Run the Jewels: We need more Public Enemies

Detective Comics #440 - Page 67

Some years ago, I put on Public Enemy’s Nation of Millions while making dinner in the apartment I shared with my (then) girlfriend. After it had been on for a while, she said, “You don’t listen to music like this a lot.”

I found that interesting. She’s not much of a rap fan and has minimal background at best in the genre; her observation made me step back and try to hear the album she was hearing. And it was obvious to me—I didn’t (and don’t) listen to music like that a lot, because people didn’t (and don’t) make music like that a lot. From the powerful, densely layered and meticulous yet rough-edged beats of the Bomb Squad (PE’s production team; also its heart and backbone) to the strident, insistent, demanding and confrontational rhymes of Chuck D (and, to a lesser extent, Flavor Flav), Public Enemy’s template was a singular one.

And, as is often true in singular cases like this, their impact was (and is) pervasive, but not always perceptible. Public Enemy influenced a lot of people. Some applied elements of the Bomb Squad’s technique of aural barrage to their own production approach (‘sup, Muggs?); others tried to incorporate Chuck’s authoritatively rendered stentorian delivery into their flow (looking at you, Bushwick). But few people ever really, effectively applied both sides of the coin.

If you read the title and have stuck with me this far, knowing El-P is in the mix here, I know what you’re thinking: Except for Company Flow. But bear with me: I don’t think that’s true.

To begin with, El-P, the production mastermind behind Co-Flow’s “more dusty than digital” (yet still profoundly rooted in the technological) production style, has mentioned more than once that his motivation with the group was based in replicating Run-DMC’s sound and style. [Note: I’ve been digging and I can’t find this specific quote, so take that with a grain of salt. But I’ve been a fan of his for a long time and I know I’ve read at least one interview where he says this.] But even without that caveat/backstory, the fact is, little of Company Flow’s catalog is overtly political. They only really picked up politics near the end of their run (when Bush kind of made it inevitable for anyone with a brain and a conscience); until then, they were battle cats, spilling metaphorically dense couplets over sonically sophisticated beats that owed far less to PE’s classic soul/funk sources than they did to El’s claustrophobic sci-fi roots. Where Public Enemy’s Terminator X almost playfully scratched a line from Queen’s glam-rock soundtrack to Flash Gordon, El-P grimly drew on Vangelis’ technoir soundtrack to Blade Runner.

Chuck D told it like it was—still does, I gather. Not that he draws the attention he used to, these days. Public Enemy were possibly the last of rap’s positive giants; the last figures who could sustain rap music’s intimidating outsider edge by meeting their listeners as thinking equals with the shared goal of shaping a positive route up and out America’s literal and metaphorical ghettos. The wave that came after them, washing them out, played more to the lowest common denominator, shifting rap’s edge from political statements and black power mobilization to the championing of drug sales and pimping.

No double standard here; I love Eightball and MJG and Devin and the Clipse and Cypress Hill. But surely there’s more to rap than this? There used to be. Once-incendiary tracks by PE and KRS-ONE, aimed at stoking the flame of righteous rage in black (and, perhaps incidentally, white) American youth and mounting an urban resistance movement now sound quaintly idealistic, optimistic, old-fashioned and out of step. It’s got to be an awkward feeling to go from being Jerry Lee Lewis to, say, Pat Boone, without ever changing position.

Okay; wait. So, where was I? Oh, right—Public Enemy: “First and Best in the Field They Created.”

Which brings me to a couple of weeks ago. I got an e-mail from the (stellar) PR firm Biz3 telling me that the latest Run the Jewels album, RTJ2 (which has to have a swipe aimed at RJD2 in it, even if it’s just an incidental chuckle from El-P) had been named Pitchfork’s #1 album of the year. On checking the RTJ site, I found that Pitchfork was only the latest to do so; print music mags like Spin, Rolling Stone and Complex had already given it that honor; music blogs like Stereogum and Popmatters had also topped their year-end lists with RTJ2, and numerous other print and digital organs had included it in their year-end best-ofs. The thing is, as much as I’ve enjoyed this new album and their first one, from last year, I think that the success and acclaim RTJ has enjoyed has less to do with how brilliantly awesome they are and more to do with the general safety/comfortability/complacency of rap music right now. The fear and uncertainty and discomfort and shock and wariness and approbation and excitement rap used to strike into the heart of America has been subsumed into the barrel of a gun; gangsta rap has ruled the roost to the point where gunplay isn’t shocking anymore; it’s simply part of the backdrop—just another rapper.

