The Gems of Taylor Swift’s Awkward-Yet-Admirable Live Album

Perhaps my favorite part of the advent of Spotify has been the easy access to live albums. While they’ve been a slightly strange investment before – you want to buy recordings of people singing the same songs you already own studio versions of? – having them at your fingertips gives listeners a chance to enjoy them with much less commitment. I would never buy Taylor Swift’s live album, for instance. I’m not a huge Swift fan, though I like way more of her songs than you would expect of someone who’s lukewarm on the formerly country songbird. But while bored on a Wednesday night, I gave it a spin – and found plenty worth loving.

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What Beyoncé’s ‘Surfbort’ Reprise Means for Her Career

There’s been something significant happening with Beyoncé recently. That’s pretty obvious on its surface, of course; between her secret album’s smashing success and her successful family life, a lot has been happening to Beyoncé recently. But I’m talking less about the broad strokes and more about the subtleties that are hinting at something much bigger happening with Queen Bey.

Bey’s performance with husband Jay Z at last night’s GRAMMYs is a good example of what I’m talking about. They did “Drunk in Love,” because despite not being the best thing on her self-titled, it’s always fun to see hip hop’s royal couple perform together. Watch it below:

Kind of a mess technically, but pretty fun, right? Yet one part sticks out as being much looser and far more interesting than the rest of the performance: When Bey slid on into a surprise reprise of the iconic “Surfboard / Surfboard” section of the song. Twitter went wild when that happened, and of course they did! Trying to figure out exactly how she pronounces the word (Serfbort? Surfboardt? Surfbort?) has become a national pastime since the album first dropped. It’s not surprising that Beyoncé would choose to throw something fun in there for fans.

Except it actually is. It’s incredibly surprising. Queen Bey may be good at a great many things, but fanservice has always been her weakest point.

Think back to Beyoncé’s Super Bowl halftime show. Many point to this as one of the best Super Bowl halftime shows ever. The demanding choreography and fast-paced setlist made sure die-hards and non-fans alike could find something to enjoy. On a technical level, it was an absolute marvel.

But look at the setlist closely: “Baby Boy”? “End of Time”? These are hardly the massive, career-spanning hits you’d expect. Sure, “Crazy in Love” and “Single Ladies” were in there, but I’m pretty sure Bey is contractually bound to play those whenever she appears. Still, no “Say My Name”? You reunite Destiny’s Child, and you don’t play “Say My Name”? The songs she performed seemed more like what she thinks she performs well versus what the audience wants to hear. (Because fans would have died over “Countdown,” let me tell you.)

For the dominant part of her career, Beyoncé preferred to be perfect rather than be playful. She was sexy, sure, but almost robotically so. She was fun, but it always seemed like an act. Being a Beyoncé fan was about worship more than love.

That’s why her new album, BEYONCÉ, is so beloved by fans: she finally stopped worrying and learned to love herself. A song like “Rocket,” with its deep sensuality and sprawling, barely lucid flow, isn’t perfect, not by a long shot. But it starts with her exclaiming “Let me put this aaaaaaaaaasssss / On ya,” sounding just as delighted with herself as she should. Same with “Yoncé,” a boastful bridge rap that Dangerously in Love-era Beyoncé would have left to her to-be husband. And yes, on the all-too-scattered “Drunk in Love,” Bey spits rhymes in circles around her husband. It’s a mess, but a beautiful mess. And last night’s GRAMMY performance made it even messier.

While watching the show in my office, many friends watching questioned Bey’s performance, from the song selection to the wet hair she performed it in. Yet I found myself watching it – particularly the “Surfboard / Surfboard” reprise – over and over again. It’s just wonderful to see the queen succeed by doing exactly what she wants to do: have fun. And she’s letting us have fun with her. That’s worth all the messy hair in the world.

(Oh, and it’s definitely spelled surfbort.)

5 Beyoncé Tracks to Download Today

If you recently came back from a week without technology — say, you took a trip to Amish country, or you had a bout of amnesia that was just miraculously cured (congratulations!) — there is a minor chance you somehow missed the news that Beyoncé floored the world by secretly releasing a new album (Beyoncé) last Friday morning. As such, you may not know that she broke iTunes sales records, topped the Billboard 200 after only three days of selling her record and basically caused an Internet-wide heart attack.

The queen diva’s strategy was to get people to buy the full album and experience it as an event once again. Considering the sales, it seems she accomplished that quite well. But you, our hypothetical technophobe or medical miracle, are also a bit wary of commitment. Buying a whole album is a lot, after all. Luckily, starting today, all the tracks from Beyoncé’s self-titled album are available for individual download.

The whole album is great, but if you’re looking for a starter pack before you go whole-hog, here are five tracks you should download.

