POP HITS LOOK TO ETERNITY

The de­cline of EDM has brought meta­physics into to­day’s top songs

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY CHRIS RICHARDS

To­day, we’ll be dis­cussing how a Se­lena Gomez song might fore­shadow hu­man­ity’s 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 music’s sus­tain­abil­ity didn’t ap­pear to be at the fore­front of any­one’s 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 hasn’t 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 aren’t any­thing new, but with EDM now in de­cline, they’ve 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 Kygo’s “It Ain’t Me,” or when Alessia Cara leans hard against the right-an­gles of Zedd’s “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. It’s the stuff of re­li­gions and comic books. Now, it’s the work of Sil­i­con Val­ley, where a grow­ing num­ber of tran­shu­man­ists be­lieve that mankind’s next evo­lu­tion­ary leap will oc­cur once we fig­ure out how to con­vert con­scious­ness into code, al­low- ing for a dig­i­tal trans­mi­gra­tion of souls. In his re­cent book, “To Be a Ma­chine,” au­thor Mark O’Con­nell 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 isn’t 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 who’s singing through it. When Kanye West uses com­puter soft­ware to ma­nip­u­late his voice, he’s an artist. When Brit­ney Spears does the same thing, she’s a girl who can’t sing.

That dou­ble stan­dard helps to ex­plain why El­lie Gould­ing hasn’t been rec­og­nized as one of the more sig­nif­i­cant pop vo­cal­ists of our time. The Bri­tish singer al­ways had bright ideas about phras­ing, but it wasn’t 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 Gould­ing’s 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.

With “Now or Never,” Halsey has that map folded up in her back pocket. It’s 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 she’s breath­ing in, she’s all hu­man, tak­ing sharp lit­tle hits of oxy­gen that dra­ma­tize the bal­lad’s sus­tained ro­man­tic ache. But when she’s breath­ing out, she’s 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 it’s pix­e­lat­ing.

Alessia Cara’s “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 that’s de­liv­ered in two parts. First comes Cara push­ing her voice es­pe­cially hard into the song’s rigid ar­chi­tec­ture. Then comes a gush of syn­the­sized melodies pan­tomim­ing what the 21year-old just sang. It’s 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 Ain’t Me,” Nor­we­gian pro­ducer Kygo isn’t 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 Gomez’s singing is put to far bet­ter use over the un­clut­tered beat of “Bad Liar,” a hit sin­gle about an af­fec­tion that can’t 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, there’s noth­ing sub­tle here.” Sure. In the sec­ond verse, she purrs, “If you’re the art, I’ll 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? It’s hard to know for sure, and the plea­sure is in the not-know­ing.

You’ll 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, let’s make re­al­ity.” Amaz­ing, amaz­ing, amaz­ing, amaz­ing. The na­ture of her propo­si­tion de­pends en­tirely on whether she’s pre­tend­ing to be a ma­chine, but ei­ther way, who’s go­ing to say no?

WASH­ING­TON POST PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: HALSEY: KYLE GUSTAFSON FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST; ALESSIA CARA: GREG ALLEN/INVISION/AP; SE­LENA GOMEZ : AMY HARRIS/INVISION/AP

WASH­ING­TON POST PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: EL­LIE GOULD­ING: STEVE C. MITCHELL/EURO­PEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

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