Last week, Rebecca Black became a sensation thanks to her single “Friday,” a catchy and unintentionally hilarious anthem that perfectly distills the literal-mindedness of teen-pop (the music video spells out her lyrics: “Today it is Friday…Tomorrow is Saturday, and Sunday comes afterwards”). Black, a product of Ark Music Factory, a label designed to produce the next Bieber-like YouTube child-star phenom, may be unaware of the many levels of irony inherent in her “success,” but that is, after all, part of what makes “Friday” so enjoyable: We’re made to think that Black, an accidental celebrity, is just like any other teenage girl who can’t wait for the weekend to finally come. When she sings the chorus, in that nasally, Auto-Tuned-to-oblivion voice, we believe her.
But Black has a lot more in common with modern pop music than most people seem to think. Brendon Urie, lead singer of Panic! at the Disco, recently tweeted, with no small amount of righteousness, “Listen, it’s not ALL Rebecca Black’s fault. It seems her soul was taken by the demons of Ark Music Factory. So I say blame them.” But when did Panic! at the Disco become the arbiter of soul? When did they even have one? The band rose to quasi-fame on a video that was at least as contrived as “Friday,” if a lot more self-serious: “I Write Sins Not Tragedies,” which sold the angsty Hot Topic equivalent to Black’s SoCal pool party. There was the eyeliner, the top hat, the emo-fratboy antics on the MTV Video Music Awards, and of course, that exclamation point.
That punctuation mark is back, after a short absence during a (somewhat) surprising departure, Pretty. Odd., the band’s more retro-inflected second album. Since then, guitarist Ryan Ross and bassist Jon Walker have left due to “creative differences” and have gone on to start their own grown-up band, the Young Veins. But if you were expecting some kind of creative transformation from the shakeup, this new album may be something of a disappointment, as Urie and drummer Spencer Smith return to the skittish, bombastic pop-rock of their debut.
The hooks on the lead single, “The Ballad of Mona Lisa,” are big and shiny, while the “edgy” second track, “Let’s Kill Tonight,” cops some of the ‘80s synths of La Roux and throws them into overdrive. There are some interesting instrumental touches here and there, but it’s hard to hear them through the bludgeoning production. If that’s to cover up Urie, it’s not hard to understand why. Writing alone for the first time, he makes Ross’s lyrics sound downright nuanced. I’m not sure if he’s intentionally referencing New Orleans when he sings “I’ll be your levee,” but it doesn’t quite work either way.
Whether this is going to win back the band’s audience—or if the same kind of audience exists to be won back—remains unclear. The kids have a few new idols, Black being the most ironic and self-effacing among them. But Urie seems pretty content in the same territory that made him unlikeable in the first place. This is arena music at its most inane. But, hey, at least he hasn’t lost his soul.