Every week, MTV’s writers and critics assemble and weigh in on new hotness, chart trash, and glimmers of hope in the pop music landscape. This week’s roundtable includes Ira Madison III, Hazel Cills, Jessica Hopper, Doreen St. Félix, Charles Aaron, Alex Pappademas, Molly Lambert, Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, Simon Vozick-Levinson, David Turner, and Meredith Graves.
Fergie, “M.I.L.F. $ ”
Graves: I expected I’d hate this, but then I caught the Gemma Ward cameo, which, given the wardrobe, basically amounted to a throwback to her early gigs walking the runway for Marc Jacobs and Miu Miu. Follow that with a slow-mo shot of Chrissy Teigen breastfeeding, and I’m totally committed to this. I’d say I could watch this on mute all day just for the cast of thousands, but the song isn’t … terrible. I’m just having trouble hearing it over Devon Aoki’s face, and I can’t tell if that’s Lily Aldridge or not, and then Fergie said “motherfucker” and I liked it, and oh fuck, that’s totally blonde Kim. By the time you get to the nasally, P!nk-twang vocal interlude that needed to be in this song approximately 0 percent, you’ve surrendered to the fact that Fergie of all people has dragged you into a David LaChapelle milk mustache hellscape, and you like it.
Hopper: Leave it to Fergie to flip “motherfucker” to a term of … beguilement? Here she makes it a dare rather than a dismissal. The thing I kept thinking — removing the song from the video, which is one of the better videos about wet boobs we’ve seen this year — is the way the tight repetition on the hook at the beginning is meant to sound like a sample, this antic moment that straddles EDM pulse and nods to Jersey club. But what’s actually interesting to me here is all the song tries to do — the aforementioned P!nk belter bridge, the gospel choir, the cheerleader-bitch quasi-rapping, the wild shift in tempo — and never quite resolves. It’s a potent pastiche that’s been scientifically smushed together, probably in Will.i.am’s underground Batcave-like lair (I’m imagining leather wallpaper and a framed picture of Diplo he uses for hate-spiration). The total lack of trop house makes it feel not of this moment, which makes me feel like it’s a success for Fergie. Because Fergie is now, and then, and forever.
Vozick-Levinson: Fergie is America’s queen of Top 40 kitsch, the only person who can make a song like this work this well. Her hits consistently feel like Lonely Island parodies of themselves, but that doesn’t make them any less catchy. Never forget that she had the tightest haiku on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. I’ve missed her shameless absurdity in the decade since The Dutchess, and I have to admit I’m here for her reclamation of pop motherhood as something that can be crass and ridiculous as well as beautiful and sacred.
Willis-Abdurraqib: I’m having a really hard time unpacking this video. Maybe the current pop culture landscape should let go of any and all tropes involving milkmen. It feels a bit … dated? I have never seen a milkman in my life. Granted, I grew up in the city.
Cills: OK, yes, let’s unpack. The weirdest thing to me is that the video feels like lactation fetish porn I’m not supposed to be watching. There’s so much milk, and it’s, like, breast milk, right?! Too many metaphors.
Willis-Abdurraqib: That was my thing, too. I was trying to figure out if the milk was a prolonged metaphor for something sexual, and then I just stopped taking myself down that road. I think if you’re going to do a lazy, extended sex metaphor thing, it has to at least be kind of aware of its own silliness, like “Work From Home” was (song, not video).
Madison III: Well, it’s also because “milk” rhymes with “MILF.” Almost. I’m reminded of Rihanna’s “Birthday Cake” remix: “Breast milk sippin’ …”
Lambert: I’m into the lactation fetish aspect. But the song is sooooooooo 2000s-core. And all those 2000s baby-doll era models in the video — it’s a time warp.
Cills: Totally, Molly. I don’t hear P!nk here as much as I hear freaky, arguably more radio-friendly echoes of Peaches or even Gravy Train!!!, just totally unabashed “look at these tits, look at this ass” demands and weird, sexual food metaphors.
Pappademas: Kim Kardashian’s whole aesthetic is calibrated for still photography, so whenever I watch this video I’m distracted by her inability to move around convincingly without making a “thinking very hard about this geometry problem” face. Emilia Clarke has the exact same look whenever she has to climb on the back of a “dragon” that’s really a stepladder in front of a green screen.
Lambert: Kim posted a still on her Instagram, and it looks pornier than anything from her actual porn. People were just commenting, like, “ejaculate.”
Madison III: Those Kimojis made her think she can dance. I wonder what this video would look like with “Famous” playing over it.
Pappademas: Or perhaps this.
Turner: I second Ira’s question about “Famous” over this video, because part of me feels like that’d make for a better “audio-visual experience.” In regards to the actual song, I cannot get over the fact that it jumps between so many different styles and the only thing that sticks is the phrase “I want that MILF money.” Now, honestly, I might be more OK with that if I knew exactly what that phrase was trying to connote to us.
