Number Ones: P!nk (ft. Nate Ruess) 'Just Give Me A Reason'
Pink (feat. Nate Ruess)
RCA/Sony Music Entertainment
The new #1 this week is 'Just Give Me A Reason' by P!nk, featuring fun.'s Nate Ruess. It finally ends the chart ascendancy of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, who had 4 weeks at #1 with gay marriage rights anthem 'Same Love', and before that 7 weeks at #1 with 'Thrift Shop'.
'Just Give Me A Reason' is P!nk's 7th #1 single (I've written about 'Blow Me (One Last Kiss)' and 'Raise Your Glass' for TheVine previously), and her 21st top 10 single here in Australia (about what you'd expect considering how huge she is here!). Nate Ruess—featured fairly prominently here—is the lead singer of fun., who had two #1 singles in 2012, 'We Are Young' (feat. Janelle Monae), and 'Some Nights'.
Ruess is clearly making a play for the lucrative chart pop songwriting business, in the likelihood that fun.'s chart success will be typically ephemeral; apart from co-writing 'Just Give Me A Reason', he also apparently co-wrote 'Die Young', the lead single from the last Ke$ha album. The song was produced (and also co-written) by Jeff Bhasker, who also produced fun.'s two big hits, along with 'Love Lockdown' by Kanye West, and hand a hand in Bruno Mars' shamelessly-stealing-from-The-Police 'Locked Out Of Heaven'.
In case you're wondering what a producer does on a modern pop song, it's a good question without an easy answer. Generally the producer is the boss. It depends on the producer as to how much they micromanage the talent, but a Jeff Bhasker or Max Martin is doing everything he can to turn the likes of 'Just Give Me A Reason' into hits. Judging by this interview with ArtistDirect, Bhasker's approach seems reasonably hands-off; he talks about how to get the best vocal performance out of the talent, and picking the right song and tempo (other producers are more hands-on, fiddling with the songs more). On 'Just Give Me A Reason' Bhasker arranged the song and played almost all of the instruments, and has a co-writing credit, likely in a fixing-the-song-to-make-it-smoother-and-catchier kind of way.
'Just Give Me A Reason' is a fairly obvious testament to the chart-topping power of Grammy award-winning 'Somebody That I Used To Know' by Aussie Gotye and Aussie Kimbra (which I wrote about here almost two years ago now). Both 'Just Give Me A Reason' and 'Somebody That I Used To Know' are 1980s-influenced ballads about relationship problems; both are duets that feature two characters portraying different views of a relationship.
But where Gotye probably finds it hard to escape references to soulful English pop singers of the 1980s - your Stings and Peter Gabriels - the 1980s-ish reference I hear most in 'Just Give Me A Reason' is the soft rock power ballad. Think stuff like 'Hard To Say I'm Sorry' by Chicago, 'Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now' by Starship, or 'Love Will Lead You Back' by Taylor Dayne. (In contrast to these, there's another form of power ballad, the metal-band-doing-a-ballad like 'Every Rose Has Its Thorn' by Poison, which I'd call the 'hard rock power ballad' in contrast).
For much of the 1980s and 1990s, it seemed the charts were full of this kind of stuff; music written, recorded and sung by slick professionals, veterans who knew the mechanics of making a hit. Singers would make it sound effortless, in the days before autotune; the songwriters would write a song that was tastefully bland, that anybody could relate to. Attach it to a movie, and away you go!
Example: 'Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now' by Starship. Quintessential 1980s song, right? Well, sort of. Something about this style of music now sounds so incredibly baby boomer-ish to me. In a lot of ways Starship was music for people who hadn't quite let go of the 1960s. Grace Slick, one of the lead singers on the song, was in a band called Jefferson Airplane in the mid-1960s. Jefferson Airplane, who eventually mutated into Jefferson Starship and then Starship, were probably the most commercially successful San Francisco hippie psychedelia band of the time (quintessential baby boomers Rolling Stone recently rated their big album Surrealistic Pillow as the 146th best album of all time; OK Computer was the 162th, apparently).