20131217-124310.jpg“Pretty Hurts”
Every defining work — which, time will tell, but I do think Beyoncé is the queen’s masterpiece — needs a thesis statement. “Pretty Hurts” is the first track, the first video, and sets the theme for both the aural and visual experiences ahead. It’s been noted elsewhere that having the human embodiment of perfection tell us that “Perfection is the disease of a nation” is a bit jarring, but that’s not quite grasping the whole picture. Beyoncé doesn’t strive for perfection just because — she strives for perfection because that’s what we as a culture celebrate. More than that, she has to make it look effortless when it takes so much work and, likely, so much of herself.

This song — and this album — is an indictment of that idea: why must she give so much of herself? Why did she give up a childhood for trying so damn hard? It’s something she goes into in this video; “Pretty Hurts” and another song on this list are clearly the definitive one-two punch of the album’s first major message. Using the pageant as a metaphor for that struggle (“Just another stage, pageant the pain away”) is particularly effective, considering the near-uselessness of pageant skills in life beyond, of course, being pretty.

So as a thesis, “Pretty Hurts” works beautifully, but what about as a song? All you need to hear is the anguish in Bey’s tone, the pain of the lyrics and the scathing nature of the video, which I recommend downloading here more than any other song, and you understand what a powerful piece this is. Damning the system is daring for a pop star, but Bey’s disgust is unconditional here.

Best Line: The opening soundbite — “My ambition … is … to be happy.” It plays better in the video, as a complete whiff of a softball question she wasn’t expecting, but the intention of the line — ‘I’ve put so much of myself into being perfect, I forgot somewhere along the way that happiness was my goal’ — still resonates.

One of Bey’s clear goals in producing this record/living is to become Michael Jackson, more or less. She described Thriller as one of the big inspirations for Beyoncé, and nowhere is this more obvious than on “Blow.” The beat is pure MJ, facilitating the song’s retro flair.

Yet make no mistake: “Blow” is early-2000s Christina Aguilera dirrrty. It’s not “Ms. Knowles if you’re nasty” like “Partition” or “Rocket,” two of Bey’s filthiest recordings ever, but it does prominently feature Beyoncé telling her lover to turn her cherry out. It’s playfully sexy, a total jam (it was almost the first single before it was replaced by another song on this list) and will have you craving cherries all day. Or something like that.

Best Line: “Can you taste my Skittle, it’s the sweetest in the middle.” Beyoncé has plenty of nicknames for her ladyparts in this song, but “Skittle” stands out as particularly naughty.

“I’m in my penthouse half-naked,” Beyoncé purrs at the outset of “Jealous.” “I cooked this meal for you naked. So where the hell you at?” This wounded woman warrior ballad is a spiritual sequel to “Ring the Alarm” off B’Day. Yet where that song was fueled by pure fury (allegedly about rumors then-boyfriend Jay Z was stepping out with new label star Rihanna), “Jealous” is a lot more emotionally conflicted. Is the lover in this song even cheating? Beyoncé doesn’t seem quite sure, but she’s got her suspicions — and she’s human, so of course she’s envious. She dusts off her old freakum dress, a thrilling callback to another B’Day track, and she goes out on the town to meet up with her ex and have some fun. “Don’t be jealous,” she taunts with just the right balance of indignation and pain in her tone.

Although “Jealous” at first sounds like a variation on a well-worn theme — ‘my man is cheating and I’m pissed’ — there’s so much more going on here psychologically. This is about Bey’s conflicts within her own mind; her lack of trust in her partner, perhaps because of past indiscretions. Like “Ring the Alarm,” Bey sounds dangerous — but this time, the only threat she poses is to herself. It’s a micro example of the album’s second macro trend: taking previous songs’ premises and expanding them into a more thought-provoking, artifice-shedding place.

Best Line: Easily the aforementioned nude cuisine preparation. To Bey, the idea of a man not being there for her naked cooking is unfathomable; he must be cheating.

As you can tell from the “Pretty Hurts” and “Jealous” descriptions, Bey is in a deep place for much of this record. But all the claims that Beyoncé is without hits are pure hogwash, something you realize the moment “XO” hits its chorus. From the soaring production to Bey’s vocal, sure to put a spring in your step, this is the kind of song great memories are made of.

“XO” is bombastic, thrilling and hopeful. No, it’s not the most complex song in the world; in many ways, it’s the palate-cleansing gelato in the middle of your 12-course meal. But that’s hugely necessary, and a vital function for such an album as this. In a set of dark, challenging tracks, this one is the refreshing burst of joy you can enjoy all on its own for exactly what it is.

Best Line: Gotta be “Baby, love me lights out.” The tamest lyric on the record, yet somehow also the most romantic.

20131217-124508.jpg“***Flawless” (ft. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)
If Beyoncé is Mrs. Knowles-Carter’s masterpiece record, “***Flawless” is her masterpiece song. What this track accomplishes in just over four minutes is monumental. It doesn’t waste a second, blazing through three different samples, the infamously boastful “Bow Down” that Bey leaked last spring and a new verse that has already gone viral.