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Public Enemy fought with their feelings. They brought the noise and threw bombs in ways that nobody else would—then or now. And though their imagery packed heat, it was clearly metaphorical; their Security of the First World did on-stage step routines with plastic guns. Their weapons aimed straight at the heart and the brain, but their ammo was strictly verbal. But the in-your-face political rhetoric they pioneered eventually trickled down to become “conscious rap,” which, in the end, had all the edge of a blonde dorm-room dreadlock. The guns went from referential to real, the dealer went from demon to hero, cocaine went from a cause of blight to a source of bling. The rap world flipped the script on Public Enemy, and their prophecies of rage failed to materialize, leaving them a voice on the sideline, dismissed the way we roll our eyes at the guy shaking his cane at the teenagers.

So: Is anyone carrying PE’s potent legacy forward? I don’t know, but I don’t see it. Kendrick Lamar’s album was good and everything, but there were no real bangers on it; the only really hard beat is on “Backseat Freestyle,” and those lyrics are fairly run of the mill. Yeezus has edgy beats (if you don’t get out much), but lyrically, he’s all sound and fury, signifying Kanye.

Nobody’s really throwing bombs, nobody’s bringing the combination of confrontation, truth and aggressive beats the way Public Enemy did. Does rap require this? Is rap the worse for PE’s absence? I’d say no and yes, in that order. Either way, the fact remains that when the playing field is so wide open, you can be the MVP if you swagger to the line and slam the ball down with authority. Which brings us to Run the Jewels. Do they pick up where PE left off? Well, kind of. They incorporate the political, using broad strokes—and, to be fair, Killer Mike truly stepped up when the lyrics got real. But they’re not bringing an articulated political agenda to their work; they’re the guys who show up at the protests and lead the crowds and get everyone all fired up, but maybe aren’t the ones to go to for a plan when the revolution succeeds. And fair enough.

What they are doing is shifting the rap game away from its comfort zone, back to an era when MCs needed to be hard as hell and ready to throw down lyrically, because that was what mattered. That was why rap music was rap music; not because of dealing or pimping or killing—although these elements could be in the mix—but because of the storytelling. Because of the voice. Because of the flow. Because of the beat. Because of the fear it could strike into the mainstream. A bullet can kill a person, but an idea can bring down an institution. Run the Jewels aren’t really bringing that level of noise. They still might, but if they don’t, that’s fine—it’s not their obligation. But they are revitalizing some core elements of rap’s original aesthetic: Confrontation. Reality. Awareness. Honesty. Emotion. And yes—rage.

“The independent representation of what MCs can and should be.” That’s how Company Flow laid down their m.o. back on Funcrusher Plus, their full-length debut that rocked the indie rap scene in the early/mid-90s. Rap that shoves its listeners physically and grabs them intellectually is scarce these days. I admit that I don’t have my ear as close to the ground/street as I have in the past, but I’ve heard most of what’s out there that RTJ would be compared to. It doesn’t take much to realize that they stand out from their broad peer group like a pair of sore thumbs; a sight for sore eyes—and a prescription for sore ears.

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The pop bubble.

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In his piece over at Pitchfork, kris ex takes Nicki Minaj to task for being too Nicki Minaj in everything all the time. It’s called “Maybe It’s Time to Stop Caring About Nicki Minaj.”

It’s a thoughtful commentary and he makes valid points, but here’s the thing: Why single her out in particular? Most, if not all, of his observations—about specific lyrics of hers, about general stylistic and thematic choices, etc.—could easily apply to any other Top 40 artist, or at least any other pop rapper (male or female). So maybe the question isn’t whether or not we should continue to care about Nicki Minaj.

Maybe it’s time to simply stop expecting pop music to be more than it is.

Maybe it’s time to stop expecting pop music to be anything other than a reflection of the pop culture that drives it, shapes it, defines it and consumes it.

Maybe it’s time to stop waiting for pop music to grow up, because its primary listenership is, and always has been, students.