But by the 1980s, it had been a long time since Jefferson Airplane were singing songs that feature lyrics like "you've just had some kind of mushroom, and your mind is moving low" ('White Rabbit'). Instead, they were singing relentlessly positive songs written by pro songwriters! 'Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now' was co-written by baby boomer songwriters Diane Warren and Albert Hammond (yup, the Dad of the guy in the Strokes, who also wrote 'The Air That I Breathe' for the Hollies way back in the early 1970s).
In a lot of ways, this is music that's stuck in the 1960s; it was certainly music that usually showed almost no awareness of the rest of what was happening in music in the 1980s (you doubt Starship shared many fans with Public Enemy or the Go-Betweens). The music was probably mostly bought by baby boomers too. There were so many baby boomers still buying music in the 1980s, that they had a tendency to crowd out the tastes of younger generations with music. And their music got more and more boring as the years went on; by the mid-1990s it was the baby boomers buying big quantities of Michael Bolton and Celine Dion.
But finally, 10-15 years ago, the baby boomers mostly seemed to give up on new music, retreating to the warm safety of deluxe remastered 40th anniversary editions of albums they used to own on vinyl. And music changed. The power ballad became the almost exclusive preserve of the likes of Australian Idol; how better to show how good your pipes are than to belt one out? But they became terribly uncool as a result. The likes of Celine Dion disappeared off the charts. Mariah Carey stopped writing songs like 'Hero' and started trying to play up just how hip-hop she was. Sure, people like Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears definitely had ballads (e.g., 'Beautiful') but they were simpler, harder-edged songs; unlike Celine Dion's ouevre, those ballads never quite sounded straight from an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.
Until now. The soft rock power ballad is back, baby, judging by 'Just Give Me A Reason'. One of the hallmarks of the soft rock power ballad was that they usually sound like they were written on a piano rather than a guitar (even if the band playing it is ostensibly a guitar band - think 'I Don't Want To Miss A Thing' by Aerosmith); they use chord movements that come easier to a pianist's fingers than a guitarist's. Professional songwriters writing on pianos have a tendency to chuck in fancy 'slash-chords', using them on the way to other, more primary chords; it's those slash chords, amongst other things, that give power ballads a sense of sophistication, that makes them sound slick. And these slash-chords are all over P!nk's 'Just Give Me A Reason'; the second chord in the intro is an A major chord with a C# in the bass. And the piano chords plod away on 'Just Give Me A Reason' the way they plod away on 'Hard To Say I'm Sorry'.
P!nk has had hits with ballads in the past - 'Who Knew' (see above), or 'Sober', for example - but they're not the same kind of power ballad that 'Just Give Me A Reason' is. The ballad, in P!nk's discography, usually works by signalling regret, at signalling the opportunities she's missed while being self-destructive; they usually come across as basically slowed down versions of the usual upbeat P!nk song. 'Just Give Me A Reason', on the other hand, is set in the present, and it's a notable change from her usual style. It manufactures drama out of the juxtaposition between P!nk's verse and Nate Ruess's version, Rashomon-style; P!nk plays the part of one half of a relationship, Ruess the other. In P!nk's verse, she's worried about the relationship ending - 'now you've been talking in your sleep/ things you never say to me', while according to Ruess, she's making a lot out of nothing: 'I'm sorry, I don't understand where all of this is coming from/ I thought we were fine'.
While 'Just Give Me A Reason' apes the relationship-drama of 'Somebody That I Used To Know', it's clearly not as well-thought-out. While both songs create drama by juxtaposing different views of a relationship, 'Just Give Me A Reason' does so in a half-arsed kind of way. After all, after both Ruess and P!nk have sung their verses, they start to sing the (catchy) chorus together - 'just give me a reason/ just a little bit's enough/ just a second we're not broken just bent/ that we can learn to love again'. That they both sing a chorus with these words suggests that Pink's version of the relationship is the right one, and that Ruess is either lying or delusional in his verse; otherwise why would Ruess be singing along to the chorus? Except that Ruess doesn't sound like he's lying or delusional when he sings; he doesn't make a particularly believable oblivious boyfriend. He doesn't seem particularly messed up, and doesn't seem like a slimy bastard. He sounds like he's singing more or less what he believes, both when singing the chorus and when singing his verses, even though the chorus contradicts the verse.
