Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift, Nick Jonas, and more
by Gregg Shapiro
Gosh, the kids sure do grow up quickly these days, don’t they? Take Ariana Grande, for example. Her transformation from Nickelodeon child star to the latest Universal Music human-trafficking product is quite remarkable. Grande’s 2013 debut disc Yours Truly was a sincerely promising first album, including “Popular Song with Mika,” a wonderful duet featuring gay singer/songwriter Mika. Grande’s choice of collaborators on her second album My Everything (Republic) is one of the first indications that she (or someone on her “team”) wants to move in a very different direction. Mimicking a post-boob-job Mariah Carey on the “Intro” and the title cut, Grande works hard to renovate her image via the hit singles “Problem” (featuring Iggy Azalea) and “Bang Bang” (featuring Nicki Minaj and Jessie J). Working in her favor is the fact that her voice—an instrument to be reckoned with—trumps the production circus, especially on “One Last Time,” “Why Try,” “Best Mistake,” and “Just a Little Bit of Your Heart.”
Of course, it could be worse. Grande could be as dreary as teen soprano Jackie Evancho on her new disc Awakening (Portrait). With its predictable set of classical crossover tunes, including “Ave Maria,” Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Think of Me,” and Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise,” Awakening does succeed in showing off Evancho’s impressive range. But it’s hard not to wish that she would take more chances such as the one she took by performing a rendition of U2’s “With or Without You.” Ultimately, Evancho may be destined to sing songs such as “The Rain of Castamere,” from Game of Thrones, a career move destined to earn her a devoted following among fanboys.
For a minute, there was talk of 25-year-old singer/songwriter Taylor Swift playing Joni Mitchell in the film version of Sheila Weller’s oft-derided book Girls Like Us. Let’s be honest—that’s a terrible idea. Swift’s auto-tuned voice is no match for Mitchell’s pure instrument. Swift is actually closer in spirit to Alanis Morissette, especially on 1989 (Big Machine), her most straightforward pop effort to date. Although 1989 seems like a flawed cry for attention, Swift does deserve credit for acknowledging her queer fans (the “boys and boys, and girls and girls” in “Welcome to New York”), and for collaborating with Jack Antonoff (“Out of the Woods” and “I Wish You Would”) and Imogen Heap (“Clean”). But on the whole, 1989 misfires more often than not, and that can easily be pinned on the ubiquitous Max Martin.
“Try,” a track from Gyspy Heart (Republic), is the most mature tune Colbie Caillat has ever (co-)written and recorded, and is the kind of number that deserves to be a hit and heard by everyone. The timeless song’s message of empowerment and self-esteem is one that resonates, especially in this day and age. The fact that the song is buried in the midst of Caillat’s usually sunny pop songs, including “Live It Up,” “Blaze,” “Never Gonna Let You Down,” “Nice Guys,” and “Floodgates,” means that it could be overlooked. It would be a shame if that came to pass.
One-third of the teeny-bop boy-band Jonas Brothers, and the second-best looking of the three, Nick Jonas resumes his sidetracked solo career with a new self-titled album on Island Records. Jonas, who has made a name for himself as a songwriter, kicks off the disc with the inferior “Chains,” a song he didn’t write. The album’s most memorable original tunes co-written by Jonas are “Numb” (featuring queer rapper Angel Haze) and “Push.” As for his skills as an interpreter of other people’s music, he’s not half-bad on “Teacher” and “Wilderness.”
The boy-band One Direction has released four albums in four years. They’ve toured extensively, were Brit TV talent-show finalists, and they’ve even made movie versions of their concerts. Where they find the time to write and record songs, shag girls, get tatted, grow facial hair, meet with overpaid stylists, and pose for kooky pix is anyone’s guess. The aptly titled Four (SYCO/Columbia) is basically more of the same anonymous pop that the boys have been manufacturing since being groomed for stardom by Simon Cowell.
Gregg Shapiro is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.