(Related side question: Maybe it’s time to stop reading Harry Potter and Hunger Games and high-school books, and start reading like grownups?)

Maybe it’s time to see pop music for what it is: crafted, marketed product, created for profit, where artistic intention and/or innovative creativity is inherently, intrinsically, inevitably incidental to the process.

Maybe it’s time to allow ourselves to think critically about pop music in a broader way; rather than further scrutinizing the minutiae of Swiftian liner-note obscurities or pondering Rick Ross’ or Pusha T’s internal motivation in constructing yet another verse about selling cocaine and having a lot of money, maybe it’s time to take a broader view and look at trends more than tracks—movements more than moments.

Maybe it’s time to admit that a light, escapist pop song might not be able to withstand a barrage of heavy intellectual and critical inquiry because it’s not—nor has it ever been—designed to.

Maybe it’s time to admit that when we apply our own personal standards and expectations and demands to this massively influential yet utterly impartial behemoth, we only reveal our own arrogance and ignorance.

Maybe it’s time to admit that the microscopic attention we pay to so much of this music is dwarfed by the firehose of ambivalence the music has in response.

Maybe it’s time to stop expecting pop music to care about us.

Maybe it’s time to stop expecting pop music to care what we think about it.

Maybe it’s time to start listening to what pop music says to us.

Maybe it’s time to start caring about what pop music says about us.

The Perils of “Poptimism.”

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I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.
—Mark Twain

Lindsay Zoladz is a writer for Pitchfork and other folks. She also has a blog/tumblr, from which the excerpts below are taken. It’s a one-sided “debate,” so take my observations with a grain of salt.

Zoladz’ original piece: We Can’t Stop [excerpted below in italics]

The next day [after the Miley Cyrus show]… everybody on Twitter was up in arms about some op-ed the New York Times Magazine had run decrying the rise of “poptimism”. Now, I agree with the general concept of poptimism, but that word never fails to make me want to barf, because 99+% of people who listen to pop music do not have to come up with some kind of factionalized team name in order to enjoy it—they just fucking like what they like.

It strikes me that both the word and the concept behind “poptimism” were invented the same way “rockism” was—by the same people, with an axe to grind. Whether on offense or defense, these teams relate pretty closely to one another. In fact, and unfortunately, they seem to relate pretty much exclusively to one another. Which doesn’t say much for the potential breadth of discourse on the subject.

And it seems as though the only way to really escape the clutches of these terms/premises is—brace yourself—to think about music more broadly. Maybe we don’t have to create straw men to knock down in efforts to justify the music we like, or criticize people for liking the wrong kind(s) of music.

(Incidentally, as a side note, I think most alleged “rockists” might feel the same way you describe about their own listening habits—i.e., liking music without needing to pledge allegiance to a particular camp based on specific enjoyment criteria. See how that works? Rock-likers are people, just like pop-likers! Neat, right? If this concept is too tricky to absorb, check out the entry-level version.)

And maybe that was part of the reason why going to the Bangerz Tour was so refreshing and yes I will even say life-affirming: Nobody there was trying to debate, like, Ted Gioia’s Daily Beast article between sets. 99+% of the girls (yes, they were mostly girls) there would not know/care about what “rockism” meant, or whatever insider-baseball circle jerk the “music writing community” was engaged in that day. They were just there to freak out over the music they loved.

Breaking news: Pop music is fun as hell and teenagers love pop music and fun and not boring things that are dumb.

And I looked around at them… and I remembered being like them and feeling like nobody took seriously the things I liked, all I wanted to do was write things for them. Not above them, or below them, but to them. I am so profoundly bored with writing for the 1%.

Stop the (word)presses: Critic wants validation/appreciation from a specific audience.

I would challenge you, Lindsay Zoladz (who I’ve never met, and I’m sure are a nice person), to admit that you wouldn’t be writing about non-Miley music if you didn’t want to. What you seem to want, though, by implication, is the appreciation/adulation of teenyboppers for your 1%y think-pieces about Cat Power (or whoever).

Maybe the prospect of throwing in the towel on the 1% crap is daunting because you know, in the back of your mind, that the alternative is terrifying: mind-numbing, broadly and deeply commercial/profit-oriented, substance-free and image-indebted; that writing for Teen Vogue, Teen Cosmo and Teen Seventeen will require you to play the pop music money game and whoosh, there goes your critical integrity, your street cred—and your genuine enjoyment of what you’re doing.