Courtney Barnett, “Elevator Operator”
Pappademas: Good Spike Jonzeian video, even better song, which I will now go way too long on: So many great songwriters who decide to try writing one about other people end up tripping over themselves, and the limits of their perspective; there’s an “Uncle Alvarez” in the canon for every “Eleanor Rigby,” and if we’re being honest (and placing Aretha Franklin’s interpretation aside) I’ve never thought much of “Eleanor Rigby,” either. “Elevator Operator” is, unless I’m forgetting something, the first Courtney Barnett song in which Barnett — in whose reviews the word “journal” recurs and recurs the way “Southern” does in Patterson Hood’s — isn’t the narrator or the protagonist. The music is Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up” with the affect flattened, or maybe Neko Case and The New Pornographers’ eruptive “Letter From an Occupant” chugging uphill, a parade where every banner says “SURE, I GUESS”; the words are about Oliver Paul, 20 years old, who blows off a desk job he can’t stand and rides up to the roof of Melbourne’s historic Nicholas Building instead. Somebody — maybe the lady from the elevator with the snakeskin bag and the “Botox frown” — mistakes him for potentially suicidal and tries to talk him out of jumping. “You’ve got your whole life ahead of you, you’re still in your youth,” the other person says, then adds “I’d give anything to have skin like you.” Oliver, explaining himself: “I come up here for perception and clarity / I like to imagine I’m playing SimCity.” It’s easy to sympathize with all the lonely people; it’s harder to empathize with all the regular people whose biggest problem is not having a clue what to say to each other in awkward moments. At least in this regard, Courtney Barnett is greater at 28 than Paul McCartney was at 24.
Hopper: Any woman who has a way with words is pegged as “diaristic” — as if the only book we can write is a fucking journal with a ponycorn on it — but Barnett crams these songs full of so many telling details they play like movies. The song is an almost unbearably sharp measurement of the physical and psychic distance between Oliver and the woman with the tortoiseshell glasses tucked into her shirt.
Vozick-Levinson: My favorite part of this song is the punch line, which makes no sense: Our disaffected cubicle drone plays hooky, only to confess in the last verse that he’s always wanted to be … an elevator operator? What a strange thing to dream of if you’re feeling bored at work — a day job where you’re confined to a little mechanical box with all those Botox frowns. The video answers this zen riddle by positing the elevator as a trippy fantasy land populated by famous indie rockers and some sort of off-brand Blue Man Group situation. Maybe this song is actually about drugs. It’s about drugs, right?
Cills: Courtney Barnett is the patron saint of peeking in on other people’s lives. I feel like “Depreston” sums this up — she’s a real picture-painter, a sucker for the teeny, teeny details. In another profession, I imagine she’d be some quirky older woman who draws free portraits of passersby in a bustling city. “Elevator Operator” sets up Barnett’s “Oliver” to be this adult Eloise of sorts, who thinks it’s OK to stand dangerously up on the roof because it looks like “SimCity.” What I take from “Elevator Operator” is this sheer hunger for purpose, doing something physical and important for another human, even if it’s as simple as taking someone up a few floors. And when I think of it that way, that punch line dream doesn’t seem so weird to me.
Aaron: Colson Whitehead wrote a beautifully odd novel some years ago called The Intuitionist, set in an alternate 1940s-’50s, pre–civil rights New York City where he envisions elevators as the engine and metaphor for just about everything in society. They make skyscrapers possible, for one thing, and thereby allow the evolution of the modern urban city, and they also create a new space for fantasies (and realities) of escape and danger and social-racial progress and uplift. The book’s main character, a black elevator inspector, challenges the established scientific order by focusing her evaluation on the elevators’ psychic vibrations. She, you see, is an Intuitionist, part of a school of thought based on the search for a metaphysical “black box,” i.e., an elevator with sacred qualities “that will deliver us from the cities we suffer now, these stunted shacks.” All of which is to say, I agree with Alex that this is a fabulous song about loneliness and empathy, but it’s also about the need to move — out of your cubicle, up and down, in and out, among and away from people, or even up to a place, the top of an urban mountain, where nothing’s pressing down on you and you can see the vastness of possibility or just fucking think for a second. So, like Hazel, I don’t think it’s so weird for “Oliver” to want to be an elevator operator. Maybe he’s plunged his imagination into SimCity too many times, or maybe that’s what prepared him to finally embrace a physical world that only alienated him before. What makes Courtney Barnett’s songwriting so wonderful for me is its suggestiveness, the worlds she implies.
Demi Lovato, “Body Say”
Pappademas: This would be a totally functional quasi-trop-house semi-banger from nearly anyone else, but from Demi it feels important, because its “push me, pull you” lyric essentializes a uniquely Lovatovian, fraught concept that’s shadowed nearly everything she’s recorded, even “Confident” — the sense that heavy petting could at any moment give way to hand-wringing. Her brand is crisis.