This contradiction leeches the drama out of the song; instead of building up the tension between her view of the relationship and his, there's a too-early resolution, and one that doesn't really answer the question. It makes me suspect the duet in the song is artificial, that it was forced into a song that wasn't meant to be a duet. Maybe they'd just seen how popular 'Somebody That I Used To Know' became, or maybe they figured more star power might increase the success of the song. But there's a feeling of half-arsedness about it, which isn't helped by the presence of a lot of filler in the lyrics.
This is a shame, because 'Just Give Me A Reason' has a strong concept. Surely there's plenty of relationships where one person worries much more about the relationship than the other, where one person misinterprets what the other songs; there's lots of neurotic people out there! And presenting both sides of that relationship could undeniably be just as effective as presenting the fallout of a relationship the way Gotye and Kimbra did. But the lyrics never quite get to the heart of the relationship; there's too many lines which sound pretty enough, but don't advance the drama, which don't provide much insight into the basic setting of the song. And the lyrics in the chorus especially don't nearly work nearly as effectively as they should, even when you take into consideration Ruess's singing on them contradicting the verse.
I also can't help thinking that P!nk's and Ruess's voices don't particularly work that well together. In the chorus, both of them sing the same melody line rather than harmonising, but their voices don't blend well; you hear two separate people singing rather than two people singing together. This is even more so because the melody doesn't suit Ruess's strengths particularly well. On fun.'s 'We Are Young' and 'Some Nights', he has two vocal tricks that he uses pretty effectively. One is the way in the verses of the songs he seems to dribble out lots and lots of words with a certain nervy personality, and two is the way he really attacks the big notes in the chorus ('set this world on fi-i-ire!').
But his part on 'Just Give Me A Reason' doesn't fit this nervy personality, and the melody in the chorus doesn't quite suit his all-out attack. Perhaps if he harmonised on the chorus line rather than singing along, it'd give him more scope to play at his strengths at all-out-attacking the chorus. In the end, I can't help thinking that he's the wrong person for the duet, even if he did write it. P!nk would perhaps have been better off singing it with a gruffer singer, someone who'd more convincingly play that 'oblivious boyfriend' role. Ruess comes across as too self-aware and neurotic to not realise that there was a problem in the relationship, but some 1990s alternative rock type, like Scott Weiland or Chris Cornell - the kind of person you suspect is often too wrapped up in their own ego to notice their girlfriend's feelings - would probably have fit the bill to a tee.
Likely to hide the fact that their voices don't sound great together, 'Just Give Me A Reason' also noticeably overuses autotune. Now, when I say this, I don't mean that the song uses the vocoder-y autotune effect of T-Pain or the Black Eyed Peas' 'I Gotta Feeling'. Instead, I'm talking about the kind of invisible autotune you hear on most recordings you'd hear on the radio today. Most producers these days use autotune here and there for things like fixing up a note or two in an otherwise splendid vocal performance. Most of the time you can't hear this kind of autotune when you listen to recordings; it just means there's a couple less dud notes than there'd otherwise be. But sometimes producers or mixers over use autotune of this sort ('Just Give Me A Reason', according to Wikipedia, had one mixer and two assistant mixers). Producers can fiddle with every single note to make them just right if they have the time, and sometime they do. But oddly, the end result of this fiddling is often a curious lack of personality to the vocals; lots of what makes a singer unique is in their imperfections in the end. I mean, take David Lee Roth of Van Halen; he was a notoriously 'pitchy' singer, and if you listen to some of his vocal takes in isolation they can sound surprisingly out-of-tune (see below). But somehow he made it work; instead of sounding out-of-tune, the pitchiness just sounds like David Lee Roth being David Lee Roth.
Anyway. I can see why the song's a #1 single; there's a fair bit of star power there, between Australia's favourite female musician and a guy who had as many #1 singles in Australia last year as anyone. The chorus is catchy (in a way, I'm surprised it's not called 'Learn To Love Again', considering that's the catchy bit), and the song is well-written apart from my issues with the lyrics (I really do love piano-ey power ballad slash chords!). But it feels underdone. It doesn't quite match up to 'Somebody That I Used To Know' in the duet drama stakes. And it doesn't quite reach the heights of professionalism that it would have if they had drafted in someone like Diane Warren. Or Gotye.