Fun, disposable pop music should sound fresh and new, but this sounds old already ... partly because it is old.
The cover for the US edition of Hey Willpower’s debut album is a photo of the duo’s Will Schwartz, sunglasses-clad, doing a hand-stand next to a boombox. He looks not cool but completely awkward. It seems a portrait of a middle-aged man trying to hip-hop dance like a teenager might, and not quite getting there. That’s the story of the album PDA, too. It’s an adult playing young, dumb-and-fun pop music, with the added dimension that the adult is also a rock star of sorts, vocalist for Imperial Teen, around for over a decade now. That band’s latest album, The Hair, the TV, the Baby and the Band, was the epitome of aging gracefully, a still-spunky pop-rock album that showed awareness of the ways life changes over the years. The band seemed to understand what they could still do and what they’d look ridiculous doing. With Hey Willpower, Schwartz doesn’t care if he looks ridiculous. Being ridiculous is part of the plan.
Schwartz formed the duo, with Tomo Yasuda, to express his love for Top 40 pop music, for R&B and hip-hop hits. Hey Willpower’s music is layers of bass, beats, synths, and heavy breathing, with Schwartz singing simple tunes about getting down and dirty, on the dancefloor and elsewhere. He taunts, winks, and tries to seduce, while Yasuda tries his best to channel Timbaland on the production side. Schwartz either sings in a careless-whisper growl/croon or unleashes his inner faux-Prince, sounding much like Beck did on Midnite Vultures eight years ago. He sings purposely silly come-ons like, “I am OK with playing truth or dare / As long as you end up in your underwear”. And already dated ones like, “I could make you scream / I’m better than a Krispy Kreme”.
In 2008, we’re in an era where rock’s stranglehold on coolness has long since faded, where in most music-listening circles it’s OK or even hip to admit loving an extreme diversity of musical genres, including even the most blatantly commercial sort of pop. “Selling out” isn’t necessarily a bad thing and dancing is no longer a no-no. On “Phenomenon”, Schwartz sings, “Say I’m losing all my indie cred / 'Cause I’m saying things I haven’t said”. But what is “indie cred” anymore? Hey Willpower seem to be reacting against a mindset that has already changed. And the strength of their reaction hurts the music itself. PDA seems to come from the notion that playing cheesy dance-pop is a rebellion against the seriousness of the music world. So they play up the cheese factor as much as possible. Imperial Teen always had a lusty, trashy side, but with Hey Willpower it’s delivered in the broadest, simplest way. In playing up the dumb factor, they actually get dumber than the “dumb” music they’re trying to emulate. Through Hey Willpower obviously have an appreciation for pop radio hits, their version of the same has lost much of the verve and wittiness in the translation, to an almost condescending degree.
Pop music of this variety has an expiration date. Part of the critical coming-around on the most commercial pop has involved understanding that disposable music is not inherently worse than music that is designed to sound “timeless”. The problem with PDA is that it is music that should sound fresh and new, but it sounds old already. That’s partly because it is old, in pop-music terms. Four of the 10 songs on PDA, the catchiest and most dancefloor-friendly four, were released on an EP in 2005. The album itself was first released by the German label Tomlab in 2006. They released it in the UK in early 2007, and have now finally released it in the US, a full year after that. To keep the album looking fresh, for this US version Tomlab rearranged the track listing, gave it new cover art, and added, as the eleventh track, the duo’s so-so cover of Architecture in Helsinki’s “Heart It Races”, already available on an EP by that band. The new clothes do not renew the music. Designed as disposable pop, it’s getting less relevant with each passing minute. Songs that sounded stupid but still sort of fun a couple years ago sound more stupid, and less fun, today. It’s hard to imagine what new listeners will make of Hey Willpower’s Timbaland imitations today, and harder to imagine that US fans of the group don’t already have the album. In the current era of global downloading, record-label restrictions about what is released where and when do not matter. Why wait a year and a half for music that by its very definition is about instantaneous fun? It’s like trying to relive a party when everyone who was there has long since moved on to the next one, and the one after that, and the one after that…