boys are beginning to carry themselves like stars, but the girls are looking suspiciously over-made-up and airbrushed. No, it's ridiculous, I don't believe it.
And not only shouldn't this record exist, I certainly shouldn't enjoy it. It is Disney-sponsored pre-fab bubblegum dance-pop, indistinguishable in basic musical form and production style from Britney or any similar mass-production. I'm still not convinced the boys have any role in the recording process at all, and song-writing credits very much notwithstanding, I assume these songs, most of them marshaled by returning team Grizzy and Tysper, would sound essentially the same with a "group" composed of any two to four teenagers from north of Denmark and west of Latvia. The lyrics only dilute syrup and cliché with each other, the attempts at seeming cool are about as convincing as a kindergartner in Ray-Bans, and if any real instruments were accidentally used in the vicinity of the studio this stuff was made in, the area was evacuated and thrice-decontaminated before anybody was allowed to return to work.
But I've listened to this record quite a few times now. For something that obviously can't exist, it has an uncanny tangibility, and for something I can't possibly like, it's making me surprisingly happy. If it didn't exist, actually, I could listen to it in public without fear of any consequence more serious than people thinking I'm crazy. As it is, I'm afraid to. You will leap, probably, to the conclusion that I am afraid to listen to it in public because I'm embarrassed to admit I like it, or because these kids are half my age, or something of that sort. Those are not why. I am afraid of listening to this album in public because intruding noises this cheerful into even the mildest of solemnities feels like it could be a social-decorum failure of riot-inducing magnitude. If I played this for you at the end of a grim day, you would want to strangle me. But if you'd played it for yourself, earlier, maybe the day would have been better.
Manic impishness is evident from the very first noise. The clomping dance-club toy-anthem "Floorfiller", which opens the album, sounds like Lush's "Ladykillers", Madonna's "Music", Lipps, Inc.'s "Funkytown" and a carton of Kid 'n' Play action figures bounced on by Tigger until their sparkly shards are irremediably intermingled. The lyrics are a set of merrily pouty DJ injunctions warning against "groovekillers" (which I believe are one of the wrigglier beasts from Monsters, Inc.) in favor of, naturally, "floorfillers", and when a gruffly-vocoded voice barks "Freeze!", pauses onomatopoeically, and then adds "Music, please!", I just about melt. There's a built-in twenty-second slow-dance interlude, which is just long enough because slow-dancing is icky, and then a pragmatically abrupt collapse at the end. A floorfiller knows to get off the floor when its turn is done.
This album's advance (and defining, I suspect) single is the Elvis cover, which is not exactly an Elvis cover, since it's "Can't Help Falling in Love", which has been done myriad other times since Elvis (my two personal favorites being UB40's slinky dub version and the waifish Lick the Tins performance from the soundtrack to Some Kind of Wonderful). The A*Teens version, programmed by Mark Hammond, generously augmented by "backing vocals" from something called "Melody Chambers" (which sounds like the session-musician version of a porn-star pseudonym), and then Pro-Tools-ed to kaleidoscopic radiance by Dave Dillbeck, is a cascade of fake harps, fake turntable-scratching, swirling harmonies and whooshing key-changes, and by the end I'm convinced that while the singers' notion of love is hopelessly adolescent, the performance has somehow captured the vertiginous essence of the real sensation anyway. It entails being slightly out of breath, among other things, and if you're too young to get that way from imagining the logistics of combining and reconciling two independent lives, then maybe dancing will do.
"Let Your Heart Do All the Talking" plays at reggae, which isn't normally my thing, but warps it with burbly horn fusillades and chirpily intertwined vocal lines from the girls. "Closer to Perfection" momentarily tries to play at menace, but quickly abandons the idea in favor of a sort of remake of Britney's "Stronger" in which there's no particular antagonism to worry about being stronger than. "Hi and Goodbye" is sweet and slower, and could easily have been a Corrs song, and together, for me, those three pleasantly fill the ten minutes until "This Year" starts. What this song's whole story is, I don't know and wasn't able to casually discern, but it was co-written by Billy Steinberg, Marti Frederiksen and Leah Andreone, and was previously sung by Chantal Kreviazuk on the Serendipity soundtrack. But a song about expectations for a year is a very different thing coming from an adult, and compared to A*Teens even Leah is a grown-up. An adult singing "This year I'll paint my masterpiece" is engaging in advance wistfulness, using painting as a cipher for all the things we believed we were going to grow up to do when we were kids. In an adult voice, the song's conclusion, "This year / I'm going to have fun", is a rejoinder to the list of accomplishments the singer knows they are not really going to attempt. In a child's voice, "I'm going to have fun" is a summary of great aspirations. Of course children are not going to paint their masterpieces, or learn to fly, or fall in love or any of these things. They are going to go to school, and fret about what to wear, and form and break and reform cliques, and maybe enter the talent show. But the more they imagine themselves painting their masterpieces, the more of themselves they will throw into their projects, and the more they stand to learn. And to teach.
