Sound and Vision: The Fall of R&B: How Pop Is Selling Its Soul for a Dance Beat

Remember the days when R&B and hip hop was the sound of pop? From the ˜90s to the mid ˜00s, music’s most dependable hitmakersMariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Toni Braxton, Boyz II Men, R. Kelly, Usher, Brandy, Monica, Alicia Keys, Destiny’s Child and Beyoncé, among themspecialized in crossover soul, climbing both the R&B charts and the Hot 100 in tandem.

But lately, something strange has been happening on Billboard’s R&B /Hip-Hop Songs chart: A hit is no longer necessarily a hit. Just because a song is big in the R&B sphere doesn’t mean it’s big anywhere else. For the week ending April 7, 2012, only one song in the R&B/Hip-Hop Top 10Tyga’s “Rack City”had managed a comparable placing on the Hot 100.

The song at No. 1, Beyoncé’s “Love on Top,” which had been there for multiple weeks, was way down at No. 54 on the Hot 100. (It briefly entered the Top 40 last September, debuting and peaking at No. 20 after Beyoncé performed it at the MTV Video Music Awards.) Meanwhile, there wasn’t a single R&B diva in the Top 40 aside from Janelle Monae, who got there by guest-singing on rock band fun.’s No. 1 hit We Are Young.

What happened to pop’s soul? There’s a disconnect between the pop and R&B charts that hasn’t been so pronounced since the days when Michael Jackson’s label, CBS Records, threatened to pull all of its artists from MTV if the then-fledgling network didn’t play Jackson’s “Billie Jean” video.


Sound and Vision: Lady Gaga's Album of the Year GRAMMY Nominee — Big Hit Or Major Miss?

In pop music, you’re nobody until everybody loves you or hates you, and few recording artists polarize everybody the way Lady Gaga does. Mad genius or plain mad? A true original or hopelessly derivative? Hit or miss?

That last question easily could apply to Gaga’s second full-length studio album, Born This Way, which was released to near-unprecedented fanfare in May of last year. The music press gave it generally favorable reviews, according to Metacritic, which assigned the album a score of 71 out of 100. Madonna, however, was less than blown away by the title song and first single, which many declared a too-blatant rip-off of her 1989 hit Express Yourself.

The woman who has spent her entire career nicking sights and sounds from other people, apparently agreed and recently joined the song’s chorus of detractors. When I heard it on the radio¦ I said that sounds very familiar, Madonna told ABC News’ Cynthia McFadden in January. It felt reductive.

As for the parent album, whether it’s good or bad is a matter of personal taste. Hit or miss, though? Commercially speaking, it depends on how you look at it. Born This Way sold 1.1 million copies in the week after its release, making it the biggest debut since 2005. However, Gaga’s sales feat becomes less impressive when you consider that some 440,000 of those copies were sold in the digital format by Amazon, which practically gave the album away for 99 cents.

By week two, sales of Born This Way had plummeted 84 percent, down to the mere-mortal level of 174,000 copies. In its third week, it sold 100,000 copies, and was replaced by Adele’s three-months-older (in the US) 21 at No. 1. When the dust settled and 2011 ended, Born This Way was the third-biggest seller of the year, with cumulative sales of 2.1 million copies, which means it did half of its business last year in its first week. The No. 1 album of 2011, Adele’s own sophomore effort, sold nearly three times as much (5.8 million).

If Born This Way were a Hollywood event movie, and in many ways it was marketed like one, it would be considered a disappointment, as aspiring blockbusters that only double their opening-weekend haul during their box-office runs are generally considered to be. Worldwide sales in the vicinity of 5 million lack luster when an album’s pre-release set-up positions it to be the biggest thing since sliced bread”or Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

Then there are the five singles from Born This Way. Aside from the aforementioned title track, which spent six weeks at No. 1, they’ve performed somewhat below Gaga’s usual Hot 100 standards. The second to fourth singles all reached the Top 10, but none of them enjoyed industry buzz or runaway success on par with previous Gaga hits like Telephone and Bad Romance. Meanwhile, the fifth single, “Marry the Night,” only reached No. 29 on Billboard’s Hot 100, making it Gaga’s first official single to miss the Top 10.

