When I was YouTubein’ different record-cleaning techniques the other day, I came across this wood glue technique for removing contaminating particles from the groove. It’s actually a fairly innocuous process, and it turns out that when you peel off the glue, it retains its shape as an imprint of the LP — neat! But of course, keeping the glue copy would be stupid since it’d make an inversion of the grooves, not an identical pressing, right? Well, with his second solo album, G I R L, Pharrell Williams proves that you can indeed make replicas of your favorite records with these flaccid wood glue leftovers; all it requires is a couple Billboard #1 pastiches and something like Play-Doh to re-invert the grooves of the wood glue imprint.
But “Happy,” the album’s (nauseatingly successful) lead single, is a perfect example of what is lost in this replication process: boldness, personality, dynamic, cultural relevancy, etc. But I suppose that I understand why something so seemingly inoffensively pastiche would sell to the masses so well. How could someone possibly be upset about a children’s film adaptation of The Angel’s “My Boyfriend’s Back”? How could someone possibly be upset after listening to an album that repeats the word “happy” nearly a hundred times? Well, I’m upset, mostly because Williams has managed to manufacture a neoliberal anthem that goes down like a sweet snack. “Can’t nothing bring me down/ My level’s too high/ Can’t nothing bring me down/ I said (let me tell you now)”: isn’t that what neoliberalism sells, that happiness is just a choice and a chance away? Well, for most people who aren’t millionaires, life isn’t all edible Play-Doh and rainbows, so when someone’s selling happiness as candy, what happens when you wake up to rainy days and rotten teeth?
Keeping with the capital-first trend set by “Happy,” “Gust of Wind” and “Marilyn Monroe” are pretty much exactly what one would expect from The Academy’s latest marionette: Random Access Memories + The 20/20 Experience = top of the Billboard charts. While “Gust of Wind” may be the most listenable song on the album, both tracks function to exemplify Williams’s ineptitude as a central attraction. The complete lack of expression in his shaky vocals aside, the weak and unclear metaphors of his lyrics are enough to make even “Gust of Wind” a throwaway: “Telephone winds of the northern sky/ Is the closest thing, and here is why/ Cause we’re color.”
If there’s anything “colorful” about the orchestral arrangements on “Marilyn Monroe” or “Gust of Wind” — or the production on any other song on the album, for that matter — it’s paint-by-numbers by the numbers; the production is so predictable and generic that almost anyone could have filled in the blanks. “Lost Queen,” for example, is irredeemably clumsy, bland, and monotonous, and the less-than-impressive vocals don’t help. “I don’t have a problem with multitaskin’/ Takin’ care of you is my number one passion/ […] Can I start you up? It’s automatic/ Get your motor runnin’, runnin’, vroom-vroom.” How else could a song with lyrics as comically half-witted as these still manage to be consistently unentertaining? And the lyrics sheet has even lower moments than this, like on “Know Who You Are” — “Inhale, exhale, in and out, like a seal/ No no, aw yes, smile honey, no stress” — or, even worse, on “Gush:” “Make the pussy just gush/ Make the pussy just gush/ Make the pussy just gush/ Make it, make it, just gush/ Make it, just gush/ I make the pussy just gush/ I make it, just gush.”
Wait a minute — wasn’t this album marketed as a celebration of women? For a guy doing everything he can to get over the “Blurred Lines” controversy, the lyrics to a track like “Hunter” aren’t helping his cause: “Just because it’s the middle of night/ That don’t mean I won’t hunt you down.” In fact, the only lyrics on the entire album that could be construed as empowering for woman are sung by Alicia Keys — “No more, acquiesce, standin’ up, with no stress/ I will do, what I need, ‘til every woman on the Earth is free” — while Williams squanders his vocals on the track by telling woman that he knows how they feel. His slight affiliation with Beyoncé has more merit as a “feminist” gesture than anything that can be found on G I R L.
And all of this is borderline insulting to its target audience, myself included. For a moment in “Brand New,” Williams lets us see his hand, and it subtly reveals how incredibly marketed and capital-centric this album is: “Like the tag’s still on me/ Got the tags still on me.” In a recent interview with Pitchfork, he goes even further to say that, and I’m paraphrasing, he didn’t even want to make an album but Columbia convinced him to do so with their not-insubstantial pocketbook. So, during the album trailer, when you watch him shed a tear behind his designer sunglasses in the multi-million-dollar complex that he has the privilege to manufacture his shallow pastiches of pastiches in, he is selling his audience Sentimentality + “Authenticity” = Sincerity through an album that reflects nothing except for what is manifestly marketable to consumers of this “sincerity.”
“Freq” sees Williams flexing his super-sincere-self-esteem-pop skills, making sure people are fully aware of how “emotionally invested” he is in this project, but he seems incapable of learning from his own lesson: “You see, I’d rather be a freq than not bein’ me/ Individuality makes life better.” No fucking shit. But why then is there absolutely nothing “freqy” or individual about anything on G I R L? Unless, of course, “me” means Columbia Records, “individuality” means Play-Doh replications, and “making life better” means lining your wallet. On “Marilyn Monroe,” Williams opens this collection of replicas of replicas by boasting that he “don’t need no adjectives to describe this G I R L.” Well, this much is true: he certainly don’t need no superlatives.