A Pitchfork writer complaining that pop music is trivialized except by teenage girls is like the right-wing bellyachers whining about bringing prayer back into schools. In the same way that the Christian God’s name is on every piece of American currency and is invoked at every formal address by every President, pop music is getting plenty of time, space and attention from the masses, old, young and in between. Yes, they’re all (statistically speaking) missing Lindsay Zoladz’ voice among all the hubbub, but by and large, they (and pop) manage to get along.

The difference is how deep you’re willing to go for your cause. The PTA dad demanding that his child be allowed to pray in school isn’t demanding to preach a sermon in class; that’s farther than he’s willing to go, and he knows it’s a little unrealistic. Likewise, the pop critic who wants to bring thoughtful pop-centric insights to mainstream/mass media doesn’t really want to have a column in Entertainment Weekly or People, because it’s unrealistic to expect those masses to be interested in think pieces about the internal motivations behind Katy Perry’s aesthetic pivots. The critic knows that she won’t have the editorial leeway or liberty (or word count, or autonomy, or freedom from commercial interests/influences, etc.) that she enjoys outside the mainstream. You don’t get to write about Cat Power for Maxim—at least, not the way you want to—and you don’t get to criticize Justin Timberlake in Vogue.

You do, of course, get to gush about Ariana Grande or, you know, Miley Cyrus. But wanting to have it both ways is a little disingenuous, don’t you think? If you gaze too longingly into the pop abyss, you’ll feel its gaze on your soul, and it’ll be a lot colder than you would wish.

Pop is commerce. Having fun on its surface is great, but to willfully blind oneself to the fact that it’s all built on an ever-burning pile of money, the blazing heart of which needs stoking all day, every day, is to deny reality. Fairies aren’t real, wishes don’t come true, and Miley didn’t write that song. Katy didn’t build that. And no matter how much you want him to, or think, wish, hope and beliebe that he will (or know in your heart that he should), Justin doesn’t give a fuck about your little problem with his lyrics, dear.*

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A little while after we posted our write-up, a few Miley fan accounts started tweeting it. One of them called it, “a thoughtful and in-depth review” of the tour; a girl whose Twitter name was Katniss Everdeen called it “one of the best reviews I’ve read in a while.” Maybe it was the lack of sleep of the #BangerzHangover or most likely the tragic death of Floyd Cyrus, but I was already feeling kind of emosh on Friday and seeing those tweets almost made me cry. For some reason, this immediately felt like the highest praise I’ve received in a long time.

…For music writers, it’s easy to write something that will rile up that 1%; it’s harder (but in my mind, a much more noble challenge) to write something that resonates outside the bubble. So I don’t know, maybe next time you’re wasting time and energy on some shirts-vs.-blouses/poptimists-vs.-rockists/us.-vs.-them debate, remember the girl sitting behind you on the Bangerz Express, the one for whom the whole idea of being “an interviewer” is refreshingly foreign and novel. She’s listening, if you’re willing to treat her like a potential reader.

This is kind of like the republican trope about how liberals “condescend” to the lower classes, or whatever; in all honesty, I feel like anything I write “remembers” the teenybopper; why wouldn’t it? I may not think of her/him as a fully-grown adult with mature perspectives and a broad palette of musical familiarity, but… Why should I?

Is your implication that we, as Music Writers, should tailor our content toward the Miley fan demographic? Because if we don’t critically evaluate their current chart faves, we’re somehow leaving them stranded without any serious consideration or attention? That seems odd—and, honestly, condescending. I think they can take care of themselves. Tavi Gevinson is doing pretty well, as are the thousands of girls and boys like her, who have blogs, opinions and, more than likely, readers.

Maybe we should just let the kids have their say and meet them where they hang out, rather than willingly uproot our own perspectives to make sure they get the opportunity to experience our gleamingly brilliant insights. Treat them as adults and make it clear that if and when they want to think and talk seriously about music, we’ll be, you know, ready to hang out?