There’s always the February 12 GRAMMY Awards to provide a nice Gaga rebound (she’s up for three awards), but they probably won’t, not with Adele in the running (and performing). In fact, Adele might have been the one thing most responsible for blocking the view of Gaga for much of 2011.

The antithesis of all things Gaga, she’s a singer who gets by without gimmickry and flash, just strictly on the power of her voice. Her 21 singles have had considerably more staying power than those from Born This Way”the third, “Set Fire to the Rain,” just became the third to hit No. 1”which means that when the dust settles (again) and 2012 ends, some other 21 single probably will still be jerking tears (“Turning Tables”?) or rocking the house (“Rumour Has It”?).

Even Gaga’s videos and live award show performances are no longer the talk of every town, not when Adele hits the same stage, accompanied by a tremolo piano melody, effortlessly knocking rare notes way back into the nosebleed seats, and bringing on the heartbreak with Someone Like You. She did just that at the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards in September, and she walked away with the most-talked-about live TV performance of the year (without having to reveal that she was pregnant!). Gaga performed You and I at the VMAs, but it was Adele whose song was No. 1 on the Hot 100 within days of the ceremony.

Adele will likely steal Gaga’s GRAMMY thunder, too. Gaga scored her third Album of the Year nomination for Born This Way (her second was for the 2009 EP The Fame Monster), but there’s no stopping the Adele express, which is likely to run over everything in its path. Gaga may have to settle for Favorite Album of the Year at the January 11 People’s Choice Awards.

So hit or miss? I’d say Born This Way falls somewhere between stunning success and magnificent failure, definitely closer to the former when both artistry and commerce are accounted for. Derivative first single aside, the album was an uncompromising pop opus, one that is musically to the left of the one that made Gaga a superstar.

Had its more difficult tracks””ScheiíŸe” and, say, Heavy Metal Lover”been recorded by someone like M.I.A. or an obscure European electronica act, they probably would have been declared masterpieces of iconoclastic electro-pop. “Judas,” for sure, would have had considerably lowered chart expectations (it hit No. 10). Released under any other name, Born This Way, far as it is from the mainstream that Katy Perry and Rihanna call home, probably would have sold a small fraction of what it did sell with Gaga’s name plastered on the cover.

There’ll be future hits for her, though, more GRAMMY nominations. And even if her reign as the hottest thing in music is over for good, Adele shouldn’t get too comfortable at the top. In pop, nobody stays there forever.

Sound And Vision: Britney Spears At 30 — Where Does She Go From Here?

It seems like just yesterday: She was invading the dreams of pedophiles and lusty teenage boys everywhere. But that was 1998, the year Britney Spears, then sixteen, broke with her No. 1 debut single, “…Baby One More Time,” and its accompanying video, in which the singer made an unforgettable first impression as Lolita-lite, a sexy school girl who was up for just about anything.

At the time, Britney seemed destined for the cut-out bin in two years flat. Her synthetic pop sound didn’t sound built for longevity. And didn’t the name Britney Spears, which was too close for comfort to that of ’80s hair metal heads Britny Fox, have one-hit wonder written all over it?

Boy, was I wrong! Thirteen years later, she’s still with us. Her albums may no longer be as huge as they were at the dawn of the century, but she’s still one of the leading ladies of pop. Super-stardom, however, isn’t everything. Even an act with a hit list that’s as thematically shallow as Britney’s must crave a little artistic growth. She’ll turn thirty on Dec. 2, but to me, she’s still seventeen”partly because I don’t want to admit that I’m getting so old, but mostly because Britney herself still doesn’t sound as if she’s a day over twenty.

Sure she’s lived a lot. There have been two marriages, two divorces (actually, one divorce, one annulment), two children and countless scandals. I interviewed Britney for Teen People right after the release of her second album, Oops!… I Did It Again, in 2000, back when she still hearted Justin Timberlake. She struck me as a sweet teenage girl with a maturity level that matched her age. I don’t know what she’s like today, but her music doesn’t make her sound much older.


Sound And Vision: Why I'm Seriously Considering Boycotting Music Award Shows

On November 9, Nashville celebrated itself (again!) with the Country Music Association (CMA) Awards. For the fourth consecutive year, the event was hosted by Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley, but the masters of ceremonies weren’t the only thing that gave me that old deja vu feeling. Hadn’t these accolades already been handed out just a few months ago?