Start with the framing of Bey’s appearance on Star Search. She was competing as part of Girls Tyme, a prototype Destiny’s Child that host Ed McMahon is heard describing as a “hip-hop, rappin'” group. They lost — baffling at the time to Bey, that you could put so much of yourself into something and still lose — to a group of white men named Skeleton Crew, who went on to do all of nothing. (Girls Tyme gets three stars — cleverly referred to in the song’s stylized title.) Already, the song feels connected to “Pretty Hurts” as almost a part two of her artist’s statement on imperfection.

Then there’s “Bow Down,” a vicious verse demanding that women respect her and, well, bow down. When it was first released, she was criticized for attacking other women — something that quickly gets called out in the final sample of the song, an excerpt of a TEDx Talk by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called “We Should All Be Feminists.” In the talk, Adichie condemns the idea that women are raised only to care about marriage and to compete with other women for men’s attention. But, she’s quick to clarify, she thinks competition between women for accomplishments “can be a good thing,” an important distinction that keeps Bey’s feminism feeling unique and singular. The last verse — a super-quotable section featuring the refrain “I woke up like dis / Flawless” —feels epic as you’re listening to it.

That’s a lot of parts, and it would be easy for all of it not to mesh. But it does, brilliantly, and in the process we get something incredibly special: a well-produced, masterfully performed exploration about Beyoncé’s feminist philosophy that doesn’t feel cheap or expository. Quite the opposite: it feels like a complete and utter jam. This isn’t just good pop music: it’s an incredible artistic statement.

Best Line: “I woke up like dis” is easily the breakout part of the record, ready to be GIF’d, danced to and Snapchat-captioned endlessly. But it’s more than quotable: it’s an incredibly caustic rebuke to the idea that men expect women to be beautiful in an instant, ignoring all the work they put into their image (see also: “Pretty Hurts”). It’s a rebel yell for women, uniting in their shared experiences of having to look — and be — effortlessly “***Flawless.”

Three more great tracks: “Drunk in Love” (ft. Jay Z), “Heaven,” “Superpower” (ft. Frank Ocean)

Follow Kevin O’Keeffe on Twitter @kevinpokeeffe.

Falling under Kelly Clarkson’s Christmas spell

Photo Credit: RCA Records

Originally published in the Los Angeles Loyolan. For original, please refer to: Falling under Kelly Clarkson’s Christmas spell – The Los Angeles Loyolan.

Kelly Clarkson has turned me into my least favorite type of person: a Christmas-in-October person.

It’s all her fault. I’ve never been a big fan of the celebrity Christmas album – sure, Michael Bublé sounds great on his, and Celine Dion’s version of “O Holy Night” is still one of the best things that’s ever been recorded, but they’re the exceptions to the rule. So when I heard that my favorite Texan vocal powerhouse was releasing a holiday record, I sighed. First she did the greatest hits album, now this – is she retiring at 35 or something?

But then I listened to “Wrapped in Red,” released last Tuesday – Oct. 29, not even close to Christmas – and now I can’t get “Silent Night” out of my head. Or “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Or “White Christmas.” It’s a serious problem.

Leaping straight to Christmas right after Halloween – er, before Halloween – is a bad idea. It means you’ll burn out of holiday cheer right around Dec. 8. It means you’re ignoring Thanksgiving, the most woefully overlooked holiday. Christmas takes over a whole month anyway – why does it need any more time?

Oh, wait, Clarkson’s new song “Underneath the Tree” just came on and reminded me that Christmas needs more time because it is the best. Just thinking of a fireplace roaring as snow falls outside gives me warm, fuzzy feelings. (“But Kevin, you grew up in Austin, Texas–” Shh, snow is falling outside. It’s very important to my creative vision.) Why wouldn’t you want to play Christmas music all year long?

In the years since Clarkson won “American Idol,” I’ve also forgotten how good she is at big band-style music. It serves her so well here, as she nails even the most tangentially Christmas-related songs – who decided “My Favorite Things” was about the holidays? Quite frankly, there’s not a bad cover song on the record.

But wait, I think, waking from my snowy reverie. The most important part of a Christmas album is the original hit. And an original Christmas song hasn’t become a new standard since Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” I’ll probably get bored with Clarkson’s takes on the classic Christmas songs, right?

Wrong. Because Clarkson’s “Underneath the Tree” is a hit just waiting to happen. “4 Carats” is one of her hottest songs ever, regardless of the holiday theme. And “Winter Dreams (Brandon’s Song)” is an adorable, sweet-hearted tune for her new husband.

That’s it. I’m done resisting. I’m letting the early holiday feels wash over me. After all, if letting Kelly Clarkson make you love early Christmas music is wrong, I don’t want to be right.