Back in the fall of 1995, four of pop music’s most successful divas: Whitney Houston, Madonna, Janet Jackson, and Mariah Carey were released highly-anticipated albums. This was an era when people actually bought physical CDs and given each performer’s track record, expectations were high. Houston was coming out with the soundtrack to her starring vehicle, Waiting to Exhale, which would give her a handful of top 2o hits; Carey was releasing Daydream which is one of her biggest sellers in her career; and both Madonna and Jackson were coming out with greatest hit collections for the holiday season, each of which would go on to sell over 8 million copies each. In those days, it was a guarantee that a product by any one of the superstars would be lodged in the top ten for weeks.
But now, 20 years later, pop music has changed. Older artists are edged out for younger performers, and if an album manages to sell a million copies, that’s considered a monster hit. Houston sadly died in 2012, yet her colleagues are still around, making music, and seemingly trying to recapture some of their former glory. Each has come out with a single in the past few months, with sales being sleepy for all three songs. Carey, Jackson, and Madonna have seen their record sales all dwindle as tastes change.
Madonna’s “Bitch I’m Madonna,” is the third single from her 13th studio album, Rebel Heart. Teamed up with rapper Nicki Minaj (who guested on Madonna’s last top ten hit, 2012’s “Give Me All Your Luvin'”), the legendary dance diva has the strongest single of the three vets. As with her albums, Madonna has an uncanny ability to pick producers who know how to compliment her pop aesthetic, while remaining just subversive enough to be interesting. “Bitch I’m Madonna” is really a producer’s showcase – DJ and remixer Diplo creates a swirling mess of a dance song that shoehorns EDM, dance-pop, hip-hop into a surprisingly listenable song. There are samples of acoustic guitars, skittery beats, video game beeps and pops, and a farting synth that undulates alongside Madonna’s heavily-layered vocals. Diplo has his work cut out for him because he has to make an established pop star sound outre and original – a difficult task, as Madonna’s been in the business for over 30 years, and has seemingly tried everything. So instead of handling his muse with kid gloves, he converts her into a 21st century Donna Summer to his Giorgio Moroder. The song doesn’t reference Madonna’s storied past, and instead makes the case that Madonna’s still a relevant and powerful tunesmith. Instead of recalling Madonna’s fantastic past, the lyrics place Madonna squarely in the present. She presents herself as the queen of the party, still able to raise hell and cause a stink. And to her credit, she doesn’t sound hopelessly uncool, nor does she come off as some desperate legend trying to sound hip “for the kids.”
If Madonna is happy in trying new things, Mariah Carey is interested in some good old-fashioned nostalgia. Her single “Infinity,” the title track off her latest greatest hits record, #1 to Infinity will remind ardent Carey fans of her best pop ballads. A lot has been said about Carey’s diminished vocal range – I don’t hear it. She sounds great on this breezy, overwrought ballad. When one listens to Mariah Carey, it’s not for subtlety or truth, but to get ones musical sweet tooth satisfied. And though the lyrics are supposed to be empower in an “I Will Survive” kind of way, they are merely there to let listeners revel in Carey’s substantial set of pipes which can still belt and do that crazy dog whistle thing. The song has a catchy chorus that moves at a sweeping pace because of wall-to-wall strings and with dramatic drums. Though it’d be nice of Carey would start using her prodigious talents to do something more substantial, as a lovelorn, breakup ballad, “Infinity” fits the bill nicely.
Like Carey, Janet Jackson decided to return to pop music with a pop ballad. Unfortunately, of the three songs reviewed here, “No Sleeep” is the least interesting. Misspelling aside, “No Sleeep” is a misleading title because it’s a drowsy quiet storm ballad. This is Jackson’s first single in 5 years, so it’s a surprising that she’s chosen this slow meandering tune instead of a dance single which would show her off in her best light. Though she possess a pretty voice, it’s thin and airy, and her vocal limits are often highlighted when she slows down. On “No Sleep,” she indulges in some of the bad habits she leans on when she’s singing slower songs, namely the whispered cooing and random spoken bits that sound like they were recorded under layers of gauze – she tries to reach for some real singing in the bridge, which has the singer use a fuller voice, which is nice, but unfortunately, she falls back on the drowsy delivery just as soon as she belts, which is a shame because it’s the only time the song comes to life. All of these debits would still be okay if the song was well-written with a memorable hook. Unfortunately, Jackson and her longtime collaborators, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis chose to craft a song without a hook – instead it’s meandering and formless, with little-to-no structure. Though it’s only three minutes long, it feels interminable.