I heard the song while pumping gas at the station. It was over the speaker system for the connected convenience store. I knew it well enough, as Sia’s “Cheap Thrills” (2016) has become a Muzak staple and I find that eight out of ten times where I’m in this situation, it’s this exact song I hear. It’s impossible to hear that electro-Carribbean rhythm at the start and not know what you’re listening to.
But then Ed Sheeran started singing. It was “Shape of You,” recorded in 2016 and released in 2017 on his chart-topping Divide album. This mistake did not faze me. I knew very well that, separately, both Sia and Sheeran wrote their songs with the intention of selling them to Rihanna to record. She chose not to and so the songwriters recorded these themselves, to much acclaim and assumed wealth.
To me, in this scenario, Rihanna turns out to be the hero. The songs in question are undoubtedly hook-heavy earworms, but they’re also prime examples of the R-word.
I do not believe for an instant that Sia or Sheeran are “racist” but they are absolutely “reductionist.” Rihanna has, in the past, had her Barbadian heritage inform her music, but not always. In fact, I’d say in the last six years she has demonstrably sought to be the opposite, particularly in her choices for featured hook verses. Calvin Harris’ “This Is What You Came For,” David Guetta’s “We Found Love,” even Eminem’s “Love The Way You Lie” all make the argument for the singer’s position in pop, with or without the island inflections.
As before, I’m sure there’s nothing but respect between Sia, Rihanna, and Sheeran as professionals, but there had to be a hint of side-eye happening when she was presented with songs that were “boxes into which the things we think Rihanna is reside” other than “songs we want to present to Rihanna” or “songs that might challenge Rihanna.”
I might not have even gotten this far into Hot Take Alley were it not that Sheeran had already done something equivalent to this for none other than Justin Bieber. Reviewers hailed the restrained, mature turn he did on the song “Love Yourself,” with its folky nature and refusal to drunkenly stagger into the expected club banger mode. In truth, it could have been far racier had Bieber recorded it as presented by Sheeran as “F*** Yourself.”
The point is clear. Sheeran offered a song that was as far from Belieberland as he’d yet ventured and it paid off. It was an honest challenge. So why didn’t he feel the same compunction to send Rihanna a song that played to other strengths, or at least diverged from surface tropes?
This story is a clear example of why the pop charts are so dreadful. The formulas that have been used, and reused, and reused so often in the past six years actually work, but so do McDonalds cheeseburgers, which taste exactly the same in every location, in every city and town.
Any artistic expression has to also balance commoditization. If you insist on making a song that is pure art, you must expect that you’re going to alienate some listeners as you chase your muse and weirder tendencies. The best musicians know how to play with the templates and tweak them enough to make something outstanding. That’s a craft thing.
The industrialization thing, where the song-product is so regimented, so Six-Sigma’ed into perfect, copycat burgers, never ceases to bother me. God knows I’ve tried to not let it. What good does stewing about the assembly line really accomplish? And I cannot avoid mentioning that Riri’s “Bitch Better Have My Money” isn’t the mountaintop of the arts either…but I give her a lot of credit for seemingly walking away from easy money that only doubled down on a sound she’d already done.
I have hopes that the current state of play is ready to change. I think the recent Billie Eilish record indicates a new interest in not being the latest clone of the previous clone, and individuality – whether you the consumer like the final product or not – should be valued.