The album's other declared dance song, to go with "Floorfiller", is the fairly self-explanatory "Slam". Dhani and Sara get co-writer billing on this one, along with a long list of other people without real last names, and how it took six writers to devise this single-minded strut, à la "West End Girls" and "Safety Dance" cross-bred by Prince, I don't exactly know, but whoever put in the insistent synth-bass buzzes should get credit for the save, in my opinion. "Cross My Heart", heavily saturated with quena (the breathy Andean flute best known, if your city is like mine, for troupes of ostensible Chileans in garish ponchos standing around near subway stations twittering away on small arsenals of them), sounds like the group has abducted Peter Gabriel and threatened to make him drink a gallon of bubble-bath unless he helps them record a song, to which demand he accedes only after about half the jug. "Singled Out" is fairly treacly overall, but somebody essays a delightful Bee Gees-caliber falsetto at one point, and the choruses settle back into cozy harmonies.
But the centerpiece of Teen Spirit, for me, was Grizzly and Tysper's "Bouncing Off the Ceiling (Upside Down)", and I'm assuming that the two producers' expanded role on Pop 'Til You Drop! is at least in part a function of somebody agreeing with me. The fitting irony, then, is that my favorite single song on Pop 'Til You Drop! is actually the dopily-named one-off collaboration "Oh, Oh...Yeah", written, produced and mostly played by one-time Norwegian Eurovision-entry composer David Eriksen. If the trend continues, Eriksen will produce most of the fourth A*Teens album, which I'm thus expecting to bear a relation to their first three like Cyndi Lauper's Hat Full of Stars to hers. "Oh, Oh...Yeah" bounces along on springy synth-bass, processed-vocal stutters, twitchy drum-machine percussion and some squinchy mock-guitar noises that the credits claim are guitars, the mood shifting effortlessly from pizzicato verses to airily legato choruses. The twinkle of genius, though, is in the brilliantly inane lyrics, including such inspired nonsense as "Stop and take those big blue eyes back out of my heart, / It don't belong to you", "But as we kiss goodbye / I don't even know why / I ain't moving", "On the surface you're this perfect angel inside, / There's nothing you can't hide" (the "can't" might conceivably be a "can", but the line-break is very clearly after "inside") and the piece de resistance chorus, "Sugar ain't as sweet as you -- / (Oh, oh) / Monkey see as monkey do -- / And I could get addicted, / Sure as every movie made / (Oh, oh, yeah)", in which the "monkey" non sequitur seems to have been dropped in from outer space. The kids sing all this like it comes straight from their hearts, and by the time they're done I'm half convinced that they've invented a secret language inside of our own, and that grammar may be better their way.
Marie's "In the Blink of an Eye" is a rather generic power-ballad, again very much in the Corrs' vein, but it sets up the album's finale and crowning absurdity, a blistering dance-pop reduction of Alice Cooper's "School's Out" with, most incomprehensibly of all, Cooper himself helping out on vocals. I never paid much attention to the verses of this song in Cooper's original version, so if nothing else I would be pleased that this version led me to notice "We got no class / And we got no [principals|principles]". But "School's out", too, is a very different sentiment if we know whether singer is or isn't in school, and here we combine both perspectives, Alice sounding creaky and not entirely reputable (like maybe he originally peeked into their room in the studio hoping it was something else), and the A*Teens sounding like they'd have no idea what I'm getting at and will probably celebrate the beginning of the next school year just as ebulliently as they're enjoying the end of this one. I don't know what either of them were thinking, frankly, because the juxtaposition is more than a little creepy in both directions, and the song and the style go together no better than the performers. The record ends with me still grinning, but wondering if I actually think a fourth A*Teens album seems any less implausible, having heard the third one, than a third one seemed to me a year ago. Every cynical thing I think I believe about the pop industry argues that they will get slaughtered. Britney doesn't really sound like anything, so you can change her identity by changing her clothes, and thus there's a way to force an apparent maturation. But the A*Teens sound like the A*Teens. They sound like children bewitched by the steps they invented to go with their parents' ABBA records, all the more so when they aren't singing ABBA songs, and that omnipresent and ineradicable sense of play is inimical to too much. It doesn't matter what you do to Marie's hair, they all make terrible sex symbols. They're to be danced with, and to, not to be put on display in cages. I don't know a thing about them as people, I admit, so maybe it will turn out that they are trivially corrupted, and a year from now we'll get pictures of a goth-pale Sara slinking into rehab, and the other three will make a record full of songs about mundane betrayal ("Debts Unpaid (Her Quarter of the Phone Bill)") and low-grade personal demons ("Why Am I Always Left (-Most)"). But for the moment, I cling to my illusion that it can't happen, that somehow the A*Teens will always be teenagers, or at least sound like teenagers, utterly untroubled and almost unbearably energetic, singing songs that can't be important, and are thus precious. Of course children are not going to paint their masterpieces this year, or any year. I don't believe Amit, Dhani, Sara and Marie are in control of this music, anyway, so if it's wonderful, most of the credit ought to go to their minion legions. If we're categorizing this information correctly, it's not that the A*Teens are the artist and Pop 'Til You Drop is the art, it's that the group themselves, members and music both, are the art. But that's accuracy at the expense of truth. In the end it doesn't matter how little of this the four of them wrote or orchestrated, any more than it mattered that Claire Danes didn't write her dialog in My So-Called Life. This is character art, and somebody has to be the characters. These four kids are the authors of their selves, which is all we should ever ask of child artists. And if they're good at it this year, long after I thought their childhoods would have run out, then maybe they'll be good at it next year. And if they're still good at it next year, and still children enough to fear nothing, then what could ever be our excuse?
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