Number Ones: Samantha Jade 'What You've Done To Me'
A recurring feature where we analyse the latest number one single so you don't have to.
'What You've Done To Me'
I quite happily live in a bubble where talent shows like The X-Factor and Australia's Got Talent don't penetrate my consciousness. Nobody appears interested in discussing them with me at work. I don't see very many posts about them on Twitter or Facebook. I am only barely aware that they're part of television programming. So when I check the charts to see if I have to write one of these Number Ones pieces, I am sometimes surprised by a song debuting at number one, sung by some Australian person I'd never heard of who has won a TV singing contest (see Reece Mastin's 'Good Night', or Karise Eden's 'Stay With Me Baby'). So this week, there's a new Number One single by one of these mysterious (to me) contest winners -- a girl named Samantha Jade.
Jade looks a little like Dannii Minogue, and had apparently previously appeared on a David Guetta album (the one with the delightful and enlightened 'Sexy Bitch' on it). Last week's #1, 'Don't You Worry Child' by Swedish House Mafia, drops to #3 this week. The new Number One, 'What You've Done To Me', is produced by DNA Songs, who were also behind Reece Mastin's 'Good Night', Timomatic's 'Set It Off', and Guy Sebastian's 'Don't Worry Be Happy', all top 5 singles in the last year or so by people signed to Sony who did well on Australian talent quest shows - DNA Songs must currently be Sony Australia's go-to pop producers. 'What You've Done To Me' was also co-written by Tania Doko (who had a worldwide hit with Bachelor Girl's 'Buses And Trains' in 1998) and Jörgen Elofsson, (a Swedish songwriter who co-wrote Sebastian's 2003 #1 single 'Angels Brought Me Here', and who recently co-wrote Kelly Clarkson's recent hit 'Stronger').
That's quite a lot of hitmaking firepower, especially when you include the vocal direction from Australia's most consistent hitmaker over the last decade, Guy Sebastian (judging by the video above). Considering that firepower, I can't help be surprised by how incredibly unmemorable 'What You've Done To Me' is. It's not a song that comes easily to mind. As I write this paragraph, I've now listened to the song about four or five times and I can barely remember how it goes. This is very unusual for a #1 single. Mostly, one listen to the song gives me a fairly crystal clear mental image of the song in my mind - the chorus of Carly Rae Jepsen's 'Call Me Maybe' was very immediate, for example, and so was LMFAO's 'Sexy And I Know It'.
Sometimes these commercial hits take a couple of listens to seep in - 'Stay With Me Baby' by Karise Eden, for example, took a couple of listens but was consistently stuck in my head for a week or two after writing my piece on it. But it's very rare that I can't bring them to mind after four or five listens. If I try to drag the melody of 'What You've Done To Me' back in my mind right now, I instead hear bits and pieces of Pink's 'Blow Me (One Last Kiss)' and Katy Perry's 'Teenage Dream'. 'What You've Done To Me' is just so utterly cookie-cutter, so obvious and unsurprising that it makes no impression at all.
We humans do this thing called habituation. In fact, pretty much most animals and even some plants habituate. What is it? Basically, losing interest in something when it loses its novelty. Mimosa Pudica, a plant that is native of South and Central America, has leaves that quickly curl up when touched, presumably to defend itself from animals interested in eating it. What's interesting about this is that if you touch the plant, watch it curl up, wait for it to uncurl, then repeat, the Mimosa reasonably quickly habituates - it learns to ignore the touch which is obviously not harmful, what with the not getting eaten.
This habituation response is also present in human infants. Infants love new stuff, and get bored quickly with old stuff - that is, infants habituate; after all, there is a lot of new stuff for them, and they have to learn quickly what you can ignore and what you can't. This habituation is very useful for people studying developmental psychology; you can infer a lot about what babies think and what they are aware of based on what they habituate to compared to what they find new and interesting.
My reaction to 'What You've Done To Me' is probably also based in habituation. I've already heard everything that 'What You've Done To Me' does. I'm already habituated to it. There's nothing in the song that makes me notice it. This is, I should add, not usually the case for pop music. I might not like, say, LMFAO's 'Sexy And I Know It'. I might, in fact, think that 'Sexy And I Know It' is actively bad. But all the same, that song was novel. It did things that hadn't especially been overly done before. It's relatively unusual for pop music to walk that very fine line where it's unclear whether they're taking the piss or not, and 'Sexy And I Know It' did that with panache.