Wait, those were the Country Music Television (CMT) Music Awards in June. And before that, there were the Academy of Country Music Awards. And, just in case that’s not enough Music City honors for you, there are the 2nd annual American Country Awards coming up on December 5.

Pop and R&B are just as self-congratulatory, offering the MTV Video Music Awards, the MTV Europe Music Awards, the Billboard Awards, the American Music Awards, the Teen Choice Awards, the BET Awards, the BET Hip Hop Awards, the NAACP Image Awards and the Soul Train Music Awards.

Then, of course, there are the GRAMMYs, which following so many other back-slapping fests, have been losing their lustre for years now”though that’s hardly the only reason. Winning one used to be the musical equivalent of snagging an Oscar, but now its just more clutter for the awards shelf.

In a few weeks (November 30, to be exact), the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences will announce the nominees for the 2012 GRAMMY Awards (to be held on February 12). Doesn’t it already feel like we’ve been there and done that over and over and over already this year? Am I the only one who doesn’t doubt that we’re in for another repeat of The Adele Show, with a very special appearance by Lady Gaga. Good as it is, like Christmas, I only need to sit through it once a year.


Sound And Vision: Beyoncé's "Plagiarism" Controversies — Has She Been Caught Stealing, Or Is She Paying Homage (Again)?

Beyoncé is having a rough 2011. I don’t know how she felt about turning thirty on September 4, but if she’s as career-obsessed as I suspect she is, it was probably the least of her concerns. Yes, 2011 has not been without a few triumphs: She rocked the Glastonbury Festival in June, and she set a Twitter record for “most tweets per second recorded for a single event” (8,868) when she announced at the August 28 MTV Video Music Awards that she is expecting her first child with husband Jay-Z.

But by October, even that bright spot was mired in controversy when Beyoncé’s baby bump seemed to collapse as she sat down for a couch chat during an Australian TV appearance. A faked pregnancy? Stranger things have happened”like an underperforming Beyoncé album. Despite debuting at No. 1 with 310,000 copies sold its first week in June, Beyoncé’s fourth solo album, 4, has sold below expectations while failing to launch a major hit single.

But collapsing baby bumps and album sales might be small-time woes compared to the accusations of theft and copyright infringement that continue to dog the singer.

In the past, she’s been accused of contributing minimally to the creation of some of the songs for which she receives songwriting credit, and in 2005, she was sued (albeit unsuccessfully) for copyright infringement for her 2003 No. 1 hit “Baby Boy.” Then in 2006, Destiny’s Child‘s “Cater 2 U,” for which Beyoncé and her group mates were listed as co-writers, was at the center of another copyright infringement suit, which was settled out of court.


Sound And Vision: Can Florence + the Machine End 2011 Where Adele Started It (on Top)?

Florence Welch must be in a state of extreme suspense right about now. And if she is, no one would understand how she feels better than Adele. At the dawn of 2011, Adele was in the very same position in which the lead singer of Florence + the Machine now finds herself, coming off a GRAMMY-nominated (and in Adele’s case, GRAMMY-winning) US debut album with extremely high expectations from people who are music fans, music writers and both (like yours truly). Would album No. 2 be career boom or bust?

For Adele, the rest is recent music history. Her sophomore album, 21, is the biggest seller of 2011 so far in the US, where it has launched two number one singles, song of the summer “Rolling in the Deep” and the big-boned ballad “Someone Like You.”

Florence, in a sense, is someone like Adele. Both British acts broke big in the States on TV (Adele on Saturday Night Live in 2008, Florence at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards); both were nominated for the Best New Artist GRAMMY (Adele won, Florence lost); both have worked extensively with producer Paul Epworth; both were cited by Beyoncé for influencing her during the making of 4; and both played major roles in making the pop charts safe once again for British blue-eyed soul.

But is this where the similarities end? Does Florence’s upcoming second album, still untitled as of mid-September, have the same potential as 21? The power to move continents of fans with its fiery emotion, bringing them to their knees and sending them crawling en masse to iTunes?