I’d like to close this by contending that “the kids are alright,” which would kind of tie it all up “cleverly.” But given my lifelong profound ambivalence toward the Who, I’d hate to have that reference used to indict me as a rockist. So I guess I’ll just say that, “we’re the kids in America, whoa-oh—everybody live for the music-go-round.” Which is pretty much in the ballpark (or, you know, the civic arena).

* This is a sadly ideal example of the way that this music who its listeners care about so much clearly does not care about them. See also: Coke drinkers love Coke; Coke doesn’t love them (or their bodies).

It’s product. When our goals are aligned—entertain me, make me feel good, support my fun in exchange for fandom and money vs. I’ll entertain you as long as you follow my antics and my twitter and buy my shit—then we’re all okay; when our goals differ (make me happy vs. I’ll make you unhappy but still pay me, kid) then suddenly we got problems. But these problems could have been seen coming from miles away by anyone looking up from his or her iPod every so often.

Numbers and/or Hips

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The Top 40 Pop/Dance Starlet Stats: Pitchfork edition

Rihanna

Young, attractive R&B/dance-pop singer with savvy choices in production talent [Neptunes, Timbaland, etc.]

Number of Rihanna albums reviewed by Pitchfork: 5

Average rating: 6.3

Highest: 7.6

Lowest: 4.5

 

Britney Spears
Young, attractive dance-pop/R&B singer with savvy choices in production talent [Neptunes, Timbaland, etc.]

Number of Britney Spears albums reviewed by Pitchfork: 0

 

Ariana Grande
Former children’s sitcom actress turned dance-pop music and video starlet

Number of Ariana Grande albums reviewed by Pitchfork: 2

The first one, in which we establish a Nickelodeon alumnus as a viable commercial/critical presence: 6.5

The new one, which features a host of Pitchfork-friendly collaborators: 7.7

 

Miley Cyrus
Former children’s sitcom actress turned dance-pop music and video starlet

Number of Miley Cyrus albums reviewed by Pitchfork: 0

 

Final Tally: Pitchfork
In which the numbers all add up to something

Selective application of vaguely-defined “poptimism”: check

Aesthetic integrity and/or clarity of mission or critical perspective: n/a

Poptimis! Rockisn’t! And other nonsensical dichotomies. (Part One.)

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Ah there, Pitchfork! Now You’re Talking Sense.

I had an unfamiliar experience, a little while ago: I read a piece about pop music on Pitchfork that I not only agreed with, but found stimulating and mature. Which sounds ugly and snobbish to say, but there you are. Nevertheless, I recommend reading it in full. It’s by Mike Powell, whose contributions I’ve started checking since then and, despite his avowed affection for Vampire Weekend, have overall been worth it. A relevant (to this blog’s haphazard but ongoing examination of the baffling push to create and attach profundity to pop music, the people who develop it—and its criticism) excerpt:

The boundaries between pop and rock are—and always have been—imaginary.

One of the difficulties of fully embracing pop is that when you do, you can no longer emphasize its significance. It becomes something light, a loose ribbon dazzling in the breeze about which nothing sticky can be said. You hear it, you like it, and it’s over—no mess and no remainder. Analyze it like an epic poem and it risks losing the shine that brought you to it in the first place.

Not to hamstring myself—because this album will soon be the subject of its own post here—but take Janet Jackson’s second album, Dream Street, as an example: If you analyze it and assess and review it, all of the things that detract from it—its derivative nature, its dated palette, its totally clichéd lyrics and self-referential/era-entrenched production flourishes, etc—are also all the things that make it really fun to listen to. (Like, over and over again…! For reals, I haven’t had such a blatantly superficial album exert such a perplexing but pleasurable fascination over me since rediscovering 90125 by Yes, ten years ago.)

So, by using the grown-up standards that we all agree are the best ones to apply to music we want to take seriously, you get a lousy review of record that’s actually really fun. And that’s where a great example of a piece of superficial but totally enjoyable pop fluff loses its fun and magic, as Mike Powell points out in his piece.

What some critics clearly want—and, sure, I’ll name Sasha Frere-Jones, Julianne Shepard, NPR’s Ann Powers and/or Frannie Kelly and Pitchfork’s Lindsay Zoladz and/or Ryan Dombal by name—is to be able to discuss pop music in the same intellectual, academic and serious tones, contexts and with the same thoughtful, head-scratching, chin-in-hand, “I beg your pardon, but if I might interject—” musings that are applied to boring old classical music, jazz or, you know, politics; i.e., the serious, grown-up way of talking about things that are Very Important. They want the best of both worlds; a fun, disposable party-time anthem and then an in-depth conversation about why they’re smart for liking it, as opposed to just being party enjoyers.

