As stated in my “Where Are The Negative Album Reviews” article a while back, I refuse to review releases I already know I won’t enjoy. It’s complete waste of time for the reader and myself. However, that doesn’t mean I’ll shy away from sharing my opinion. Especially if it initiates an interesting conversation. Such is the case with Ten Years, the recently released EP from former Disney Channel stars-turned-pop stars Aly & AJ.
Now is probably the best time to say that I’m not a fan of modern pop music. Upbeat, catchy songs are great and not everything can be Radiohead. But in the last 10 or 15 years, pop as a genre has become a depressing black hole of superficial trash. Nothing churns my stomach like the thought of listening to a Taylor Swift or a Chainsmokers record in its entirety. Don’t get me wrong, I won’t throw shade at anyone who enjoys that sort of thing. I full-on understand the appeal but it’s just not my thing.
You’re probably wondering why I chose to talk about a release from a duo who embody the very definition of pop as a genre. Good question! The answer is simple: Marketing.
I receive a lot of email from PR groups looking to push their artists by way of reviews or interviews. Outside of major networks and publications being paid to cover or gush about a release, this is how the word is spread. PR email range from cold and corporate to embarrassingly desperate. It’s part of the music industry the general public rarely thinks about. Over the course of the summer, I received plenty of these messages regarding Ten Years. The cover art of the lead single, “Take Me” features a tastefully risque photo of a naked model’s backside. How’s that for reaching for attention?
Good on Aly & AJ’s PR team for piquing the interest of every writer with such an image. Thanks to the single’s cover art, I didn’t even have to read the following paragraph in the email to know Aly & AJ were back after a decade and trying to shed their Disney image with an adult-oriented EP. It’s what Disney kids do. Look at Miley Cyrus or Nick Jonas for example. Do you want to be taken seriously? Sell some sexiness.
Now they have my attention, what does it say about Aly & AJ’s Ten Years?
A decade ago, the Michalka sisters became fed up with recording bright and fluffy music for pre-teens and chose to focus on acting. Fast forward to 2017 and no longer tied to the pristine Disney image, it was time to release new music reflecting their maturity. Ten Years is 4 tracks of medium tempo, synth-heavy pop tracks with breathy vocals and that’s pretty much the extent of the review. The best of the bunch is the aforementioned “Take Me”, but it’s essentially any single from The 1975 with a female voice at the mic. There’s nothing edgy, grown up or remotely interesting about anything on the release on the surface. None of the tracks are offensively bad but even for a pop release, Ten Years is just kind of there.
Both Aly and AJ Michalka have fantastic voices for this genre and comparing these songs to previous releases, they sound comfortable and confident. This endeavor of retro-flavored synth-pop works well for them. But I’m still not quite sure how this is shedding a particular image. Then it hit me. I had fallen for the marketing sales pitch. Hook, line, and sinker.
Nudity and the promise of alluring sultriness convinced me Ten Years was to be a reinvention of a pop duo entering a new chapter in their career and I was wrong. Sure, the music style is a little different than their past releases, but their last release was a decade ago. Trends change every 6 months. The buzz insists this is music for adults, but the only ones interested in the Aly & AJ brand are the ones who they originally made music for. Intentional or not, they’re still tied to their previous image.
Herein lies the problem with the genre trying to be interesting.
The music industry knows all sorts of tricks and buzzwords to make a product seem interesting. Shedding an image, contradicting past incarnations, and becoming someone else just sounds really cool. These tricks sell the product as something new and improved even before a single note is heard. It’s like putting a “new improved formula” on a bottle of shampoo and watching the consumer reach for those with the sticker instead of the bottle they’ve been buying for years. The results are foolproof.
Pop has become so stale and predictable, the listener gravitates towards anything claiming to rebrand, but most listeners don’t want the hassle of thinking outside the box. This is why mainstream radio stations have been playing the same 10 artists over and over for the past decade. If you take a look at the marketing for each of those 10 artists, it will likely be the same: an artist trying to break a mold forced upon them by some industry type.
If that’s really the case, why do so many artists continue to release the same album each time?
I’m not a pop aficionado, but I can see right through repackaging. With that said, this isn’t even an Aly & AJ problem. Artists are in business to make money and marketing teams will always utilize the sales pitch that works. The problem here is the lack conviction. The consumer doesn’t need to be reminded how much an artist has grown. The music should speak for itself. From an artist standpoint, it’s extremely sad to think about how PR had to resort to nudity to drum up interest.
Ten Years is a good enough pop record and a likely representation of Aly & AJ’s upcoming full-length album. If you’re cool with that give it a try, it’s not offensively bad. But if you’re expecting something mature or unique, you might be let down. Ten Years is simply just mainstream pop music, and all the naked booty pics in the world won’t make it anything more or less.
Aaron (or Coop) is a freelance writer, multi-instrumentalist and overall lover of all things music. As an advocate for indie record labels and artists, he is passionate about local scenes and do-it-yourself artistry. If it’s good, it’s good. If it’s bad, he’s not afraid to explain why.