St. Félix: And Lovato isn’t shy about the way her body’s been embattled. As a spokesperson for body positivity and self-love after trauma, Lovato speaks with candor to things usually talked about euphemistically. “Body Say” is as explicit, and Lovato wrote and recorded quickly by her word, although it’s about the tactical nature of sex. It’s not dirty, because Lovato sings too loudly and emphatically (imagine this pulled back a few BPMs, and her talk-singing instead of doing runs). But it is approaching sexy. She’s got the sex-haze concept down. Now she just needs to work on delivery.
Aaron: I like how she doesn’t quite feel comfortable acting out the role of a sexy pop star — like Selena Gomez, for instance — even when the song basically demands it. She puts her body out there (despite the traumas Doreen references), but she’s trying to connect in a way that’s not about slickly choreographed seduction or clumsy come-ons. The over-singing doesn’t feel like Xtina flexing her Olympian skills, but like a nervous young person struggling to find the right tone or way of expressing herself.
Cills: I think I associate body-positive pop with something far more perfect, like every inch of you is empowered whether you’re some hot mama (see above) or some pop star who’s quick to tell the world she’s not a little girl anymore, or what have you. What hooks me with “Body Say” is how messy it is, dressed up in deeply un-messy tones. Yeah, there are those flirty “push me, pull you” foreplay tones, but I also hear a serious song about sex that recognizes not everyone can slip into it so easily. Maybe that’s my own interpretation of the song, but I hear a sexual reality here I rarely hear in pop songs.
Turner: I really want to like this song. The calm of the production is alluring, and generally I do like Demi Lovato. Yet Doreen is right in observing that Lovato’s singing overwhelms the song. That really hampers what could have been a sexy song, or at least a song that didn’t feel like it needs to be remixed to find its real identity.
Tyga, “1 of 1”
Graves: This sounds like Tyga heard “One Dance” and thought, Whoa, I bet nobody will notice if I write a song at the same BPM with a super-similar beat and also write a hook that includes the word “one.” Plus there’s the whole “half-Jamaican artist going all the way to Jamaica for a video, only to cast a white-passing Yeezy model in the girlfriend role” thing.
St. Félix: There was a cockle in my heart that was very minimally warmed by Tyga’s attempt to connect to his father’s homeland. And that shit went cold when I heard that awful prelude in the video about the “underdeveloped” nature of Kingston, Jamaica. This song is underdeveloped. And who says “1 of 1,” besides Microsoft Word when it asks you how many pages to send to the printer? Technically, “1 of 1” falls into a different genre than “One Dance,” because the latter’s beat vaguely constitutes an Afrobeat designation. So in the vast and magical land of Drake’s appropriated vagaries, “1 of 1” is more likely biting off the subdued, almost-dancehall of “Controlla.” A copy of a copy of a copy is right about what Tyga deserves.
Vozick-Levinson: Tyga’s rapping on this song is so rhythmless and half-asleep that I’m not sure he knew the mic was on. That’s the only explanation I can think of for why he’d go to a line as cringeworthy as “Girl, you know I fuck with you / Like summer school and Lunchables.” Is that supposed to be a sexy image? What kind of cornball hits on someone by comparing them to vacuum-sealed turkey and processed cheese? One (of one) song like this is more than enough.
Pappademas: The funniest thing about the previous season of Keeping Up With the Kardashians is the way everybody rolled their eyes when Tyga showed up to join Kylie on the family trip to St. Barts; the funniest thing about this season is Tyga pressed into the role of sage, talking about Blac Chyna the way Quint from Jaws talks about sharks with doll’s eyes. The funniest thing about this was “Tyga, airplane mode”; the funniest thing about this video is that the plot is literally “Tyga goes to Jamaica and meets an attractive woman” and Tyga still gave himself a “story by” credit. The woman looks like a frightened, teenage Gwen Stefani but turns out to be the daughter of the governor, who’s not psyched about her involvement with Tyga, which I guess is what makes it a “story”? I’ve watched this a couple times and I still wouldn’t swear that it’s a song.
St. Félix: Also, why does the governor of Jamaica have a white-passing daughter from Queens who models for Yeezy?
Aaron: Tyga seems to be a very confused young man with limited musical ideas. But he is definitely the king of unintentionally hilarious rhymes. There’s the infamous “Lunchables” line and then there’s that part when he says, in a vague patois, “I touch the money like masseuse.” Yuck. And for the video to parachute him into a groggy telenovela version of a Kingston “street” drama? It’s 10 types of uncomfortable.
Hopper: The “To Be Continued” here shows the tragicomic scope of Tyga’s aspiration. But please lord let this be the first single from Tyga’s visual album.