In fact the particular mix of genres in LMFAO's two big singles were innovative in their own way; they took the Black Eyed Peas' aesthetic - house music with rapping about partying over the top - and streamlined it, making it smoother. The Black Eyed Peas' music has a lot of echoes of the minimalism of the mid-2000s Timbaland (e.g., Nelly Furtado's 'Promiscuous') and Neptunes (e.g., Snoop Dogg's 'Drop It Like It's Hot'), which are no longer quite as novel as they used to be. LMFAO replaced them with bigger, dumber beats that are easier to dance to, making the music more energetic. I still think 'Sexy And I Know It' is pretty awful, but it's cleverly made awful music designed to appeal to that innate desire for novelty.
In fact, I'd go so far as to say that novelty—within the constraints of pop music—is the prime thing that the pop audience wants. Of course, they also want something that mostly sounds like what they already know -- something essentially familiar. But they want novelty within that format. This is probably largely the same thing the metal fan or the indie fan wants also, but with a different frame of reference. I mean, take Frank Ocean. He's gotten a lot of critical acclaim this year for essentially doing a variation on a theme. The kind of soulman trope that Frank Ocean plays on is a fairly familiar frame of reference; think of Stevie Wonder, R Kelly, or Justin Timberlake. Or their millions of imitators on talent shows. Frank Ocean essentially inhabits a similar world, but he also does something different on tunes like 'Songs For Women' or 'Lost', something novel. There's the more lo-fi backing music, the self-aware sadness and storytelling of the lyrics, and the unhurried not-trying-so-hard-to-impress feel. These are all things that Ocean's predecessors would shy away from (Stevie Wonder sung about universals where Ocean sings about specifics, R Kelly is all ego, all self-belief, where Frank Ocean is all superego, all self-doubt) and so they feel new when Frank Ocean does them.
'What You've Done To Me' burbles along the way it should, of course. It's solidly constructed by people who know what they're doing. It's just that it sounds exactly like every other slightly-dancy pop single currently in the charts. It has the same electronic edge to the bass, it has the same synth sounds, the same beats, the same basic vocal style. Samantha Jade's singing has some personality to it, and the chorus has the kind of mix of repetition and dynamics that usually equals a hook. But there's nothing here that hasn't already been in some other song. There's nothing that even comes across a new mix of bits from other songs. There's nothing striking about the lyrics, nothing that makes me want to pay attention to them. No wonder it feels flat.
Obviously, though, many of the people who watched the X-Factor and who bought this single on iTunes must disagree with me about the quality of the song. There must be something in it for them, something that they hear as new (or attractive). It's probably likely that the way that Samantha Jade singing the song on the finale after winning the show, invested the song with an emotional connection for X-Factor viewers who've shared in her journey. But instead of hearing this emotional connection in the song, I hear her consistently being slightly out-of-tune and see a fairly limp performance by someone who looks a bit exhausted. The cheers she gets at various points in the performance above are fairly inexplicable to a non X-Factor-watcher - "yay, she moved away from the microphone stand, let's cheer!" You'd only cheer like that if you were emotionally invested in the poor exhausted thing.
Perhaps (as I postulated at great length discussing Karise Eden) it's just simply a matter of mathematics of reality TV shows and the pop charts; the X-Factor finale she performed the song on was watched by 2.5 million people, where you typically only need 1% of that audience to get to #1 on the singles charts. Perhaps there's something in the song which really sums up the Samantha Jade persona that the producers of the show portrayed. Perhaps I've listened to too much pop music, and things that I'm habituated to are new and interesting to others.
But if Samantha Jade means to have a lasting career in music, she ultimately won't be able to rely on the X-Factor viewers who are buying this single. They'll forget about her, the same way they forgot about all the others. The warm glow of their plasma screens will instead be used to broadcast some other confected nonsense, and they'll talk to their friends about that instead. So her music, in the future, will have to have something unique, something new, if it is to be successful. Something that 'What You've Done To Me' does not have.
(P.S: Have listened to the song eight times. Still can't remember how it goes.)