Ricky Gervais (UK Office, Extras, PETA supporter, funny person) and his longtime partner Stephen Merchant had a podcast going for a while, which centered around their producer, Karl Pilkington, and his amusing (generally insipid, ill-informed and/or contrarian) views on life in general and various topics in particular. One episode has Pilkington complaining that people who are experts in some scientific field are given undue credit and acclaim, as opposed to people who might be experts on, say, Eastenders (a long-running UK soap opera). He contends that expertise and mastery of this subject is just as valid an endeavor and merits as much regard as their more hoity-toity academic counterparts.

It’s just not the case. There is substance and there is ephemera. Pop music is intrinsically ephemera. It can influence or shape substance, but by its definition/nature, it’s product for consumption. By and large (but, of course, with exceptions; we’ll come to that), what we’re talking about when we talk about pop music is: commerce. Business. Highly crafted, precisely honed metrics for deriving the greatest possible result from targeted demographics with the use of proven tools.

Which is not to denigrate pop music in the slightest. I love “Waterfalls” by TLC as much as I love, I dunno, the song “Blatant Statement” by Miles (the guy from Demdike Stare) or, say, anything from Time Fades Away by Neil Young.

Those latter two examples are intrinsically “anti-pop”; i.e., niche fare, commercially unmarketable and with no hope of coming within a mile of any pop charts, never mind the top of them. The TLC song is a catchy little number performed by one of innumerable hip-hop inflected R&B girl groups that were kicking around in the mid-90s.

The talent TLC possessed did not make them unique; the pop world is not a meritocracy.* But through good luck, good connections and good performance, they got themselves to a position where they were deemed marketable enough by someone with dough to release an album.

But here’s the thing: they’re still Eastenders; they’re not The Wire. Hanging out and singing along with “Waterfalls” just isn’t the same as actively trying to figure out where Stevie Wonder is coming from, when he releases his first “auteur,” non-Motown-machine-manufactured album.

So, where it gets interesting is in the awkward middle ground—which, I admit, is broad. Grace Jones, Chic, Stevie Wonder/Motown, Peter Gabriel, Grimes, Purity Ring, Chromeo, Scissor Sisters; i.e., artists using pop tools to make more lasting/inventive music. But I think it’s totally uninteresting to try to shoehorn grown-up concepts of art and good music into pop product like Miley Cyrus and/or Ariana Grande. What’s the point? To what end is this effort made?

Anyhow, exploring the, um, blurred lines of that middle ground is too big a task even to outline here, much less attempt. But it’s a crucial element of the discussion and it would be disingenuous (or, to be honest, asinine and/or willfully ignorant) not to admit it’s on the curriculum.

Okay, I think that’s enough for the moment. Trying to “finish” this essay/post will only result in its further delay; it’s already (at least!) four months old. But there’s obviously more ground to cover here. Hope to get back to it before another season passes. Thanks for reading this far (oh, like you have).

* I almost went with “Merrittocracy” there, just to be coy, but that’s another little can of blog-sniping worms that I’m staying the hell away from.

Poptimism in the truest, most graspingly desperate sense of the (made-up, hilarious) word.

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Wow, Pitchfork; so, in the new world, do we really have to dig under Nickelodeon spinoff sitcom rocks to find the debuts of future pop starlet also-rans so that we can give them a 6 out of 10 next to music made by (and ostensibly for) grown-ups?

Apparently, we do.

Well, all right! Hell, let’s crack open the Night Train and get it over with! My friends; my good, good friends: Here’s to comparing Carly Rae Jepsen to—well, to anything in the world, out of haplessly ambitious ass-coverage and sheer desperation.

It’s okay, Pitchfork. The last ten years haven’t been a colossal waste of time—they’ve just been an exercise in discovering just how far down this thing can go.

…And here we are. See you on the other side!

P.S.: Just kidding; see you at “South By.” We’ll be the ones in the party tent rocking glow-in-the-dark label promo gear and doing shots!